Good Question: Green Wood Finish?

Good Question: Green Wood Finish?

Jonathan B.
Sep 24, 2007

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Dear AT,

We are building some wood cabinets and need to apply a finish. What is the most environmentally preferable choice for this? Is it natural oils?

We would like the finish to be long lasting, aesthetically pleasing, and safe. The cabinets will be just outside our bedroom and we have young children.



Dear Teos,

When it comes to finishes for wood, there are many, many options, including oil finishes, which you mention, plus shellac, lacquer, polyurethane, acrylic, epoxy, and wax. Some of these can be green, and some not. You've named three criteria, and we'll use those to winnow down the options. From there, we'll assess the different green choices from what remains.

Criteria 1: Long lasting. This knocks out wax from the list, as it requires semiannual maintenance.

Next up: aesthetically pleasing and safe.Criteria 2: Aesthetically pleasing. To us, this means not too shiny. So, on this criteria alone, we're going to strike the glossy polyurethane, acrylic, shellac, lacquer, and epoxy finishes from our list. Aesthetic for us also means that the fumes from application aren't noxious: strike two for epoxy, lacquer, and shellac.

Criteria 3: Safe. To answer this, we'll need to look at it two ways. First, is it safe during application and curing? Complete curing is a chemical process that takes 6 weeks, during which some finishes offgas: strike 3 for epoxy. This is a potential problem for just about any finish, including those that are completely natural: just because it's natural doesn't mean it's healthy. Second, because there are children involved, we'd also look for a finish that's rated for use on children's toys; there's a European standard for this, so an imported finish might be the easiest way to go.

OK, so here's how our list looks now:
• Natural Oil

So, yes, a natural oil looks like the way to go in your situation. One caveat, though: all-natural oils, like Tung Oil, or the products made by AGLAIA and Tried and True, can be a bit finicky to apply and can take a bit longer to cure than products like OSMO Polyx Oil that are blends of natural oils and waxes with refined (i.e., non-smelly) petroleum products.

Here are three oil finishes that meet the criteria we outlined above:

  1. Tried & True Original Wood Finish (no synthetics, no official word on use on toys.)
  2. OSMO Polyx Oil (made with refined synthetics, rated safe for toys when dry.)
  3. AGLAIA Resin Oil Protection PDF (no synthetics, rated safe for toys when dry.)
image of Sam Maloof bureau by Jonathan Binzen via Fine Woodworking

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