Butchers' Blocks Were First Used by Blacksmiths in the Nineteenth Century
Blacksmiths have always needed a rugged and stable surface on which they could hammer, bend and cut wroght iron or steel into useful objects. In the 1800s they shaped fire-hot iron into horseshoes using anvils they placed on tree stumps. This led to the idea of mounting thick slices of trees' trunks atop sturdy wooden legs so that these makeshift tables could be moved inside the smithies/ shops. Blacksmiths marveled at how well the cross-sectioned slabs - just like the tree stumps before them - absorbed the explosive impact of hammer against anvil.
Chopping Block Tables Then Migrated to the Masses
Recognizing that butchers too, had need for sturdy wooden tables on which they could chop and carve meat, the founders of Boos & Co. began peddling their chop-block tables to meat shops, and the butcher's block was born. In the first half of the twentieth century these versatile blocks migrated from corner butcher shops to supermarkets, then to the commercial kitchens of restaurants and delis, and finally, into America’s kitchens.
End-grain Butcher Blocks Are Sturdiest
Those first chopping blocks exposed end-grain wood - the cut ends of wood planks. As such, they capitalize on hardwood's vertical strength and the resilience of its fiber-rich, sawn ends. The next advance was the creation of even tougher "composite" blocks comprised of many small blocks fused together using glue and high pressure. These blocks could withstand serious pounding and chopping without risk of cracking or splitting.
Besides being exceedingly tough, end-grain surfaces are also quite attractive. Since each individual wood stave contributes its own unique cross section of a tree's growth rings, the finished surface has the appearance of a forgeous checkerboard. To this day many people still associate the term butcher block exclusively with this particular look and structure: end-grain style.
Edge-grain and Blended Are Other Butcher Block Styles
Both types show the edges of wood planks or staves. Edge-grain is more uniform in appearance. Each rail in an edge-grain block runs its full length, whereas a "stripe" in a blended block can be comprised of two or more wood staves (other than the outer rails) that are finger-jointed together.
Butcher Blocks Come with Natural Oil or Varnish Finishes
If you intend to prepare meals on your butcher block, then opt for a food-safe, natural oil finish. Note however, that you will need to re-apply oil to the block every 3 or 4 weeks in order to keep it moisturized for safe use and longer life. If, on the other hand, your interest in butcher blocks traces to their fine-furniture look and you’re not up for regular re-oiling, then you could consider a semi-gloss, varnish-like finish (e.g., John Boos' Varnique). Wood surfaces finished with Varnique require little maintenance and are quite easy to clean with soapy water and a sponge or cloth rag or towel. Note however, that varnished surfaces should not be cut upon since knife blades can cut into and scar them, leaving them susceptible to spilled liquids that could impregnate the wood. Instead, place a cutting board on the top of the block.
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