I'm developing a hands-on workshop/demo series for elementary schools kids. At some point, I'd like the kids to apply a finish to the baubles I/we make during the workshops.

What would be a good wood finish that's safe for the kids to work with, and apply to their creations?

Maybe Shellac would be an option too??? I know it's normally made with denatured alcohol, which is poisonous. But I just found out our provincial liquor control board may permit the purchase of pure ethanol for medical, research, manufacturing, and other 'non-beverage' purposes.

I understand that dry shellac flakes are safe. Is this correct? If so, I could mix up my own shellac with 'shellac flakes + pure ethanol,' which I'd regard as a fairly kid-safe mixture. Would this work, or am I missing something here?

  • 1
    Define 'safe'. Apologies if this sounds like I'm being a smartass, I'm not, it's just that what one person considers safe another doesn't. And the perception of acceptable risk shifts over time, within my lifetime many things that were once considered safe enough for school use (with supervision naturally) are now restricted or banned, so that in many places adults can no longer even purchase them over the counter. [contd] – Graphus Jul 3 at 15:04
  • You could argue that waterbased stuff is the easy answer, after all you clean up using just water so how dangerous can they be? But it's not as simple as that because they're still not completely safe and if any were accidentally ingested (and they look like a bit like milk in the can!) you're still looking at rushing the person to the hospital. – Graphus Jul 3 at 15:07
  • Shellac is used to coat candy and pills so it can be safe to eat. I doubt the stuff you buy for finishing has anything extra that is particularly dangerous. Depending on where you live you may also be able to get denatured alcohol that doesn't contain methanol. It's widely available in the UK and is usually named 'bio-ethanol' or similar. I don't know what they use in place to 'denature' the ethanol so you might have to ask them. – Jambo Jul 6 at 10:48
  • As @Jambo mentions, shellac itself is edible so it should be considered completely safe. Pure grain alcohol however is a different story. Ethanol is a significant health risk if ingested (this can't be overstressed in the case of humans of low body mass) and it has an odour which a certain percentage find inviting..... and it's also a significant fire risk, being much much more flammable than gasoline for example. But aside from that, shellac as a finish is not easy to apply well because it dries very very quickly. – Graphus Jul 6 at 14:12
  • @Graphus I should probably have added that shellac in ethanol smells incredible and is a constant torment when french polishing. If the alcohol I was using wasn't poisonous I'd definitely have tried drinking it. – Jambo Jul 6 at 15:49

If you want something 100% non toxic then look for raw linseed oil a.k.a flax seed oil. It's a traditional finishing oil but in its raw form it does take a very long time to dry between coats. It's often sold in health food shops as a dietary supplement.

Be warned than most linseed oil intended for use as a finish is "boiled", which actually means it has chemicals added to make it dry faster. They used to use quite nasty metallic driers but they may use something more benign now.

  • There are chemicals in that boiled linseed oil you buy at the big box store, but that's not what "boiled" means. It is possible, though apparently difficult, to buy pure boiled linseed oil -- actually boiled. It's dangerous to try to boil it yourself because the boiling temperature is close to the ignition temperature. The pure stuff is not toxic and you can handle it with bare hands. You could also mix it with beeswax to make a thicker finish. – Joe Jul 5 at 18:20
  • My understanding is that the original process involved heating the linseed oil to make it cure faster when applied, hence the moniker "boiled". A long time ago they started using additives such as metallic driers instead to achieve the same result but the term "boiled linseed oil" stuck. I don't think modern BLO is heated in the original fashion but I could be wrong. I have a book with a guide to boiling your own in the traditional method but it seems pretty involved. – Jambo Jul 5 at 23:04
  • Depending on which sources you believe, boiled linseed oil was never boiled per se, it was heated in closed vessels to pre-polymerise it. Or it was boiled, in open vessels (a significant fire risk as they were using an open flame) to partially oxidise it. Both processes have been used historically for linseed and other oils for various purposes, creating end products that dried faster but were different in other ways. You can still get the one or two versions that are produced by heating, but they are rare and tend to be much more expensive than the common stuff with the metallic driers. – Graphus Jul 6 at 14:19

If it is woodturning you can apply pure beeswax, the friction will melt it, and it's a beautiful finish (though not very durable) For woodworking I would suggest finding a non-toxic beeswax paste, or you can make it yourself, same effect

I think this will allow the kids to experience finishing without chance of harm, which I think is what you're aiming for. Beeswax gives a nice layer of protection, water resistant, and has a visible effect.

Another neat idea is using water soluble non-toxic colors (even Crayola markers) - these would be susceptible to water, but when you apply and then apply wax, you kind of set them in - you can reapply wax as much as you want, use a paper towel to wipe off excesses. And renew whenever you want.

Non toxi paste wax receipe: http://www.instructables.com/id/How-to-Make-Non-Toxic-Paste-Wax/ Marker colored, wax finished spinning top (by: Eli Avisera): https://goo.gl/images/K3ebNY

  • For that matter you could also just use paint. I believe tempera paint is non-toxic, don't know how well it adheres to wood. – Joe Jul 9 at 12:59

Tried & True finishes are advertised as being safe, non-toxic, and free of heavy metal driers and solvents. They're all based on polymerized linseed oil, so they'll dry much faster than raw linseed oil. I've used the varnish oil and the original wood finish, and they both give excellent results. You do need to use some elbow grease and be careful not to apply too much, but other than that they're easy to use and give excellent results.

Beeswax? Paste wax? Mineral oil?

Food grade mineral oil can safely be ingested (though too much will act as a mild laxative).

  • These are all obvious thoughts too, but beeswax as-is can't really be used as a finish (i.e. you can't easily apply it to the wood, hence paste wax). Paste wax contains MS/white spirit so nearly the same concern there as with varnish. And as for mineral oil, they might as well use nothing for all the protection it affords LOL – Graphus Jul 4 at 13:26

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