There’s an old truism that if you want to test how well you understand something, try explaining it to someone else. Of all the topics I’ve looked into over the years, few are as mired in confusion as that of toy safe finishes. And the deeper I dug, the worse it got. Whether you’re a concerned parent or just a woodworker who wants to be sure your products won’t endanger the health of curious young mouths, you too may have asked “What finishes are safe for wooden toys?” It’s a simple question with a slightly complicated answer. So buckle up your booster seat and we’ll see if we can make some sense of it all.
The Obligatory Disclaimer – Because, You Know, We Love Babies Too
Having encountered the question of toy safe finishes many, many times (including once in the past half hour), I know how confusing it can be. But don’t let the “is it toy safe?” rabbit hole overwhelm you. The following information will help you navigate your options and avoid some common pitfalls.
I reached out to a bunch of companies, did lots of research and even polled some fellow woodworkers to unearth the elusive answers and steer you in the right direction. But the realm of finishes is vast and I’ve undoubtedly missed some things. So it’s ultimately up to you to verify these findings for yourself and decide whether or not to heed the advice and recommendations presented. If you have any tips, concerns or favorite toy safe finishes, please let us know in the comments.
What Is A “Toy Safe” Finish?
When trying to distill exactly what makes a finish (a paint, stain, clear coat, or other surface treatment) “toy safe”, it’s sometimes hard to get a straight answer. Note that “toy” in this context refers mostly (but not exclusively) to those intended for young children, who are often prone to putting things – absolutely every thing – into their mouths.
The short, simple, answer is that a toy safe finish is one that’s non-toxic. Some sources say that pretty much any topcoat – shellacs, lacquers and varnishes – is non-toxic and inert once fully cured, and leave it at that. And I don’t disagree. But, of course, there’s a little more to the story than that. So let’s dig a bit deeper and see where the simple answers begin to fall apart.
Degrees Of Safety – Baby Steps
One thing’s for sure: there are degrees of safety. Safe to be around is not the same as safe to ingest. “Food grade” is the safest of all, but few finishes are truly food grade. The next tier would be “food safe”; in other words, safe for use on food contact items, such as countertops and salad bowls.
Before exploring what TO use, perhaps we should first discuss what is NOT toy safe. That is, some of the things we should definitely avoid when making and finishing toys for young children. Then we’ll circle back around to the good stuff. As we’ll discover, there are more options that you might think.
Avoid These When Making Or Finishing Toys – NOT Toy Safe!
Which materials and finishes are appropriate for your project depends, in part, on the intended age range of the end user. With children who no longer taste test everything within arm’s reach, you can obviously get away with a lot more.
* Choking Hazards:
It may be perfectly fine to have small parts and delicate features on something an 8 year old or teenager is going to use. But avoid potential choking hazards when making toys for young children. Remember that they can be rough and break off small parts, they like to gnaw on things and nothing gets in the way of a good teething session. Toys for young children (and the components of the toys) should be durable and sufficiently large.
* Vegetable oils:
Various kinds of oils are commonly used as wood finishes and paint base/medium. Vegetable oils, however, can spoil and become rancid; probably not the teat you want your baby suckling.
* Boiled linseed oil (BLO):
“Boiled” linseed oil has toxic chemical driers added and should not be used for baby toys.
* Treated wood:
Never use chemically treated wood to make toys. This includes things like pressure treated lumber and pallet wood (some pallet wood is fumigated or may have been exposed to toxic materials). Composite materials, such as MDF or plywood, can also be a problem if not sufficiently smoothed, sealed and finished.
* Lead paints:
These are mostly gone from the market, but still worth keeping in mind. If in doubt, consider a “lead in paint and dust” test kit, such as this one sold by The Home Depot.
* Uncured finishes:
Finishes that have not completely cured are likely still off-gassing. They’re also softer than their cured counterparts, and therefore more readily scraped or chewed away. Just because a finish is dry to the touch doesn’t mean it’s fully cured. To be sure, give it a full week or two after application. Refer to product labels for cure times.
VOCs Are Only Part Of The Story
One of the scary-sounding things you’ll encounter when researching finishes is “VOCs”. In a nutshell, VOCs (Volatile Organic Compounds) are carbon-containing compounds that readily evaporate at normal indoor atmospheric pressure and temperature (not all carbon compounds are VOCs). VOCs often come up when discussing toy safe finishes, but the presence or absence of VOCs is not a good indicator of whether or not a product is “toy safe”. Don’t confuse “VOC-free” with “non-toxic”.
