We often get asked whether oak or maple is better, so here are four ways in which these two premium hardwoods differ. Both of these are the absolute best types of North American lumber for the types of cutting boards we make, so either one is a good pick.
One thing to note is that when we talk about oak, we’re only referring to white oak, which is a pricier and higher-quality group of species. White oak has an amazing quality: rot resistance due to the closed pores of the wood (unlike red oak). When we talk about maple, we’re only referring to hard maple, typically sugar maple or a related dense species from the Appalachians and surrounding areas (we don’t use soft maple species). The good news is that both are very hard, with maple only a little bit higher on the Janka hardness scale. Thus both will stand up to wear and tear without being so hard that they damage your kitchen knives in ordinary use.
Maple has a finer grain
Cleanliness and sanitation are important for many customers, and maple is not only hard but has a fine grain, creating a cleaner look and reassuring many chefs that food particles won’t work their way into the wood. Still, white oak has sealed pores and natural rot resistance, so even though it has a rugged, coarse look it is also appropriate for contact with food and drink. (Wine barrels are always made from white oak.)
Maple Is Better-Known in the Northeast
The northern Appalachian forests that spread through eastern Canada and even the Midwest have long produced hard maple used in everything from bowling alleys and basketball courts to cutting boards and durable furniture. It’s natural that food columnists, chefs and bloggers from the East Coast are familiar with quality maple. Southerners, on the other hand, have rarely come into contact with solid pieces of hard maple and often gravitate toward white oak or other species that grow in the region.
Oak Is Darker
While our maple comes out golden after oiling, the oak is more of a golden brown. It’s a classic look that reminds you of massive furniture in large estates, and the darker color can also hide stains more easily. We think oak is more aesthetically suited to large cuts of meat, often sliced on the back porch near the grill. On the other hand, some people prefer lighter colors in the kitchen, so maple might be better there. Some of our maple lumber has an eye-catching strip of reddish-brown heartwood in the middle, so if you like that contrast, then drop us a line in the order notes and we’ll do our best to get you one.
Oak Is a Bit More Durable
Oak is widely known for its strength. That isn’t so crucial for a cutting board, where hardness is what counts when you’re chopping chicken with a cleaver—any hardwood will work and won’t splinter like pine. We haven’t been in business too long, but we suspect that oak’s durability and anti-rot properties will make it a better long-term choice. Both oak and maple can develop tiny gaps or “checks” on the end grain on either side of the cutting board. With maple, the checks tend to expand into longer splits, while with oak the checks tend to stay put. This usually happens when we’re cutting up lumber, although sometimes checks emerge when a board reaches a customers or starts using the board. In all these and other cases of substandard materials or workmanship, we’re happy to replace the cutting board and keep customers satisfied, no matter which wood they choose.
Oak Is More Expensive
We’re constantly adjusting our prices due to the availability of wide lumber, wholesale prices and other expenses for our responsible and sustainable American business. Yet one challenge is the high price of white oak, which is in demand for bourbon whiskey barrels, boat-building, furniture manufacturing and a host of other businesses that make use of its rot resistance, strength and beauty. Hard maple tends to fluctuate with the economy and demand for furniture, which is typically manufactured in Asia from North American wood. Lately white oak is more than twice as expensive for us as hard maple, but we’re doing our best to keep the prices of our cutting boards down.