Cedarwood is one of the most popular wood types in the US because it’s readily available and very affordable. Moreover, cedarwood is rot-resistant and has natural oils that repel insects and other pests.
These qualities make cedarwood one of the best low-cost choices for outdoor projects. However, it’s also excellent for indoor projects as it’s fairly durable.
But, do these qualities make it a good choice for cutting boards? Are cedar cutting boards even food safe? Let’s find out if cedar is one of the best wood for cutting boards.
Is Cedarwood Food Safe?
The short answer is no. While some varieties of cedar are completely food-safe and will give your food a delicious, smoky flavor, cedarwood is softwood, and softwoods don’t make quality chopping boards. Moreover, cedarwood has natural (insect-repelling) oils that give it slight toxicity.
What is Cedarwood?
Cedrus, common as cedar trees in Engish, is a genus of coniferous trees in the Pinaceae plant family. Thus, it’s a softwood. Cedar trees are native to the western Himalayas and Mediterranean region and typically grow at 1,500-3,200 m above sea level.
It is a very durable softwood that lasts many years with little maintenance. Its natural resistance to deterioration is thanks to natural preservatives in the wood. Cedars can last many decades even in very harsh climates.
Cedar Wood Characteristics
Most cedars are pinkish-red in color, with some purple tones. Whichever the color, the wood gradually fades to a silver or gray color after prolonged exposure to UV light. It has a straight grain pattern with a coarse texture and moderate natural luster.
Cedar is also notable strong. A 900 Janka hardness rating makes it harder than renowned hardwoods, such as the African mahogany (850 Janka) and almost as hard as soft maple (950 Janka).
Cedar is lightweight, making it an excellent choice for small household items. It is also easy to work with, blocks noise, and has exceptional dimensional stability, thus good for outdoor applications. Other cedar characteristics include;
- Excellent finishing qualities
- Resistance to decay
- Thermal and insulating properties
- Ability to accept stains
Cedar comes in many dozen varieties. However, the most common cedar species are the eastern red cedar (known as red cedar) native to eastern North America and the western red cedar, which grows mainly in British Columbia.
Other popular varieties are the deodar cedar, northern white cedar, Alaskan cedar, and the Atlas cedar, native to the Atlas mountains in Morroco and Tell Atlas in Algeria. The eastern white cedar and Spanish cedar are also fairly common.
Is Cedar Good for Cutting Boards?
Cedar is not ideal for cutting boards. Although it’s not the worst type of wood you can use for cutting boards, it is not the perfect choice for chopping boards.
There are a couple of reasons why. First, cedar is a softwood. Softwoods are prone to dents and cut marks from sharp knives. So, you may not use the board for very long. Also, you need significant maintenance work to keep the boards in great condition.
Hardwoods, such as cherry, walnut, and maple, are the best for chopping boards because they resist scratching and denting.
Secondly, you should be worried about open grain woods, such as cedar planks, as they tend to harbor dirt and bacteria. A hardwood board, such as a hard maple cutting board, has a tight grain structure that keeps out dirt for increased safety and easier maintenances.
However, if you must make a cutting board from cedar, we recommend end-grain cutting boards made from western red cedar.
Pros and Cons of Cedar Cutting Boards
Advantages of cedar cutting board
- Moisture-resistant: Cedar makes moisture-resistant furniture that can withstand outdoor conditions. So, the same qualities make some cedars good enough for making cutting boards.
- Cedar butcher blocks are lightweight: Cedarwood makes an excellent choice if you’re looking for a lightweight butcher block. The planks have a low density and are thus easy to move around.
- Do not dull the knife blade: This applies to all softwoods. They are kinder to knife blades, unlike harder woods which dull knife blades within seconds.
Disadvantages of cedar boards
- Cedarwood is toxic: Most cedar varieties contain toxic compounds harmful to human health. The compounds can cause breathing challenges and respiratory tract infections.
- Unpleasant odor and flavor: The more toxic cedar varieties have a characteristic pungent odor that many people don’t like in food. The timber also has a pungent odor.
- Cedar dust is toxic: The wood dust from cedar is bad for the respiratory system. So, you should use a breathing mask when working on the wood, such as during sawing and sanding.
- Harbors bacteria: Cedar, like many softwoods, is loosely grained, with large pores between the solid wood matter. The pores can harbor dirt and bacteria, which threaten human health.
