Thursday, June 6, 2013

Wood Finishes for Tree Huggers

I am a hippy in hiding. I obsessively organize recyclables, buy organic food, use natural body products, avoid chemical cleaners, and the list goes on and on.  As an extension to my obsession with "All-Natural" I have been on a hunt for the best possible wood finishes without compromising Mother Nature and my health. At the same time I don't want to sacrifice the overall beauty and durability of the projects that I work so long and hard over.

My first real dilemma with natural finishes came when I started making wood cutting boards as presents for my family members. I agonized over how to protect the wood without simultaneously poisoning them and their dinner guests. Using my favorite interweb algorithm I found a great recipe for a cutting board finish made with pharmacy grade mineral oil and natural beeswax. Mineral oil and beeswax are used for a whole host of internal and external personal care products so they are perfect candidates for a natural, food safe wood finish.

Cutting Board Blanks Fresh from the Planer

So here is the super-duper secret recipe. Heat the mineral oil and add the beeswax until it melts. Yup, it is that simple. The ratios are really dependent on your preferences, add more wax for a stiffer buffing paste, or more oil for a milky rubbing lotion. I personally like an oil to wax ratio of 3 to 1. This allows a nice creamy paste when the finish is cold, and I feel that it seeps into the wood when I let it sit for a while.

A Whole Lot of Boards after Raising the Grain with Water

Applying this paste is as easy as making it. There are no crazy rules like modern high tech finishes, "Apply to a clean hypoallergenic surface that has been blessed by a Rabbi, let sit for 2 minutes and 37 seconds, then immediately wipe off with a mixture consisting of 21/32nds mineral spirits and 11/32nds turpentine, then re-apply within 79 minutes or after 9-1/2 weeks, but only on Sundays and Thursdays, or the second Friday of every lunar cycle!'...well you get my point. Simply slop it on the wood, let stand for 30 minutes (or 30 hours for all I care), and then buff it off with a clean rag. I promise you will have a great looking, velvety, safe for food finish that cost less than $5 for 16 oz.

A Finished Cutting Board being put to the test making Omelets.

What about the cons you ask? Let me explain some of my perceived disadvantages.

Is this the most durable finish? No, it has to be reapplied every once and a while when the wood seems to be drying out.

Is it the most Eco-friendly solution? Most mineral oils are a byproduct of petroleum refineries, and the fact still remains that petroleum<organics.

Does it contain any VOCs? Only if you consider the smell of warm honey a VOC.

So overall I would say that the mineral oil/beeswax finish is far better than most salad bowl finishes or polyurethanes, but not as environmentally sound as an all natural oil. But for the time being I can fall asleep at night knowing that all of the recipients of my hand made waddayacallits don't have to worry about toxic solvents and chemicals tainting the beauty and enjoyment of the wood.

PS I wrote this post about six months ago...but somehow it got lost in the pipeline...alls well that ends well right?