Learning how to use food-safe finishes is a must for woodworkers, whether you're creating a dining table, a cutting board, or even just a decorative object. That's because many finishes contain toxic drying agents, not to mention that many people are sensitive to chemicals.
Thankfully, we've got lots of non-toxic options. My go-to finishes are Tung Oil and Shellac. Both are inexpensive, easy to find, easy to apply and completely food safe. Both of these finishes can be applied to wooden utensils and other items that will be used near or with food.
Tung oil is produced by pressing the nut of the tung tree. (You may also see it labeled "China wood oil.") Why it's great: It's 100 percent natural, easy to apply, and can be found online and at many woodworking supply retailers. It also leaves a natural finish that really lets the wood be the star. It penetrates deep into the wood and offers protection from moisture.
Another thing I really like about tung oil is that you can still feel the wood grain, even after many coats. It noticeably darkens the wood while adding a subtle amber hue. My preferred method of application is with a soft cotton rag. Apply a thin coat and wait a few hours before applying another. Repeat as desired.
TIP: Make sure that you only purchase 100 percent pure tung oil, with no additives. (Some brands of tung oil include toxic drying agents.)
Shellac is made from a resin produced by the lac bug in the forests of India and Thailand. Yes, we said BUG. But don't let that scare you. It's completely harmless.
Shellac comes in two common forms: as flakes and liquid. The liquid variants are ready to go, but you must dissolve the flakes in ethanol. Look for de-waxed shellac when buying the liquid form. My fave: Zinser's Seal Coat.
Unlike tung oil, shellac does leave a film finish. Build up the finish with additional coats to create a more glossy appearance. Shellac also adds a subtle amber hue to the wood. One of the great things about shellac is that it is produced in many different hues: from clear to garnet. This gives you a fine degree of control over the look of the finished product.
I like to apply shellac with a fine horse-hair brush. Shellac can also be applied with a soft cotton rag. After the shellac has dried, I like to apply a little paste wax and buff it off with a cotton rag.
The picture above shows shellac and tung oil applied to a piece of beech. The left side is finished with shellac and the right with tung oil. (The light band down the middle is unfinished beech wood.)