If you’re like me, you think the term “salad bowl finish” seems pretty straightforward and understandable. However, the truth about
As a turner of wood bowls, I want to find the best truly food-safe salad bowl finish for my bowls and for my customers, period. I do not want to apply a questionable finish on a beautiful bowl that I or someone else will eat from, ever!
The reason I’m writing this article is to express my concerns that some apparent food safe wood finishes may or may not be as safe as they lead us to believe.
This is a common question…
“I just turned a beautiful salad bowl, what is the best finish to apply?”
That’s a great question, and it should be easy, but there are several factors to understand first.
What is a salad bowl finish?
Salad bowl finish is a food-safe finish that can be applied to salad bowls and other wood products that come in contact with food.
Well, that is the ideal, common-sense definition of salad bowl finish. What I’ve discovered when doing research for this article is that there is some muddying of the waters around the idea of a food-safe wood finishing product.
What is food safe?
Food safe means just that, safe to be in contact with food. Food may touch, rest, sit and be in contact with something that is finished with a food-safe finish, without any concerns for the food becoming contaminated in any way.
Again, that is my idealized common-sense definition for what food-safe means. That is what I want to deliver to a customer first and foremost, without exception or excuses.
Unfortunately, my definition of “food safe” does not seem to be anyway near that clear when you begin reading the fine print.
Reading the Label
Let’s face it, we read labels and know what ingredients are in the foods we consume. Isn’t it enough to read the term “food safe” and assume everything is okay? Hm?
Just like a food product that says “All Natural,” we can sometimes look at the label details and see ingredients that are not the greatest for us, but technically it is “natural.”
We have to keep in mind that the amount of scrutiny that applies to the labeling of food products does not apply the same way outside the food industry, including things that come into contact with food.
What wood finishing product companies put in their products does not necessarily need to be labeled or explained fully. And many times it is not clear, under the guise of “
Food Safe To The Extreme
When I talk with other turners and hear different points of view about a good wood bowl finish, the answers run the gamut.
I have heard from several sources the following statement, “any wood finish is food safe once it is cured.” Hm? That makes me wonder.
So, based on that statement, the most toxic liquid finish you can find is completely fine to be tossing your leafy greens against, just as long as it’s sat around long enough.
I don’t know about you, but that just doesn’t sit well with me.
Why So Skeptical?
Some might question why I’m so picky about this. I have to ask, why are they not being so picky about the finish on their food-used wood bowls?
We try to make wise choices to eat the best food possible and be safe whenever we can, there’s no need to stop that thinking when applying finish to bowls we intend to use with food.
There’s a great quote I heard recently, and I can’t remember where I heard it exactly. The quote went something like this, “I know I’m going to die eventually. I just don’t want to be contributing to the reason.”
The FDA and various other organizations regulate and have guidelines that control what is considered safe for food contact, not
Here is a link to the FDA’s Indirect Food Additives page which covers various coatings on items that come into contact with food.
Interestingly enough, nowhere on this page does the FDA use the term “food safe.” And also, the FDA has no regulations regarding what is and isn’t food safe.
California Prop 65
In 1986 California passed Proposition 65 which ”…protects the state’s drinking water sources from being contaminated with chemicals known to cause cancer, birth defects or other reproductive harm…” Here’s a link to the full California Proposition 65.
So, perhaps it’s safe to say that a wood finish product that has a California Prop 65 warning is toxic at least in its liquid state.
The question then is, how do we know that same toxic liquid wood finishing product transforms from unsafe, by California’s recognition, to a safe product because of the process of drying and curing?
Remember when cars didn’t have seatbelts, mercury filled cavities, smoking was cool, and sitting under a table with a newspaper over your head was the best way to protect against a nuclear attack? Well, those were all before my time, but don’t they seem odd now?
Okay, call me skeptical, but I don’t think the status quo or collective intelligence is necessarily always the best path to wise decision making.
UPDATE – Not So Fast with Prop 65
As it turns out, I was informed by a finishing products manufacturer (my favorite wood finish manufacturer) that the Prop 65 labeling has another story.
The manufacturer’s of ALL wood finishing products must include a California Prop 65 warning on their label.
Why? Because the act of working with wood creates dust which is not safe to breathe.
Can you believe that?!
So a company that makes an unbelievably simple, safe, and environmentally responsible wood finishing product with only the ingredients of linseed oil and beeswax must include a Prop 65 warning.
I completely agree that wood dust is unsafe. That’s why I wear this filtered air respirator most of the time as I work.
However, when I’m reading labels of wood finishing products, I’m looking for what may or may not be harmful with that particular product.
This makes me wonder how many other Prop 65 warnings have nothing to do with the actual product, but rather an ancillary cause not even contained in the product?
Prop 65 seems to be a case of government oversight run out of control.
