PatternThe first three boards pictured are classic cutting board designs using stripes and checkers. they were designed using a great (free!) program called CB Designer, written by a gracious woodworker. UPDATE - Another woodworker that took my San Francisco based cutting board workshop wrote a browser-based version of CB Designer - which is also capable of managing some angled cuts to make zig-zags and chevron designs.
If you play with the settings on either CB Designer, you can also create slightly more complex designs - for example in the final picture I created a staggered pattern by changing the width of just one strip of maple from 1 inch to 1/2 inch. In addition to helping you plan a pattern CB Designer helps plan what length to cut the wood, how many cuts you need to make, and how much wood will be used up in the cutting process.
If you follow the link, the creator has a video showing how to use the program.
Freestyle DesignIn the last cutting board pictured, instead of using CB Designer, I used some scrap pieces of wood to make something more creative than normal stripes or checkers. CB Designer can't handle this type of pattern, but it's easy to think up your own design. I took some scraps of bevel-cut wood from other projects and thought about different ways I could arrange the pieces into interesting patterns. The possibilities are endless, I have seen other's create diamond patterns, flowers, and waves - just remember to think about your design from the perspective of end grain. I sketched out my ideas on google docs, brainstorming 4 different possible patterns using the end-grain profile of my scrap pieces.
Even though CB designer can't show these freestyle patterns, you can still use it to calculate the length of your wood pieces and the amount of wood waste.
Lumber choiceCutting boards can be made out of any wood, though some woods are better than others. The important thing is that it is a hardwood, with dense fibers, small pores, and no toxic oil / sap / chemicals. Hard maple (aka rock maple) is the classic choice - other common woods include cherry, walnut, purple heart, and yellow-heart.
Many other woods will work, but it's a good idea to do some research before choosing exotic woods, which may not be food safe. Some woods contain a lot of natural oils, which can be toxic or cause problems for people with allergies. Other woods, while food-safe, may not be the best choice because of their grain structure - soft-woods and open-pore woods such as oak or ash may allow more liquid to soak into their fibers, giving bacteria a place to grow.
If using rough-cut lumber, like me, make sure to look at the condition of the wood. Cutting boards are constantly exposed to liquid and moisture - rough cut wood that is already warping at the lumberyard may be much more prone to warping in your kitchen - look for straight boards.
Also, pay more attention to the end-grain pattern of the lumber instead of the face grain pattern. Knots or figure that may look interesting on the face of a board will not be visible in the finished board, because only the end grain will be showing. Knots or heavy wood figure may even be hiding empty spaces in the center of the board that will show up as a hole in your cutting board once you cross-cut and expose the end-grain.
ThicknessAnything from 1-2 inches is common for a cutting board. Make it even thicker to create an old-school butcher block or whole end-grain countertop. In general thicker boards will be more stable while cutting, are less prone to warping from moisture, and can take more re-finishings after heavy use.
Remember that the thickness of your cutting board is not directly determined by the thickness of your lumber. When making an end-grain cutting board you get to determine the thickness of your board based on the cuts you make (step 9). The thickness of the lumber just determines the width of the individual strips on your board.
It's important to determine the thickness of your board before you cut any wood. When making my first board I used CB Designer to make a 1.5" thick board, but at the last minute changed my mind and made a 2" thick board - this 1/2 inch difference had a big effect when multiplied by 11 cuts. The end result was still nice, but much shorter than originally planned (First example pictured).