As a wood turner, I'm often asked what type of wood finish is safe for food contact on wooden bowls or utensils. The trick is we don't want to use anything toxic that would make its way into the food we eat or drink. Did you know that certain mortar and pestle sets are made of specific woods as Chefs believe the aroma of the wood gets translated into the spice they are grinding? So, it is a serious topic in many ways -- affecting food flavors and our health.
The goal is to preserve the wood and to give it a finish that will help with the maintenance of the wood. And ultimately, as a wood turner myself, I want whatever finish I apply to enhance the wood by adding dimension and depth to the grain. One commonly recommended finish, mineral oil, is right on and a very good option, but there are others. Many well-known wood turners only use mineral oil because they KNOW it is safe. You may also use a natural beeswax; it is food-safe, and it enhances and seals the wood. One thing to keep in mind with both mineral oil and natural beeswax finishes: They will soak into the wood and/or wear off over time - thus, requiring regular maintenance. Reapply every few months to keep the piece in good shape and to protect it from not drying out or looking dull.
Olive wood Bowl - turned almost dry - sealed with Mineral Oil - leaves a matte finish to the wood - will need re-application as the oil penetrates.
There are now also non-toxic sealers specifically designed to be applied on utilitarian objects that will interact with food or beverages. (General Finishes offers one it calls "Salad Bowl Finish.") This type is oil-base and creates a hard coating -- like a varnish -- and provides an additional shine that some people may be looking for. The theory behind sealers such as this is that the sealer is toxic only until it cures, as it is releasing the gases of the binders and chemicals used to formulate the sealer. Technically, once the sealer has dried and is no longer seeping fumes, it is food safe; but, to be double sure, we use things we KNOW are non-toxic. In my experience with these sealers, I prefer to apply a few coats, allowing each coat to dry completely, lightly sanding with a high-grit sandpaper between coats. This produces a very nice finish. It's important to note that this sealer is NOT meant for a butcher block with high chopping usage.
Flamboyan Wood - from Puerto Rico. Made for my brother at his request - it is a combination muddler and orange squeezer for the oranges in our backyard! Sealed with General Finishes - Salad Bowl Finish - seals and gives a bit of a shine.
Generally, a bowl made on a lathe can last over 100 years if properly maintained. In other words, keep the wood sealed, wash the piece with simple soap and water (never allowing the bowl to soak in water at the sink). Use it, clean it and dry it immediately. In a pinch, any cooking oil will serve to give your utilitarian wood pieces a bit of life, but be sure the oil is fresh. I have been known to rub mine with some Olive Oil while in the kitchen, and that keeps 'em going until I want to do further maintenance. However, ALWAYS be sure that if you are using a cooking oil (olive oil or any other vegetable oil) that it is fresh! Oil does go rancid, and you don't want to use bad oil on your bowls.
Olive wood Bowl - turned a bit green - Cracks accented with Pyrography Burning Pen - sealed with Mineral Oil.
Carmen De La Paz wears many hats, including designer, carpenter, decorative painter, woodturner and welder, to name a few. She has worked as a designer and carpenter on several shows for HGTV and is working on several new shows airing in 17 countries for FOX International. Through her television projects and her newly-launched online magazine, You Can Do It! Magazine, Carmen inspires DIYers worldwide with her “Green” and cost- effective ways to be creative in their homes.
See images of Carmen’s designs, woodturning and creative projects at: