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So, I just finished my first carving: a Welsh lovespoon, chiseled out of a cedar plank and sanded down smooth.

But now I want to give it that deep rich color and bring out the wonderful smell of cedar. There are a couple of spots with really nice grain spirals, and even the remnants of a knot, and I want to make all those variations pop. But I've never finished, varnished, oiled -- anything -- before.

What should I use?

Oh, and it needs to be food-safe!

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    Well, there exists cedarwood oil, which happens to smell of... cedar. You can get small quantities (30ml) for one-digit currency prices in food quality, or half a liter in "not food" quality for low double digit prices. – Damon Feb 17 '16 at 10:44
  • Checking on what the heck a Welsh love spoon is, I find that it is meant to be a decorative item and not a culinary tool, so there is no need to worry about moisture resistance or food safety. – Ast Pace Feb 18 '16 at 17:53
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But now I want to give it that deep rich color and bring out the wonderful smell of cedar.

Any finish or treatment (e.g. mineral oil) you apply will actually have the tendency to lessen the smell, AFAIK nothing will enhance it. Traditionally the cedar linings of chest and cupboards was left unfinished for precisely this reason. And from what I've read you the characteristic odour will be completely gone after a few washes, sorry!

Sidenote: I'm guessing you used western red cedar which is not actually a true cedar, but it does still have good rot resistance. The reason it smells like cedar is that it has the same aromatic compounds in the wood that real cedar (cedar of Lebanon) does and these are a natural preservative.

So your spoon is made from a naturally resistant wood, making it a good candidate for having no finish put on it at all. Even used for stirring soups etc. it could still last for years and years. I have an unfinished beech spoon that's easily 20 years old now and other than the surface being a little rough it is in extremely good condition. My mother used to leave it standing in simmering soups or stews and it was left soaking in washing water many times..... wood can be surprisingly resilient :-)

Fine sanding and raising the grain
If you want to try using no finish then you may want to spend a little extra time with your finish sanding, using as your finest grit at least 220-240 but you could go up to maybe 320 or 400 (there is likely little point in going any higher than this as there can be on denser woods).

Because the spoon will be exposed to water, even if only when you wash it, it would be best to pre-raise the grain so that your smoothly sanded wood doesn't go rough and you feel like all the sanding effort was wasted. So after final sanding you wet the wood down. It's best to do this with hot water. The surface will go rough as some of the compressed wood fibres will swell up and it will stay rough after drying.

Now let the wood full dry and then lightly sand again with your finest paper. You're just looking to removed the swelled or 'raised' grain that sits above the surface level, nothing more. Some people do this wetting and sanding cycle two or three times just to be on the safe side.

After that you should have no problems with the wood going rough once the spoon is in service.

Oiling for looks
Just like with many cutting boards, you can treat the wood for cosmetic reasons (most boards do not need to be oiled and actually last perfectly well without it).

So if you want to enhance the look of the wood and give it that deeper tone you can do the same thing and rub in one or more coats of oil. The standard recommendation for the oil for this these days is mineral oil. In the recent past vegetable oils were used for the same purpose and if you'd prefer that then any light-coloured, flavourless oil should do fine but use a nut or seed oil for preference. Despite what you might read elsewhere, you don't have to worry about the oil going rancid and giving an 'off' taste to your food.

Note: mineral oil or vegetable oil is not a waterproofing treatment for wood, as contradictory as it seems.


Edit:

Varnish
It just occurred to me you might be using this for dry jobs in the kitchen, in which case you may want to varnish instead of oil the wood to enhance the look. This will do a lot to reduce the nice smell I'm afraid.

If you use varnish you'll want to thin it and wipe it on thinly. So decant a couple of spoons of varnish from the tin to a small jar and add about twice that amount of mineral spirits. A few wiped on/wiped off coats should give a good satin sheen to the wood.

You can apply more than six or seven if you'd like to build more of a glossy film.

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  • Wow, thank you for the detailed answer! Like staining, I didn't know anything about sanding, except that you should start with rough and move to fine -- so I used emery cloth first, then 400, then 800 (lol...) Obviously, the 800 did basically nothing that the 400 didn't already do. But that was fun to learn. The thing is smooth as glass, now, which is sort of astounding; I had no idea wood could get that smooth! About the look of the wood, it's quite light, I got the cedar from Lowes and have no clue what kind it is but usually I think of cedar as reddish and this is almost white. So I'll oil. – AndrewG Feb 17 '16 at 11:13
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    "Danish oil" is an oil and varnish mixture, then thinned. It's not a bad finish but I generally advice making it yourself since having the oil and the varnish separately is so much more useful than just a single mixture (also much cheaper since the manufacturers overcharge us for the spirits component in this sort of product). Now that aside people disagree about whether this kind of thing is food safe but how the thing is used does matter (wet v. dry jobs), Once fully cured it should be fine either way, but you couldn't guarantee it. [contd] – Graphus Feb 17 '16 at 12:42
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    [contd] Tung oil I'm not a fan of generally but it's not the worst choice here, although personally I'd be more inclined to use walnut oil (not bought as a wood finish, sold as a salad oil). One thing to mention, there's an awkward marketing thing here, "Tung Oil FInish" is widely sold and they are very much like so-called Danish oil, an oil and varnish mix. Some don't even contain any tung oil at all :-| Anyway, assuming you do get real tung oil it's usually slow to 'dry' and it might take you over a week to apply four coats or so. Then there is a curing period, at least 2 weeks to be sure. – Graphus Feb 17 '16 at 12:52
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    Maybe I should just stash all this knowledge away in the back of my mind and leave this particular item unfinished, just really well-sanded. – AndrewG Feb 17 '16 at 13:00
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    @AndrewG, mineral oil you're safe with as it is always just the one type of thing and can be taken internally (it's a laxative when taken in spoonful amounts). But I think no finish is the best option myself, and numerous spoon makers do leave their spoons unfinished. – Graphus Feb 18 '16 at 20:30

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