The acrid baby choking odors emanating from most paints and finishes are VOCs, used as solvents and driers. While VOCs aren’t something you want in your child’s mouth, the term actually refers to air quality (not oral hazard) and becomes a lot less of an issue once a finish has cured. Most of the VOCs have usually been released by the time a finish has fully cured. But some may continue off-gassing for years.
When painting walls or furniture for the very young, the elderly or anyone else who may be particularly intolerant or sensitive to chemicals or odors, try low VOC paints and finishes. And apply them with plenty of ventilation. Or buy finishes that are 100% VOC free.
And Now The Good News – There Are Lots Of Toy Safe Options!
Now that we’ve frightened those pearly deciduous choppers back into your toddler’s gums, let’s revisit our original question: What Makes A Good Toy Safe Finish? I asked Green Building Supply’s Joel Hirshberg if they had any food grade paints. He replied, “Since no paints are truly edible, we do not call them “food grade.” I was asking the wrong question.
What we’re actually looking for are products that are “food contact safe”, finishes that are safe to use on food contact items. Joel went on to say that “The only finishes/sealers [they] offer that are truly edible are AFM Safecoat Naturals Oil, Bioshield Herbal Oil and Bioshield Wood Counter Finish.” So they do exist; and we’ll get to some more in a bit.
Clear Toy Safe finishes
There are ways to color wood in a “toy safe” manner, but let’s begin with clear finishes. A lot of woodworkers prefer to show off the wood’s natural beauty. However, depending on the situation, you may choose to just sand the toy smooth, ease over any sharp edges and corners and leave it unfinished. Some charities, for example, may only accept unfinished toys (more on that later).
A clear finish will help keep the wood free of stains, make it easier to clean, and reduce any possible irritation for kids who may be sensitive to certain nut or oily woods, such as walnut, cedar or cocobolo. Clear finishes also enhance – and usually darken – the grain.
We can broadly classify clear finishes as follows (but there is a lot of crossover, especially between waxes and oils):
– Oil finishes (penetrating and hard surface)
– Wax finishes
– Resin finishes
Penetrating Oil Finishes – Mineral Oil
One of the most common oils for treating food preparation surfaces is medical grade mineral oil. It soaks deep into wood, bringing out the color. Apply several coats until the wood stops absorbing, then wipe off any excess. Unlike vegetable oils – which contain fats – mineral oil will never go rancid. It’s the same stuff as “baby oil”, but without the perfumes.
Mineral oil can be found in any drug store. It’s sold as an “intestinal lubricant”. But don’t worry, it’s not going to give your tots the trots. Their diaper is safe. Actually, I take that back; no diaper should ever be treated as safe. But that’s a whole other topic.
Mineral oil is often used to “season” wooden cutting boards. It helps rejuvenate dried wood and prevent cracking. It’s also a great choice for wooden toys. But it doesn’t dry hard and is best followed by a wax topcoat. Some mineral oil finishes are sold pre-mixed with wax. Or, if you’re so inclined, you can find recipes to make your own oil/beeswax finish online.
Penetrating Oil Finishes – Linseed (Flaxseed) Oil
* Raw linseed oil (also known as flaxseed oil and cold pressed flaxseed oil):
Derived from the edible flax seed, raw/cold pressed linseed oil (NOT “boiled” linseed oil) can be used for toys. Linseed oil is one of the few naturally drying oils. It imparts a nice amber hue, but dries very slowly and does not form a hard film. It should be applied thinly and given plenty of time to dry between coats (several days, sometimes), or it can become a sticky, gooey mess.
* Polymerized linseed oil:
A better alternative to raw linseed oil is “polymerized” linseed oil, which has been heat treated under vacuum. This increases its viscosity and drastically shortens drying time. Still, apply thinly and allow plenty of time between coats, per product instructions. Read the label and make sure it says “non-toxic”.
Drying oils don’t “dry”; they cure. Curing is when all the little baby molecules link and grow up to form larger, adult molecules (scientifically speaking, of course), in a chemical process known as “polymerization”. And it can take quite a while, as it involves a lot of diaper changes, birthday parties at rat-themed pizza arcades and four years of drinking at the community college.
To speed up the process, most companies sell what’s called “boiled” linseed oil (BLO). But boiled linseed oil (heated, but not actually boiled) has toxic drier chemicals added and should not be used for young children’s toys.
