Food-Safe Wood Finish for Butcher Blocks, Boards, Bowls, and More

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In today’s kitchen, blocks and boards are essential tools of the trade. Yet, given the prevalence of harmful toxins and chemicals in many products, it’s no wonder many of us are becoming more cautious about what ends up in our meals.

If you’re like me who thought of crafting your own wooden utensils and bowls, know that there’s a variety of food-safe wood finishes to choose from. Using these, you can set aside any worries about unwanted toxins!

9 Wood Sealers and Oils that are Food-Safe

There is a wide array of choices in the market today that are unblended, naturally sourced, with no secret ingredients, and non-toxic. 

#1: Tung Oil

Pure tung oil is one of the most common food-safe finishes. It is a non-toxic and eco-friendly finish from a China wood tree nut.

Another option you can try is Danish oil, a combination of pure tung oil and varnish. Danish oils provide good protection from water and moisture.

tung oil

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#2: Linseed Oil

Linseed oil is produced from pressed flax seeds. It has been listed as a food additive by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). It is a slow-drying oil that gets washed off with water, so frequent re-application is needed.  

Compared to raw linseed oil from flax seeds, boiled linseed oil is processed using oxidation, making it unsuitable as a finish for wood.

Pure linseed oil

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#3: Shellac

Shellac is a non-toxic and all-natural surface sealer produced from the Asian Lac bug. It has two types: a liquid form and a flake form (also known as dewaxed shellac) — often sold in hardware shops and art supply stores. 

Super Blond Shellac is the most water-resistant variety used for wood finishes

shellac on wood

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#4: Food-Grade Solid Beeswax

Food-grade beeswax is an eco-friendly finish. Blending it with mineral oil not only gives a pleasant aroma but also results in a water-repellent finish by effectively sealing the wood’s pores.

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#5: Walnut Oil

Pressed walnut seeds produce walnut oil that can be used as a finish for wood kitchen tables and other wooden projects. Walnut oil is also often sold as a salad oil in various health food stores and markets. 

walnut oil

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#6: Mineral Oil

Food-grade mineral oil is versatile. You can find it as a laxative in drugstores and as a wood finish in hardware stores. However, a mineral oil finish isn’t waterproof and won’t shield wooden bowls from scratches.

If you mix lemon essential oil with mineral oil, you can achieve a finish with a delightful aroma. It’s genuinely pleasant to work with on wooden surfaces.

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#7: Coconut Oil

Food-safe finishes that use coconut oil are all-natural, eco-friendly, and non toxic.

coconut oil

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#8: Paraffin Wax

Paraffin wax comes from extracting distilled petroleum; hence not all paraffin wax is considered safe for consumption.

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#9: Carnauba Wax

Carnauba wax is also called Brazilian wax or palm wax since it is a byproduct of a Brazilian palm tree. It can also be blended with other finishes for a more waterproof coat.

carnauba wax

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Which Wood Finish Should I Opt for?

When choosing the right type of food-safe finish, one should consider the level of toxicity, curing time, and application method. 

The curing time for each type of wood finish is different and should also be kept in mind when choosing the right type of finish.

Choosing Between Penetrating Oils and Surface Sealers

The main difference between penetrating oils and surface sealer film finishes are their soaking ability into the wood grains. 

linseed oil application

Surface Sealers Used Today

These food-safe finishes remain on the surface of the wood and can be built up for a more protective effect but require a more complicated application process.  

Some of the examples are: 

Penetrating Oil (Drying and Non-Drying)

Penetrating oils soak the wood grains. Although this is easier to apply and provides a more natural finish, it only offers a low level of protection. 

Drying Oils Used Today

These oils turn into solid when the wood curing treatment is completed. This curing is called polymerization and begins when the drying oil is exposed to oxygen. Some of the examples of drying penetrating oils are:

vinegar and oil to remove stain on wood

Non-Drying Oils Used Today

These oils stay wet indefinitely and are transferred when the wood surface is used. Some of the examples of drying penetrating oils are:

Heat Capacity

When choosing a food-safe finish, it’s vital to consider how well it can handle temperature extremes. Penetrating oils, such as tung and mineral oil, generally hold up better under high temperatures compared to wax-based wood finishes.

Curing

Curing time is needed before a finished product is ready to be used. Curing assures that the wood will dry from its surface to the deepest penetration spots. 

Oil wood finish from natural ingredients such as tung, teak, or linseed oil, as well as beeswax and shellac do not have a curing time and can be used immediately.

oiling a chopping board

Oil Shelf Life

Unlike mineral oil, the oils produced from the extracted vegetable fats are unsafe and tend to go rancid. Hence they are not used as a finish for wooden surfaces. 

Vegetable oils tend to linger on wood surfaces, which can result in an off-taste when using the utensils for food. So, a little tip: always check the expiration date when buying oil finishes.

Toxicity Levels

Good ventilation in the workplace and proper breathing protection equipment like a respirator can address the toxicity concerns during the application and curing process.

Tung oil, shellac, and water-based food-safe wood finishes are the least toxic that you can use as the best finish for dining tables, cutting boards, and other wood items involving food and toys. On the other hand, lacquers are the most toxic finish and should not be used.

