Food Safe Wood Finishes

Make it Shine

Instead of using toxic chemicals, I use finishes on wooden cooking utensils made from plants and bugs. This is great, as long as you don’t mind eating bug juice. Here are the four best, from right to left, Chinese style.

  1. Linseed Oil. Flaxseed oil, which is usually heat treated to decrease drying time. (That’s an old Elijah Craig bourbon bottle, by the way.) I use the brand Tried and True, who makes a great “Danish Oil,” which dries quickly. That big Walnut scoop turned that color with just one coat.
  2. Shellac. Essentially bug secretions which are dissolved in denatured alcohol. Comes in a variety of shades, and is easily homemade. Those two mason jars in the middle are dark amber and blonde, and made by yours truly. It leaves a very shiny finish.
  3. Wax Finishes. The most durable is Carnauba wax, which is what that Liberon turner’s wax is made from. The carver’s mallet on the end is covered in that wax, which gives it a good bit of shine. Beeswax polish is made from beeswax and a combination of either an oil and/or turpentine. Terps can be a little sketchy on cooking utensils, so I go with linseed oil.
  4. Nothing. My favorite finish, which is on most of my personal utensils. As woodworkers like to say, it’s free, and available everywhere. If you really cook, your wood will soak up a nice finish in no time.

As the great food writer Michael Pollan says, don’t eat anything with ingredients you can’t pronounce. The same goes for food safe wood finishes. If you can’t pronounce the ingredients, don’t put that finish on your spatula.

Making Kitchen Tools

Limitless Possibilities

Wooden kitchen tools can be made with just a few carving tools, or you can go in whole hog like I have done, and have a dozen or more tools to use. After all, the person who dies with the most tools, wins. Even though you’re still dead.

The bottom one, painted with some homemade iron oxide Swedish Red paint, is a traditional Swedish butter knife, though we mostly use those as jam spreaders. Multi-tasking is fine.

The middle one is my version of a butter knife, made from walnut. The finish is blonde shellac, which I also made, with the help of the bugs who laid the resin.

The spoon at the top is also walnut, with a food grade linseed oil finish. I made the distinction between the heartwood and sap wood part of the design. It came out nicely.

This is just part of a large set I am making for in-laws, as they gave me a stack of logs. MJ also has a niece who is renovating a house, and has a kitchen with nothing in it. That won’t last much longer.

Time to give a shout out to a great US tool company. Flexcut tools in PA make some great carving tools. These would have been much harder to make without their tools.

The folding carving knife was a present from MJ, and it has two blades of different lengths, but it insures her that she will have spoons and spatulas for life. The small drawknife is a recent purchase, but I used it on all those items in the picture. That honking giant bowl gouge took some time to find, and naturally it was being sold by my favorite woodworking store in Atlanta, Highland Woodworking. It’s a full 2″ wide on the business end, and will take out a serious chunk of wood. Bowl carving is in the near future.

Mallet, Part I–Dogwood Root Club

Seriously Hard and Dangerous

At the University of Alabama, I lived at the Men’s Honors Dorm, a somewhat notorious institution called the Mallet Assembly. It was home for everything from high minded intellectuals to infamous perverts. I prefer to think that I was in the former category.

So now I have undertaken several projects of making mallets. My first is every traditional woodworker’s dream, a splitting club ( aka, a maul), made from unbelievably hard dogwood root. The club is used to strike the back of a froe (pictured), which is a wood splitting tool. Mine happened to be made by the Amish.

One of our many thunderstorms this year blew over one of our big dogwood trees, and actually uprooted it. All I had to do was cut the root off with my old double bitted axe, and shape it right there on my shaving horse (also pictured), with a drawknife and a spokeshave. This club is full of heavyosity.

The first trial run was that piece of walnut, which it split with only four whacks. The second run was on some hornbeam, which is impossible to split. I did it anyway–after cutting through ninety five percent of the hornbeam log.

Cookbook Bench

Let’s Cook

MJ wanted a bookstand for our cookbooks that can be moved around in the kitchen, so I dove into my scrap pile and came up with some goodies. My total cost for new components for this stand was 9 1/2 cents.

Most people make these out of plywood, but I had some 1/4″ thick poplar boards in the scrap pile, along with some cherry pieces parts, and I made just a very few saw cuts. The molding on the front is actually some crown molding, which I grooved with an old Stanley 45 combination plane. I used the same plane to cut the bead at the top.

My contribution to the design was to drill eight holes in the base, and use handmade French nails as a means of keeping the books open. There are actually sixteen possible arrangements for the nails, to accommodate different sized books.

Because there are three different varieties of wood used, I finished it with a dark amber shellac, which was also made by yours truly. I did have some help from the lac bugs, which is where shellac comes from. It is also used in making candy like Raisinettes and Jelly Beans, so there is another food connection. I doubt that people who eat those even know that they are eating bug parts.

That’s it in action with one of my favorite cookbooks. You have to like a book that has both a cow and chicken on the cover.

Child’s Rocker Repair

Almost Ready to Rock

Family heirlooms, if they can be reclaimed, should never be thrown away. My in-laws commissioned me to repair this probably homemade child’s rocker, which was found in a shed, and was in seriously rough shape. One back leg was broken, two slats in the seat were broken, and every joint was coming unglued. There is a good chance that MJ’s grandfather Richter, who was born in Germany, made this, as he was a master carpenter.

There isn’t much that isn’t completely rotten that can’t be repaired with a couple of bar clamps, a c-clamp, some fasteners, and half a bottle of glue. And then there is the ingenious part of the repair.

Animals at work

I needed something to brace up the broken slats, so I searched my scrap pile for the best item. Then there it was–a River Birch piece that had been peeled by a Beaver, that I found on the river. I thought, how can anything be more appropriate, to fix a home made rocker?

