If you’ve ever made a cutting board or other pieces of woodwork to use in the kitchen, you’ve probably dabbled with different finishes for the wood. Two of the most popular finishes for food-grade wood products are Tung oil and mineral oil. They’re both high quality and totally nontoxic.
But what makes these two treatments different from one another? While they might seem similar on the surface, they’re actually quite different. Let’s dig into the facts about both and compare the pros and cons.
What is Tung oil?
Tung oil, which is sometimes also known as China wood oil is a high-quality drying oil. Tung oil has been in use for thousands of years and dates back to ancient China. It is used for finishing wood, creating a waterproof sealant and many other purposes (source).
This unique oil is created by pressing seeds produced by the China wood tree. These trees can generally be found growing in cooler climates such as China and the USA.
Tung oil enjoys a great amount of popularity among woodworkers due to the fact that it is a totally natural product. It’s completely non-toxic and FDA approved for use on finishes that come into contact with food. That means that Tung oil is a great choice for finishing items like butcher blocks and cutting boards (source).
This is not a difficult oil to use and applies to wooden surfaces with ease. Due to the polymerization process by which Tung oil dries, the finish is incredibly strong. Tung oil creates beautiful results and is especially popular for its ability to make the grain of the wood pop visually.
Thinners can be added to Tung oil in order to make it more workable and increase its ability to penetrate wooden surfaces. You can use a natural thinner like a citrus solvent in order to maintain the nontoxic nature of the oil.
It’s worth checking the label before you decide to purchase Tung oil. Some manufacturers add solvents and other chemicals to the oil during the production process.
What is Mineral Oil?
Mineral oil is a catch-all name for several different oils sharing very similar qualities. It is a non-drying oil. Mineral oil has no color, scent nor residual taste. It is used for finishing wood, but can also be found in the production of cosmetics and used as a mechanical lubricant.
Mineral oil is a distillate created as a byproduct of petroleum manufacturing. Even though it’s derived during the process of refining gasoline, it’s totally non-toxic. This is due to the additional refining the oil undergoes before it reaches the consumer market.
This is one of the easiest to use wood treatments available to crafters. It does not need thinning or any other additives before you apply it to your woodworking project. That makes it a convenient choice for anyone from a beginner to a professional woodworker.
Many serious woodworkers choose mineral oil as their finish of choice due to the natural appearance it lends to the wood when applied, mineral oil finishes make very little difference to the color of the wood. It’s also very popular among makers due to the ease of availability and reasonable price compared to competing products. Mineral oil is a food-grade wood finish, so it’s safe to use for your homemade bowls and utensils.
Always make sure to check the packaging before you purchase mineral oil. Usually, you’re looking for the one labeled as “white mineral oil”. Not all of them are made equal though, and don’t mix them up with mineral spirit as that one is not designed for use in food-grade applications (source).
Differences between Tung Oil and Mineral Oil
Picking the right wood finish for your craft is mostly down to your own expectations. Do you want it to be super durable and last forever? Maybe you’d prefer that it’s easy to use and doesn’t color the appearance of the wood too much? Whatever your decision, there’s an oil for you.
One of the biggest differences between these two oils is that Tung oil is a drying oil and mineral oil is a nondrying oil. Confused? Let us explain.
While mineral oil may create a nice neutral finish that showcases the natural appearance of the wood, it is considerably less durable than Tung oil due to being a nondrying oil. Mineral oil should be re-applied every now and then to ensure that the finish remains intact. This is because mineral oil evaporates over time. The finish that you get from this oil is not especially waterproof and is prone to marking from things like cups. It is worth mentioning that a well-maintained mineral oil finish does add moisture that can prevent the wood from cracking over time.
In contrast, Tung oil is a drying oil and essentially the same as a varnish. You might need to build up layers to get the perfect finish, but the results are worth the effort. The fact that Tung oil cures hard through natural polymerization means it’s a really strong finish when dry. Tung oil users do need to be aware that it significantly alters the appearance of the natural wood, creating a deep satin sheen, which can be a good or bad thing depending upon your vision for the finished piece.
Makers on a budget might consider mineral oil over Tung oil due to the price. Mineral oil is generally much easier to come by and is one of the most affordable wood finishes on the market. This is definitely something to keep in mind if you’re producing a large volume of wooden crafts.
Woodworkers who favor the artisanal approach will probably be much happier with Tung oil. It may be more expensive but it produces a very attractive deep finish compared to the plainer mineral oil. The durability of products created using Tung oil is also worth taking into consideration when making your decision.
The fact that both oils are food safe means that you can use either one in the fabrication of butcher blocks and cutting boards without worrying about health and safety.
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