Butcher-Block Cart

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This article is from Issue 45 of Woodcraft Magazine.

Butcher Block

An end-grain top and draw-bore joinery for the ages 

Overall dimensions: 33"w × 26"d × 36"h

Every good cook has a selection of cutting boards in various shapes and sizes, but few have the real thing–a hefty end-grain chopping block like professional chefs use. A big advantage to an end-grain chopping block is that it doesn’t suffer the kind of damage that a face-grain cutting board does. With an end-grain surface, the knife edge slips in between the wood fibers rather than slicing them off, providing a very long-lasting working surface.

This checkerboard-topped butcher-block cart is built to serve generations of cooks. Solidly constructed with mortise-and-tenon draw-bore joinery, it provides nearly six square feet of food preparation area without sacrificing much kitchen real estate. Its drawer offers convenient storage for utensils and other kitchen accoutrements, while the slatted lower shelf can accommodate a variety of cookware. Heavy-duty casters that allow mobility around the kitchen will lock to provide a solid-footed workstation when slicing and dicing. Although you can use many different hardwoods, the maple and walnut used here are among the best choices for beauty and durability.

Note: The draw-bore joinery (shown in Figure 1) is an exceptionally strong, long-lasting, clamp-free way to assemble this piece. However, you can simply glue the mortise-and-tenon joints together if you like.

Butcher Block

Use a crosscut sled, stopblock, and fully raised blade to slice the laminated panel into 31⁄4"-long segments.

Make the top

1 To make the top (A), mill 32 lineal feet of 15⁄8 × 23⁄4"- wide maple strips and the same amount of walnut.

2 Working with eight strips of about equal length (48" handles well), laminate their wide faces together in an alternating sequence of maple and walnut. Use an adhesive with ample open working time, such as epoxy or Titebond II Extend. Repeat the process with the remainder of your stock.

3 After the glue cures, plane the resulting panels to 21⁄2" thick. Then crosscut them into 31⁄4"-long segments. (You’ll need a total of 24 segments, but it’s wise to make a few extra in case of defects.) The best approach is to use a crosscut sled and stopblock (Photo A). (Note that a fully raised blade on a typical 10" tablesaw will just graze the top surface of the panel when using a sled with a 1 ⁄2"-thick base. A thicker base won’t allow you to make a throughcut.) 

4 Arrange six segments on the bench with the end grain facing up. Flip every other segment end for end to create your checkerboard pattern, as shown in Figure 2. Orient the checkerboard pattern so it’s consistent when the four subassemblies are glued together later to complete the top.

5 Cut slots for #20 biscuits to keep the segments aligned during glue-up (Photo B).

6 Glue up each set of six segments using biscuits, carefully aligning the corners of the individual blocks (Photo C).

7 Arrange and mark the four subsections for their ultimate orientation to each other, and then joint about 1⁄64" from the long innermost edge of each. To prevent exit tear-out, back up the trailing end of the cut with a sacrificial pushblock.

8 Cut mating biscuit slots in the jointed edges; then glue the two pairs of subsections together, again aligning the corners of the blocks. 

9 After the glue cures, joint the inner edge of each subsection assembly, cut biscuit slots, and glue the halves together.

10 Flatten both faces of the completed top. By far, the easiest approach here is to take it to a friendly cabinet shop that has a wide-belt sander. (My local shop charged me $35 to do the job.) Alternatively, belt-sand or handplane the surfaces, gauging your progress with a straightedge. The finished top doesn’t need to be a particular precise thickness; just work it until it’s flat and all adhesive stains have been thoroughly removed.

Cut biscuit slots to keep each of the six subsection segments aligned during glue-up.

Glue up the segments into subsections, carefully aligning the corners of the blocks.

Draw-Bore Mortise-And-Tenon Joinery

A standard pinned mortise-and-tenon joint is exceptionally strong because a dowel inserted through the assembled joint provides mechanical strength in addition to the glue. In a draw-bore joint, the dowel hole in the tenon is slightly offset, causing the parts to pull tightly together when the dowel is installed, eliminating the need for clamps. In fact, much antique furniture with draw-bore joints was assembled with no glue, and I exclusively employ glue-free draw-bore mortise-and-tenon joints in my furniture.

Butcher Block

Make the legs

  1. Make the legs (B) to the size shown in the Cut List, ideally milling them from 16/4 stock for efficiency and grain continuity. If that’s not possible, laminate them from 8/4 material, creating the best grain flow possible and orienting the seams to the sides of the legs, as shown in Figure 1.
  2. Lay out the locations for the dowels, mortises, and panel grooves, where shown in Figures 1 and 3.
  3. At the drill press, bore the 3⁄8"-diameter dowel holes completely through each leg. 
  4. Cut the mortises for the rails, stretchers, and drawer slide supports. I use a hollow chisel mortiser (Photo D), but you can rout or drill and chop them out instead. Remember to remove the shallow section of each upper rail mortise at the tops of the legs, where shown in Figure 1, to accommodate the tenon haunch.
  5. Finally, rout the 1⁄4"-deep panel grooves between the rail mortises using a router table and a 1⁄4"-diameter bit.

