Disclaimer, there’s a few Amazon Affiliate links in the text. I get a small penny if you choose to use them to buy your stuff.
Only natural-ingredient based products like Howard’s Cutting Board Oil or Papa Oki Chopping Board Oil are safe to eat off of.
Most wood finishes, once properly cured, is safe to eat off of. Think back to when you were 8 years old, slurping milk off the table so it didn’t go to waste. You didn’t do that? Oh, neither did I.
According to FDA regulations, the typical clear wood finishes that dry to a hard film are considered food safe. Wait until the finish is completely cured, then clean it before allowing food contact. The catch is that you should not cut directly into some of these (like Polyurethane). So while it may be food safe, it may not be the best option for cutting boards.
The buzz-phrase “Safe to eat off of” appears to be mostly used as a sales and marketing tool for some products, as the misconception is often interpreted as “This is the only option for food safe finishes”. That’s not to say at all that they aren’t great to use. I absolutely love using Howard’s Cutting Board Oil. It’s easy to apply and I don’t have to wear a dust mask or my beefy, pink, respirator to keep all the toxins out.
Cutting Board Oil + Wax
Application is incredibly easy and there’s often little mess. However, they offer less protection and the finishes don’t last forever.
The oil finish penetrates into the wood and brings some spectacular color to light. Wipe on with a clean rag, let it sit for 30 minutes, then wipe off the excess with another clean rag. I’ve even gone as far as letting the entire project soak in a container for 30 minutes or so, then taking it out and letting it dry. If I don’t apply the wax, I’ll wait a day or two before using the item so that there’s plenty of time to air out any remaining moisture. If I use the wax, I’ll wait about an hour before that step.
With the wax, there’s a similar process. It adds an extra layer of protection on the outside. Instead of wiping it on, I rub it in, going in circles to make sure I’m wiping inside the grain. For a coaster, I’ll smear the wax all around it and let it set on a drying rack. After about 30 minutes I wipe off the excess and let it dry. I’ll let these air out and cure for a few days before handing them out to ensure they’re dry to the touch. Once I went a bit fast and wrapped them up the next day; moisture bled through the paper pretty well.
I use the Howard Oil + Wax combo on all of my cutting boards, coasters, and serving trays. Mostly because it is quick and environmentally friendly alternative. It also is incredibly useful for the serving boards. I install handles on the boards before finishing them. This allows me to install handles and cover up any screws with dowels to give it a nice, clean, and natural look. Now that the handles are attached, I don’t want to spray lacquer the piece or try to brush something else around it. Giving it a soak in a mineral oil bath is the perfect solution!
The only thing to look out for is that these finishes don’t last forever. You may have to recondition the boards after some time, and this depends on how often the board is used and washed.
As for washing… Please do not put a hardwood board with this kind of finish in the dishwasher! You’ll risk washing off all of the finish and potentially requiring sanding and a refinish.
For top coats, anything that cures to a film finish is considered food safe. Curing time is much longer than drying time, and in some cases can be as long as 30 days. It depends on how much finish you use and what the weather is like. Cold weather tends to slow this down.
Finishes to use:
Once these finishes cure, all toxins from it’s application and curing period will dissipate. The surface will be safe to eat off of. Think about all of your kitchen cabinets, tables, and countertops. These are often painted, or covered with lacquer or polyurethane. Tell the centennials to stop storing onions, bananas, or apples in their cabinets or on their tables and countertop!
Think about the resin stream cutting boards too. Mixing most epoxy and resin (like TotalBoat) is extremely toxic and anyone working with it should wear a respirator. One, more eco-friendly type is called EcoPoxy. Spray lacquer is another very toxic finish that, without consistent use of a respirator, could cause long term brain damage.
I used Walrus Oil cutting board oil + wax on this counter-board. (Left)
Spar Urethane, highly durable water-proof finish was my choice on these live edge flight trays. (Below)
I won’t go into the application of these other finishes, as there are many variations and extensive resources on the subject. Understanding Wood Finishes and Taunton's Complete illustrated Guide to Finishing are two of my favorites. I highly recommend giving both a read and referencing them during a few projects.