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My favorite lumberyard (where I get most of my bowl blanks) specializes in curly/fiddleback/birdseye maple, all of which I love for their holographic/chatoyant qualities.

Because I'm a beginner, I've been finishing everything first with mineral oil, then with beeswax. I like these because they're organic, foodsafe, and easy to apply.

However, as I revisit my oldest works (seeing them, for example, in a friend's house), I'm struck by how badly the finish ages - they become dull, start showing scratches easily, and generally lose their luster. Especially sad with the great figure that comes from curly maple!

What's your recommendation for a durable, foodsafe finish that will help my bowls retain their chatoyancy for as long as possible? (It would be great if the end-user could refresh the finish themselves, as they can with butcher-block finish, etc, but I find my recipients rarely do this).

Thanks!

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2 Answers 2

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As covered in a number of previous Answers, example, all finishes can likely be considered food-safe once fully cured as there's no evidence to the contrary.

The best finish hands down, for highlighting chatoyancy is an oil, and chief among them is boiled linseed oil1. A straight oil finish is not a very durable one as commonly applied today (virtually nobody has the time or inclination to do it the old way) and even when many many layers are applied over a long period it's still not necessarily that durable2, but what it needs to withstand hasn't been specified.

Over this you'd use a hard finish, shellac would be OK and so would lacquer, but if outright durability is important oil-based polyurethane would probably be your best bet if you can't use a two-pack product with your current setup.

So in summary, oil first and then something else. Note that depending on what you use you may need to wait more or less for the oil to cure — lacquer for example is sensitive to uncured oil underneath the lacquer film, shellac and oil-based poly much less so (it's perhaps not best practice but both can be successfully applied to freshly oiled wood).


1 Raw linseed oil works just as well but it 'dries' far too slowly to be of much practical use these days.

2 Oil finishes tend to remain permanently sensitive to water, and even blended finishes like "Danish oil" (which are enhanced by the inclusion of some varnish) are still not strictly waterproof. This means that for a fruit bowl for example they're not ideal as permanent staining will almost certainly result from weeping fruits, however it is very difficult to protect against this entirely.

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  • Thanks for the answer! To be more specific, I'm asking about finishes with the following qualities prioritized: * foodsafe * durable (minimizes need for recurring touch-ups) * highlights chatoyancy ...it sounds like I should try shellac. Thanks again!
    – AKA
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 2:59
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    All finishes are foodsafe. I was in a rush so didn't include this emphasis, but it is a point made in a number of previous Answers. Shellac is actually an excellent finish for turners because it can be applied while the workpiece turns and build to a truly stunning result in only a couple of minutes. But if the bowls are intended for much use, and if they have to withstand any cleaning, then it is unlikely you'll find it suitable. Shellac is/can be highly sensitive to water and it isn't nearly as resistant to scratches as poly, which is why French-polished pieces need to be babied somewhat
    – Graphus
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 8:36
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    On enhancing chatoyancy, if you want to focus on shellac I highly recommend you do a direct comparison between shellac alone and with BLO underneath it. While shellac by itself does enhance chatoyance quite well it has always been very common to oil first as this makes the most of any figure present (maximises contrast) and also brings out the absolute maximum in optical/holographic/cat's eye effects. I've done the comparisons myself but everyone needs to see it with their own eyes on the woods they commonly use.
    – Graphus
    Commented Feb 13, 2019 at 8:37
  • @Graphus, Is BLO + shellac + poly a realistic finishing system? From the comments above, it seems like that combination might play to all the strengths/weaknesses.
    – gnicko
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 2:56
  • @GregNickoloff, yep. I've used this a lot since I first read of it (on Wood magazine's site IIRC). Here's what it does in short order: enhances figure, builds finish thickness, then adds the sort of minimum water-resistance we sort of expect these days. Of course just one or two thin layers of poly at the end doesn't give the full protection the varnish can provide, but it's enough for a great many things in the home. It's hard to beat if you're after a fast way to finish projects, that still provides for great looks (almost max grain 'pop') and a decent level of protection [contd]
    – Graphus
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 10:49
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I have been using carnauba wax to finish my turning projects recently. It's pretty durable and is food-safe right away. I've been turning bowls from maple butcher block, it shows off the chatoyancy nicely.

I apply Carnuba wax in a two-step process.

  1. After the pieces is finished and sanded smooth, turn up the speed on the lathe and hold a stick of solid wax (I bought mine at Woodcraft) against the piece until I can see that there's at least a skim of wax over the whole surface.
  2. Take a small square of some kind of sturdy cloth and press it firmly onto the spinning piece. I use a piece of an old dish towel folded once. Without folding, it's too thin, and the cloth gets too hot to hold. It it's too thick, then it tends to slip a bit or I might not be able to follow the contours very well. After a second or so, the wax melts and the wood changes color as it "wets". Slowly move the cloth along the surface until all of the wax has melted in.

It's a pretty simple process, and I think it smells nice, too.

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    Can you provide some details of what you're using and how for anyone who wants to try this option? I presume you're not just holding a block of carnauba against the spinning workpiece :-D
    – Graphus
    Commented Nov 3, 2021 at 10:56
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    @Graphus, done. In fact what I do is not far off of what you just described. 😂 Thanks for the prod.
    – Tim D
    Commented Nov 5, 2021 at 21:53
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    Colour me surprised! I wonder if the stick is a blend? I was thinking the melting point of pure carnauba made this application technique impractical, although I suppose within reason there is no limit to the heat friction can generate.
    – Graphus
    Commented Nov 8, 2021 at 20:46
  • @Graphus I updated the description a bit to reflect the fact that the reason it's "too hot" is that it's too hot to hold. folding the cloth is not about damaging the wax, it's about not burning your fingers. And I'm pretty sure it's pure carnuba wax.
    – Tim D
    Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 1:58
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    Yes I got that from the original wording Tim, ta. Anything over about 60°C is already too hot for comfort for most people (approximate temp of hot coffee or tea), and carnauba melts at a bit above 80°C (>180°F) which is well into "Oo oo, hot!" territory :-)
    – Graphus
    Commented Nov 9, 2021 at 11:30

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