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TableQuestion: I have a client wanting a dining table with virtually no finish, but she also favors wood species with fairly large pores like jatoba, padauk and wenge. My concern is finding a finish that offers some protection from the inevitable spills, but also one that will be food safe and easily maintained. Additionally, it must prevent food from lodging in the pores in order to avoid stains, bacteria, etc., but have the look of an old linseed oil finish.

Does such a product exist? Any suggestions would be much appreciated.


Answer: While there is no one-step finish product I can recommend for your dining table, it is certainly possible to achieve the finish you desire if you're willing to do a little work. First, I would use a product such as Bartley's Paste Wood Filler to fill the pores. It is available in Light, Dark or a Natural color that can be tinted with Universal Tinting Colorants to custom-match your wood. Seal off the pore filler with a thin wash coat of dewaxed shellac, such as Zinsser's SealCoat (195831).

Regarding a food-safe finish, despite what you may have heard or read, virtually all finishes are non-toxic when fully cured. Once the solvents have evaporated, any cured film is safe for contact with food. This does not mean that the finish itself is safe to consume; it simply means that additives such as heavy-metal driers and plasticizers are encapsulated well enough that they do not leach into your food.

I suggest Behlen's Rockhard Table Varnish (195926) for a tough, durable and easy-to-maintain finish. I would recommend you stay away from polyurethanes for your table, simply because traditional varnishes are much more repairable, should such a need arise. Apply thin coats thinned with naptha - 6 or more. Allow the final coat to dry for at least 72 hours to a cured hardness. Then rub out the dried finish with 4/0 steel wool, using wax as a lubricant. This will give you the natural-looking effect of a hand-rubbed finish with the durability and protection of a hard surface film. Varnish surpasses most other finishes in its resistance to water, heat, solvents and other chemicals, and the finished table can be easily cleaned with a damp cloth and a non-abrasive cleaner, if you desire.

Also, you may find Bob Flexner's Understanding Wood Finishing, Revised (203621) helpful. It is an excellent book that provides comprehensive information on finishes and step-by-step application techniques, accompanied by hundreds of color photos, technical updates and reference tables.

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