When selecting a protective finish that’s both suitable for food and wood, the hard part is finding a product that’s both safe and offers adequate surface protection against moisture and minor abrasion.
However, you’re in luck! We’ve done our research to give you nine of the best wood finishes currently on the market today.
From the more traditional plant-based oils to those crafted from petroleum, each offers you an exceptional choice depending on your needs.
In this article we’ll take a look at:
- The best tried, true and tested finishes you can get today
- How to apply an oil finish
- How you should dispose of your used oil rags
- The difference between non-drying and drying oils
- Why a sealant is different than an oil
- Certain considerations you need to be aware of when selecting your next finish.
Whether you’re looking to reinvigorate some old wooden pieces or want to craft your own, read on!
Here are the 9 Best Food Safe Wood Finishes
From Shellac and Carnuba wax to Mineral oil and coconut, we’ll explore 9 of the best food safe wood finishes in terms of their nature and how they look when applied!
Shellac, renowned for its unmatched versatility and beautiful finish, is a natural resin-based coating that has been utilized as a wood protectant for centuries.
Derived from the secretions of the female lac beetle, it comes in a range of colors that range from clear to a rich amber tone.
Once applied, it intensifies the natural wood grain without the plastic-like appearance found in polyurethane or man-made lacquers.
Non-toxic and cost-effective, shellac can be used on most household kitchenware including cutting boards, benchtops, and wooden utensils.
2. Pure Tung Oil
Pure Tung Oil, extracted from the seeds of the tung tree, is classified as a “drying oil” due to its ability to polymerize and harden when subjected to oxygen exposure.
In contrast to other finishes that create a film on the wood surface, tung oil penetrates the wood fibers from within – forming a durable finish that’s water-resistant, non-toxic, and VOC-free!
Once applied, it produces a transparent finish that has a deep, almost glossy, “wet-like” appearance. With its non-toxic and durable nature, it’s commonly used in finishing wooden kitchenware and floors.
3. Food Grade Beeswax
Beeswax is a natural and food-safe wood finish that is derived from the wax produced by honeybees.
It’s considered to be a healthier option than other synthetic finishes and is commonly used to coat food-contact items like cutting boards and bowls due to its naturally non-toxic nature.
As a finish, it creates a thin transparent coating that not only repels water but also offers a number of microbial benefits.
4. Carnauba Wax
Carnauba wax, derived from the leaves of the carnauba palm tree, is a natural waterproofing agent that is primarily used as a floor protectant.
When used as a natural finish, it creates a smooth transparent layer – allowing the beauty of the underlying material to shine through.
The wax has a range of versatile uses and is a favorite amongst those looking to restore furniture, but is just as great in the kitchen due to its non-toxic and food-friendly nature.
5. Food Grade Mineral Oil
Food-grade mineral oil, a petroleum derivative, is a clear, scentless, and flavorless oil that is frequently utilized to treat wooden cutting boards and kitchen utensils.
When used as a finish, it provides a coating that highlights the wood’s natural beauty without the glossiness of other finishes.
Unlike some of the other finishes on this list, mineral oil makes an ideal option for butcher blocks and is easy to apply.
6. Walnut Oil
Not just a family favorite for baking, Walnut oil is another popular natural oil derived from the nuts of walnut trees.
It is considered a drying oil, meaning it hardens over time when exposed to air.
When used as a finish, it creates a protective and moisture-resistant layer that enhances the natural grain of most wood surfaces with a clear, satin finish.
Moisture-resistant and durable, it’s a top pick for finishing chopping boards. It’s also non-toxic and free from any solvents – making it perfect for utensils and dinnerware too!
Linseed oil is another traditional drying oil derived from the seeds of the flax plant.
Like walnut oil, it has been used for centuries for its polymerizing effect – causing it to harden over time when exposed to air.
Applied as a finish, the oil adds a durable (yet subtle) raw sheen that brings out the wood’s natural texture and beauty without being too glossy.
The hardwearing properties of this oil make it a great choice in finishing furniture and heavy-use items like counters, but it’s an equally attractive option for smaller items as well.
8. Paraffin Wax
Similar to food-grade oil mentioned above, paraffin wax is another derivative of petroleum.
This wax, known for its natural waterproofing and affordability, is typically blended with other waxes to create a stronger and longer-lasting coating.
When applied as a finish, paraffin creates a clear, glossy coat with a subtle waxy texture to it.
Although it is not as commonly used as other finishes such as beeswax, paraffin is a fantastic water repellent when either used by itself or in addition to another finish.
9. Coconut Oil
Perfect for keeping your wood furniture supple, coconut oil is a versatile, eco-friendly wood conditioner derived from mature coconuts.
When used as a finish, the oil not only provides a soft gloss appearance but also enhances the natural grain of any wood surface – giving it a rich, warm, and slightly darkened look.
The oil is also one of the most cost-effective, and is both a highly potent wood conditioner and water repellent at the same time.
How Do You Choose A Food Safe Wood Finish?
The task of selecting your next wood finishing can be extremely daunting, thanks to the overwhelming number of finishes on the market today.
Firstly, you should always consider what intended use of the wood your finishing has. While all the oils mentioned in this article are food safe, each has its own limitations.
Naturally-based oils, such as walnut and flax, tend to be better for everyday use items such as chopping blocks and wooden bowls due to their hardening properties.
On the other hand, petroleum derivatives are prone to leakage and tend to require more re-application upkeep.
