I am just starting to get into finishing. I have a pallet wine rack that will be holding wine bottles (obviously). On top of this I have several other wine related wood projects I am making.

I have been reserved in using finishes due to all the toxic labels and my my lack of experience but I know some of my projects will look infinitely better if they were finished.

What finish can I use that will be indoors and likely will be in contact with alcoholic liquids?

  • I'm all for down votes but I wonder how the reason is too broad?
    – Matt
    Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 10:43
  • That downvote makes no sense to me FWIW.
    – Graphus
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 8:01
  • The advice for the too broad close reason says in part: There are either too many possible answers, or good answers would be too long for this format. That's exactly the case here: there are many finishes that could work (epoxy, polyurethane, varnish, oil, lacquer, wax) and not enough information to make one answer better than another. How much wear resistance is required? How much work is the OP willing to do? I started to answer this question but found it impossible to narrow the choices to an acceptable few, and so voted to close. This question should closed until it's improved.
    – Caleb
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 1:44
  • 1
    @Caleb Never done finishing and know little about it. I figured that many have mentioned contact with alcohol in their answers that I could have one specifically for it. Wear resistance? It's a wine rack. the odd bottle might brush up against it. How much work? Not sure how that matters for potential answers. Are those the only questions you need answered to keep this from being broad in you opinion?
    – Matt
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 3:21
  • @Matt I was trying to give examples of things that could narrow the field of possible answers. What do you want the finished rack to look like? Glossy? Matte? As natural as possible? Do you want to impart some color to the project? Do you want a penetrating finish or one that forms a film on the surface? I don't mean for you to necessarily answer all of these (if you do, please edit the question rather than commenting) but rather to show how underspecified the question is.
    – Caleb
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 4:17

5 Answers 5


OK simple answer here, varnish.

While waterbased varnishes have been tested and some shown to provide very good protection from liquids containing alcohol, including red wine, a simpler broad-strokes recommendation would be oil-based varnish. As a class this product, regardless of formulation, will be alcohol-proof once fully cured.

Polyurethane is the most common recommendation these days although there are other varnishes on the market. To be honest even the cheaper products will give good performance — in terms of application, and the finish and protection provided — but as with so many things it is worth paying a little extra for one higher up the food chain.

A good follow-on Question to this would be about varnish application, assuming there isn't one already.

I have been reserved in using finishes due to all the toxic labels

The warnings on many products can be very scary but used with appropriate levels of caution they can be quite safe to use (q.v. household bleach).

With oil-based varnishes, there is really only one main concern and that is from the solvent vapours and for most people the only precaution that needs to be taken is to provide good ventilation. We should be careful about giving out what might be construed as medical advice in Answers but the data is quite clear that mineral spirits (UK: white spirit) does not pose any significant health risk to the average person who is otherwise in good health and isn't working in an enclosed space.

  • Good answer, but can I add one extra concern? Varnish soaked rags have the potential to self-combust. I like to lay mine out flat and let them dry completely. Commented Jun 21, 2015 at 15:35
  • @AloysiusDefenestrate, it can't hurt to take the precaution to lay any varnish-soaked rags flat to dry, or put into a container with water, but auto-ignition is generally only a risk with drying oils.
    – Graphus
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 8:03

I do not want to write a book on this.

  1. fully cured drying oil finishes, except ones with zinc (and other metallic) driers, are usually suitable to come into contact with food. The FDA regulates this in the US, these so-called food grade finishes are usually made from tung oil (china wood oil is another name). You will see FDA approved on the label of the product. Mineral oil is what you often see. It is not a drying oil. IMO it is a very poor wood finish. Most water based finishes have molecules that are emulsified and are not water-soluble. When the water evaporates the polymers form - acrylics or products like Hydrocote work okay with this application. These water-based finishes are kinda like drying oils in disguise. "Varnish" is kinda non-specific. It can be oil, water-based, and even catalyzed. See the KCMA thing down below.

  2. Shellac is an evaporative finish. It gets "hard" because the solvents evaporate. When the solvent (alcohol ) contacts a cured finish, it damages the finish. Only evaporative finishes which depend on other solvents will provide a reasonable alcohol resistance. Nitrocellulose lqcquer is one. These things smell to high heaven. You must use them when ambient temps are just right, circa 70-85 degrees F, to get decent clear films. They are also not available in a lot of locales because of restrictions.

  3. Catalytic finishes (two part lacquer or pre-catalyzed) are top of the line, but not something you can apply without a little experience and a lot of equipment. They are standard for items like kitchen cabinet door and frames - that come into accidental contact with all kinds of household chemicals. Or maybe not accidental. Example product: pre-catalyzed waterborne clear from Mohawk.

Bottom line - research the KCMA standards for finishes. Read the four-part finish test to see what KCMA finish certification means: http://www.kcma.org/Homeowners/Performance_Testing_and_Certification_Program#2

Hmm. I still got too gabby.


That link is FDA list of food contact substances (FCS list) which is what food safe deals with in the context here. Zirconium palmitate is used as a drier in drying oil finishes. I just chose that entry because it is a drier.

Follow the link back to other compounds if you want to know for yourself.

So in summary: drying oils from edible plants and seeds are edible either in dried form or as oil. Pure China wood (tung) oil, linseed oil, walnut oil, and rosemary oil all do air dry but take quite a while. So for purists, these would be a choice. The 'boiled' version of linseed oil has driers in it. Actual linseed oil, like Michelangelo had, can be had http://www.sinopia.com/VS50017-Cold-Pressed-Linseed-Oil-from-Sweden-best-grade_p_11.html

Milkpaints that you make with harmless iron oxide pigments (like red ocher) are also edible, if a little high in iron and calcium content. Milkpaint has:

casein (milk protein, quark is another name) lime - Calcium oxide (in water solution becomes hydroxide) pigment like red ocher Some people add linseed oil

  • Waterlox Original is a perfect example: Tung oil base with curing solvents, food safe once cured. I used it on a cutting board for my family and it does an excellent job.
    – coreyward
    Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 23:57
  • Concerning your first point, even finishes that do contain metallic driers are classed as suitable for direct-contact surfaces, once fully cured. Re. your "I still got too gabby." long Answers are good thing on StackExchange, the more detail the better :-)
    – Graphus
    Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 7:20
  • That was what the FDA approval was supposed to alleviate - the fear of coming in contact with 'chemicals'. See edited post above. Commented Jun 23, 2015 at 18:05
  • Very late to the party... Re: "Food contact substances" - it's highly unlikely that the OP or guests would be licking the spilled wine off the wine rack (even after consuming several bottles), so the only concern is while applying the finish. I don't the the OP will be serving up salads off of his wine rack. Food for thought...
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 15:32

TL/DR: Don't worry about the alcohol thing; pick a finish that's easy to use.

What finish can I use that will be indoors and likely will be in contact with alcoholic liquids?

I hate to write an answer that doesn't answer your specific question, but I think you're focusing on the wrong thing here. The finish that's best known for being susceptible to damage from alcohol is shellac, and that's because alcohol is a solvent for shellac. But even shellac won't be instantly and irreversible damaged by the amount of alcohol in wine, and repairing a shellac finish is relatively simple.

In reality, almost any finish could work for a wine rack. Given that, you should look for a finish that matches your experience level. Look for finishes with the following characteristics:

  • easy
  • fast
  • attractive

Start by learning a little about the various types of finishes. Here's a video from finewoodworking.com that covers the very basics. As you'll see in the video, there are a number of finishes out there where you just wipe the finish onto your project with a rag and then wipe off the excess. These types of finishes usually dry quickly and tend to be very forgiving: if you missed a spot or want to even the finish out, you can apply more; if you want to change the look, you can rub it down with steel wool or a soft rag.

Toxicity isn't usually a big concern except when you're applying finishes (you need to watch out especially for fumes from solvents). Dried/cured finishes are generally safe for most uses, and no finish materials are going to get through a wine bottle. But since you mentioned it, you might want to take a look at the finishes from Tried & True. These are all in the easy/fast/cheap/attractive category. I used the Varnish Oil on a side table I built a dozen years ago, and it continues to look great.

Finally, go with your gut. Every woodworker has his or her own favorite finish. In fact, many will talk about a finishing schedule, i.e. a whole list of finishing steps required to achieve their favorite look. The even-numbered steps generally involve application of some potion or other, and the odd-numbered steps call for application of elbow grease and some form of abrasive material. Don't be intimidated by all that -- you can get a very nice finish by just sanding, applying a single potion as described above, and optionally buffing with a cloth and maybe a touch of wax.


Strange that there are no solid replies on any of this...maybe due to the vagueness of the question. For a winerack (you are NOT eating off the surface), you are in fact, asking about 'furniture coatings'...so most anything would work (unless you are licking your furniture!) Now...I searched for a LONG TIME to find an answer to a more-specific question...'what finish should I use on a WOODEN BEER MUG that doubles as a RUM-BASED GROG MUG?' Now, we're talking about direct-contact FOOD APPLICATIONS! To answer the question, 'what should I line my mug with, which will be exposed to mouth-contact and ethanol'...the answer comes down to ONLY ONE ANSWER: Polyurethane. Polyurethane (once cured...30 days) is essentially a 'plastic', no different than a plastic cup or mug. It is considered by the U.S. Food-and-Drug-Administration as 'non-hazardous' for food contact applications, and other than the caveat that when dealing with polyurethane (especially water-based), you don't want it to 'soak'...make sure that you at least 'dump and allow draining' immediately after use (don't throw it into a standing sink of water for 2-weeks before you decide it's time to wash the dishes). This all came about because the wife spent $30 on six REAL coconut cups/mugs, that were 'finished raw' (sanded smooth, but nothing else)...a drop of water and BOOM! They crack instantly! A day of research, a can of Varathane, and WOW!!! Nice looking, better color, waterproof, and work like perfection now.

  • 2
    You seem to be sort of answering a different question than the one here. Make sure you check out the tour so you know how Stack Exchange sites work.
    – user5572
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 2:37
  • Up to "(unless you are licking your furniture!)" answers the question. The rest is a wander off into the weeds of "furniture licking".
    – FreeMan
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 15:36
  • "the answer comes down to ONLY ONE ANSWER" It really doesn't. I can think of four things offhand, and there are at least a couple more that aren't DIY-level finishes that would withstand any amount of watered alcohol contact over a reasonable lifespan. A general point worth nothing is also worth noting is that "polyurethane" in the title of a product doesn't tell you what it is, it usually describes an additive to a different finish. While two-part urethane coatings are a different animal entirely (and far far better than any consumer finish made anywhere in the world).
    – Graphus
    Commented May 27, 2020 at 16:09
  • This answers the title question (granted, the OP conflicts with the title). I appreciate this answer because I'm looking for finishes suitable for frequent alcohol contact.
    – PLATO
    Commented Feb 29 at 16:28

Shellac will dissolved when it is in contact with alcohol. Oils and stains will not protect the piece from liquids (will stain or get rings). Polyurethane may be your best bet.

  • Rings are the result usually of microcracks in a hard ( read: high pencil test) finish like nitrocellulose lacquer. As the wood expands and contracts with changes in relative humidity, the finish has to stretch a little. Sometimes it forms tiny cracks instead. Which then let water get under the finish, altering the refractive index - a ring. Commented Jun 22, 2015 at 23:52

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