Nontoxic Wood Stain

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Photo By Kirk Krauss
Avoid toxic wood stains by making a natural, plant-based version.

Sometimes I work on indoor cabinetry that is so large I have to stain and finish it in the same spot it’s ultimately going to live. If I use commercial wood-staining and finishing products, not only will I be exposed to toxic fumes during application, but the fumes will also affect anyone who is on-site while the products cure. For the past few years, I’ve been experimenting with my own safer wood stain alternatives.

The stain I used for these shelving units is made from turmeric and beet juice. I make most of my wood stains using a Champion juicer. I add vodka to dilute and preserve the juice. The vodka seems to add some wood-penetrating power, too. I use about 1 part vodka to 2 parts fresh juice.

Turmeric juice has a vivid yellow color. For this bookcase project, the ratio of the beets and turmeric was roughly 1 big beet to 1 big turmeric rhizome. Mix a batch of stain big enough for the full project, as the juice colors from the beets and turmeric can vary with each vegetable and rhizome.

I’ve also created a natural finish that is as nontoxic as the stain. Because plant-based stains — like natural wood itself — are subject to fading in sunlight, I use a zinc oxide sunscreen that lends ultraviolet protection. The product, Hara Sport SPF 30, is available in many health food stores. It contains an oil blend that I’ve found can aid wood penetration and ease of spreading. The oil provides a moisture barrier for the wood, too. I imagine any sunscreen of zinc oxide and plant-based oils would work about as well as the Hara product.

Both of the bookcase cabinets shown in the photo are coated in the sunscreen finish. I always rub zinc oxide sunscreen in by hand — no gloves required.

Kirk Krauss
Los Gatos, California