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What's safe to use to finish butcher block?

Just got a new kitchen cart w/ a butcher-block top and the wood is unfinished. I'd like to stain it in some way but I don't want to use something that will end up seeping dangerously into the food I prepare on there. Can I use linseed oil? Should I just leave the wood raw?

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  1. You might want to look at Tried and True. They make pure Danish oil, no metals or solvents/dryers added. It is food safe I've only used their Varnish and Beeswax oil for mouldings but I can attest to the beauty of the outcome. You can also call them and talk to the main guy about what you want to do and he will give you great advice. Either that or use a food safe mineral oil.

    http://www.triedandtruewoodfinish.com/

    1. NO, no, no!...do not use linseed oil - it's not food safe. Pour on a good amount of mineral oil, let it soak into the wood for thirty minutes, then wipe off the excess. Use a soft rag or paper tower for this. As you wipe off the excess oil rub vigorusly to push the oil into the wood. Mineral oil is food safe, will not go rancid, but will need to be reapplied every month or so, depending on how frequently you use your block for chopping. Do not put any other finish on the butcher block, and do not leave it raw.

      1. Behandla makes a good product for butcher block food prep surfaces. A bit more trouble than mineral oil, but makes for easier cleaning of the surface in my experience.

        1. Don't use linseed oil. I'm curious as to why you want to stain it?

          Mineral oil is a good treatment for keeping the wood in good shape (and you won't poison your family with it). Apply the mineral oil once a month, and wipe off the excess.

          1 Reply
          1. re: greglor

            Third the mineral oil. I have one maple butcher block board from the early 60s that is still going strong thanks to regular mineral oil treatments (I'm not religious about "once a month" but you can tell when it's getting dry).

          2. There have been a few threads about this over the past year or so that I've been
            reading this site, and a while ago I got curious again and tried to track down a
            definitive answer. As far as I can tell, there isn't a definitive answer.

            The FDA publishes guidelines on what it considers safe for food contact surfaces.
            It's a huge document: http://edocket.access.gpo.gov/cfr_200...
            From what I can tell, every consumer-grade clear finish available at your
            local hardware store meets these standards once the finish has dried.

            For any product you're considering using, the manufacturer must publish
            a Material Safety Data Sheet (MSDS). This is a document which contains
            everything known about the toxicity of the product. You can usually find them
            with a web search for the product name and "msds". For example, here's the
            one for a common Minwax polyurethane finish: http://www.rockler.com:80/tech/RTD200...
            which looks like after those scary organic solvents dry, it's perfectly safe.

            However, while "perfectly safe" means you're probably not going to die or grow
            a third ear, it doesn't mean you're going to be comfortable having that stuff around
            your chow. Personally, I'm not; and fortunately there are some good alternatives.

            The purpose of a wood finish is to fill the pores of the wood with something so
            that all the liquids, juices, bloods, etc you're going to have all over the cutting
            board stay on the surface and can be wiped off, rather than soaking in and
            permanently staining the wood. And what you want is something that when it
            dries, cures solidly so that it can't be wiped or washed out. Some oils do not
            cure. Some oils cure naturally, if slowly, and various chemicals can be added
            to speed up the process (manganese dioxide, cobalt dichloride, various other
            scary things).

            The two most common natural, unadulterated oils used as food surface finishes
            are mineral oil and walnut oil. The problem is, neither one of these cures to a
            solid, durable finish. Walnut oil partially cures, but mineral oil remains essentially
            unchanged. This means that heavy use of soap or hot water will wash the finish
            off the wood. Which isn't really a problem as long as you're expecting it and
            don't mind slathering on some more oil every once in a while. You can find
            walnut oil in the oil section of any well-stocked grocery store, and mineral oil
            is sold in drugstores in the laxative department (!).

            One option you don't want to use is other non-curing vegetable oils. Corn oil,
            olive oil, etc. These oils over time tend to get rancid and smell funny, in addition
            to not providing much protection.

            There are a number of commercial finishing oils marketed specifically for use in
            kitchens. In addition to the Tried and True mentioned above, the German company
            Livos (http://livos.us/) makes a couple of wood oils they claim are safe and
            I've used and been happy with. Other commonly seen products are Jasco butcher block
            oil which I think is just pure mineral oil, and Behlen Salad Bowl Finish which, according
            to the msds, contains a cobalt drier.

            So when you add it all up, walnut and mineral oil seem to win in both the inexpensive
            and safe categories, and do ok in the protection department. At home my heavily-used
            cutting boards get a good scrubbing and a good wipedown with one or the other once a
            month or so.

            8 Replies
            1. re: Chuckles the Clone

              There is NO WAY that a "common Minwax polyurethane finish" or any similar finish can be "perfectly safe." They are "food safe" if you lay food ON them, but not if you're chopping and hacking on them with knives and sharp utensils. The finish will chip and pieces of it will end up in your food.
              Only food-grade oils that don't turn rancid should be used. There are a few that include a small quantity of beeswax that do give a nice finish if the block doesn't get hard wear, but for blocks that are used constantly, it's best to stick with mineral oil. Some manufacturers add jazzy things to them that aren't necessary except to get you to pay more.

