Protect Kitchen Countertops with Food-safe Oil Finishes

Scott Gibson, Contributing Editor

We are updating our kitchen and want to have our new countertops made from reclaimed heart pine timbers, which I can have milled and cut to fit. We think these will suit the house better than the granite that everyone wants us to install. Heart pine is pricey, but it looks great. What do we use for a finish--varnish, oil, nothing? I've seen a product I believe contains beeswax but I've never used it. Any ideas?

Granite does seem to be the king of the kitchen these days, but you're right about wood. It can be a very appealing option. The rub, as you point out, is finding a suitable finish.

Ideally, the finish should repel stains and water without contaminating any food that comes into contact with the counter. There are a variety of food-safe finishes to choose from, including blends that contain beeswax. Where they differ is in how much protection they offer and how often they have to be reapplied.

Film-forming Finishes
Look for a penetrating finish. Finishes fall into two groups--penetrating finishes and film-forming finishes. Film-forming finishes such as varnish, lacquer, and polyurethane harden into a tough film. They offer excellent protection against moisture and grime and they need very little in the way of maintenance. For those reasons, film-forming finishes are ideal for cabinets, furniture, and flooring.

But when it comes to a countertop, especially one used as a cutting surface, film-forming finishes aren't the best choice because they can peel or chip. Instead, countertop and woodenware manufacturers recommend a penetrating oil finish that soaks into the wood.

Penetrating Finishes
Penetrating finishes also fall into two groups--oils without and with additives. Oil finishes with no additives include pure tung, raw (not boiled) linseed, walnut, and mineral oils. They are entirely food safe and offer some protection against food stains and water. The down side is that you must reapply the oils fairly often for them to remain effective.

Oil finishes with additives last longer. Another family of finishes blends oil with additives that help the finish cure harder and last longer. Waterlox, for example, is a tung oil-based finish that's safe for food contact after it has completely cured, according to its manufacturer. Behlen's Salad Bowl Finish is another food safe product.

These finishes must be applied in a number of coats, with drying time in between, which makes for a lengthy finishing process. However, these finishes are benign once they have cured and offer more protection than oil alone. If the countertop includes a sink, this is the type of finish I'd want to use, particularly on any exposed end grain. That's where water can really do some damage.

What about beeswax? I did find a recipe that called for a 1:5 blend of mineral oil (1) and beeswax (5), which you can brew on your stove at home (be careful and use low heat). Apply it to the counter whenever necessary, which, unfortunately, may be more often than you'd like.

About the Author
An accomplished woodworker and carpenter, Scott Gibson is the former editor of Fine Woodworking magazine, and a former editor at Today's Homeowner and Fine Homebuilding magazines. He also is former managing editor of the Kennebec Journal, a daily newspaper in Maine.

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