Food-safe wood stain or finish is an absolute necessity for a wide variety of woodworking projects. There are a lot of finishing products that have all the properties to safely contact food products, but also ones that contain harmful components.
Fortunately, nature provides woodworkers with both materials and finishing options. Over the years of mastering woodworking, people found suitable components for finishing their dishes everywhere from the oily depths of the planet to habitats of small insects.
Tip. Furthermore, you can read more about How many coats of polyurethane on table.
Let’s take a closer look at some stains and finishes that are safe to ingest. Also, in the following text, I will cover types of projects that may require food-safe stain or finish, as well as the main properties of respective products.
- 1 Are all wood stains and finishes food-safe?
- 2 Types of projects that may require food-grade finishing
- 3 Food-safe stain and finish for wood
- 4 Food-safe wood stains
- 5 Food-safe solvents
- 6 FAQ bit
- 7 Wrapping it up
Are all wood stains and finishes food-safe?
Definitely, not all wood stains and finishes are food-safe. There is a range of products, mainly made out of natural components. Some products become safe after complete curing, and then some products are completely unsuitable for use on any item that will contact food.
And even a food-safe wood stain or finish made with natural components (oils or wax) can trigger allergic reactions. So careful consideration for sealer and wood stain for your project is needed to make it really safe.
There is an opinion that polyurethane or other synthetic resin-based finishes are food-safe after complete curing.
But most wood stains and finishes were made for completely different purposes and can pose harm even after curing. Under influence of temperature, for instance, or by chipping off and getting into the food.
Tip. Also, see my tips on How long does stain take to dry and why.
Types of projects that may require food-grade finishing
Categories of projects that may need food-safe wood stain and finish span beyond kitchen utensils. On top of it, there are other properties that a food-safe wood finish must provide. The most common types of projects that require food-safe stains and finishes include, but are definitely not limited to:
- kitchen utensils (spatula, fork, spoon, cutting board);
- dishes and salad bowls;
- dining tables tabletops and other wood furniture;
- other wood surfaces that may come in contact with food.
The most suitable type of food-safe wood finish will also depend on the amount of wear that the item will face. For instance, it is better to use finishes that don’t form film for cutting boards.
The work surface of a cutting board gets hit with a knife a lot. The firm film on its surface will chip off and end up in the product.
Pro-tip: Some species of wood are perfectly suitable for making kitchen utensils that need no coating. Jatoba wood is one of them.
A tip of a spatula often comes in contact with some hot food or the surface of a pan. On top of it, all the wood surface of utensils is often exposed to water and dish soap.
All of these factors will deteriorate the finish over time. And this is the main reason wooden dishes and other utensils need proper maintenance to last longer.
Tip. See my tips on How to dry wood fast for woodworking.
Food-safe stain and finish for wood
After figuring out what properties the finish of your piece should use, deciding on the right product becomes much easier. Estimation of the needed amount of the product won’t hurt too.
The needed amount of a food-safe wood stain or finish depends mostly on the amount of surface to finish. Most projects won’t require more than a tablespoon of oil. Either way, one container of liquid finish or one block of solid one will last for numerous projects.
Pro-tip: Follow safety recommendations for every product. Some oils are prone to self-combustion when left unattended on a rag, so be sure to dispose of them properly in water tanks or by burning them.
All existing products can be separated into several groups:
- liquid oils derived from various plants;
- solid waxes of various origins;
- combined natural products;
- finishes based on synthetic resin.
Each of those types of products has a distinctive feature and the most suitable application. But they are suitable for application on top of raw wood. All the natural food-safe finishes will require touch-ups from time to time as the finish wears off.
There is no way to estimate the time between reapplying because it depends on the amount of use. Just keep an eye on your utensils and add touch up the finish when it starts to wear off.
Also, some natural finishes can get spoiled over time. Especially if often exposed to water or chemicals. The probability is especially high for natural raw oils like linseed oil or vegetable oil.
