The Master Woodbutcher's Tradition's Page

This essay was inspired by a query on one of the woodworking fora about constructing workbench tops with end grain up, as in traditional butcher blocks. The theory being postulated was that the same resistance to knife marks in butcher blocks would be beneficial in benchtops, as well. It brought to mind how methods of work in various vocations and avocations differ from what is often seen in the average do-it-yourself environment.

Years ago I started noticing that professionals in various endeavors weren't using the latest up-to-date gadgetry that many of us in the mainstream wind up with. For example, rarely do you see one of those Great Chefs of the World using TeflonŽ coated cookware, or, horrors, Ginzu knives. They use the same heavy aluminum pans and traditional knives that have evolved for many decades.

I noticed the same thing when I was riding bikes years ago. Although there have been some worthwhile innovations in recent years, many pro bicyclists still ride a traditional frame with traditional seat and traditional rondeau handlebars. I particularly noticed this when I saw friends go for upright bars and wide seats. I told them that those had evolved for a reason, and laughed quietly when they went back to the originals some months later.

The point is, workbenches have evolved for hundreds of years, much longer than cookware or bicycles, and if you don't ever see end grain tops, there is a reason. Dave Wright said, in a related post on the subject of butcher block tops and workbenches:

I've given your original question (end grain top) some thought, and recommend going with the traditional side grain up workbench approach. No question, end grain up is the ticket for butchers because it takes constant cleaver pounding without losing fibers. They get moved around by the blows without being clipped.

This butcher benefit comes at a cost. These blocks have enormous humidity movement problems, and are inherently quite weak. Both issues result in blocks that are very small by woodwork bench standards, but very thick. They are also difficult to construct well. Ever notice that you can buy side grain cutting boards that are 1/2" thick or even less? Have you also noticed that end grain boards, even small countertop models are 1 1/2" thick or so? That illustrates the basic problem. Movement and strength issues would be very difficult to overcome when scaled up to the size of a workbench.

Would the effort be worthwhile? Almost certainly not because workbenches get cut much less (even if you are a Neanderthal) than a butcher's block.

This is a variation on a theme that I preach regularly; look at what the pros buy/use. You don't see many Alligator sockets in the mechanic's cart in your local service bay. I have yet to see an electrician or telephone installer with a screwdriver with a light attached. I can't remember a professional painter with one of those pump-up-the-stick-with-paint roller assemblies.

I guess that's one of the reasons why I don't like Sears tools and late night marketers. Actually, I've seen two really good infomercials over the years. The first was for a wok with a spiel by a guy with an English accent. I was really impressed with the presentation, until I saw one of the woks in a store. It was about 18 ga. steel and very flimsy. At my local gourmet store they had a much heavier one, which I bought for about the same price (but no recipe book). I like it.

The other one was for the Roto-zip, which is a pretty good tool, and they had some creative uses for it; some pretty cheesy. But it was priced much higher than the savvy tool buyer could get it for. I passed.

Often the telemarketers (or Sears) are promoting solutions in search of a problem. Does a drill bit turret on your portable drill really make sense? The effective tools are usually already at hand and have evolved over a period of time. Not that we want to stifle any creative thinking...

Last updated: 27 January 2009

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