- It’s too soft: Softwoods are physically soft. This means they are more prone to denting and cut marks from knives, thus not good choices for cutting boards.
Cedar Cutting Boards Toxicity Ratings
Cedarwood has natural oils and compounds that help fight pests and diseases in the wilderness, as we’ve mentioned severally. Some of the compounds make cedarwood poisonous to bugs, helping trees live longer without infestation.
Unfortunately, the same compounds can make cedar poisonous to humans. For instance, if you use cedar cutting boards to chop vegetables, fruits, and meat, the foods can absorb some of the compounds.
Ingesting the toxic compounds can hurt your health in several ways. For instance, you may experience allergic reactions. Similarly, inhaling the toxic compounds can affect your respiratory issues.
For instance, you may experience a runny nose and asthma. You may experience these same issues if you accidentally inhale cedar dust when sanding or sawing cedarwood.
The good news is that not all cedar species are toxic and even the toxic varieties aren’t equally toxic. The following is a toxicity rating guideline to help you pick the right cedar timber for your woodworking project.
Safe and tasty: Western red cedar
The least toxic and, therefore, safest cedar variety is the western red cedar, native to the Pacific northwest.
The delicious and non-toxic western red cedar was originally used in native American cooking. Indeed, all professional-grade grilling cedar planks are made from the western red cedar.
Little flavor but safe: White cedar, northern white cedar, alaskan cedar, incense cedar
The white cedar, northern white cedar, Alaskan cedar, and incense cedar are also fairly safe. However, they aren’t necessarily safe for making chopping boards because of the not-so-palpable flavor.
For instance, the Alaskan cedar and Atlantic cedar contain high levels of resin that often result in a strong, pungent smell that may not be desirable in cooked food.
Meanwhile, the northern white cedar causes fungal staining. So, it also doesn’t make a very good material for cutting boards. Finally, incense cedar is commonly used to make pencils. So, you might have smelled its flavor.
Not safe: Eastern red cedar and western juniper
When seeking wood for a chopping board, these two are completely out of the equation. The eastern red cedar is straight-out poisonous and is often used to make closet interiors.
Meanwhile, the western juniper is often used to make fence posts as it has compounds that resist insects.
Can you use cedar to make a charcuterie board?
Unfortunately, no. Non-porous hardwoods, such as teak and hard maple, are the best for charcuterie boards. Cedar is softwood and highly porous. Thus, a cedar charcuterie board may not be of very good quality.
What woods are not good for cutting boards?
Generally, you should avoid open-pored woods, such as ash, red oak, and cedar, as they are harder to keep clean from food stains. Pine is also not a good candidate as it imparts a resinous taste and is soft, therefore showing cutting scars from knives more easily.
Is cedar smoke toxic?
No, there’s no proof that cedar smoke is toxic. So, if you were planning to use cedar for a quick warm-up during spring or fall when a burst of hot fire can take the chill off, you don’t have to be worried about the toxicity of the smoke.
Can you bbq with cedarwood?
Yes, you can safely barbeque with cedarwood. The western red cedar, in particular, is a very safe and delicious wood, thus completely safe for plank cooking. The only minor challenge is that cedar, due to its low density (23 lb/cubic foot), has very poor fire resistance.
Is burning cedar toxic?
No, cedarwood smoke is not toxic to inhale. There’s a common confusion regarding the toxicity of cedarwood shavings and dust and cedarwood smoke. While the dust and shavings are highly irritant, the smoke is non-toxic.
Is cedar toxic to humans?
No, generally, cedar is a safe and very effective medicine. The western red cedar is especially very safe for humans. However, be warned that the eastern red cedar is toxic if ingested. So, be sure to know the differences between the two.
Can you cook with cedar wood?
Yes, cedar is an excellent choice for cooking. It is great for barbequing and highly effective in the oven. To get started, place the cedar planks on the baking sheet, arrange the meat, fruits, and vegetables on top, and start cooking.
Cedarwood is not a very good choice for cutting boards. For one, a cedar cutting board is toxic due to natural oils and compounds. Moreover, cedar is not food safe due to a strange flavor and odor that may trigger health issues when inhaled.
So, it’s best to consider alternative woods, such as maple, cherry, and walnut, for making food-safe cutting boards.