Wood butcher block, detail

End grain butcher block.

Since I am still in search of a good butcher in L.A. (alas, none to be found!) – I am finding myself delving further into the dissection of strange and exotic cuts of meat – at home. A recent purchase of a meat grinder (more on that soon!) has lead to a whole lot of chopping and cutting, slicing and dicing and a new search – for a superior place on which to cut.

Butcher block is what I’m seeking – and some digging shows that this material – an infinitely sturdy hardwood maple that is used for high-end counter tops and chopping boards – has a fascinating history.

Originally butchering was done atop a tree stump or “tree rounds”, which were literally enormous chunks of tree set on legs. I love imaging these ultra masculine old-time butcher shops – where giant chunks of dead animal were axed apart by sweaty guys with huge blades – atop giant tree trunks! Wow!

19th-century butcher block. (Image courtesy of the Musée de la Civilisation)

19th-century wood butcher block. (Image courtesy of the Musée de la Civilisation)

This process was functional but not the best option, as eventual cracking lead to an inability to keep the surface of the chopping area clean – making for some pretty unsanitary conditions. Seeking out a durable alternatives, in the mid 1880s butchers created a maple-based material which they rather unimaginatively dubbed “The Sanitary Meat Block”. Now known as “butcher block”,  it is used all over the world – in both home kitchens and professional and currently exists in two basic forms, Edge Grain and End Grain.

The superior (and more pricey) End Grain is created by gluing the maple wood fiber perpendicular to the surface and creating a thickness of at least 4 inches (the more the better). This process creates a pleasing, chessboard/parquet design surface which not only looks nice, but also serves double duty by absorbing the impact of knife blades – allowing blades to come down between fibers and thus absorbing the impact. As a result a knife will stay sharp longer, and the butcher block will keep free of nicks.  End Grain is used by professional chefs and deep-pocketed amateurs with some extra dough to put toward their kitchen fetishes.

Butcher at the Waldorf Astoria, 1944. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

A butcher at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel, 1944. (Photo by Alfred Eisenstaedt)

Edge Grain is much more common however – particularly as a home counter top material. Also, utilizing a hardwood maple – the manufacture of  Edge Grain involves wood fiber glued parallel – a look similar to a wood floor. Edge Grain is much less expensive to produce and still creates a durable surface which will work just fine for your every day cooking and cutting.

Both End and Edge Grain butcher block can be kept looking pretty (and functioning properly) by a good rub with natural mineral oil every 3 months of so, depending on amount of use.

A little off subject, but I couldn’t resist to show you these pieces of meat art. They’re just too good (I guess only if you’re not a vegetarian).

Victoria Reynolds "Fight of the Reindeer."

“Fight of the Reindeer” by Victoria Reynolds.

And here two more ads from the good people of the American Meat Institute, who helped to bring Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (with all its great side effects of hormone and antibiotic infested meat as well as and polluted runoffs) to this country.

American Meat Institute advertising from 1949.

Meet Your Meat Team: American Meat Institute advertising, 1949.


  1. 1/23
    Posted January 18, 2010 at 3:16 AM | Permalink

    ……………..but only for vegetarians! I love a tender beefsteak. Although I have to get familiarized with "meat art", thanks for the extraordinary article.

  2. nicolas
    Posted January 19, 2010 at 6:44 PM | Permalink

    Thanks for my new desktop image.

  3. Posted February 4, 2010 at 9:30 AM | Permalink

    i love that meat truck that travels around parts of LA that says something like: "we don't beat our meat"…

  4. JM
    Posted March 2, 2010 at 2:47 PM | Permalink

    Hey Jessica — what about McCall's Meat and Fish Company in Los Feliz? I've only had some fish from them, but I heard they are legit. What do you think?

  5. Posted February 2, 2011 at 11:27 AM | Permalink

    I would love to hear how you do with the meat grinder. Bought one years ago myself then never touched it. But still on my to do list. Wishing you better luck!

  6. karen taylor
    Posted March 7, 2011 at 9:07 AM | Permalink

    I found a round wooden butcher block in our parents old shed, and i am selling this weekend in a city wide garage sale, i am in a diff city during the week days, so i am not sure if it is edge or end grain. My recollection of it makes me think it is the common end grain mentioned . it is about 15-16" diameter and i know that there are marking on it about where it was used. it has short stubby legs. What would be a good price for this. your imput would help me make my final decision on price

  7. Sebastian Kaufmann
    Posted March 8, 2011 at 11:00 AM | Permalink

    Hello Karen, Thanks for your note. It's very hard to evaluate the cost for your block without seeing a picture of it. Searching for a similar block on eBay bring some results. Good luck! Sebastian

  8. chris brady
    Posted March 21, 2015 at 7:54 PM | Permalink

    Hello Karan, i live Brisbane Australia and have a collection of butchers block , I have been a retail butcher for 42 years . when i started butchering every shop had tree stump blocks all shapes and sizes, over the years i have been collecting them . Even in Australia they are very rare, i have search on the internet but could not find similar. One of my blocks was in a butcher shop for 100 years it was made of sump wood tee tree , i have own it for 23 years its dimensions are 33 inches wide by 20 inches deep , it stands 35 inches high on 3 wooden legs, i counting wood circles and it would be 370 years old before it came out of the land. A very nice piece of timber for a country kitchen , i will try to send some photos.

  9. Posted July 26, 2015 at 9:21 PM | Permalink

    Thank you! Great info, very helpful!

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