Every time I do not get tired of being amazed by the incredible ability
of my friend Wendy Rome to organize and structure my chaotic thoughts.
Many thanks to her for this!
Finishing Wooden Utensils: A Historical Perspective
People have used wooden bowls, spoons, and other utensils since ancient times. Our ancestors used local woods to make their spoons: linden, birch, oak, cherry, plum, juniper – each region had its own specialty woods. The local trees offered a fast, convenient and eco-friendly source of materials for making essential utensils. For centuries, people probably didn’t give this a second thought. After all, no one was thinking of spoons made of iron or plastic.
Over a long period of time, people learned that they could protect their wooden utensils, extending their useful lives by applying a protective covering. Wooden spoons were often used for longer periods of time than were other utensils, so people focused on treating the wood to extend the lives of these essential instruments.
Protecting the wood became an essential consideration. But equally important was securing that protection without compromising the safety of the spoon. It wasn’t enough to ensure a spoon’s longevity. The spoon also had to remain safe to use for consuming food.
The Emergence of Oils as Wood Utensil Preservatives
Many ‘recipes’ have emerged over the years for wooden spoon protective compounds. Through trial and error, carvers develop their own finishing blends. Though these recipes can vary significantly, they have one essential characteristic in common: the finishes used on eating utensils must be food-safe. Spoons cannot be finished with products that might harm the users.
Linseed oil became one of the most consistently popular oils for processing wooden spoons and many woodworkers continue to use it today. Some masters prefer sea buckthorn or pumpkin oil for both protection and darkening the wood to a beautiful hue. But in general, any edible oil is suitable for covering a wooden spoon: olive, hemp, sesame, coconut, walnut, and others.
Using edible oil to preserve wooden eating utensils offers several key benefits:
- It does not harm the wood.
- It has excellent waterproofing properties.
- It enhances the appearance of the utensil by sealing small — even microscopic — cracks in the wood.
Taking Finishing Compounds Further: Blending Oils and Waxes
As people worked with woods and developed their special finishing recipes, they continued to experiment with ingredients they hoped would improve their finishes. Some masters began blending oils and waxes, adjusting the ratios to that exact level that they believed worked best. Some held the information close, never revealing it to anyone. Others happily shared their knowledge. Yet others sold their finishes to other carvers. Not surprisingly, the development of improvements to finishing wood became something of an industry itself.
Today, carvers can obtain myriad wood finishing recipes on the Internet or, if they prefer, simply purchase ready-made food-safe finishes for their wood products. The best part about using available recipes is that the carver can still experiment with them, tweaking the ingredients to their exact satisfaction.
My Own Finishing Process…and My Not-So-Secret Compound Recipe
As a carver, I enjoy sharing my knowledge so I want to share my experience in this area. Many who buy my spoons assume that most of my effort goes into finding a suitable piece of wood, making a blank, and carving the spoon. It’s true that these efforts consume a lot of my time. But these represent only the early steps of the carver’s work.
I use different carving processes. Sometimes I carve rough spoons. Sometimes I work them with sandpaper until they are so smooth, they almost feel soft to the touch. I bake some of my spoons in the oven. But I leave some of my spoons in their natural state.
Regardless of my carving or baking decisions, all my spoons still have to go through a finishing process. The dedicated carver cares as much about preserving the piece as he or she does about creating it. It’s important to preserve the finished product and protect it from the harmful effects of the environment. After all, I make spoons that are used every day and not just used for decoration!
Let’s take a look at the process.
Give the Spoon as Much Oil as it Can Absorb
Once my spoon is ready to be finished, I use a soft rag to cover it with raw linseed oil. I use several applications, essentially wiping the spoon with linseed oil until the wood can’t absorb any more.
Give it a Rest
Once the spoon has absorbed as much oil as it can, I let the spoon hang overnight, during which time the wood actually continues to absorb the oil that has already been applied.
Give it a Rub and Another Rest
In the morning I wipe the spoon with a cloth, removing any remaining excess oil. I let the spoon rest for several more hours.
Give it a Fitting Finish
When the oil is fully absorbed and the spoon’s surface is completely dry, it’s time for the finish. I call it a wax mastic but the word ‘mastic’ means different things around the world. For purposes of this article, I’ll just call it a wax compound.
To make the wax compound, I use raw linseed oil, natural beeswax, and natural carnauba wax — all natural ingredients that are food-safe. Everyone wants to know the exact proportions I use. Frankly, it can vary slightly each time I make it but the approximate ratio is:
|Percentage of Compound
|Raw Linseed Oil
|20 – 25 %
|5 – 10 %
How to Make the Wax Compound
Start with the proportions shown above. Melt the beeswax and carnauba wax on low heat in a water bath/double boiler. When it is completely melted, add the linseed oil and stir it well, continuing to heat it for about five minutes. Do not bring it to a boil!
After it is well mixed and heated, remove it from the heat and allow it to cool. That’s it! Nothing complicated, as you can see. The mixture will solidify as it cools.
The final mixture should have the consistency of shoe polish or ice cream. If, after cooling, the wax compound is too liquid, reheat it and add a small amount of wax. If the cooled compound is too solid, reheat it and add a bit more linseed oil. As you can see, the recipe is very simple. But ingredients can vary so some tweaking may be required.
When you have achieved the desired consistency, you’ll have to melt the compound one more time so you can transfer it into your prepared containers. I use small glass jars or glass cups. Canning jars are excellent for this. The container you select must be able to withstand both heat and cold.
Pour the compound into the jars and allow it to cool completely. Once it is fully cooled, I put lids on the jars and put the jars in the refrigerator for storage.
Over time, the surface of the wax compound in the glass jars will develop a thin dense membrane on the surface. This is the natural result of the polymerization process. The main thing to know is that, under this membrane, the wax compound remains absolutely normal and workable for finishing your prized wooden products.
When you need to finish a spoon or other wooden product, just take the compound out of the refrigerator and use a soft cloth to apply it to the wood. Then you can wait a few minutes or immediately begin to buff it with a cloth.
I hope this article has answered most of your questions about making your own wax finish. Give it a try. You’ll be amazed at just how easy it is to create your own excellent wax compound. You will know exactly what is in your finish and can convey that information to your customers, who appreciate knowing exactly what they’re buying. And you can adjust your compound as you see fit.
Good luck and be happy!