I don’t know about you, but I will no longer see a Prop 65 warning label the same way.
If you’ve read my about page, you may have read that I believe in personal responsibility, and I do.
I don’t think this should all be about having more stringent standards or regulations on wood finishing products, although some consumer warning labeling does seem necessary.
I think we should be informed customers and use our knowledge to best meet our needs. This is about us making wise choices for ourselves and others by being informed and promoting or demoting products with the vote of our
Setting A Standard
It is up to us to establish the minimum standard for the wood finishes that we accept and apply to a bowl we make and that will be used with food.
The term “food safe,” for what I want as a finish on my bowls, means, to me, 100% pure and free from anything that may cause any harm whatsoever.
I don’t think that’s asking too much, is it?
Salad Bowl Finish Confusion
Much of the confusion about salad bowl finish, I feel, stems from the use of that term, “salad bowl finish” as the product name.
By reading that product name aren’t we led to believe that the product is safe for salads and by extension it is also food safe.
The name sounds like it’s the perfect match for our turned salad bowl, right?
Salad Bowl Finish, The Brand
The manufacturer, General Finishes has recently changed the name of their previously labeled “Salad Bowl Finish” to “Wood Bowl Finish.”
Why, you might be asking?
Based on the research I’ve done, it seems that the Wood Bowl Finish (previously known as Salad Bowl Finish) creates a urethane film coating. This film coating can be chipped and can crack.
When a film coating finish over wood is cut, nicked or chipped, wood is then exposed. If the wood surface is in contact with moisture and food, bacteria can form in those cracked areas.
This is where the confusion comes into play.
Apparently, the old named “Salad Bowl Finish” did have that ubiquitously assumed status as being “food safe.” Because it was generally assumed to be food safe, it was used by woodworkers for many other food-related items, in particular, cutting boards.
Well, cutting boards will most likely acquire their fair share of cuts, nicks, and scrapes. All of which is not good or safe for a urethane film finish like the old “Salad Bowl Finish.”
I Can Not Recommend Salad Bowl Finish
I can not recommend Salad Bowl Finish by General Finishes, not just because it doesn’t exist under that name anymore, but because it is not food safe for use with salad bowls.
Here is a link to the General Finishes’ Wood Bowl Finish product and you’re welcome to investigate for yourself. Also be sure to look at all the warnings and cautions (including the California Prop 65 warning) on the Wood Bowl Finish SDS PDF, linked here
The newly named “Wood Bowl Finish” is the same old urethane filming wood finish, that was deemed unsafe for cutting boards because it can be cut or chipped.
Um, hey guys, we turn wood bowls that are designed to be “used” as well. Salad tongs and various utensils go into our salad bowls as they are lovingly used on a daily basis.
Guess what those utensils do?
They will scratch, scrape and cut the film finish of the General Finishes Wood Bowl Finish and allow bacterial growth in those openings.
Besides all the hazards and warnings this product presents in its liquid state, this finish to me does not seem food safe on many levels.
This is only my opinion, please take a look for yourself.
Mineral Oil Salad Bowl Finish
Mineral oil is a quick answer that comes from many sources as being a “good” wood finish that is safe for food contact, not only on wood bowls but also cutting boards.
Mineral oil is derived from the petroleum oil refining process.
Um, is it just me or are you also thinking “gasoline, motor oil, asphalt, etc. on my wood bowl?”
Don’t worry, you can buy “food grade” mineral oil which is known as white oil or liquid paraffin. It’s colorless and odorless too.
This food grade mineral oil is even used as a laxative. Yes, you can drink this stuff.
But wait, hold on. According to the website VeryWellLiving.com there are a few side effects and warnings about consuming mineral oil:
Who Should Avoid Taking Mineral Oil?
Children 6 years old and younger
Elderly, bedridden patients
Patients with esophageal or gastric retention, dysphagia, or a hiatal hernia
Patients diagnosed with swallowing abnormalities
People taking certain types of medications like blood thinners should consult their doctor before using mineral oil as a laxative
“In addition to those side effects and long-term issues associated with ingesting mineral oil, if you continually inhale its vapors while you’re taking it orally, you could develop lipid pneumonitis or lung inflammation. This condition is more likely to develop if you take your dose at bedtime or if you are older and confined to bed rest.”
Um? Call me crazy, but I don’t want my food in contact with a substance that has that many warnings.
The Ideal Food Safe Salad Bowl Finish
I don’t know that toxic chemicals become safe after curing, just like I don’t know that petroleum by-products are also safe to be in contact with my food.
I’m not a doctor or a chemist, nor do I want to pretend to be even on TV. However, I do know when the hair on the back of my neck stands up that I should pay attention.
So what kind of finish will I use?
Perhaps I’m on the other end of the extreme spectrum. I want a wood bowl finish product that is food safe both in its liquid form and after it is dry and cured, period.
