An Interview with Dave Ball, the mind behind the wood and proprietor of Jacob May Design.
How did you begin?
Woodworking started as a hobby that I escaped to in the evenings. But it began consuming more and more of my energy until I felt like it would be irresponsible of me not to quit my day job and pursue the craft full-time.
Tell us about being a designer in the bay area.
The design community is very much alive and thriving in Oakland. I have so many friends and resources within a 10 minute ride of my wood shop. And people throughout the Bay Area have a great understanding and appreciation for one-of-a-kind, handmade objects.
How long it takes to make each cutting board?
To get from raw, un-surfaced lumber to an oiled and waxed butcher block that is packed and ready to ship takes on average 5 hours, a bit longer for the larges and a bit less for the small size.
How many boards do you make per year?
I do the boards in batches of approximately 25 and will do a batch every 6 weeks, 200 boards a year roughly.
Any favorite suggested uses for the boards, or any favorite recipes to share?
Many people comment that they find it hard to bring themselves to cut on the surface for fear of marring the beautiful patterns. For these people I recommend taking advantage of the pocket in the brass plug and hanging it on the wall as a piece of art most of the time then bringing it down to use as a serving board for hors d'oeuvres at gatherings. It really looks beautiful as a backdrop for cheese and charcuterie. But the nature of the end-grain prevents knife marks from being too visible. Oiling the board occasionally causes the fibers to swell and heal up most of the accumulated cuts. So even heavy cutting on the board will not destroy the beauty. I cut everything I cook on my board. I ride my bike home at lunch where I like cooking Mexican food for my midday meal. So a lot of onions, peppers, zucchini, garlic and mushrooms go from these boards into a skillet with brown rice and black beans then onto a tortilla. Working with heavy lumber is exhausting so at lunch I'll consume 3 or 4 bean, rice and veggie burritos
What are the differences between the types of woods that you use?
Walnut grain has tighter pores. This means that it is lower maintenance. It will retain a coat of oil longer and won't absorb the oils and odors from food as readily. On the down side the tighter pores of the wood show knife marks more clearly. My roommates and I have used my oak board multiple times everyday for year now and after a coat of oil it looks like it has never been cut on. On the other hand, the walnut board hangs onto some of the more aggressive cuts that it has been subjected to.
The other difference of course is aesthetic. The colors of the walnut are gorgeous and striking but I have to say that the patterns that beautiful patterns created by the book-matched end-grain of white oak are hard to beat.
Where are the materials sourced and are they from a sustainable source?
All the lumber I use is sourced domestically, mainly from the Midwest. As a rule I never use exotic wood in my work. I have a great relationship with a local lumberyard. If a batch of good-looking lumber comes in they give me a call. The lumberyard that I buy from has relationships with established mills. At most of them, for every tree they cut down three new ones are planted with the expectation that one of these three will make it to adulthood. As my business grows and I begin to consume more wood I plan to develop relationships with the foresters themselves so I can have more control over the materials.
What makes it different from other cutting boards on the market?
Well I think the embossed brass plug with the pocket on the back is a great detail. A good friend of mine helped me develop this element since he wanted to be able to clear off his counters when he wasn't cooking. He actually ended up making the first few batched of plugs for me on the lathe and mill at his job. Besides that detail my boards, functionally speaking, are similar in quality to many other end-grain boards from large-scale manufacturers. What differentiates mine is that I take the time to read the grain of the wood and layout the pieces intentionally to create the intricate, flowing patterns. To get the patterns I have to do several extra steps, each of which require great precision, that are not involved in making other cutting boards. Through experience I have developed the ability to predict which strips of wood will have the most consistent details and I know where and in which orientation to place them throughout the board to create the most pleasing effects.
What do people like most about Jacob May boards?
People who buy the boards appreciate that they are both beautiful and absolutely functional. They seamlessly bring a little extra beauty into the kitchen.