Maple Knife Block
Illustration by James Provost
My wife and I both enjoy home cooked meals and have acquired all manner of utensils to help us in the kitchen. At the heart of every kitchen is a collection of knives, and if like me, you prefer the heft and balance of a fine kitchen knife, you’ll also want to protect your investment by keeping your collection in a custom made knife block. I still use the same professional Henckel knives that I bought more than 20 years ago, but the knife block has seen better days. When I recently picked up a new DMT ceramic hone (see sidebar) and found it would not fit in the slot the old sharpening steel had occupied, I decided that a new knife block was in order.
The spacing I’ve used for the knife slots will accommodate a common range of knives. If you are building your block for a specific set of knives, adjust the placement of the grooves to suit the knives you have. If you are unsure of the spacing, experiment using some styrofoam to be sure that there is adequate clearance around the handles.
This is an easy project, consisting of a couple of glue-ups, shaping the two pieces and then the assembly. Select a dense, tight-grained hardwood such as maple, beech, hickory or birch, while avoiding woods like yew, cocobolo or black locust, that are considered toxic.
Both of the main pieces for the knife block are laminated from thinner stock. While you could make this out of a solid block of maple, structurally it would not be a good idea. As the solid wood moves from one season to another, it would deform more than a version glued up from thinner stock. Also, as you work with a solid piece of material five inches thick, there is a good chance that the piece will not be equally dry all the way through. Exposing the inner core with its higher moisture content as you cut the knife slots will allow the interior to begin drying unevenly, which would also lead to deformation.
If you have a board with some defects, lay out your pieces so that the defects are hidden inside the glue-up. You only need perfect boards on the top and bottom of the stack for the main block and one on the front of the wedge block. The edges need to be clear of defects on all pieces.
- Using your jointer and thickness planer, mill sufficient lumber to make up two blocks, one for the main block (A) about 6" x 6" x 12" to 14" long, and the other for the wedge block (B) about 4" x 5" x 12" to 14" long. I used eight 3⁄4" thick pieces for the main block and seven pieces for the wedge block. Ensure that each piece is flat and square. You want these pieces to be at least 12" long to safely run through the planer. As well, any snipe from the jointer or thickness planer will be cut off when you trim the block to final size.
- Apply a waterproof glue (elmers.com, gorillaglue.com) to the pieces and then use a putty knife to spread it evenly over the surface, paying particular attention to the center of the pieces, where you don’t want the glue to pool up. Be careful when applying the clamps – the pieces will tend to slip sideways as the clamps are tightened. Be sure to use enough clamps to allow you to apply sufficient pressure, evenly distributed over the surface. Once you have glued up the blank for the wedge and the main body set them aside to dry.
- Mill the stock to size for the keepers (C, D) while the glue cures.
- Once the glue is dry, unclamp the blocks and scrape off any glue squeeze-out. Mill the blocks to their final thickness and width. Joint one side of the block and then thickness plane the opposite side to the final width. Repeat this on the other two sides.
- Use a cross cut sled on the table saw to square off one end of the main block, and then trim the other end of the block to final length. Set the table saw blade height to just over half the block thickness (2 ⅝" for the main block and 1 ⅜" for the wedge block). Check to ensure that the blade is exactly 90º to the table; the height of the blade will magnify any setting that is out of square. Make the cut in two passes, one from each side of the block.
- While you can cut the bevel on the wedge block on the table saw, it’s safer to cut it on the bandsaw. A 3 or 4 tpi (tooth per inch) bandsaw blade works well for this cut. Fasten a scrap of ¾" plywood on the mitre gauge from your table saw, set it to 45º and use it on the bandsaw to make the bevel cut. Feed both pieces at a slow rate to insure the blade tracks in a straight line and doesn’t produce a barrel cut.
- Install a 45º chamfer bit in a router table and rout a chamfer with a ⅜" wide face on all edges of the main block. If you cut the slots before doing this your router bit will chip out as it enters every knife cut, and you can’t fix it at that stage. Rout the front two edges of the wedge as well.
- Replace the chamfer bit with a ⅜" spiral bit and rout a dado, ⅝" in from the edge, across the leading lower edge of the front of the main block for the recessed keeper (C).
- Mark the locations for the slots on the top of the block and use a full kerf blade in the table saw to cut the knife slots. The knife slots are 3⁄16" wide. Make one pass to create a ⅛" wide slot and then move the fence over 1⁄16" to make another cut. The depth of the cuts will depend on the size of knives you have. If you are cutting a slot for a sharpening steel, make several passes with a regular saw blade or use a dado set. If you want the bottom of the slot rounded, use a fluting bit on a router table. Make incremental cuts until you have sufficient space for the steel. The DMT hone required a triangular slot, which I cut on the table saw.
The DMT Ceramic Hone
Most woodworkers are familiar with the range of fine sharpening products DMT makes for the workshop (dmtsharp.com). Their diamond and ceramic triangle sharpener (#CDT62) brings the same impressive sharpening technology into the kitchen to give you a perfect edge when preparing your feasts.
The triangle sharpener gives you three flat faces, each with different grits for sharpening. There is a coarse diamond surface to transform a dull edge, a fine diamond surface to give you a razor sharp edge, and the ceramic surface for a finely polished surface. This sharpener works dry or with water, and only requires a few short strokes. The three corners are each of a different radius for sharpening your serrated and folding knives. Simply hold the sharpener with one hand and place the knife edge on the surface of choice at a 20º angle and draw the edge along the sharpener as you move it down the length of the sharpener. A couple of strokes on the three grades are all that it takes to put a razor sharp edge on a dull knife in less than two minutes.
Now all that’s left to do is slip your knives in the block, and place it on the countertop. Your knives will be handy in a new block that will give you years of trouble free service.
- Glue the recessed keeper into its dado and apply a couple of clamps. When the glue has set, use a chisel or block plane to bevel the edges to match the main block. Get it close, but leave the final cleanup for the sander.
- Sand all surfaces through to 150 grit in preparation for finishing. When both blocks have been sanded, mix up some five-minute epoxy (elmers.com) and glue the wedge to the base of the main block. Hold it in place for about five minutes or until the epoxy hardens.
- Give the knife block a couple of generous coats of Circa 1850 NaturOil (circa1850.com) before moving on. Use cheesecloth wrapped around a large kitchen knife to work the finish into the knife slots.
- Use a mitre sled on the table saw to cut the remaining keepers (D) to length and mitre the ends to match the chamfer on the main block. Give each of the pieces a couple of generous coats of the finish as well. Fasten them to the main block using 1” brass nails. Drill a clearance hole in the keeper otherwise they will split as the nail is driven through them.
- Maintain the look of the knife block by wiping it with a fresh coat of NaturOil every month or so as needed.
When it comes to food related projects, allergies are a very real concern for many people. Nut allergies can be among the worst and can be life threatening for those affected. For this reason I recommend avoiding all nut woods (such as walnut or pecan) when making this project. Also, be aware that some finishes contain nut oils as part of the product formulation. I was intrigued when I noted that the NaturOil specifically mentioned that it contained no peanut oils. As my wife has extreme nut allergies I contacted Eric Chaimberg at Swing Paints and he was able to confirm that there are no nut oils of any kind in NaturOil and that it is completely safe for those with nut allergies.
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your comments. If you decide to make this knife block, or if you've made a different style of block, we'd love to the results.