Therefore, they may be best suited for furniture and countertops despite being safe to ingest in small amounts.
You should also ensure:
- The product is FDA-approved as a finish
- You’re familiar with the ongoing maintenance requirements
- To check whether surface preparation is needed
- If the finish requires any additional sealants for waterproofness and durability.
Penetrating Oil vs Surface Sealer
When evaluating whether to choose between penetrating oil and surface sealer, you’ll need to consider the type of material you are finishing, the level of protection required, and the desired appearance you’re after.
Generally speaking, penetrating oils seep through a material’s pores to nourish it from within.
These products are designed to preserve the natural appearance and texture of wood, while also providing some protection against moisture and wear.
A surface sealer, on the other hand, is designed to specifically form a protective layer on top of wood surfaces.
This creates a barrier between the wood and its environment, making it more durable than its oil counterpart.
The lifespan of a sealant is also typically longer than oil and offers more design potential. It also comes in a range of finishes ranging from matte and glossy, depending on the application.
Common Surface Sealers
|Cloth, but can be applied with a brush.
|Highlights the natural colors in raw wood whilst adding deep and richness.
|Pure Tung Oil
Low to medium gloss
Cloth, but can be applied with a brush.
Soft, satin-like finish with a slight highlighting luster. Complements natural wood grain and texture without adding too much gloss.
|Color ranges from a warm amber-hued to a clear, transparent look, depending on how many coats are applied.
Penetrating Oil Finishes: Drying vs Non-Drying
The main difference between drying and non-drying oils is all down to polymerization.
As drying oils are exposed to air, they thicken and solidify – forming a sturdy coating that offers excellent surface protection but limited flexibility.
On the other hand, non-drying oils won’t harden when exposed to air (while still offering some level of protection) and stay very close to their liquid form even after application.
Common Non-Drying Oils
|Brush or cloth
|Creates a warm yellow glow which enhances the wood grain and appearance. Darkens with age.
|Food Grade Mineral Oil
Clear finish which enhances natural wood appearance without adding too much luster.
|Brings out the natural shine of wood with minimal darkening. Can be used as a stain carrier for additional color.
How To Apply An Oil Finish
So, you’ve selected your chosen finish and now are ready to apply! What now? Well, first you need to:
Protect Your Hands
Prior to application, it’s always best to ensure you have the correct gear on hand.
Although it isn’t deemed a must, it’s always advisable when handling any form of wood finish to protect your hands using a pair of nitrile clothes. Once you’ve safeguarded your hands appropriately, you’re ready to apply.
Grab Your Tools
To apply the oil, grab your cloth, ensuring that it is lint-free and adequately sized, and pour your finish.
You can either pour it directly onto the wood or place it straight onto your cloth.
Apply Your First Layer
After you have poured your oil, you now need to distribute it evenly across the wood.
Work in the direction of the wood grain in a circular motion, as this will ensure your oil is better absorbed – especially when it comes to more porous wood surfaces.
Once you’ve finished your first layer, wait until the oil has been absorbed before performing the same routine.
If your wood doesn’t need another layer, skip this step and move on to the next. You’ll know you’ve applied enough when your wood stops absorbing the oil.
Remove the Excess
After waiting ten to fifteen minutes, remove excess oil with a clean, preferably lint-free cloth.
There should be no oil residue left over unless you’ve opted for a linseed oil which requires a very thin film of oil to cure.
Allow It To Dry
Depending on the manufacturer’s specifications, it can take anywhere from a few hours to days for your oil to dry.
Once it is dry, you can opt to either sand it back for a smooth second application or go straight into applying an additional coat after wiping the dust away with a lint-free rag.
How To Properly Discard Oil Finish Rags
It’s important to dispose of oil-soaked rags properly to avoid the risk of spontaneous combustion, which can occur when certain wood finish oils generate heat during the drying process.
To safely dispose of your oil-soaked rags, you must:
Submerge In Water
When you’ve finished with your rags, it’s best to soak them in a bucket of water before allowing it to dry.
This is particularly important for oils with polymerizing properties. After you’ve submerged the rag thoroughly, you can then move on to the next step.
Get Them Dry
In order to prevent the possible risk of combustion, you’ll want to place any oily rags on a flat, non-flammable surface away from direct sunlight in an area with good air circulation.
Then, allow them to dry for at least two days. Once the drying process is complete, the rags should no longer have a strong oily odor and should feel dry to the touch.
Once your rag is completely dry, it’s safe to throw away. Keep in mind that there may be additional disposal requirements depending on your location.
Contact your local waste management for clarification on hazardous waste disposal or refer to your area’s regulations and guidelines.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
Can you stain wood and make it food safe?
The short answer is no. Unless specified, most wood stains aren’t tested or approved for food safety and therefore cannot be considered food safe.
Is there a food-safe stain for butcher block countertops?
Yes. Watco® Butcher Block Oil + Stain is a specially designed, safe, and effective solution for your wooden butcher block. However, you can also use a food-grade mineral oil as well.
Is beeswax safe for food?
Yes, beeswax is generally considered safe for food-related applications. In fact, due to its non-toxic and antimicrobial properties, it’s often the preferred choice.
Can I use food-based oils for a wood finish?
Yes, some food-based oils are more than suitable as wood finishes.
Using food-based oils like linseed oil is a safe and effective way to protect and enhance wooden surfaces.
What makes a finish truly food-safe?
When a finish meets the FDA’s specific criteria, it is considered truly food-safe and does not pose any health risks if it comes in contact with food.