Wood is a remarkable material, but with few exceptions, it doesn’t fare well when left exposed to the elements, or to daily use and wear. A finish not only seals the surface of a wood product to protect it from damage, but enhances the colour, texture, lustre, and detail of the grain.
Food Safe Mineral Oil
I use food safe mineral oils to treat cutting boards, serving boards, platters, and bowls. This seals the wood to prevent damage from moisture and protects it from drying out when not in use. Mineral oil needs to be re-applied regularly, and any food safe oil or wax can be used.
Traditional lacquer is made from shellac, a wax derived from beetle shells. Another type is made from the sap of the lacquer tree. Synthetic lacquers are widely available, and I use a spray-on, water-based lacquer for my wood projects, which is less environmentally harmful.
Lacquer forms a clear, durable protective coating that brings out brilliant colour in the grain, and has a very glossy lustre. The downside to lacquer is that its surface is so shiny that scratches show easily in the light, and the finish can only be repaired by re-finishing the entire piece, or section of the piece.
Painted finishes are very common, and a variety of paints exist, running the gamut from plastic to biodegradable and organic. I do not currently work with paints, as I feel it’s important to allow the natural wood to show, and be the main feature of the finished product. However, I have no qualms about producing an unfinished wood product that you are welcome to paint yourself as a DIY project.
Polyurethane is a spray, brush, or wipe-on polymer that forms a clear coating on the surface of wood. It is similar to lacquer, but not as durable, and has a semi-gloss lustre. It’s easier to apply, and can be repaired by lightly sanding an area, and simply re-applying fresh coats of finish.
Resin finishes and “river tables” are extremely popular right now. Resin is a pourable liquid plastic that dries to a super-hard finish that can be polished to a high gloss. They can be very beautiful and many artists use them to great effect.
I do not use resins because they tend to take a beautiful organic, biodegradable medium and turn it into a plastic that cannot be recycled or composted. It runs against my grain (pun intended).
Stain is pretty familiar to most people. It is commonly used to change the colour of a particular wood, either to enhance the existing colour or to make an entirely new colour. It can be mixed with lacquers and oils to tint wood, too, though it is more common to apply stain first and then use a clear topcoat over it.
I employ stains to a limited extent, usually when I have to use boards of the same species that are wildly different shades in colour. I also employ a stain when boards have a large percentage of very light sapwood that doesn’t match the heartwood colour. I never use a stain unless asked or unless I’ve consulted with the soon-to-be owner of a piece.
Tung Oil comes from – surprise – the tung tree. I use Tung Oil widely in my work, as it is a natural finish that is still fairly resilient and easy to maintain. The oil adds a slight golden tone when applied to the wood, and can have a matte-to-semi-gloss lustre, depending on how many layers are applied. If Tung Oil is well cared for, it will last a lifetime. I also love the smell!
Woodburning, or Pyrography, is a traditional method for decorating wooden items. The art form produces dark brown or black line work, and can be shaded with the woodburning tool, as well. The lines create a texture that is wonderful to touch, and adds another dimension to wood projects. Woodburning is done before finishes are applied, and clear coats sharpen and enhance the colours of the pattern.
Pyrography is a hand craft, and as such computer-controlled, laser precision is impossible. Wood also has a mind of its own, so you might plan a line in one place, but the grain of the wood takes the burning tool and steers it another direction. I usually describe woodburning as “rustic” in look and feel, and there are actually many benefits to a hand-burned piece!
1. Quality and Value. You know that your hand-burned piece required a heck of a lot of time and skill to produce.
2. Distinction. You know that your hand-burned piece is totally unique and un-reproducible.
3. Beauty. Pyrography often leaves a textured surface that adds tactile appeal to your personal piece.