Every finishing product is a food-safe wood stain of a sort, as they tend to alter the color of the wood surface. Each product has its features in terms of color.
Drying and non-drying oils
Finishing oils in liquid form can come in a drying or non-drying form. And the feature is really in the names. Drying oil forms a sort of film, while non-drying ones remain liquid through the entirety of exploitation.
Pro-tip: Use natural solvents to thin down drying oils. Dilution will improve penetration and since the oil sits deeper within the grain and polymerases there, the resulting layer turns out stringer.
Linseed oil is one of the oldest wood finishes out there. It dates back to the times of Ancient Egypt. Linseed oil is drying one. Derived from flax seeds and is absolutely natural.
Linseed forms a film after drying. So, it won’t be a really suitable food-safe wood finish for a cutting board or butcher blocks. But dried lied linseed oil can repel food particles and water. A spatula or a spoon will look good and work well with such a treatment.
Linseed oil comes in raw and boiled forms. Raw linseed oil dries longer than boiled but is completely food-safe. Boiled variant if the product contains chemicals that promote the application and drying process, but can be harmful when ingested. So, it is better to use a couple of layers of raw linseed oil for your project.
Pro-tip: Make sure the surface of the raw wood is completely dry before applying linseed oil. If applied on top of undried wood stain or if the layer is too thick, the oil won’t cure properly and will become a sticky or mushy mess instead of a decent seal.
Boiled linseed oil
Boiled linseed oil is not suitable for use in projects that will contact food or mouth. It’s called boiled, but in fact, it just contains several additives including heavy metals that promote drying.
There is also heat-treated linseed oil. This is the oil that was actually boiled and has a lower drying time. It is usually more expensive than raw linseed oil or its boiled counterpart.
Tung oil is one of the traditional food-safe finishes, too. It is derived from tung tree nuts and has been in use for centuries. Nowadays, it’s quite a popular option to finish items that are supposed to contact food.
Tung oil is the drying oil. The resulting film is a bit harder than the one of linseed oil. The finish holds great against water or juices, but won’t hold long against physical wear. So go with tung oil for spoons or spatulas, but look for another option for a cutting board.
Walnut oil is one of the most expensive options. In complete accordance with the name, it is derived from walnuts. This is a penetrating oil and is better applied in several layers. The traditional option for a lot of French woodworkers.
Aside from the price, the main downside of walnut oil is the possibility to trigger allergic reactions. To be fair, all the natural finishes and stains can result in allergic reactions.
Distilled coconut oil
Distilled or fractioned coconut oil is derived from coconuts. Unlike the usual oil of coconuts, it is liquid. The processing allows it to stay liquid for a longer time and not go rancid over time.
Fractioned oil is of a non-drying kind, so it is the best option for a cutting board or wooden butcher blocks. Liquid oil prevents the splitting of wood by promoting its flexibility. But it also means that some of the oil will get on the products. But the actual amount is neglectable, especially considering that this oil has no taste and is completely harmless.
Similar to the rest of the non-drying oils, fractioned coconut oil is prone to get washed off over time, but occasional touch-ups will help keep your cutting board sound.
White food-grade mineral oil is a byproduct of crude oil processing. It is considered completely food-safe for being inert. Mineral oil is being used for a lot of products aside from woodworking too, including butcher block oil.
It’s a non-drying oil and a go-to option for many professional woodworkers and hobbyists. Options for applications include rubbing the oil on or even soaking the whole item in the penetrating oil.
Though cheap and safe, some woodworkers prefer natural plant products over mineral oil. But that’s more of preference than actual need.
Waxes and other solid products
Natural and synthetic waxes also offer some great, safe options for finishing woodworking projects. Unlike oils, waxes tend to stay on the surface of the wood, so will require a touch-up a little more often.
Spoons, salad bowls, spatulas, and food preparation surfaces are some of the usual applications for wax finishes. On some occasions, wax is suitable for a cutting board, but will go off faster than a non-drying oil.