              1. re: MakingSense

                >> There is NO WAY that a "common Minwax polyurethane finish" or any similar
                >> finish can be "perfectly safe." [...] The finish will chip and pieces of it will end
                >> up in your food.

                Like I said, you might not feel comfortable with this stuff around your chow. However, there does not appear to be any evidence at all either that the finish will chip or that if it does that the fully-cured, microscopic particles will be in any way harmful. Nor is there any reason to think that these particles are any more dangerous than the same microparticles that would be detached from a conventional plastic cutting board.

                Polyurethane is covered under title 21, part 177: http://www.cfsan.fda.gov/~lrd/FCF177....

                I wouldn't encourage people to use this stuff, and I get the same big
                capitalized NO WAY feeling when I think of using it myself. But if you've
                already gone and done it, all evidence suggests that you're fine. These
                finishes are sold for, and expected to be used on, childrens' toys, an area in
                which eating and chewing receives considerable attention.

                Here's the guy who wrote the Rodale Press book about finishes making a similar argument:
                http://www.popularwoodworking.com/fea...

              2. re: Chuckles the Clone

                >>The purpose of a wood finish is to fill the pores of the wood with something so
                that all the liquids, juices, bloods, etc you're going to have all over the cutting
                board stay on the surface and can be wiped off, rather than soaking in and
                permanently staining the wood. And what you want is something that when it
                dries, cures solidly so that it can't be wiped or washed out.<<

                That's exactly what the Behandla does I mentioned earlier. I'm not 100% sure of the exact composition, but it seems to me to be like a wax suspended in a water based carrier. Slather it on, let it soak in and dry, rub a bit and presto, my oak countertops don't get stained. You can buy Behandla at Ikea stores.

                I've also heard good things about beeswax, however I remember when researching a good protectant for my countertops that beeswax was 'hard work', in that it had to be rubbed in (enough heat from friction to soften it, along with enough pressure to push it into the wood).

                1. re: ThreeGigs

                  All I can report is my personal experience with beeswax. I've got a neighbor who's a fine cabinetmaker who gave me samples of lots of products to experiment with. The beeswax doesn't sink into the wood no matter how hard you work but it does give a beautiful finish on the outside of things like salad bowls. It wasn't worth it for hard-use surfaces like cutting boards because it didn't give any protection that would build up. If you put too much it just scraped off.
                  Plain mineral oil worked the best for plain utility cutting sufaces. The wood will absorb as much as it can and you just keep oiling until the wood itself says "enough."
                  For a heavily used surface that I really cared about looking terrific, I used a mineral oil that included a small amount of beeswax that does have to be buffed. It was more trouble than straight mineral oil but worth the effort because it looked great. It took much longer to build up a resistant surface but when I finally got it, the counter looked great and takes pretty heavy wear. We can eat crabs, chop food, leave wet thing, etc., right on it with no problems. A good cleaning with vinegar and water cleans it right up and a buffing brings the surface right back. Water doesn't soak into this surface as long as it's kept oiled. A lot more work.

                  1. re: MakingSense

                    >>I used a mineral oil that included a small amount of beeswax that does have to be buffed.<<

                    Makes me glad I researched finishes before picking one. Your comments on beeswax seem to follow on what I read, namely that to get it to penetrate even a little, you need to rub enough to heat up the wax and the wood so it softens, with enough pressure to impregnate it. An electric buffer might do the trick, but wasn't something I wanted to do on a regular basis.

                    Do you have a brand name for the oil/wax combo you use? I like the stuff I can get at Ikea, but if I can pick up something similar from a much closer hardware store I'd go with the convenience factor.

                2. re: Chuckles the Clone

                  Thanks for all the great info, Chuckles the Clone!

                  1. re: Chuckles the Clone

                    This is a good reply. I use only mineral oil, as walnut oil can have rancidity issues, and all the others use chemicals that I don't care to have on my cutting surface.

                    But then again, I'm not as driven by aesthetics as some people. I work mainly on a kitchen island, from which (when I bought the house) I removed the formica top and replaced it with a roughly 4'x6' beech countertop board from Ikea (for about $150, I think). After 7 years it's scarred in various ways from the bread knife, especially, but I really just use it like an enormous cutting board.

                    Some people seem to place a high value on a glossy, "sealed" kind of surface, which mineral oil cannot provide. But I strongly suspect (I'm a woodworker, too) that any solid finish would be the last thing you'd want to work on with a knife. Even if one accepts that the finish is safe after curing, it will look horrible if you cut on it. And refinishing would be a PITA. Imagine using your coffee table as a cutting board!

                    1. re: Bada Bing

                      Hi Bada Bing;

                      "But I strongly suspect (I'm a woodworker, too) that any solid finish would be the last thing you'd want to work on with a knife. Even if one accepts that the finish is safe after curing, it will look horrible if you cut on it. And refinishing would be a PITA. Imagine using your coffee table as a cutting board"

                      You are absolutely correct, any wood finish should be safe after the solvents have evaporated and more correct on what a PITA it would be to deal with the knife marks and any water that got under the finish.