With all the toxins that exist around us, in what seems like everything…. It’s no wonder there’s been a surge in the popularity of food safe wood finishes. I mean, we have to be careful about what we ingest, right? So it only makes sense to use food safe finishes when we’re working on wood projects that will come in contact with our mouths, our food, or our children in any way.
I have found some incredibly interesting facts around the topic of food safe wood finishes. Not only 9 great options, but even some more controversial matter that, while I agree with what I’ve read, I’m only 50% sure that you’ll agree.
But regardless, I’m going to give you all the details. Below you’ll find the 9 best food safe wood finishes, but also the 2 basic categories that all wood projects fall into, which will determine which kind of finish to use. Plus, the nitty gritty “Reality” of food grade finishes and why you may not need to be so concerned.
Here are the 4 main project types you should consider using a food safe wood finish on:
- Kitchen utensils (bowls, spoons, platters, etc…)
- Raw meat prep surfaces (Cutting boards, butcher blocks, etc…)
- Eat-on surfaces (bar tops, tables, counters, etc…)
- Childrens Toys.
So if your project sounds like it fits in one of these categories, then it’s worth considering using a food safe wood finish.
Word of Caution – before we continue, please be aware. Not all commercially produced finishes are made the same. No matter what the finish is named, it may or may not be “pure”. In other words, many options are concoctions that include solvents, thinners, dryers, metal compounds, and other popular wood-finishing ingredients. So be sure to read all labels! Also, as with any wood finish, follow instructions on the container, and dispose of your rags properly.
With that said, let’s jump right in, shall we?
9 Best Food Safe Wood Finishes
This is a surface sealing, natural finish that comes from the Lac bug. You can bet it’s safe to consume, they coat candy with it after all. Shellac is a film-forming finish, and provides good protection from moisture. It leaves a glossy finish if applied thick enough and buffed out.
2. Pure Tung Oil
This is one of the few popular “Drying Oils” (I’ll explain what that means below). It actually hardens as it cures and has water-resistant properties. And contrary to popular belief, pure tung oil does not affect those with “nut” allergies.
3. Food Grade Beeswax
This literally comes from the honeycomb of honey bees. There is a process used to refine it, but once complete, it’s safe for consumption. It’s commonly used to glaze fruit, as well as in the production of gel capsules and chewing gum. Avoid on surfaces that will get hot, as the wax can melt off.
4. Carnauba Wax
This is plant-based, and is considered safe for consumption because it is inert, non-toxic, and cannot be digested by humans. It’s often used for it’s “Shiny” properties, and can be mixed with beeswax to add water-resistance.
5. Food Grade Mineral Oil
This is a non-toxic, non-drying oil that is commonly used on butcher block tables and cutting boards. It must be re-applied as often as monthly, and will become brittle and crack if not maintained, so be sure to keep a bottle on hand.
6. Walnut Oil
This sweet-smelling finish is non-toxic and resists water and alcohol. It can however go rancid over time (if left “un-cured”). Be sure to leave it exposed to oxygen after application. Once fully cured, it should not affect those with nut-allergies, but caution should still be taken.
7. Raw Linseed Oil
This drying oil comes from flax seeds, and offers protection from sun and water damage. It’s not refined so it literally goes from seed, to container, to your project. It does however take a really long time to dry, as long as a few weeks, and even up to over a month.
8. Paraffin Wax
Similar to Mineral Oil, this wax is derived from petroleum. But don’t let that scare you. It’s food safe and is commonly used in the preservation of jams and cheeses.
9. Coconut Oil
This is a food safe finish good for butcher blocks and cutting boards. Be sure to get the “distilled” or “fractionated” variation, which is refined so it won’t go rancid.
How Do You Choose A Food Safe Wood Finish?
With all these choices, how do you decide what’s going to work best for your project? Well, it first comes down to one main decision, and possibly one followup decision:
Do you want a penetrating oil, or a surface sealer?
If you go with a penetrating oil, then do you want higher maintenance or lower maintenance wood finish (non-drying oil vs drying oil, I’ll explain below)?
