Both Martha Stewart and Oprah have spotlighted the Maryland-made cutting boards, a 2021 Made in America Holiday Gift Guide pick.
In 2011, Kim Strassner and her husband Mike Pararas were contemplating what kind of unique holiday gifts they could present to their family and friends. Kim reminded Mike of a personalized cutting board she had made for her mother in high school woodshop class.
The couple had some leftover butcher block on hand after a kitchen remodel, and they decided to recreate Kim’s personalized cutting board by cutting the names of friends into the edges of sheets of butcher block.
People loved the personalized gifts, so the couple started making cutting boards in the basement of their 1850s Baltimore row house as a hobby, taking them to farmer’s markets and gift shows on the weekends away from their Monday to Friday jobs.
“We learned pretty early on that everybody wanted their name on a board and the personalization was going to be really big,” Strassner said.
In 2013, Strassner left her product design and manufacturing marketing job to launch Words with Boards as a full-time business. She knew people loved the gifts, but didn’t know how quickly the boards would turn from a hobby into a mainstream success.
In 2015, their cutting boards caught the eye of media maven Martha Stewart, and became a finalist in her American-made design contest.
Later that same year, the Words with Boards cutting designs landed on Oprah Winfrey’s Favorite Things holiday list.
If Martha Stewart put them on the map, Oprah Winfrey took them into kitchens all across America.
The couple has since moved their wood cutting business from their basement into a 3,000 square-foot space in the trendy Hampden neighborhood of Baltimore.
“Before Oprah hit in November of 2015, we knew we needed a bigger space, so we moved to the new facility in August and September of that year,” Strassner said. “When we found out Oprah was going to hit in November, we knew that this could either make or break a company because if we were not able to get these orders done in time and deliver before the holidays, we were going to be done.
“So, we worked 80 hours a week for probably 3 ½ months to get ready for that. We moved and we had to figure out a wood shop, order new equipment, figure out the logistics for shipping and packing. We did space design, we rebranded, we did a new website, we did custom boxes all in that time frame.
“It was pretty crazy. We had to hire people and train them, but we did it. We made it through and delivered every item on time.”
Pararas holds college degrees in both graphic design and topography, and while he retains a few design clients, he has also become a much-needed full-time partner with his wife in Words with Boards. The business has increased sales year-over-year since 2013, except for the pandemic-tainted year of 2020.
“Our products are mostly given as gifts and 85 to 90 percent of the reason that people buy our boards is to give them as holiday, wedding, birthday, thank-you-for-letting-me-stay-at-your-beach-house-gifts,” Strassner said. “All those weddings and get togethers weren’t happening as much last year because of COVID, so we were a little down except for the holiday season in November and December.”
In addition to making wood cutting boards, the couple also produces lazy Susans, serving boards, charcuterie boards and trivets. Each personalized board comes with the hand cut letters or words of your choice, whether it be a name or short catchy phrase.
A new popular product offered this year is an engravement of your favorite recipe on the surface of a cutting or recipe board.
“If you have an old recipe, we can engrave it right on a round recipe board in the original handwriting of the recipe when you received it,” Strassner said. “If you don’t have the original handwriting, we have a handwriting font that we use to engrave it with.”
Words with Boards uses sustainably sourced American hardwoods that come from New York, Pennsylvania and Ohio. The wood that makes up the cut butcher block is maple, cherry and walnut.
The company also gives back to Mother Earth by financing the planting of one tree seedling for every product that is sold.
What started out as a husband-and-wife business now employs a staff of seven to handle the cutting, sanding, packing and shipping of the unique boards.
Words are hand-cut into each individual board with a scroll saw. The couple tried using a CNC (computer numerical control) cutting machine, but it did not produce the same high-quality as that of hand cutting.
After the words are initially cut, each board goes through a five-step sanding process before being branded with the Words with Boards logo. The 1 1/8-inch-thick boards are then put in a bath of food-grade mineral oil and hung to dry before they are ready for shipping.
“The way we make the boards now is 100 percent different than how we were making them in 2013,” Strassner said. “The equipment that we use, the machinery that we use, everything is different. We just learned along the way. It’s not like we could learn from another woodworker or company because we are the only ones doing this in such a high-quality way.
“We have lots of different things in lots of different price points, from $29 to $230 plus. Our most popular product is our custom cutting board at $169 price point, and our lazy Susans are also a big seller at $199 price point.”
Having been knocked off by a cheap, Chinese product several years ago, Strassner realizes that a top-quality American-made product is what attracts her customers. The company has been listed in the Uncommon Goods catalog for many years, a publication which appeals to the same demographic as Words with Boards customers.
“You can’t do personalization anywhere else but in the U.S. and get it to the customers,” Strassner said. “Made in America is important to us. The sustainability is important to us. The giving back to the community, not only the planting of trees but donating boards all the time to use for fundraisers and silent auctions, that is important to us.
“I did manufacturing in China for many years and I know what that looks like. I’ve been over there in China and in the factories and I know what it looks like and that is just not appealing to me. I just wanted to do the opposite of that.”
And indeed, she has, growing a successful small business selling unique hand-crafted products produced by American artisans.
“People think of it as a thoughtful gift,” she said. “When you get a gift like this, a personalized gift, you’ve had to put some thought into it. You are not just walking into a store and grabbing something. I think that’s what makes it so special, and I think that’s why people like to give it and that’s why people like to receive it.”
Words with Boards products are available from the company’s website. If you would like to purchase a cutting board or any other personalized product from Words with Boards as a Christmas present, orders should be placed by Monday, Dec. 13 to allow for manufacturing and shipping time. In a pinch, for rush orders or if you are near Baltimore, Words with Boards may be able to accept your order beyond the Dec. 13 deadline.