A Straight Dope Classic from Cecil's Storehouse of Human Knowledge

Are wood toothpicks made of real wood?

August 10, 1979

Dear Cecil:

Since I gave up smoking cigarettes three years ago, cigars, joints, and women have been surrogates for my oral fixation. However, I find the substitute that spends the most time in my mouth is toothpicks. This intimacy has stirred my curiosity as to their origin. It's hard to imagine a crew of minimum-wage craftsmen whittling perfect little javelins from tree branches, so I assume they have some sort of processed wood product that they press into forms. But how do they maintain the grain? I rest my dilemma in your hands, Cecil--and while you're at it, find out what family of tree it is that regularly lies twixt cheek and gum.

Cecil replies:

I don't know that I would go around resting my dilemma in other people's hands if I were you, Todd. You could get arrested. Toothpick makers get wood grain into their toothpicks by the simple expedient of not taking it out in the first place. Remarkable as it may seem in this synthetic age, the modern toothpick is made out of unreconstituted virgin white birch, just as its predecessors have been since after the Civil War, when Charles Forster invented the automatic toothpick-making machine.

Toothpick manufacturers (most of them are in Maine) steam birch logs to make them easier to cut, then "veneer" them, which means they peel each log into a thin sheet, sort of like unrolling a roll of paper towels. Flat toothpicks are simply stamped out of the sheets, while round toothpicks are first cut into oversized blanks, then fed into a milling machine called a "rounder," which grinds them down into little javelins, as you put it. No reconstituted toothpick has ever been made that matches birch for strength and low cost. You see plastic toothpicks occasionally, but they are hard on the gums and periodontists discourage their use--as do the makers of wooden toothpicks, not surprisingly.

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