Let me break down each of these choices to help you get closer to your decision…
Penetrating Oil vs Surface Sealer
The main difference between penetrating oil finishes, and surface sealer finishes, is probably pretty obvious, but I’ll explain anyway. The penetrating oils soak down into the wood and stay inside. They provide less protection, but they are easier to apply, and leave a more natural looking finish.
A surface sealer, also known as a film finish, remains on the surface and leaves a layer that can be built up for added protection. And as you probably expect, it’s more protective than penetrating finishes, but it can be trickier to apply.
For me, I prefer a surface sealer for most projects that will get more physical abuse, wear and tear, cleaning agents, or moisture. But for most other projects that don’t need quite the protection, like toys, picture frames, book cases, and decorative shelves, I prefer penetrating finishes for their simplicity, but also for the fact that they excel at really bringing out the grain, leaving a beautiful, satin finish.
Common Surface Sealers
Note: Not all of these finishes are commonly considered a food safe wood finish, which is why only 2 of them are on my list above.
Penetrating Oil Finishes: Drying vs Non Drying
These are the 2 categories of penetrating oils, so let me break it down a little further so you can understand the difference.
A drying oil goes through a process where it cures and turns solid (though not as “solid” as a surface sealer). The process is called polymerization and it most commonly happens when the oil is in contact with oxygen, which means once it’s applied to the wood surface, it begins the curing process.
A non drying oil stays wet indefinitely. This type of oil is often considered a ‘treatment’, and not a true ‘finish’. Because it doesn’t actually cure, it can be washed off over time, and will be transfered on to anything that comes in contact with it. It will require the most frequent re-application, depending on how much wear the wood surface is subjected to.
Common Drying Oils
Common Non Drying Oils
And just to clarify, peanut, olive, and rapeseed oils are not on my list of food safe wood finishes. If you’re going for a ‘treatment’ type of oil on surfaces that need a food safe finish, you’ll want to stick with Mineral or Coconut oil, which I explained above.
The “Reality” Of Food Safe Wood Finishes
Most (if not all) modern types of wood finishes no longer contain the extremely hazardous adds, like lead dryers. That means there’s no reason to avoid certain finishes like their a plague. Add that to the fact that some commercially available surface sealers and film finishes dry fast, last a long time, and provide the highest level of protection, and you’ll see why these choices are commonly used in ‘food grade’ applications.
Mostly, I’m referring to what many people consider “Non Food Safe” finishes, specifically things like Boiled Linseed Oil, Danish Oil, Varnish, Polyurethane, Lacquer, and even paint.
And here’s where the controversy lies… Commercially available wood finishes of all kinds, if given adequate time to fully cure, are actually safe to eat off of.
Now, by “fully cured”, I don’t mean that the finish has become dry to the touch. If you can still smell the finish, it hasn’t cured. Rule of thumb is any wood finish needs a good 30 days to fully cure…
The fact is, there’s no evidence of these wood finishes, even the ones that initially have dryers or solvents in them, have actually caused any harm by coming in contact with food, or with a persons mouth.
Even many of the commercially concocted finishes that are labeled a “Food Safe Wood Finish” still have dryers or solvents. Many times that’s what’s needed to make sure they can be applied in thin layers, or cure in a reasonable time.
The point is that these additives are used to help with application and curing. But after that, they are no longer a threat. That’s great news right?
Now, this doesn’t mean that ALL finishes are food safe. We still need to be careful, and use common sense.
The FDA regulates this type of thing, and has guidelines for what makes a food safe wood finish. They provide a long list of products that can be included in the finish, and it just so happens, the ingredients in modern wood finishes are all on that list!
What’s not included? Well, the main things would be mercury and lead. Lead is no longer used in modern wood finishes, and mercury never was.
The other guideline the FDA uses is that it must not leach more than a certain amount of its ingredients within a very specific set of parameters. This can only be determined by way of expensive testing of each and every batch, so obviously, it’s a test that is not commonly performed.
That means most finishes cannot be “properly” claimed as FDA Approved as a food safe wood finish. But that doesn’t mean they don’t meet the standards.
So let me conclude with this…
If you are the type of person that gets highly concerned about toxins in things like wood finishes, then you’ll be much more comfortable using the finishes on the list I’ve provided you above.
