Care and feeding of your food-safe wood

With proper care, your @ncwoodsmith wood bowl or board will last for generations!

THE BASICS

  • Hand wash after each use with mild dish soap and a gentle scrub pad, or lemon wedge with coarse salt.
  • Towel dry immediately after washing.
  • If needed, recondition the wood with walnut oil or my Wood Balm (walnut oil, beeswax and carnauba wax).
  • Never put in the dishwasher or microwave.
  • Don’t submerge in water.
  • Avoid vegetable or mineral oil to recondition them; these products contain ingredients that can culture bacteria or off odors, among other reasons to avoid them (see below).

You have purchased a “living” piece of functional art. By “living”, I mean the wood will change with temperature and humidity. Remember that wood is basically a collection of straws designed to move water and nutrients through a tree. Put your bowl in water and it will do its best to absorb that water. The food-safe Wood Balm finish on your piece is water resistant, not waterproof. In the ambient air of your air-conditioned home, you should have no problems. If you leave your bowl or board in a car on a hot, sunny day, the high temperature could make it crack. Same car on a cold, wet day, the bowl could crack if taken into a warm, dry home.  Allow the wood to acclimate by putting it inside a paper bag for a day or so.

Never put it in the dishwasher — it most likely will be damaged or destroyed by the extreme heat, water and chemical detergents (and is likely to absorb some of that detergent, imparting it into your food later). Don’t put them in the microwave and don’t use them for storing food inside the refrigerator — which is a dehydrator. Between the cold dry air on the outside of the bowl and wet food on the inside, the resulting stress can cause cracks.

Your wood piece comes finished with a walnut oil, beeswax and carnuba wax blend called Wood Balm (extra tins available for purchase at NCWoodSmith.etsy.com). You’ll hear lots of suggestions on caring for your food-safe wood piece, and much of it in my opinion is bad advice (even from well-known names). Here are my recommendations:

Cleaning: In most situations, you can simply rinse and scrub with a nylon pad or brush. Mild soap is fine, but may remove more of the finish than no soap. Alternately, you can use a lemon wedge and coarse salt to scrub the wood surface to clean it. Rinse off and towel dry. If the wood looks like water is sinking in instead of beading/rolling off, or if it starts to look a little dry, apply some walnut oil or Wood Balm, but only after the wood has thoroughly dried. Depending on use, you may need to do this once or twice a year but there is no problem with using it more frequently. 

AVOID mineral oil and vegetable oils. Mineral oil is a petroleum product and never cures/hardens — so it will interfere with the existing finish, which does harden/cure. I strongly suggest you avoid those (Boos Block Oil, etc.) Vegetable oils like olive or avocado oil are likely to go rancid before they can cure (and are likely to build up to a gummy/sticky residue on the surface, especially if used in conjunction with mineral oil). Though I started off using mineral oil, I quickly switched to walnut oil — it’s far superior and has been used for hundreds of years.

Conditioning the wood: For water-resistant protection, walnut oil is the best product available. The Wood Balm I sell also contains beeswax and carnauba wax to increase durability and water resistance. Walnut oil hardens in the wood fibers, offering great water resistance. It typically takes a week or so to totally cure — fresh air and UV light (reflected sunlight) help the process. Don’t be afraid to use your bowl or board soon after applying new finish, but for best results allow it to cure. If using my Wood Balm, I suggest briefly warming the wood in an oven on its lowest setting (mine is 170 degrees). Set the wood on top of tin foil to keep food oils on your oven rack from transferring to the wood. Fifteen minutes is plenty — too much longer and the wood could crack. You just want the wood a bit warm so when Wood Balm is applied, it melts into the wood fibers like butter. You can apply Wood Balm at room temperature without issue.

If you accidentally leave the wood submerged in water, it is most likely going to warp or crack as it dries. To mitigate this, towel dry and then place in a paper bag for a day or so until dry — this allows the wood to dry slowly.

Stains: Wood is like a sponge and will absorb stains from food if given the chance. Never allow fruit or vegetables to rot while in contact with the wood. Even fresh fruits like berries can stain the wood. The stains don’t come out, so consider them part of the wood’s character. The best way to limit this is to maintain the finish with Wood Balm.

Storage: Wood bowls need to breathe and they need fresh air. Never store a food-safe wood piece in plastic wrap, plastic bags or in a closed plastic tub. Blocked from fresh air, the walnut oil (if uncured) can go rancid (not dangerous, it just can impart an “off” taste). Worse, mold or mildew can develop in damp conditions — those kind of stains (and off flavors) are likely to remain for the life of the bowl. If you need to store your food-safe wood, cardboard boxes or paper bags are the best choice.

If your piece features stone inlay Wood can “move”, the inlay can’t … and given the right conditions, that difference can create tension that can cause the inlay to fail. Wood will move when faced with prolonged exposure to high humidity, low humidity, or extreme heat or cold. In your home, you should have no problems. Just take care to follow the guidelines above, and use extreme care when washing the piece. A scrub pad is better than a scrub brush, because bristles could work their way into the inlay and loosen the stones. 

If your piece features resin inlay Similar to the stone inlays, resin does not move like wood does. Take care to follow the guidelines above to keep your piece in beautiful condition.

If your piece features Lichtenberg pyrography … Lichtenberg patterns are a beautifully random design created by thousands of volts of electricity trying to complete a circuit in a resistant material. The process takes a minute or more as the electricity slowly burns the patterns, branching off many times to create a design reminiscent of a tree, lightning, nerves, blood vessels. The process was discovered in the 1700s by Georg Christoph Lichtenberg, a German physicist who used static electricity to create a “lightning tree” pattern in dust on a metal surface. His work led to the technology we use in photocopying. More recent study into these patterns (known as fractals) by Benoit Mandelbrot produced unparalleled advances in mathematics, economics and science. Can you tell that I’m fascinated with this stuff? 🙂

The burning process hardens the wood, so the design is not at all fragile. Don’t be afraid to gently scrub it with a nylon- or natural-bristle brush. Avoid using a knife on the patterned side to preserve the look of the design. The blank side can be used as a regular cutting board, if desired, and can be refreshed by sanding to make it look like new. Reseal with my Wood Balm or walnut oil. If needed, you can work the beeswax cleanly into the design with a toothbrush or nylon brush. The charred wood in the design may release some black carbon when cleaned — this is normal.

If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to contact me (Scott T. Smith) at scott@ncwoodsmith.com or by phone/text at 954-295-7157.

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