Choosing a cutting board for your Japanese knife
or, Goldilocks and the Three Boards.
This little meditation is for those with an interest in choosing a cutting board for use under a Japanese knife. We’re not trying to be definitive, just raising some points you might not have thought about.
There are various considerations when buying a cutting board – size and weight, hygiene, longevity, aesthetics - we’re not going to address those here. We’re only concerned with how your blade fares coming into contact with your board.
Handling aside, your Japanese knife is a pleasure to use precisely because it is uncommonly sharp. For our money the main game is to choose and use a cutting board that will complement and not compromise that sharpness.
Put simply, we want a board that is not too hard, not too soft, with consistent hardness across the cutting surface. A softer hardwood can tick these boxes.
With a ‘goldilocks’ cutting board like this you will protect your knife from inadvertent damage and at the same time keep your knife sharper, longer.
This board is too hard…
It goes without saying that there are hard hardwoods in the world. Many of them would make a cutting board that is beautiful to behold and yet will quickly dull your knife.
If your cutting board makes a crisp tock tock tock sound under your knife it’s a telltale sign of a hard timber that will also be hard on your cutting edge. You may never do any lasting damage but you’ll quickly lose the keen edge on your knife by abrasion or rolling the edge, effectively defeating the purpose of sharpening it.
Some online pundits sing the praises of bamboo. A word of warning: in twenty years we’ve never seen a bamboo cutting board in Japan. Bamboo is an inconsistent material – overly hard in places, too soft in others – and not appropriate for Japanese knives. Use one and you will risk damage to your knife.
Glass boards, stone slabs – leave those for rolling dough and assembling uncut sandwiches. Common sense, really.
This board is too soft…
At the other end of the scale we don’t want a board that is too soft.
The basic idea is to avoid any cutting board that’s so soft the knife edge will embed itself in the board, even momentarily. Plastic boards are the prime example. Polyethelyne boards are common, popular, practical, cheap, easy to maintain and knife makers we’ve spoken to recommend against them. Here’s why.
Japanese blades are often heat treated to a high hardness and can be comparatively brittle. If your knife is truly sharp, as you cut through to a soft poly board you will feel the edge sliding into the plastic, where it will stay for a moment. It may emerge unscathed or it may not.
At some point you’ll roll your wrist with the blade edge of your knife gripped by the board and then *bink* your sharp, comparatively delicate edge will fracture under stress. The risk can be mitigated if your cutting motion is only ever dead straight and upright, into the board and out. Soft hands can help but that’s not always practical. Face it, even with exemplary cutting technique it’s likely you’ll lapse at some point and twist the blade in the board. *bink*
And this board is just right!
Truth is, the availability and popularity of good cutting board timbers varies from country to country and that makes blanket recommendations difficult.
A further difficulty in recommending one timber over another is that the hardness of wood used in a chopping board will not only depend upon the species but the conditions the individual tree faced – an exposed location may well result in significantly harder wood on one side of the tree. You may have heard of the biosphere trees that simply toppled over at maturity – no wind, no strength. A colder location will result in slower growth, closer rings, harder wood.
This is why in Japan the price of a manaita can be stratospheric - soil type, variety, environment and aspect, selection expertise and curing all play a part in the high-end stuff. It might pay to consult a local board craftsman with knowledge of timbers common to your neck of the woods.
Your writer is presently visiting Tasmania, where huon pine (Lagarostrobos franklinii – not actually a pine) is the local pick for cutting boards. It’s a great timber, highly sought after and protected. It has a wonderful fragrance and makes a soft tup tup tup sound under your knife. It scores easily but won’t hollow out in a hurry. Lovely.
Back home in Japan - where you’ll find more Japanese knives in use than anywhere else - ginkgo and willow are the two timbers most recommended by knife makers, with gingko the cost-performance champion and willow the outright winner.
Hinoki (Japanese cypress) is a highly regarded board material but it can be expensive and Japanese might say mottainai – the timber is too good for purpose and is better suited to perfectly constructed washitsu Japanese rooms and temples. Are you a high-end sushi chef working in public view? Well then, perhaps a monster slab of kiso hinoki from the north face of a high-altitude tree on a north-facing mountainside in Wakayama prefecture is just what you need, and your substantial outlay – a couple of grand for the good ones – will be a tax deduction. For the rest of us, mottainai, even if some believe it to be a great wood for a cutting board.
Paulownia is another intriguing option. Some established Japanese sellers recommend it and your writer plans to buy one. Paulownia is exotically light, consistent in grain, and moisture repellent/quick-drying, so it certainly has its merits. Some trees are said to have a high silica content which tends to blunt knives, which is a worry. Even so, we can’t help but think this balsa-light hardwood with consistent grain is ideal for elderly users still cooking for themselves regardless of the knife they use. The handling benefits outweigh any other considerations when you’re eighty years old and everything is heavy. But we digress.
At home we use an icho (ginkgo) board. Not as durable as huon – it will lose more material over time - but blade-friendly, which we like.
Ginkgo. Huon. Paulownia. Willow. Hinoki. Chances are in your part of the world you’ll have trouble finding any of them. Oh well. Just bear these timbers in mind for your next trip to the far-east or far-south.
End-grain checkerboard – who knows?
We love the look but we can’t help thinking about all that glue and the timber varieties the maker has chosen. Truth be told, we don’t know enough to comment so we will err on the side of caution and suggest that if you have your heart set on an end-grain checkerboard-style board, ask about glue and timbers and Japanese knives. If your fabulous feature board doesn’t pass muster, simply use a small board of appropriate timber on top when enjoying your Japanese knife and enjoy your decorative underboard when not.
So what’s ‘just right’?
Semi-disposable at a reasonable price?
In our humble opinion longevity isn’t necessarily a virtue in the kind of cutting board you want to use with your Japanese knife. Our ginkgo board tends to hollow out fairly quickly and it gets flattened regularly. It hasn’t yet thinned beyond the point of refurbishment but we have another two boards waiting in the wings for when it does. The boards we buy are inexpensive and, in a slow, ecologically friendly way, disposable.
So where does that leave us.
The common points between our two favourites – huon and ginkgo - are density and consistency. Both are around 560~600 on the Janka timber hardness scale. The other common point between them, oddly enough, is sound. Our two timbers sound very much the same as we chop away with our nakiri (we’re vegetable fiends). Give up on tock tock tock, run a mile from tink tink tink, listen for tup tup tup.
Many of us naturally tend to roll our wrists when cutting, if only to encourage food release. A board that resists the *bink* scenario is what you’re after. You can always sharpen a blunt knife, but a chipped blade will need serious attention.
We hope this little rumination helps avoid that particular outcome. It's worth remembering that the thrilling sharpness of your Japanese steel is worth preserving, and that your cutting board selection can play a role.