On the other hand, natural wax is one of the best finishes for a toy due to its smooth and silky resulting surface.
Beeswax is a very popular traditional natural food-safe finish. It is one of the products of beekeeping and had been in use for ages. Beeswax is a bit tricky to apply, but is completely natural and hence completely safe.
The resulting silky surface is really nice to touch and looks great. But lower penetration will require more maintenance. Mixing it with oil will make application easier and the finish last longer.
Pro-tip: Add a couple of drops of some natural essential oil to the wax to make it smell nice.
Palm wax (Carnauba)
A wax derived from the leaves of the Carnauba palm is quite unsurprisingly called carnauba wax or simply palm wax. It is one of the safest options among all food-safe wood finishes. Some candies even have a coating of it for preservation purposes and shine. The actual range of applications is much broader.
The resulting finish is similar to beeswax but a bit more durable. Of course, the result also depends on the type of wood that was used for the project.
Carnauba wax is a bit harder than beeswax, so the use per project is lesser. All in all, it is a pretty cheap option for finishing your projects.
Shellac is another natural food-safe finish. It is produced by tropical Lac bugs that consume the sap from the trees they inhabit and process it into a kind of natural polymer to build their habitats.
Similar to carnauba wax, shellac has a broad range of applications that ranges from finishing musical instruments and candies glazing. Technically, it is more of a polymer coating than wax, but still completely natural.
Natural shellac comes in flakes and requires dilution with alcohol for application. It hardens pretty fast, so it’s better to apply shellac in several thin layers. The resulting layer will be waterproof, but prone to cracking and sensitive to alcohol and several other chemicals.
Paraffin wax is one of the numerous products of crude oil processing. It has no taste or smell, is completely food-safe, and is a great water-repellant. The main disadvantage of paraffin wax as a sealer is its low melting point.
It is completely unsuitable for any utensils that will contact hot products. Also, it is quite weak physically as forming a non-drying film. The actual area of application of such food-safe wood finishes for a woodworking project is limited to fruit dishes or other salad bowls for products that are not hot.
Combining natural ingredients in one product to utilize all the strong features of each component is one of the approaches taken by many manufacturers. And such sealers can hold up for a pretty long time.
There are cutting boards that will go on for two years and on without any need for refinishing. Here are some examples of mixed products:
- Cutting board oil is usually based on mineral oil with the addition of other natural oils and beeswax.
- Pure natural oil mixes like butcher block oil.
- Wood wax is based on beeswax with the addition of a liquid oil and other ingredients.
- Drying oils incorporating shellac and other ingredients.
There are several products branded specifically to translate their purposes. For instance, oils for cutting boards or butcher blocks, etc.
Effectively, you can mix your food-safe solution. But it will require a bit more practice, understanding of the features of every ingredient, and the purpose of the item. And most likely it will be based on food-grade mineral oil.
Most products that contain synthetic resins (both oil-based and water-based) are considered food-safe after the complete curing of a coat. It may be true, but actually, it is not the best option for the following reasons:
- First of all, such products contain a lot of chemicals that promote drying times, along with solvents and other additives. Too many potentially harmful components.
- On top of it, complete curing of a polyurethane coat may require up to 30 days. More or less depending on the product.
- Though fairly waterproof and resistant to various chemicals, the polyurethane finish is brittle when it comes to direct impacts.
- Under influence of higher temperatures, polyurethane softens and may release harmful components directly into products in contact.
So, in general, polyurethane finish is great for a tabletop but is far from being a perfect option for a bowl or a spatula unless they are decorations and not actually usable kitchen utensils.
Food-safe wood stains
Food-safe wood stain can come in different forms. For the same reasons as clear coats, usual wood stains aren’t really suitable for any items that will directly contact food. That’s the main reason most of such items have natural look.