I shaped a nice curve in it with a spokeshave, coated the top with glue, and attached it with a couple of fasteners. It is a little crooked, but the slats were broken in different places, so I had to angle it ever so slightly.

If you are wondering why my 23 ounce framing hammer is sitting in the seat, it is my clamp to keep down the broken slats while the glue dried. That hammer was yet another present from MJ, who actually remembers sitting in this chair. With any luck, kids will still be rocking in this thing, a hundred years from now.

Cherry/Pine Hall Tree

It’s the Stairs that are Crooked

The problem with being rusticated with your dear spouse is that she finds a hundred things for you to do. The truth is, I needed to do most of these things anyway.

A case in point is the Hall Tree, all but one of the pieces of which I have had for years. I finally got the last piece of pine for this, as the upright part of the tree is laminated from three pine boards (three 1″ x 3″s). The Cherry feet came out of my famous scrap pile, and the post is attached with a tenon. And then there is the hardware.

The small iron hooks are Amish handmade, and the nails were handmade in a World Heritage site nail factory in France. The big hooks came from my favorite tool seller, Lee Valley, which is based in Canada.

The big framed dingus in the background is one of the favorite magazine features that I have written. They also published one of the photos I took as a full page intro, of MJ fly fishing for brook trout. If she will model for free, I suppose the least I could do is make her a hall tree. And buy her a beer.

Walnut!

The Marx Brothers overseeing My Workshop Log Pile

Finding good Black Walnut wood can get really expensive. Eighteen trees once sold for $80,000.01, and a single tree sold for $17,000. That’s some pricey wood.

Then my niece inherited her grandmother’s house, and the reno required the removal of one Walnut tree. My brother-in-law offered me a deal on it. Anything involving Walnut is an offer you can’t refuse.

It’s a barter deal: I get the wood, but have to make goodies for my niece’s upcoming wedding, a minimum of ten spoons from Walnut, and three Walnut bowls. Since I have until June, I began with a couple of other projects.

French Style Rolling Pin

This rolling pin is for my sister-in-law, as a down payment for that pile of logs. It was made on my quite primitive foot powered reciprocating lathe. My tool rest is an old broken axe handle. My workshop is also our laundry room.

Scoop with Sap Wood Edge

This scoop is for us, for our half gallon mason jar full of Louisiana rice. It’s only roughed out at this point, but it was made mostly with just those three tools. A true expert will recognize the hook knife as one made by Hans Karlsson, the great Swedish smith. The wood carving knife is Flexcut, made in the US. The broad hatchet is a flea market find. Good tools make life easier, so just buy the best you can afford.

Now it’s time to make my way back down to the spoon mines. Wood shavings will fly, and and all I have to do, is remove everything that doesn’t look like a spoon.

A New Picnic Table

Thank You, Mr. Jefferson, for that Declaration

Just in time for the Fourth of Julie, I made a new picnic table! This stylish but economical design is made from nothing but PT 2x4s, some of which are reclaimed. When this green wood dries out some, it will be painted with red flour paint. It’s a great addition to our outdoor kitchen.

This design has been on the interwebs for awhile, but I simplified it, and made in smaller. I also made it more consistent. The 62″ width should probably be 64″. The length is over 4′, which is the most economical use of 8′ 2x4s. Unless it’s roasting hot, my wife and I can hardly keep ourselves from sitting at it.

Besides painting it, I need to level it, as we live on an Appalachian mountainside. That would be Ann Johnson Mountain, to be precise. Not many people can say they live on a mountain named after a woman.

Where are the Burgers?

Fire Pit/Outdoor Hearth

Dutch oven and “Camp” Dutch oven in the Outdoor Hearth Hybrid

This mammoth version of a fire pit actually doubles as an outside hearth, which can be used like a similar arrangement in many colonial kitchens. The key to the set up is the crane from which that dutch oven is hanging.

A Multi-tasking Fire Pit

The crane, like those in colonial kitchen open hearth fireplaces, makes all the difference. The cook can’t immediately control the temperature of a wood fire, but they can control the amount of heat that reaches a pot, by swinging it from side to side, or raising and lowering it up and down via an s-hook. Additionally, the rebar grid at the bottom allows the cook to sit a dutch oven directly over the fire, as in the first photo.

The Holes Drilled in the Bottom are Not Visible

So there are at least three ways to cook here–on the fire, close to the fire, or swinging in the air. And if you just want to use it as a fire pit, the crane is on a hinge, and can swing completely behind the pit.

This was made from an old industrial grade propane tank, so it is recycled as well. An oak fell on it once, and I mean a big one, and it knocked the pit into the ground up to the top of the legs. The only damage was to bend the crane support slightly. We pulled it out of the ground, moved it, and I twisted the support slightly around, and put it back to work. Now that’s rustic.

Red Flour Paint

Red Flour Paint on Top of a Red Cabinet

Cook some paint! Or not, as this really doesn’t have to be cooked. Cooking changes the consistency of the starch used, so do some chemistry experiments, or just throw the ingredients into a jar and shake.

Ingredients

Flour (Rye or Wheat)

Water

Red Iron Oxide

Linseed Oil

I left off proportions, because everyone wants a different consistency with paint. Rye is the traditional choice for flour, but wheat is less expensive. Cook those with the water, then add the pigment–there are tons of natural pigments to choose from, and a very little goes a long ways. My advice is to stick with the mineral ones, as they are fade proof. I use food grade linseed oil for interior paint, and nasty boiled linseed oil for exterior paint. It just dries faster.

Once you get into the natural paint deal, you may never buy prepared paint again. To steal a comparison from Wendell Berry, it’s like the difference between real food and industrial food, industrial food being like industrial sex.