I've made a wooden ironing board out of hard maple, which I'm going to cover with some cloth and batting. I'm wondering whether I should apply a finish to the wood. Ironing is going to create steam, which could introduce moisture and warp the board. But ironing will also create heat, which could take off the finish and stain the cover or (worse) the material being ironed (steam irons can heat to between 350-425 F / 180-220 C).

I've searched on this site already for information about water- and heat-resistant finishes, but haven't found anything specifically for the steam/heat created by ironing. I found this old discussion on MetaFilter but it contained conflicting advice.

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    Hi, welcome to StackExchange. Just checked my old books for plans/guides to making your own ironing board and the consensus is not to finish it seems. But that's hardly definitive as actually there's no mention of finish at all, even for the legs or other supports. My personal inclination would be to leave the top bare and apply finish to the legs. Were you thinking the same yourself? What wood did you use for the top out of curiosity? – Graphus Dec 21 '20 at 8:33
  • Thanks! I had a similar experience with "non-definitive" sources, where I couldn't tell if they were saying not to finish, or were just not mentioning it. I hadn't really thought about the legs - perhaps I'll just finish those. The top is a hard maple. – ASGM Dec 21 '20 at 13:05
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    Well hard maple is extremely durable so it should withstand the heat and steam without batting an eye — one of the plans called for a nice piece of 'deal' (which is just Scots pine!) and if that can take it then maple surely can. Incidentally if the top is a plain-sawn board and not QS then the crossbar underneath was a very good idea, to reduce the chance of bowing over time. This strikes me as the major longevity concern, not finish/no finish. – Graphus Dec 22 '20 at 9:21

I'm wondering whether I should apply a finish to the wood.

Great question! I think the best place to start is with what other people have done. I did a little searching and found a few examples of old wooden ironing boards on sites like eBay and Pinterest, and a new Amish-made one on Amazon. The new one says the legs are finished but the top is not, "for safe ironing." The older ones also look unfinished to me, but it's hard to be certain because the patina that comes with age and use might have started out as some kind of finish. All the boards I saw look to be fairly flat, though, even ones that are quite old.

Ironing is going to create steam, which could introduce moisture and warp the board. But ironing will also create heat, which could take off the finish and stain the cover...

I think you're right to be concerned about the heat. I know that there are some polyurethanes that can tolerate up to 300°F, but the temperature from a clothes iron starts at around 300°F for low settings (e.g. silk) and goes up to 450°F or so for the linen setting. Even though there will be some fabric and batting (and clothing!) between the iron and board, I don't think most finishes would handle that kind of heat well.

The worry about steam seems less likely to be a problem. The steam introduced by ironing is pretty short-lived -- it comes in bursts, and it's unlikely to send moisture much beyond the surface of the wood. And steam can actually dry wood out -- by definition, steam is water that's above the 212°F boiling point, so in some cases it can cause moisture in the wood to vaporize and escape. But again, the steam from ironing comes in fairly short bursts and is very localized, so it seems unlikely to cause any major change in the board. If you're really concerned, you could add a couple of crosswise pieces on the back of the board to hold it flat (just be sure to use screws instead of glue, and to elongate the holes a bit).

If it were my ironing board, I'd leave it unfinished.

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    The point about steam being hot enough to counteract moisture is a good one! Fortunately, the board already has a crossbar on the back -- unfortunately it's secured with glue and dowels! But I'll take your advice about going without a finish and see how things go! – ASGM Dec 21 '20 at 21:14

Two suggestions:

  • Shou sugi ban is an 18th-century Japanese technique of burning the outside of wood to preserve and waterproof it. As you might suspect, wood that has been deliberately burned is heat resistant, and it is also water resistant. However, standing water might be a problem, if your steam condenses and doesn't get wicked off by the cloth cover. You might want to engineer for that.

  • My local orange box sells Rust-Oleum brand High Heat Satin White spray paint for use with ovens and BBQ grills. The product specifications claim it resists temperatures up to 1200 degrees (!). It is available in colors other than white, but for an ironing board, white seemed appropriate.

It seems like either one of these could work for you.

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    Your second suggestion sounds like an interesting idea but how does that paint deal with movement? The wood is going to expand and contract, and if the paint is brittle (which I strongly suspect it will be, many high-temp paints are) it'll crack. It obviously will be able to deal with the expansion and contraction of hot and cold metal, but that's an order of magnitude less than the movement that wood experiences (especially if this is a flat-sawn board). – Graphus Dec 24 '20 at 9:58
  • Since metal expands and contracts significantly when heated/cooled, I suspect it does a pretty good job of adapting to that. But it doesn't really matter, since the wooden surface will be covered by a cloth cover. Even if it was a maze of cracks, the air in the cracks would be a pretty good insulator. ;-) – aghast Dec 24 '20 at 15:47

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