Hard Surface Forming Oil Finishes – Tung Oil (Real Tung Oil, That Is)
For a faster drying oil that forms a hard waterproof film, try tung oil. Tung oil (also known as China wood oil) comes from the seed of the tung tree and was supposedly introduced to the West by Marco Polo. Like other “drying” oils, tung oil hardens by curing; not evaporation. If it needs to be thinned, use citrus solvent (made from orange peels) to maintain the non-toxic quality.
When purchasing tung oil, carefully read the ingredients to make sure you’re getting the real thing. A lot of products sold as “tung oil” contain little or no tung oil, but rather, other resins, thinners and chemical driers. And that’s fine for most projects. But it’s not so desirable on that baby rattle you turned for your granddaughter.
Wax Finishes – For A Toy Safe Protective Sheen
Bee’s wax and carnauba wax are the most commonly used toy safe waxes. They are often mixed with oils for a finish that penetrates the wood fibers and leaves a waxy film on the surface. As previously noted, many premade “oil” finishes are actually mixtures of oil and wax. You probably won’t want to devour them by the block, but both waxes are “food grade” and relatively safe for little mouths.
Carnauba wax (also known as “Brazil wax” – no, not the bikini kind – or “ceara wax”) is harvested from the leaves of the carnauba tree (also known as the “Brazilian mart wax palm” and “Copernicia Cerifera”), a variety of palm native to northeastern Brazil. Carnauba wax is commonly used as a coating on many glossy candies, fruits and other food items. And as a car polish.
Resin Finishes – Hard. Durable. Easy to clean.
Resin finishes come in several varieties, including lacquer, polyurethane, epoxy and shellac. The first two are sometimes used on toys but – since there’s some (probably over-hyped) controversy surrounding those as baby toy finishes – I’m hesitant to give a solid recommendation (I’m also not ruling them out). So research their age appropriateness on a case by case basis. But for older kids who aren’t going to stick it in their mouths, pretty much any lacquer or polyurethane will do just fine.
For a hard toy safe epoxy finish, you might consider ArtResin. Shellac is a different story altogether; it’s actually edible, providing you use the right solvent.
Shellac – Beetlepoop, Beetlepoop, Beetlepoop
Another food grade finish is good old fashion shellac, a mildly waxy resin that’s secreted by the lac beetle (lac bug). You can also buy de-waxed shellac for when the wax might interfere with base coat finishes. No, it’s not actually harvested from tiny bug diapers, and it’s no worse than beeswax or honey. However, all three are bug secretions (not excretions), which is still pretty gross. It’s best if you don’t think about it.
Shellac is typically sold as dry flakes. Once dissolved in alcohol (more on this in a moment), it has about a 6-month shelf life. So mix only enough for your project. Shellac is prone to damage from some household cleaners, softens in high heat, scratches pretty easily and prolonged contact with water can cause discoloration. But the rich, warm tones make for an inviting finish.
What’s Worse Than Finding A Worm In Your Apple? Finding Half A Worm In Your Apple
Like carnauba wax, shellac is also used to give many candies, coffee beans and pills that glossy sheen. And it too is sprayed on a lot of the fruits and vegetables you buy at the supermarket to increase shelf life and make them look pretty. Like it or not, we’ve all eaten the stuff. Bug secretions for the win!
I asked Shellac Shack’s Malcolm Young for some information concerning the use of shellac on toys. He reiterated that shellac itself is non-toxic (and actually edible). The wild card, he points out, is in the solvent.
Many woodworkers use denatured alcohol as their shellac solvent. But, “denaturing” is basically the process of making the alcohol poisonous to drink. And depending on the brand and what they use as a denaturant, it may leave behind a nasty residue. If you want to be absolutely sure no toxic residues are left behind, Malcolm suggests using pure grain alcohol (ethanol) – such as Everclear – as your solvent.
Kids Have Colorful Personalities – Their Toys Can Too!
Red, yellow, black or white, a toy you make is a toy that’s right. As woodworkers, we love to see that pretty wood grain – and clear finishes are by far the most popular choices for baby toys. But I suspect most kids prefer color. Luckily, there are ways to color toys in a toy safe manner. Again, there are degrees of “toy safeness”, so we’ll start with the safest (those most suited for the youngest children) and go from there.
Food coloring – It’s Literally Made To Eat
When it comes to toy safe colorants, it doesn’t get any safer than food coloring. Dilute food coloring with water and use it to dye bare wood by dipping, spraying, painting or sponging it on. For best results, allow the water to completely evaporate away then seal the project with one of the clearcoat options above.
