Home woodworkers often craft products that come into contact with food, such as cutting boards, serving bowls, utensils and more. Such products need to be treated with food-safe wood finishes before being used to prepare or serve meals. This guide reveals the differences among the best food-safe finishes to use in your kitchen.
What Makes a Finish Food-Safe?
Most finishes give wooden kitchenware a shiny, glossy appearance. In 1972, the use of lead as a metallic dryer was banned from wood finishes. Since then all manufactured products can be considered food safe. Many finishes contain solvents used as bonding agents and should not be consumed directly, but become safe when the solvent has time to evaporate or bond with oxygen molecules.
To be considered truly food safe, a finish must cure properly, which takes much longer than drying. Curing times can vary based on type of finish and your home’s humidity and temperature levels. Around 30 days is considered standard for most food-safe finishes.
Food-Safe Oil Finishes
Oil finishes soak into the porous wood surface. Kitchenware such as a cutting board can get scraped or cut by metal utensils. Choose oil finishes instead of film finishes that have a chance of cracking.
- Mineral oil, also known as liquid paraffin and butcher’s block finish, is easy to apply. It has lower water resistance and requires reapplication more frequently.
- Tung oil is extracted from nuts. Known for good water resistance, it often requires numerous coats. It leaves a natural finish that darkens the wood while showcasing the grain. Once thoroughly cured, it is food-safe.
- Raw linseed oil, extracted from flax seeds, has a good appearance. However it has a lower water resistance and a long curing time. Do not use boiled linseed oil. It is considered toxic and not food-safe.
- Walnut oil, made of pressed walnuts, is available as a salad oil. It is easy to apply, but requires frequent reapplication. Walnut oil is not recommended for those with nut allergies.
Tip: Olive oil or vegetable oil can go rancid if left at room temperature for extended periods. Avoid using them as wood finishes.
Food-Safe Film Finishes
Film finishes leave a coating, or film, on the surface of the wood. However, oil-based finishes soak into the wood.
- Shellac, derived from Indian lac bugs, is a common food-safe film finish. It is highly water-resistant. Available in different hues, shellac is sold in liquid form or in flakes that must be dissolved in ethanol before application. (The ethanol evaporates during the curing process.)
- Polyurethane protects wood from scratches or damage. It leaves a shiny coat. However, the fumes and long curing time require a well-ventilated area.
Food-Safe Wax Finishes
Some kinds of waxes serve as a food-safe finish or add an additional protective topcoat.
- Beeswax is made by honeybees. Added to oil finishes, it makes them more water repellent. Solid beeswax needs to be melted to be applied.
- Carnauba wax is a standalone finish or a topcoat with another finish. It tends to be harder and more water-resistant than beeswax.
Applying a Food-Safe Finish
Applying a food-safe finish to unfinished wood tables or kitchenware is a simple process.
- Sand the item with 320-grit sandpaper until smooth. Fully remove all dust.
- When using an oil finish, apply a generous amount to a cloth. Spread until the surface is covered. Let dry for 15 minutes. Apply an additional coat. Use 1 to 2 coats for hardwoods, 3 to 4 coats for softwoods.
- Apply wax with a cloth until the surface is covered. Wipe off excess when finished.
- Allow newly finished pieces to dry and cure fully.
The right food-safe finish will make wood bowls, trays and more both beautiful and functional. Natural oils such as walnut give a rich finish and contain no chemicals. Other finishes, such as varnishes and shellacs, contain chemicals to make them dry quicker. However, once thoroughly cured, these finishes are considered food-safe. Need woodworking supplies? The Home Depot delivers online orders when and where you need them.