Best Finish for Wooden Toys?

Best Finish for Wooden Toys?

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.

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  • EC

    I agree with Chris Marshall’s comment: ” I really like water-based varnish, because it dries fast…” However, we need to think about when a finish is actually cured so that it is non-toxic. A dry finish and a cured finish are not necessarily the same thing. Some years ago (is it 18 already?) I was building a crib for my son. My finish of choice for most projects at the time was a water-based poly from Carver Tripp. I had just read (maybe in WJ?) that paint off-gassed for something like 30 days after it was dry. That made me wonder about the poly, so I called the company. I wound up speaking to one of their chemists (not a customer service rep). He confirmed that the poly, like what I had read about paint, would not be fully cured for 30 days and would emit gasses during that time. He said he definitely would not put a baby in the crib during that period. My son was born a couple of days before that phone call, so I didn’t have 30 days to wait! He suggested a good quality shellac. When I mentioned I think of that as an old-fashioned finish, he said it is still a great product, especially for anything handled by children. He went on to say it was used to coat medicines and candies, but most importantly in my case, when the alcohol evaporated and the finish was dry, it was also cured. He said most other finished took 30 days or so to cure. I took his advice, spraying it through a Binks touch up gun I used on automotive work (if you’ve ever had paint work done on a car, the shop most likely told you not to wax it for several weeks to give it time to cure – waxing it to soon might trap the gasses in the finish before it is cured). It was the first time I had used shellac in years and the first time I sprayed a wood project. It went beautifully and gave me a new appreciation of shellac. It also gave me a strong appreciation of Carver Tripp. The chemist recommended a product they didn’t sell! This isn’t a story pushing shellac, the point is to consider when a finish has cured (not dried) so that it is non-toxic.