Woodworking Blog

Two Food-Safe Wood Finishes Everyone Should Know

There are many great reasons why every woodworker should learn how to use food-safe finishes. Many finishes contain toxic drying agents. Some people are sensitive to chemicals. Sometimes you just want to apply a finish, and have a little peace of mind.

Never fear. There are many excellent non-toxic wood finishes. My go-to finishes are Tung Oil and Shellac. Both are inexpensive, easy to find, and easy to apply. Better yet, both are completely food safe.

Shellac and Tung Oil

Tung Oil

Tung oil is produced by pressing the nut of the tung tree. It may also be labeled China wood oil. Tung oil is 100-percent natural, easy to apply and can be found online and at many woodworking supply retailers. Make sure that you only purchase 100-percent pure tung oil. Some brands of tung oil include toxic drying agents.

Tung oil leaves a natural finish that really lets the wood be the star. It penetrates deep into the wood and offers protection from moisture. One thing I really like about tung oil is that you can still feel the wood grain 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.

Shellac

Shellac is made from a resin produced by the lac bug in the forests of India and Thailand. 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 dewaxed shellac when buying the liquid form. I prefer Zinser’s Seal Coat.

Unlike tung oil, shellac creates 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 very fine degree of control over 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.

For more information about Shellac see Wilbur Pan’s excellent article on finishing cherry with shellac and wax.

Shellac and Tung OilThe 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. 

The great thing about both of these finishes is that they can be applied to wooden utensils and other items that will be used near food. The next time you’re at the store, pick one up and give it a try. You won’t regret it.

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10 Comments

Benno

Hi there.
Some liquid shellacs are made with methanol or denatured alcohol: these wouldn’t be a good choice for food use.

Reply
Brian

The methanol evaporates out and should leave the resultant finish non toxic

Reply
beh

Wooden cooking spatula coated with shellac, is it safe to use for food frying at high temperature? Heat resistance?

Reply
Brian Pettengill

beh high alcohol content liquid and high temperatures will dissolve the finish in the case of strong alcohol and will turn the shellac finish white in the case of high temperature. Shellac is good for beer mugs, where cold drinks are the only thing going in them. I would suggest multiple coats of pure tung oil for utensils, though I’m not sure how well tung oil holds up to high temps.

Reply
Elizabeth

Beer mugs… Shellac is dissolved by alcohol. This sounds sketch.

Reply
Maria J Chavez

Will shellac provide a semi-permanent finish or is frequent re-application needed?

Reply
Amy

Can tung oil be applied over a stain on a wood countertop?
If yes, will this make the countertop “food safe?”

Reply
Libby

Interested in the answer to this !!

Reply
Ralph Douglas

Tung oil, as you state, is made from nuts and it isn’t advisable to use it as some people have an allergic reaction.

Reply
Derek Dewitt

My wife and I are remodeling our home right now and have been wondering what wood finishes to use. I like that Shellac adds a subtle amber hue to the wood. This sounds like it would match the rest of our furniture! Thanks for sharing.

Reply

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