I always wanted to create hand made eating utensils and containers ever since I watched my grandfather work on his lathe. Once I started woodworking a few years ago, I decided that I would turn my own bowls. One thing I had to consider was applying finishes to these projects when they were complete.
I understood that many finishes used harsh chemicals in their formula, so I had to determine what is the best food-safe wood finish? Understanding how these materials worked and what made them safe to use on food-related items would allow them to actually be used instead of just being decorations.
Included below are some of the questions I had at that time, as well as the answers I discovered through research and application.
Keep in mind that many finishes will become safe to use on dishes if they are properly applied and have enough time to cure completely. There are some things that you will want to pay special attention to when applying them to wooden dishes, however.
Avoid oils that can spoil
There are people who have suggested that you use vegetable oil or olive oil as a coating on wooden utensils. My recommendation: Don’t! These types of oils are made from fats extracted from vegetables.
As you might expect, these oils have a shelf life and will spoil over time. I have not heard of sort-term illnesses caused by consuming rancid oils, but they do contain free radicals that may increase your chances for developing certain types of cancers. These oils will not remain on the surface and can cause an off-taste when the utensils are used.
Keep in mind curing time
Is your finish ready once it has dried? No, it is not. There is a difference between drying time and curing time.
Wood finishes that are pre-made will often list a drying time on their label. This is the amount of time the manufacturer suggests you wait before applying additional coats. The surface layer will feel dry to the touch with most products, but the material under that dry surface will not have dried.
Pre-made products will also list a curing time for each product. This indicates the amount of time you need to wait before using the finished item. It will be dry from the surface to the deepest spots of penetration.
Levels of toxicity
The first area of concern when it comes to toxicity is during application on your projects. You should always have good ventilation in your shop, and I would recommend that you also purchase breathing protection.
Most woodworkers think of dust masks when contemplating protection. These may work great for keeping wood particles out of your nose and lungs, but they will not protect you from chemical vapors. You need to get a respirator that is designed to pull harmful chemicals out of the air that you breathe in through the respirator.
Another concern for many is the toxicity levels on treated wood items used for food and toys. Boiled linseed oil and tung oils are the least toxic finishes you can use. Shellacs and water-based finishes are the next best options in this regard. Finally, finishes like lacquers represent the most toxic finishes you will use.
Most finishes, no matter what type they are, will be usable on wooden dishes if you are applying them as the manufacturer suggests as well as making sure they are completely cured before use. Each product is different, even if they are made by the same company. Most companies will list products that meet government standards for food safety.
How will heat affect the finish?
Again, there will be two scenarios to keep in mind here. The first concern is the temperature range the product should be stored and used at. Chemicals can break down if they stored at too low of a temperature or may combust if kept at a temperature beyond the recommended range. Also, you will want to follow the manufacturer’s recommendation for the best application temperature range for the best results.
Secondly, you will want to consider the temperature that the utensils will be used at. Items used for cooking (like spoons or spatulas) will be used on hot cooking surfaces. Verify on the label if the finish will tolerate these extremes without breaking down or melting as you cook.
Will the finish hold up?
In many cases, you will want to apply a finish that produces a hard surface. There are times that you may want to avoid this, such as finishing a cutting board. If the wooden item will be cut or hammered on, you might want a softer finish that gives a bit to avoid flaking that can cling to your food.
The durability of a particular finish should also be considered with the shape of the item. Boards or utensils with sharp edges will likely wear out sooner than they would with a beveled, or rounded, edge.
Grooves and indentations can also be problematic, becoming a collection point for bacteria or grease build-up. Softer finishes may become more susceptible then harder coatings as they will be more porous. Unwanted build-up can penetrate the surface, making it impossible to clean off and forcing you to strip down the finish and re-applying it.
Best Finishes That Are Food-Safe
There is a surprising variety of wood finishes that are available to us today. I started with the products that my grandfather used while supplementing them with others that I wanted to try out. The following finishes are worth considering, especially on your wood projects that need to be food-safe.
1. Mineral oil
These oils are often made from distilled petroleum or other mineral sources. It is clear in nature, a feature that highlights the wood’s natural look. It is effective at filling smaller pores and imperfections in the wood’s surface. That may be an important consideration for woodworkers who desire a natural look for their cooking ware.
Mineral oil does not smell and will not add an odor to the food items that it comes into contact with. They work well as an overcoat on wood stains that are water-based but should be avoided if your stain is oil-based.
You should find mineral oils for a cheaper price point when compared to many types of finishes. This product provides a soft finish that will work well on cutting boards or wooden countertops. It lacks a bit in the durability department, however, and will require regular maintenance that will include re-coating your projects.
If you are considering mineral oil as a finish, it is important to understand that these products are available in crude or refined products. Crude mineral oil is often used in industrial settings and should be avoided if possible. Instead, look for refined mineral oil, as the FDA lists them as safe to use in cosmetics and food.
This product has been used for centuries as a finish and polish for wood. It is natural and lacks harsh chemicals that are less desirable. Many woodworkers prefer this material made by honey bees due to this benefit.
One thing to keep in mind is that beeswax will require a bit more work to use when compared to some finishes. You will need to melt it so that it becomes soft enough to work with. Beeswax will harden quickly, so many joiners mix it with an oil (tung oil is often used) to extend its working time.