Another reason is that a food-safe finish won’t adhere properly to the surface of stained wood. Even if the top layer is sanded down, the portion of a wood stain that got into the grain will prevent proper adhering of a food-grade finish.
Fortunately, there is a wide range of completely natural products that have the potential to become a food-safe wood stain:
- strong coffee or black tea;
- vegetables, fruits, and berries juices (beets, pomegranate, blueberry);
- red wine.
Some commercial food-grade wood dyes are available on the market too. But the usual food dye will do too for coloring wood. All of those options are pretty viable in terms of staining wood. Achieving the desired tint may require a couple of layers.
The surface dyed with a natural food-safe wood stain will require sealing. Any of the options from above will do. Consider the properties of the finish you want to achieve and just pick one that suits your project the best.
Thinning of natural finishes would require natural solvents. Though most of them already come in suitable forms for application, some dilution will promote penetration, which is beneficial for both drying and non-drying oils.
A DIY food-safe wood stain compound may require a food-safe solvent too. Most of produced food-safe solvents are used in the food industry. But there are some consumer options too.
Using natural spirits, turpentine or any other chemical solvent for food-safe wood finishes destroys the whole purpose of having one. Chemical solvents are extremely dangerous for ingestion.
Alcohol is one of the safe options for use as a dilutant for natural oils. You can purchase it as is, some companies offer pure ethanol for hobbyists. Also, you can use some strong liquor for these purposes. Vodka is the best candidate, as it usually contains only ethanol and water.
Other sources such as rubbing alcohol and other denatured alcohol products are not suited to dilute food-safe finishes.
d-Limonene is a unique chemical, as it is the only actual natural solvent. It is derived directly from orange peels without any additional processing. In addition, products based on d-Limonene have a nice citrus smell.
It is completely safe for consumption. d-Limonene is often added to chewing gum, candies, and other treats to add orange flavor. Traditionally used as a thinner for raw tung oil.
Tip. In this article, I’ll help you with solving the problem of How to lighten stained wood.
Now, after figuring out the majority of food-grade finishes, let’s take a look at some of the relevant questions.
Is there a wood stain that is food-safe?
There are commercial food-safe wood stain products. Products that are traditionally labeled as wood stains are unsuitable for food-grade finishes, as they contain solvents and other potentially harmful chemicals.
Natural dyes and food dyes will work on wood too, and they are completely safe. Although such products will require multiple layers of careful application to achieve an even coat.
What kind of wood finish is food-safe?
There are several major groups of food-safe finishing products: natural liquid oils, waxes, and some products of crude oil processing (white mineral oil, paraffin wax).
Natural finishes made out of raw ingredients (raw oils, beeswax) can trigger allergic reactions in some people, so they are not completely safe in that regard.
Every finish is considered safe after the coat is completely cured. But complete curing of a polyurethane finish takes around 30 days depending on ambient conditions. Also, polymer clear coats aren’t well suited for use on kitchen utensils.
What is the safest wood stain?
All the food-grade finishes are safe with exception of allergic reactions. For instance, walnut oil and tung oil are known to cause allergic reactions to nuts. In that regard, raw linseed oil or carnauba wax is safer, as there are fewer people with such allergies.
Wrapping it up
Now you know that there are plenty of options for food-safe wood stain and finish. Most of them are 100% natural products with no processing. But natural food-safe stain and finish have their limitations and features of the application.
All it takes to pick the right food-safe wood finish for your project is just to know what properties your item should have. Drying oils are for less abused wood surfaces, non-drying oils are for cutting boards, and so on.
My name is Alex Mashinsky
I am an enthusiastic woodworking hobbyist who created topwoodworkingtools.com to provide helpful information and advice to fellow woodworkers.
The goal of the website is to help readers make informed decisions about woodworking tools and materials, with the ultimate aim of ensuring that they achieve the best possible results from their projects.
My main focus is on offering accurate, honest, and well-reasoned opinions and advice to help readers choose the most suitable tools and materials for their particular needs.