Aside from finishes, there are various woods that produce toxins and are not safe enough to to use for dining. There are also particular types of wood you should avoid when making cutting boards and other kitchen-related items. 

So before finishing these surfaces, make sure if the wood type is safe enough to use in your kitchen.

What Do “Food-Safe” Finishes Mean?

Modern wood finishes can only be considered food-safe if the application and drying processes are done properly and completely.  

Food-Safe Finishes

The  Food and Drug Administration (FDA) is the regulatory organization that checks and maintains food safety. It considers the commercially available wood finishes as food safe only when they are approved for contact with food. 

The FDA approval of food-safe wood finishes means that the molecules from the finish are safe for consumption. The molecules that leach into food when these utensils are used are so tiny that the body can flush them. 

The Stone Coat Art Coat Resin is an example of a food-safe epoxy resin. This resin is used to coat a cutting board for light-duty cutting purposes.

The Best Wood Finish Recipe + How to Make Your Own

Creating your own wood finish at home is quite straightforward. With just a few basic ingredients and 20 minutes to spare, you’re all set.

Here’s what you’ll need:

wood finish

First, gather the required amounts of beeswax [1], coconut, and walnut oil. Then, simmer on medium heat in a glass saucepan until the beeswax is fully melted. (Note: Before using beeswax, make sure to know its disadvantages first.)

After removing the melted oils from the double boiler, mix the vitamin E and orange essential oil and place them in a jar with an airtight lid. 

How to Coat Wood Surfaces With an Oil Finish

When working with penetrating oils, be it drying or non-drying types, I recommend using lint-free rags and nitrile gloves. You can either pour the oil onto the rag or apply it directly to the wood surface, making sure to move in the same direction as the wood grain. It’s a method that’s served me well over the years.

After which, the excess oil left after 10 minutes of soaking should be wiped using a clean rag. Sanding with 400 or 600-grit wet/dry sandpaper can produce a smoother wood finish. Additional coats should be applied when the previous coat is dry to the touch.

Wooden Spoon

How to Safely Dispose of Rags Used for Oil Finishes

The rags used when applying drying penetrating oil can have heat build-up, enough to reach the point of spontaneous combustion, causing the rag to catch fire. There are a few steps to dispose of them to prevent combustion or fire:

First, the used rag should be draped on the edge of a 5-gallon metal bucket in the middle of the floor with good airflow. Then, when the rag is completely dry after a couple of days, place it inside the metal bucket and wait for another week before putting it in the trash can. 

Finally, ensure that the used rag is disposed of properly in the bin or container. 

Wood Finishes That Should Be Used With Caution

Vegetable Oils

Some vegetable oil, like olive oil, have a shelf-life and can become stale or rancid over time. Applying vegetable oils on wooden kitchen utensils like cutting boards can cause a build-up, cloudy appearance and may eventually discolor it. 

This oil coating on wood surfaces is also difficult to remove and may result in an off-wood taste when these utensils are used. 

wooden Chopping Board

Lacquer

Lacquers require a long curing time and can only be considered a food-safe finish when the coating is fully matured and cured. 

Because lacquers only sit on top of wood surfaces and do not penetrate wood grains, it tends to shed lacquer coat chips when too much pressure is applied to them. This disadvantage makes it unsafe to be used as a coating on cutting boards and serving trays.  

Polyurethane

Polyurethane provides a transparent hard coat on wood, making it water and abrasion-resistant. However, because of its long curing time (approximately 30 days), people used metallic driers on it to reduce the drying time. 

Metal driers are considered a pollutant and pose a great health risk, especially when applied to wooden kitchen utensils and cookware. 

So, does this mean polyurethane can be toxic? Learn more here!

polyurethane, paint brush and paint roller

FAQ

What is the food-safe stain I can use for butcher block countertops?

Butcher Block Oil + Stain are food-safe stains used for wood countertops. These specifically formulated products are safe for staining cutting boards and wooden butcher blocks.

What oils or sealers can I use to replenish my wooden kitchen tools?

Tung, mineral, or walnut oil can replenish wooden kitchen tools. These oils are effective in refreshing wood projects that can be sold, like wooden bowls, cutting boards, or salad bowls that get roughly treated with knives and other utensils.

Conclusion

When choosing a food-safe wood finish, one should consider various factors like curing time, heat capacity, and toxin levels. Some wood finishes that should be used carefully are lacquer, polyurethane, and vegetable oils. 

You can also consider making homemade food-safe finishes. Making this can be both cost-effective and straightforward. You’d need just a handful of ingredients, like beeswax, and a few tools, including a double boiler and a glass container. It’s a hands-on approach I’ve found to be quite rewarding.

robert headshot

Robert Johnson is a passionate furniture maker & carpenter, sought after for his knowledge on the craft.
You’ve probably seen his down-to-earth wisdom in USA Today, Bobvila, Family Handyman, and The Spruce, where he has shared commentary and guidance on various woodworking topics.

Robert is the brain behind Sawinery, where he aims to share tips, tricks, and a passion for all things carpentry.

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