If you’re like me however, you may feel that we live in a world that is constantly bombarding us with un-avoidable toxins, and the possible trace of chemicals leached from a standard wood finish may not even come close to the toxicity of the VOCs we breath that come off of new car interiors, newly installed carpet, or even our comfortable memory foam pillows…
So if that sounds more like you, then do what I do. My standards are based on this simple question:
Will the finished product, once fully cured, be cut, hammered, or chewed on? If so, I figure that maybe the finish needs to be something that is practically edible. If not, then I personally prefer polyurethane for it’s extreme protective qualities and low-maintenance.
How To Apply An Oil Finish
I’m talking about penetrating oil finishes here, from the list above. This is the same whether it’s a drying or a non-drying oil, and please don’t forget to discard your rags properly!!! (more on that below)
To apply an oil finish, you need some lint-free rags and some nitrile gloves. Pour some oil on to the rag, or directly on the wood surface.
Now spread it around and rub it in, with the direction of the grain of the wood (it’s ok to put it on pretty thick). It really is that simple, and it’s almost impossible to mess up!
Let it soak 10 minutes, then wipe off whatever didn’t soak in with a clean rag. Apply extra coats after the previous is dry to the touch.
To leave an even smoother finish, sand with 400 or 600 grit wet/dry sand paper after the first coat, before it dries. This creates a slurry that fills tiny pores and leaves a glass-smooth finish. Lightly wipe it down again to remove sanding slurry build-up with the same rag that already has some oil in it (not enough to pool up on the top), then let it dry before applying the next coat.
This is a very general guideline to applying an oil finish, but always read the instructions that comes with your finish and make sure you include any additional suggested steps, or coat quantity limitations.
How To Properly Discard Oil Finish Rags
Oil finishes (the drying kind) go through a process as they cure, called polymerization. This happens when the finish is exposed to oxygen, which is why a closed container of oil on your shelf does not easily polymerize.
A byproduct of polymerization is heat. With the oil applied thinly and evenly on a wood surface, that heat is wide spread enough that you won’t even notice it coming off the finish.
But your application rags are a different story. These rags are soaked all the way through, so there’s quite a bit of oil within.
If you couple that with lack of fresh air flow, the heat coming off the rag can build up.
This happens typically when you wad up the rag and toss it in a box or the trash can. There’s a lot of pockets of space in a wadded up rag that can hold heat.
This heat can build up and increase to the point of spontaneous combustion, catching the rag on fire (and may even include a small explosion effect).
In fact, this very thing happened to my dad when I was just a kid, and had he not heard that small explosion of the rag combusting, our house would have burned down. He had left his staining rags wadded up, sitting on a vacuum cleaner, during the construction of the house (he was the builder). He was upstairs and heard this happen, ran down, and found the rag and the vacuum on fire.
So yes, this is a very real threat, but don’t let that scare you. I use boiled linseed oil and various stains all the time, and both of these can combust like that.
Note: Wood stain has the same combustable properties as the drying oils have, so treat your staining rags the same way.
There’s a simple process I use in my shop, ensuring that I never have to worry about burning my house down. Here’s what you do.
- Get a 5 gallon metal bucket.
- When you’re done using the oil or stain rags, open them up and spread them out.
- Drape them over the edge of the bucket.
- Set the bucket in the middle of the floor.
- After a couple days, once the rags are good and dry, toss them into the bucket.
- After a week has passed, throw them out with the trash.
Here’s why I use this process. The metal bucket won’t burn down, so worse case scenario, the rag burns up and that’s it (all I have to do is clear the smoke out of my shop).
The combustion can only happen while they’re drying. That’s why I leave the bucket in the middle of the floor while the wet finishing rags are draped over the side.
And finally, just in case there’s still any heat being released after a couple days have passed, I put the rags into the metal bucket and leave them there for another week (or longer) before taking them out and throwing them in the trash. This just ensures that in the unlikely event they combust, they are still in a metal bucket that won’t catch on fire.
So we covered the 9 best food safe wood finishes, the difference in surface sealers and penetraing oils, the difference in drying oils and non drying oils, how to apply, how to safely discard, and why regular wood finishes may be considered safe for food grade projects.
Hopefully that helps you decide which finish is best for your project.
For additional related topics, check out these other articles I’ve done on common finishes that I personally use and love:
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