A hollow chisel mortiser is the most efficient way to cut mortises in the legs.
A crosscut sled and stopblock make quick, accurate work of sawing the tenon shoulders.
Butcher Block

After cutting the main shoulders, readjust the stopblock, and saw the haunch on each upper rail.

Make the rails, stretchers, panels, and drawer front

  1. Cut the upper side rails (C), upper front and back rails (D), lower side rails (E), lower front and back rails (F), stretchers (G), drawer slide supports (H), side panels (I), and back panel (J) to the sizes shown in the  Cut List. At the same time,  make the drawer front (K) to the same size as the back panel. (Its edges will be trimmed later.)
  2. Lay out and cut the tenons on the rails (C,D,E,F), stretchers (G), and drawer slide supports (H), as noted in Figure 1.  I saw the shoulders first using  a crosscut sled set up with a  stopblock (Photo E). For efficiency, first make all  the shallow cuts across the wide faces of the rails. Then raise the blade and saw across the narrower dimension, avoiding the top edge of the upper rails. Now adjust the stopblock and saw the haunch on the top edge of each upper rail (Photo F). Finish up by sawing the shoulders on the drawer slide supports.
  3. Use the bandsaw outfitted with a fence to trim away the waste from the narrow edge of the tenons.
  4.  Saw the tenon cheeks. I use a tenoning jig, as shown in Photo G. Strive to create a perfectly snug fit in the mortises. You should be able to lightly tap the parts together without pounding.  The safest, most precise approach is to saw the cheeks a bit fat; then use a shoulder plane to fine-tune the final fit for each joint.
  5. Miter the ends of the tenons on the rails (C,D,E,F), as shown in Figure 1.
  6. Rout the panel grooves in the side and rear rails (C,D,E,F), where shown in Figure 1. (Note that the grooves in the undersides of the top rails are stopped at their ends.)
  7. Rout the raised-panel profiles to create a 1⁄4"-thick tongue on the edges of all the panels (I,J), as shown in Figure 1. Rout the same profile on the edges of the false drawer front (K).
  8. Standing each upper rail in turn against a fence on the drill press, use a 3⁄4" Forstner bit to drill the shallow recesses on the rails’ top edges to accept the figure-8 tabletop fasteners, where shown in Figure 1.
  9. Chamfer the lower edge of the drawer slide supports (H) and the upper edges of the lower rails (E), as shown in Figure 1. This allows easy access to items that may spill out of the drawer behind the slides.

After bandsawing away the waste from the narrow edge of each tenon, saw the tenon cheeks.
With the side assembled, run a brad-point bit in reverse through the leg holes to mark the hole perimeter on the tenons. (One leg is removed here for joint visibility in the photos.)
Butcher Block

Using a drill press, offset the dowel hole 1⁄32" closer to the tenon shoulder.

Mark and drill the tenon holes

  1.  Dry-assemble one complete side of the cart (B,C,E,G,H,I) and carefully square it up, fully seating all the joints.
  2. Insert a 3⁄8" brad-point bit into each leg draw-bore hole, and run the drill in reverse to create a faint outline of the hole perimeter (Photo H).
  3. Repeat the procedure for the opposite side assembly, and then join the side assemblies to the front and back rails (D,F) and back panel (J).
  4. Install the same bit in your drill press, and bore a through-hole that’s offset to your original perimeter hole by no more than 3⁄64" toward the tenon shoulder (Photo I). (More than that risks cracking the tenons during dowel installation.) Register the work against a fence to ensure that the center points of the bored hole and the marked hole are perfectly aligned horizontally.
Butcher Block

Make the draw-bore dowels

  1. Use a chisel to split 7"-long straight-grained blocks of walnut along the grain to create about 40 riven dowel blanks, each about 1⁄2" square. (This provides a few extra dowels, just in case.) Chuck each blank into a 1⁄2" square socket in your drill, and run it through a 3⁄8" dowel cutter (Photo J). Then cut off the squared ends to create dowels about 4"-long.
  2. Taper one tip of each completed dowel for easy insertion. The best tool to use is a mascara pencil sharpener, which is wide enough for this job.

Assemble the case

  1. In preparation for assembly, rout the corners of the legs (B) using a 3⁄16" round-over bit, interrupting the cut at the intersection of the drawer slide supports (H) and legs.
  2. Finish-sand all the parts, and apply a coat of wiping varnish, avoiding all mortises-and-tenon faces.
  3. Again, dry-assemble a complete cart side (C,E,G,H,I). Peer into the dowel holes to check for proper tenon hole offset. If necessary, disassemble the joint and elongate any errant holes with a round file.
  4. With the parts dry-fit, firmly insert a draw-bore pin (See box, opposite) into each hole of a joint to draw it tightly together in preparation for the dowel insertion (Photo K).
  5. Disassemble the joint, apply glue if you wish, reassemble it and drive in the dowels, gluing them as well. Then trim them flush to the leg. Repeat the process to assemble both cart sides.
  6. Bore out the section of each installed dowel that intersects the front-to-back leg holes.
  7. Attach the side assemblies to the front and rear rails and panels in the same manner.