Another trick that users do when applying this material is to add lemon essential oil to provide a pleasant scent. Some people claim that the lemon oil also acts as an antibacterial agent that will benefit food-related wooden items.
Beeswax provides a decent level of protection on wood surfaces, but it will not penetrate as deeply into the wood as other products can. It will require regular re-applications often in order to provide the best protection. This natural product is non-toxic and should be safe for use by most people.
When it is applied and buffed, the wood will take on a warm look that highlights its natural colors. It also creates a surface that feels silky smooth when you touch it, a quality that differentiates it from hard and smooth varnishes.
3. Walnut oil
European readers may be familiar with this finish that is often used by French woodworkers. It can be applied on decoration pieces by mixing it with mineral oil, but it should be used pure when applying it on food-safe items.
Food utensils will see a lot of use, so they will require at least six coats of walnut oil for optimal protection. It provides great protection from liquids, including alcohol and water. Keep in mind that this product can have adverse effects on people who suffer from food allergies.
It will penetrate wood grain nicely and should help to highlight multi-colored wood. Walnut oil will require that you do touch-ups on your utensils, but the level of maintenance should be less than with a product like beeswax.
4. Carnauba wax
Carnauba wax is derived from the Brazilian palm tree. It is considered food-safe as it is a natural vegetable-based wax product. This wax is often mixed with beeswax as it can be difficult to achieve a consistent look when used pure.
This wax will require two to three coats to provide the best coverage possible. It will not penetrate wood grain, a characteristic common with all wax products. This material will provide a bit more durability than beeswax will in many cases, but it will wear over time and needs to be re-applied.
It offers a soft feel when touched and generates a satin-like shine. Many woodworkers will apply another protective product over carnauba wax but it can offer you a coating that is non-toxic.
5. Pure tung oil
A popular selection for many joiners is this product made from nuts of the tung tree. Part of this popularity is due to the durability of this finish, a trait that offers hardiness as well as lower maintenance. It also supplies wood items with decent water resistance, something that is required for food-related wood items. Is tung oil safe for food, though?
Tung oil makes my list here as it is food-safe after three days of curing and repels food particles that can stick in the pores on wood surfaces. This protection will need monthly re-application to offer a high level of protection.
When looking at tung oil products, make sure that they are pure. Oil and varnish blends, as well as wipe on products, contain solvents that most woodworkers want to avoid when using on food-related items.
6. Linseed oil
This product is one of the oldest finishes, used by ancient Egyptians on their wooden items. Linseed is often used by Europeans but has been supplanted by flaxseed and other products in North America. It has gained in popularity, especially with beginners, as it is easy to apply.
It will take longer to cure than many other finishes, but that cured surface provides a lower luster that many woodworkers prefer for their food-related utensils. It should be noted that linseed oil does not provide the best protection against water. Scratching can also be an issue unless you cover your project with several layers.
7. Fractionated coconut oil
Fractionated coconut oil has been refined to the point of removing LCT (long-chain triglycerides), a process that prevents this product from going rancid. It offers users a food-safe finish that is non-toxic and has become more popular among hobbyists in recent years.
It can be applied in the same manner as other vegetable-based products and will offer a softer finish for your projects. This helps to prevent chipping on items like cutting boards and other surfaces that receive abuse. It is also considered an economical alternative by some woodworkers.
The last product on this list was actually the first finish I was introduced to by my grandfather. French polishing has remained a popular method of application with traditional woodworkers and I can recommend trying it out if you have not worked with it before.
While pre-made shellacs are available, I would recommend mixing your own. This avoids waxes or other materials causing adhesion issues. Homemade shellac will also store longer than most pre-made products.
It will require a lot of work to cover the wood evenly, but it can be built up in layers to achieve the desired look you want with your project. It is used in candy and pharmaceutical products, so you will not have to worry about it being food-safe.
Use These Finishes With Caution
Today’s polyurethane finishes are not the same as the ones your grandparents used years ago. Metallic driers are used in these products to help reduce the drying time that will be required for a full cure. Lead was once used as a drier but has been banned for several years now.
I have found no research that indicates that the driers used today pose a health risk when applied on wooden utensils and cookware. It is important to keep in mind that all products, especially finishes like polyurethane, are allowed to cure completely before use. That may require up to 30-days, but it should provide a food-safe coating when curing is complete.
Lacquers are similar to polyurethanes in regard to curing time. As a matter of fact, they will usually need longer to dry than almost any other finish you will use. This type of finish should be food-safe once it has fully matured throughout the entire coating.
Another consideration is that lacquers do not penetrate the wood grain, but sit on top of the wood surface instead. That makes it an adequate finish for items that will not be roughed up, like serving trays for example. They will tend to shed chips on cutting board surfaces, so alternative finishes may be desired in those applications.
A few vegetable-based oils were listed previously that can be used as a wood finish. Most vegetable oils should be used with caution or avoided if possible. There are several reasons I suggest this.
Most of these products will thicken on utensil surfaces over time and can become cloudy in appearance as well as generating an off feel to the wood surface. Applying vegetable oils will also discolor your wooden projects in many instances, leaving them with a look you did not intend for them to have. Finally, they can become rancid and will make your food-safe wooden utensils smelling bad.
Finishing It Off
As you can see, there are many food safe wood finish options out there. Give more than one of them a try to see which you prefer working with. Keep your woodworking safe and healthy!