And guess what, there are several products available that fit this bill.
The finish I use on my food-used wooden bowls is plant-based and is not forced to be labeled with a California Prop 65 warning.
Before I share with you what finish I use the most, let’s look at a few other options that are commonly considered.
What About Cooking Oils As Salad Bowl Finish?
Most oils used in the kitchen are not suitable for use as salad bowl finishes because they will become rancid.
Because of the quick oxidation time for most kitchen oils like olive oil, corn oil, canola oil, sunflower oil, and safflower oil they are not good options as a wood finish. When these oils oxidize, they become rancid.
Any oil that stays liquid at room temperature can turn rancid over time.
Some exceptions to this rule, although not necessarily
Coconut Oil Salad Bowl Finish
Coconut oil is an edible oil extract from the coconut, and in its raw form stays solid at room temperature.
Because of the high saturated fat content of coconut oil, it resists turning rancid and makes a good wood bowl finish that is edible and 100% food safe.
If you’d like to try a coconut based “food safe” wood bowl finish I recommend trying JS Bartow and Sons Salad Bowl Finish.
This coconut based wood finish oil contains no volatile organic compounds (VOCs) and has no fumes. It is designed to penetrate into and protect the wood bowl surface.
I really wish this company called this product something other than generic “Salad Bowl Finish” to avoid confusion.
However, the JS Bartow and Sons version of the “Salad Bowl Finish” is non-toxic both in liquid form and after curing.
One word of caution, because it is nut-based, there is a risk that people with nut allergies could have issues with this finish.
My Favorite Salad Bowl Finish
As I’ve mentioned in my article titled, My Favorite Food-Safe Wood Finish, a wood finish needs to be all-around food safe if I’m going to use it on a food-used wood bowl.
I prefer the Tried and True Original Wood finish because it contains two natural ingredients; linseed oil and beeswax. The linseed oil penetrates and protects the wood as the beeswax seals and makes the wood water resistant.
Linseed oil comes from flax seed, a natural highly saturated fat source that has been used as a wood finish for a long time.
The other reason I like the Tried and True Original Wood Finish is that it’s easy to apply, looks good and creates a surface that is easy to wipe clean after use.
Back to the standard I’d like to keep with the quality of salad bowl finish I use on my food-used wood bowls, Tried and True meets that definition. Not only are the two ingredients both non-toxic, but they are also not altered with additional ingredients during the production process.
Some manufacturers use linseed oil but also include drying agents, metallic additives and other chemicals that further distance the purity of the main components. Tried and True does not add any additional elements to their finish.
Tried and True Danish Oil
I also use Tried and True Danish Oil which is precisely the same as the Tried and True Original Wood Finish minus the beeswax.
When I apply the original finish with the beeswax, I like to follow the directions and buff the bowl surface after 24-hours as the instructions indict.
If I have a bowl that can’t be returned to the lathe, then the buffing process is a bit more difficult, I will use the Tried and True Danish Oil instead.
Also, if I have an older wooden bowl that appears particularly dry, the Tried and True Danish Oil soaks in and can be applied in multiple coats easily to rejuvenate the wood surface.
If any bowl that was finished with Tried and True Original Wood Finish begins to look a bit dull, a quick thin coat of Tried and True Danish Oil wiped on restores a fresh finish.
An extension of personal responsibility is to declare that I have no way of proving or disproving any of the toxicity levels of any of these products.
Everything I’m expressing here is my opinion based on knowledge from various sources and my personal experience. Likewise, you need to do what’s best for you based on what you learn.
Salad Bowl Finish Conclusion
On this website, I want to provide you with the best information about all aspects of making and turning wood bowls.
Wood finishing products cover a vast and sometimes confusing landscape of ideas and issues.
The “Salad Bowl Finish” product issue has never been very clear, and I hope this article helps clarify some of that confusion.
My opinion is just that, my opinion. I may or may not be comfortable with using a particular finish that other turners are completely content using regularly.
This article is designed to inform you and help you make up your own mind about the finish you genuinely want to use on your wood bowls.
What finish you use on your turned wooden bowls is up to you.
I know what finish I prefer and by the way, the photo at the top of this article is my salad waiting for me to eat.
Time for lunch!
Please leave a comment below and tell me what you think.
Here are other finishing articles you may want to see next:
• HOW TO SPRAY LACQUER – ILLUSTRATED GUIDE
• 5 MAGICAL EBONIZING WOOD TRICKS
• BLEACHING WOOD BOWLS – 15 MUST-KNOW FACTS
• BEST WOOD BOWL CARE HOW TO (CLEAN, MAINTAIN, RESTORE)
• 3 AMAZING TURQUOISE INLAY TECHNIQUES – ILLUSTRATED GUIDE
Happy Turning (and Finishing),