Liquid Watercolors – Eye Popping Color Kids Are Sure To Adore
For some of the most vibrant colors you’re likely to find, try liquid watercolors. Here’s a great article showing what they can do. They are as easy to use as food coloring, but available in a lot more colors and come already diluted to the optimal concentration.
Naturally Colored Woods – Clear, Yet Colorful
This harkens back to the clear finishes, but adding color to a toy can be as simple as using different wood species. Woods naturally come in a huge variety of colors and clear finishes can really make those colors pop.
Burning – For A “Natural” Black Or Brown Color
Another, often overlooked, way to add color to a toy is by scorching with a torch, woodburner or CNC laser engraver. There’s even such a thing as thermally treated wood that’s been “cooked” to bring on a darker color, greater stability and increased water resistance.
Paint – For The Things That Won’t Be In A Child’s Mouth
While not usually thought of as a “toy safe” finish, it doesn’t mean you have to completely avoid the most obvious wood colorant: paint. Children usually get along just fine with painted furniture, toy boxes and other large objects. Especially once they’ve outgrown their “the world is my binky” stage.
Most milk paint is considered toy safe, and a great choice for children’s furniture as well. Rust-Oleum even has a line of toy safe paints; in the UK, at least (though I’ve also seen some of it on Amazon).
ECOS Paints are non-toxic, VOC-free and certified safe for use on toys and around those who are particularly sensitive to chemical vapors and paint odors. And since it’s not thinned with all the usual fillers, it provides better coverage than many other paints.
One important concern when using paints is that they don’t peel or flake off and get ingested by the young’uns. Pretty much any paint will have a hard time bonding to oily, dirty or glossy surfaces. So prepare your project according to the manufacturers’ recommendations, and give paints a couple weeks to fully cure before giving to a young child.
Making Toys For Charity? Ask, Don’t Assume.
There are many woodworking clubs, churches and charitable groups who gladly accept toy donations that they can pass along to children in need, especially around the holidays. But they may have to account for the safety of – and materials used in – the handmade items they distribute, especially when doing charity or mission work outside of their home country.
One year we had a member at our woodworking club make a bunch of toys out of pressure treated lumber and they were all rejected for safety reasons. Before embarking on a toy making spree, find out if there are any specific guidelines or requirements you should be aware of – and remember the things we said you should always avoid – so that your efforts aren’t in vain.
Some charities are fine with toys being finished. But some (my local woodworking club, for example) ask that all toys be bare, unfinished wood. They may not want to assume unnecessary liability. And trying to match toys with verifiable MSDS (Material Safety Data Sheets) to appease customs just isn’t feasible.
Finished With The Finishes – Finally
Wow, that was a lot to process! Hey, no one ever said babies were easy to care for. If you’ve ever made a wooden toy only to scratch your head wondering what kind of finish you should use, you know it can be a hard road to navigate. But as you see, there are a lot of toy safe finishes out there. Probably way more than you thought.
While this is not an exhaustive list, I boiled down my findings to what I see as the most viable and trusted options. So the next time the question comes up, you’ll be able to make a more confident, informed decision. And rather than fretting over finishes, you can spend that time working on your next project.
Further reading and resources:
* Best Finish For Wooden Toys – Woodworker’s Journal
* What size is considered to be a choking hazard? – LiveStrong.com
* Wood Magazine’s take on food safe finishes.
* The Truth About Paint – Green Building Supply
* VOCs in paint – Remodelista.com
* Indoor air quality and VOCs – EPA
* The Red List – International Living Future Institute
* Using an oil based finish over a water based stain (or vise versa) – General Finishes
* Using liquid watercolors – FunAtHomeWithKids.com
* About Rust-Oleum’s toy safe paints – Rust-Oleum UK
* How To Safely Paint Wooden Toys – ECOS Paints
Where You Can Get The Products We Mentioned:
Lead in Paint and Dust Test Kit:
Bioshield VOC-free Clay Paints:
Tried & True polymerized Linseed Oil and Beeswax Finish:
Masters Blend 100% Pure Tung Oil:
Earthpaint’s Baby Safe Crib Finish:
Howard Cutting Board Oil:
Howard Butcher Block Conditioner:
Bioshield Herbal Oil:
Colorations Liquid Watercolors:
ArtResin Food Safe Epoxy: