I belong to the Woodworkers Club of Houston and our community project is making toys for underprivileged kids and those in the hospital for extended time. At this time, we use a mixture of mineral oil and beeswax to finish the toys. Is this a good finish or should we use something else? The main reason we use this finish is to bring out the grain of the wood. Your comments to this question will be appreciated. Thanks. – Bill Harris
Chris Marshall: All of the common topcoats including shellacs, lacquers, varnishes and wipe-on finishes that your club is using, Bill, are non-toxic when they are fully cured. So really, in terms of other “safe” finish for kids’ toys, the options are wide open! But, maybe what you’re after here are other options that make the wood look equally good and are quick and easy to apply. If the oil/wax finish brings out the grain of the wood in a way that meets your approval, I say stick with it. These days, I really like water-based varnish, because it dries fast, looks great and is easy to brush or spray. De-waxed shellac is another fast-drying finish that brings out the grain beautifully, too. Either of these options can be waxed to give the finish a velvety feel. Good luck with your toy-making! What a wonderful effort that is for others.
Tim Inman: Accenting the wood’s appearance is always an important aspect of finishing. Wood can just look so much better with a little help from the finisher’s hand. But, there is another reason to finish in your case: feel. We finishers can add to the tactile quality of a project in addition to enhancing the look and preserving the wood. Yes, it is great to have really good-looking toys for the kids, no question. If you watch them, though, I’ll bet that they get their hands on that wood and feel it as quickly as they can. Kids like to touch and feel things. It is a great way to learn. By applying a nice tactile finish like oil and beeswax, you are setting up the wood to have the most gentle, soft kid-leather feel you can get. Don’t underestimate the intrinsic value of that effect.
Beeswax naturally dissolves in things like mineral spirits. I suggest that if you aren’t already doing this you try first softening the beeswax in mineral spirits, then blending it with mineral oil. My way would then be to apply the wax/oil mixture generously — probably even by warming a quantity of it in a pan or bath if the toys are small enough and you can do it. (Beware of fire hazards! A “double boiler” approach would be safest.) After the wood has soaked up all it wants of this special mixture, I would then use a soft cotton cloth to rag off all the excess material. After a flash-off or dry time, I’d then buff up that wood so it is both shiny and satiny soft to feel. Buff with either more clean soft cotton or a soft unsewn muslin buffing wheel. Not only is this wax innocuous — the mineral spirits will be totally gone once the material has dried — it is also easily refreshed to compensate for wear over time. And isn’t that exactly what you want? A well-worn and enjoyed toy is a smile in itself.