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Sunday, March 8, 2009

Making Traditional Scandinavian Cutting Boards by Jim Dillard

Making Traditional Scandinavian Cutting Boards

This is not necessarily a bushcraft project, but bushcraft folks are generally of an earthy nature and appreciate hand made woodenware. Besides, any project that enhances knife skills will enhance bushcraft skills.

The idea for this project came from a book on traditional Scandinavian woodenware titled Carving and Whittling: The Swedish Style by Gert and Inger Ljunberg. The book is now out of print, but might be found at your local library. It is a valuable resource for patterns of cups, spoons, ladles, bowls, scoops and other traditional wooden housewares.

The nice thing about this particular project is that the tools required are simple. Photo #1 shows nearly everything needed to complete the project. One other item needed is a tool to cut out the shape of the boards. This could be a bandsaw, jig saw or deep throated coping saw. I even did one board using only an ax to rough out the board. The coping saw would require no electricity, can be had for a small sum and would leave a cut that would be easy to sand. By the way, the finished cutting board in this photo is one that we have used in our kitchen daily for the past five years. It has held up well and has many years of use left in it.


The most difficult part of this project is finding suitable wood. The boards can be made of any number of woods as long as the board is free of knots and isn’t so soft that it will sustain damage in use. The classic cutting board wood is maple. Maple can be had in wide clear pieces and is very durable. The wood used in my cutting boards is fine-grained fir. Because it has an alternating hard / soft grain structure, fir is quite difficult to carve, but here in the far north, that is the only clear wood I could find in the widths I needed. I like to use local woods if at all possible. Ask around and experiment to find the best woods in your area.


Instead of copying a pattern straight from the book, I drew a half dozen or so and then picked the one I liked best. Photo #2 shows my patterns for both the large cutting board and for the bread board. You can draw your own, or feel free to print my patterns and enlarge on a copy machine to fit the size cutting board you intend to make. The traditional Scandinavian star pattern was made with compass and ruler. The curved designs cut into the boards were made by using part of the curve of the outline of the board. One of the basic elements of good design is that a piece must have repeated shapes. Using the same curve for the shape of the board and for the shape of the carved design makes for an attractive and pleasing piece of art.

The Knife

The main tool for this project is a Mora Model 120 carving knife. I have taught a few hundred carving students over the years, and I have always insisted that all my students start with this knife. It is also my favorite for my own personal carving projects – an excellent tool for any level carver. The knife being used in photo #3 is one that has worn down and pretty thin at the tip. If I were starting with a new Mora 120, I would probably sharpen off some of the soft side material from a half inch or so on the tip of the blade. The thinner profile will let the blade slide through the wood much easier than the thicker profile of a new blade. In this kind of carving there is no sawing action with the blade, so a “toothy” edge will just result in torn wood fibers and frustration for the carver. Make sure your blade is finely sharpened. I sharpen mine to a 4000 or 5000 grit and then I strop frequently with a strop charged with aluminum oxide.

Getting Started

After all lines are drawn on the board, hold the knife with the tip down as in photo #3. The heel of your hand should rest on the board for control, and the blade should enter the wood at about a 45 degree angle to make a “V” shaped cut. Make the cuts shallow where they are narrow; the wider the cut, the deeper it should be. On the narrow / shallow end of the designs you can cut to the bottom of the V in one pass, but on the deep end you will have to make several passes to get to full depth. Of course the number of passes required will depend on the hardness of the wood and the sharpness of your knife.

Photo #4 shows a standard woodcarver’s “push cut.” This is a handy technique for short sections that need precise control. The cut in the photo goes from the deepest cut to the shallowest in only a half inch. This is one of those places where extra control is absolutely necessary. If this is your first time doing this kind of carving, try this cut on a scrap piece before starting on your cutting board.


When all carving is done, it is time to sand the cuts. (Photo #5) Although I like a chipped finish on many types of carving, pieces that will be in contact with food must be easy to clean, therefore sanding is necessary. You will need to fold small pieces of sandpaper to get in the bottom of your cuts. The sandpaper will wear quickly so refold frequently to keep sharp grit working against the wood. This will save a great deal of time. I started with 120 grit, then went to 220 and 320. It isn’t necessary to go finer than that because you will be putting a heavy coat of paint on the sanded area.

When you have finished sanding, it is time to paint. Use acrylic paint from a tube and do not thin it. The color paint I used is called Hooker’s Green. Choose a color that will go with your kitchen. Using a stiff, cheap craft brush, paint and dab and push the paint into every corner of the cuts. Be sure to overlap the edges so all of the carved area is covered. Let the paint dry over night. It may feel dry in an hour or so, but if it is not thoroughly cured, it will ball up in the final sanding rather than sand off cleanly.

When the paint is thoroughly dry, use a sanding block to sand off the excess. (Photo #6) The block is absolutely necessary. Without the block, the sandpaper will round the edges of the cuts that you worked so hard to get right. The block will insure that only excess paint on the surface of the board is removed.

When sanding is done, coat the board with oil to waterproof it and to keep it from staining. Although any cooking oil will do, there are a few products on the market that will last longer. Walnut oil is much better than regular cooking oil. It will harden in about a week if left in a warm place. There are also several food safe waxes on the market. When applied warm, these will penetrate the wood and last a long time. My favorites are Orange Wax and Bamboo Goo, both available on the internet and in kitchen shops.

Your finished boards (Photo #7) will be a source of pride and with a little care should last you for years to come. Good carving!

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