3. Bare Wood

    We are always looking for a finishing product that will give our turned goblets, drinking vessels, plates, and bowls the same durable, waterproof, washable and food-safe qualities as glass, china, or plastic. But, no matter what we do, our mistakes are more obvious than ever, the finish isn't permanent, and it definitely isn't waterproof. Even an epoxy coating or plastic isn't impervious to water vapor, alcohol, or hot liquids; and the surface will develop hairline cracks from expansion of the wood, the finish coating, or both. These will let the liquid under the coating, and it will rapidly deteriorate, look terrible and our concerns about food safety will continue.

Food Safe Finishes?
    In my opinion, our search for a food-safe finishing product is a futile one because there really is no such thing. Even an FDA approval isn't an absolute 100% safety statement because--someday, somewhere--someone will be found with an allergy to whatever product we put on the wood or to the wood itself.
    We say that all finishes are food-safe after the solvents have evaporated, but many of the hydrocarbon solvents that we use in our finishing products will require several weeks to months before they totally evaporate and are rendered harmless. Try explaining that chemistry to a cautious public.
    We have even convinced ourselves that mineral oil is harmless because it has never caused any problem other than an occasional "intestinal distress." Try telling that to someone whose mother used it as a laxative when they were a child.
    Bare wood may be the best finishing solution for things we turn for use with food or beverage. Wood has its own natural ability to absorb and become a part of its environment. We can learn something from our ancestors who used wood for food utensils, drinking goblets, and bowls for a thousand years before our modern finishing technology was developed. The wood was preserved because it was saturated with the oils and fats from the foods that were served in them. The wood absorbed its environment and developed a durable and beautiful patina from daily use. Some wood species were avoided when they were known to be toxic.
    I find that it is much easier to explain the merits of "no finish" than a "food-safe" finishing product to a potential user. I show them a well used salad or serving bowl, and explain that they, and the foods they serve, are a part of the final "finish" on the wood.
    My personal preference is to finish the outside of a useable bowl with a durable finishing product such as Tung Oil/Varnish, leaving the inside as a bare-wood natural finish. A coating of natural beeswax can be used as a safe temporary protection that adds a soft gloss and a pleasant aroma to the wood surface. Richard Raffin recommends using candle wax. Either will rapidly wear away, leaving the wood to develop its own patina through continued use, and the recommended frequent applications of salad oils.

Application of the "no-finish"
    The following is described as though the work was being done on the lathe.

  1. Dry sand through 600-grit following the techniques described in article No. 2 of this series.
  2. Moisten the wood surface with a "damp" paper towel that has been dipped in water and wrung dry.
  3. Allow the wood to dry for several hours to ensure that all of the moisture has evaporated, not just that on the surface.
  4. Lightly hand-sand with 600-grit. For a very high gloss surface, follow by hand sanding with 1000, 1500 and 2000 grits in both directions.
  5. Repeat Steps 2, 3, and 4.
  6. Burnish the surface in both directions with a piece of grocery-bag paper.
  7. Apply a coating of beeswax and polish with a soft cloth or paper towel.


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