Draw-Bore Pins

A draw-bore pin is the metal tool used to prepare the holes in a draw-bore joint. Traditional draw-bore pins (toolsforwoodworking.com) are slightly eccentric in cross-section so that twisting the inserted tool forces the tenon into its mortise and primes the hole for inserting a wooden dowel. These are absolutely the best tools for the job, but they’re not cheap. As a less expensive alternative, you can use a modern draw-bore pin (see Convenience-Plus Buying Guide). Although it’s concentric in cross-section, it does the job.

Run the riven blanks through a 3⁄8" dowel cutter to create the dowels.
Firmly inserting and twisting a tapered draw-bore pin into each joint hole helps pull the parts together before inserting the dowel into the glued joint.

Make and attach the slats

  1. Make the slats (L) to the size shown in the Cut List.
  2. Lay out and drill the pilot holes and counterbores. Round the top edges with a 3⁄16" radius bit, prefinish the slats, and screw them to the stretchers (G).
  3. Glue plugs into the counterbores; then trim and sand them flush.

Butcher Block

The undermount slides include case-mounted drawer slides and drawer-mounted locking devices.

Make the drawer

  1. Make the drawer box (M,N,O) to the size shown in Figure 4. For joinery, I prefer hand-cut dovetails, but use any joints you like, as long as the finished product matches the outside dimensions shown. The drawer width is particularly important. If your base construction went perfectly, the drawer should be 215⁄8" wide. But for accuracy, check your actual drawer opening, and make the drawer box 3⁄8" narrower than that in width. To accommodate the hardware, it’s important to make the sides from 5⁄8"-thick stock and to inset the bottom 1⁄2".
  2. Attach the undermount drawer slide hardware following the manufacturer’s instructions. The bottom edge of the slides should align with the bottom edge of the drawer slide supports (H) (Photo L).
  3. Trim the false drawer front (K) to fit in its opening with a 1⁄16" gap all around the edges, removing a consistent amount from each edge. Then round over the edges of the rear face with a 3⁄16" round-over bit. Also ease the front edges slightly by adjusting the height of a 3⁄8" round-over bit, as shown in Photo M, so it doesn’t cut into the bevel. Alternatively, you can ease the edges with a block plane and sandpaper.
  4. Lay out and drill the holes for the pull as shown in Figure 4.
  5. With the drawer box installed, and the false front (K) centered in its opening, clamp the two together and screw through the box into the false front to attach it.

Butcher Block

Ease the front edges of the drawer front by adjusting the bit height so it doesn’t score the bevel.

Finish up

  1. Apply wiping varnish to the false drawer front (K) and any other unfinished surfaces. Over the course of the next few days, apply several more coats to all exposed surfaces of the base, letting each dry overnight. I applied a total of four coats.
  2. Finish-sand the top (A). For a spectacular look, smooth the upper surface through 400 grit until the grain is free of any flaws. (They’ll be painfully obvious once the finish is applied and difficult to sand at that point.)
  3. Mix up a finish for the butcher-block top as described in the sidebar at left. Apply at least five coats to both the top and bottom surfaces before attaching the top to the base.
  4. Attach the casters using #10 × 15⁄8" panhead screws driven through the caster plate into pilot holes in the legs.
  5. Attach the top (A). Screw the figure-8 fasteners into their recesses in the top rails; then up-end the base onto the inverted top and screw through the extended end of each fastener with a #6 × 11⁄4" flathead screw into a pilot hole.

A Butcher-Block Finish Recipe

An end-grain butcher-block top wants a food-safe finish–and lots of it. For this project, combine 1 cup of mineral oil (available at drug stores) with 1⁄2 cup of loosely packed grated beeswax in a glass container. Heat about 4 minutes in a microwave until it liquifies. (Or use a double-boiler.) There’s no need to stir it, but monitor it for safety as it cooks.

Let cool to the consistency of pudding; then wipe the mixture liberally onto the wood. After a half-hour, wipe off the excess. I recommend applying five initial coats, and then replenishing the finish monthly–more if it gets heavy use and frequent damp wipings.

Being wax on end-grain, expect some water-spotting. But it will disappear with another application of the finish and should minimize over time.

Butcher Block

About Our Author

Originally from Anchorage, Alaska, Sam Correa now works full time as a furnituremaker in Tucson, Arizona. His original designs are driven by traditional joinery and feature beautifully composed hardwoods. Sam also teaches classes on joinery and the use of hand tools. You can learn more about his work at www.correawoodworks.com.


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