A butcher's block is a specialized cutting surface which has been designed to be used in meat processing, with an especially thick, rugged design which can sustain heavy blows from cleavers and similar knives. Professional chefs and butchers have been using these specialized blocks for years, and they have become common among some home chefs, who appreciate their durability and the social cachet which comes with owning commercial kitchen products. Many kitchen supply stores sell butchers' blocks, in a variety of designs and styles.
The defining feature of a butcher's block is that it is an assembled wood product, made from strips of wood which are glued together to create a solid wedge. This allows manufacturers to pick out the strongest, straightest, most closely grained pieces of wood to create a butcher's block which will last for decades, when well cared for. A popular choice of wood for butchers' blocks is maple, although a number of different woods may be used. Wood, incidentally, is a hostile environment for many harmful bacteria, making it a great choice for cutting boards, as long as they are well maintained.
In an end-grain butchers block, the pieces of wood are assembled with the cut ends facing upwards, creating a very thick, heavy block. End grain blocks are better able to absorb heavy blows, and they distribute the energy from the blow of the knife, creating clean cuts and helping knives stay sharp longer. These blocks are also less likely to crack or become gouged, giving them a long life in the kitchen.
The other type of butcher's block is known as an edge-grain butcher's block, and it is made by laying strips of wood lengthwise. This creates a thinner, more manageable block, but also one which is less rugged and durable. Many products for home use are edge-grain blocks, because they are cheaper and often perfectly suitable for normal home use.
You can use a butcher's block in a number of ways. These blocks can be used like cutting boards, designed to be moved around as needed, and they can also be used as countertops and to cover kitchen islands, turning the entire counter into a cutting surface. In all instances, you need to care for a butcher's block well, washing it with hot water and mild soap and allowing it to dry thoroughly between uses. You should also periodically apply mineral oil to a butcher's block to keep the wood in good condition.