Using vintage wood kitchen tools is a great practical way to incorporate warmth and charm into your kitchen. I’m sharing the natural products I use for conditioning and cleaning a vintage wood bowl and ladle.
Useful Vintage Wood Kitchen Tools
I’ve always been drawn to vintage wood bowls and tools when we’ve been out antiquing and vintage hunting. There’s something about the warmth of the wood that speaks to me and feels meaningful and charming. Our kitchen is currently very orange wood cabinets and brown counters, but we have plans to paint the cabinets white and add in much brighter countertops. I knew that I wanted a wood fruit bowl to sit on the counter and bring warmth into the kitchen once it was white. I feel that every room benefits from some warm wood tones.
In our hunting, I’d found many dough bowls and fruit bowls, wooden spoons and other tools with wooden handles, but never bought any. Often, the wood bowls that were in nice shape were quite expensive. Others that were more affordable sometimes had a sticky coating on them, or a large crack through one side. So we kept looking.
Last summer, we found a great wood bowl for $35. It had no cracks and wasn’t sticky, though it could use a bit of cleaning. And the finish could use some rejuvenating as well. I did clean it up and condition it after we bought it, but it’s been a year and it’s time to give it another refresh, which I’ll share with you. Here’s what it looks like currently:
And here’s the underside:
Another wood item that I had been searching for was a wood soup ladle. I have a black plastic one that I don’t like at all, and if I could find the perfect wood ladle I would donate that one. There’s something so homey and comforting about making a big pot of soup, and I loved the idea of using a vintage wood ladle, handmade and lasting for years.
This summer, I found the perfect vintage wood ladle. There are no cracks, and it’s just showing a little wear on the handle. I want to be sure it’s clean before I use it, and also to refresh the finish on it.
The finish is also worn at the end of the bowl of the ladle.
Choosing Products for Cleaning a Vintage Wood Bowl or Tools
There are a lot of resources, articles and blog posts on the internet about taking care of wood bowls, cutting boards, wooden spoons, etc. And while lots of the information is similar, there are also a lot of conflicting recommendations and opinions.
Let’s take a step back and learn about wood for a minute.
Characteristics of Wood
Wood is porous – this means it can absorb oil, water and foods into its pores. This is fine during cooking, but also means it’s not a good idea to leave it soaking in water for hours on end.
Wood is naturally anti-bacterial, unless cracks and splits develop. Bacteria can accumulate in the cracks, so it is best to replace damaged pieces or relegate them to decorative only.
Wood can crack from high heat, so it is best to handwash all wooden bowls, spoons, tools, and cutting boards rather than putting them in the dishwasher.
Wood can dry out or become rough with use. You can condition its surface by using oils. More on that in a bit.
The difference between a wood bowl, cutting board, or wooden spoon and say – a dresser – is that the surface on a dresser doesn’t need to be food-safe. (Unless of course you plan to eat food straight off the top of your dresser!)
The finishes we use to protect wood furniture or exterior wood projects should not be the same as the products and finishes we use on wood items that come in contact with food. You do not want to use varnishes and polyurethanes on surfaces meant for food, especially as they can chip and flake off. We want to be sure we are using natural and food-safe products to clean and protect wood items for the kitchen.
Natural Products to Use for Cleaning a Vintage Wood Bowl or Other Wood Kitchen Items
While I love the charm of finding and using vintage wood pieces, I want to know that they are clean before I start using them. Luckily, cleaning a vintage wood bowl or other tools is very simple!
Last summer, when I cleaned up my vintage wood bowl after I bought it, I followed the method from The Kitchen Professor. He suggests following four steps: Disinfecting, Deep Cleaning, Restoring the Finish, and Conditioning.
To begin, I disinfected with regular white vinegar for both the bowl and ladle, leaving them saturated for a while. After a few minutes, I rinsed with water and dried them with a towel.
Then I used lemon juice and coarse salt to scrub both items on all sides. Lemon quarters made a good scrubber. Following that, I gave them a quick wash in warm, soapy water and dried them well again.
The Kitchen Professor recommends sanding to restore the finish of your bowl. Last summer, I took a piece of sandpaper to the bowl to try to smooth out a few scratches. But I suspect I was using sandpaper that was far too coarse as I was just adding scratches, and so I stopped that completely. I don’t feel that either my bowl or spoon need any sanding at this point. If you do sand your wood items, make sure to clean off any dust afterward.
To condition my wood pieces, I’m going to use some type of oil. Let’s first learn about the different options and their pros and cons.
Conditioning Vintage Wood Bowls and Tools with Oil
Conditioning wood with oil helps to restore moisture to the wood. This reduces the likelihood that the wood will split through expansion and contraction from changes in moisture and heat. Oil absorbs into the fibres and helps to prevent food and cooking liquids from absorbing into the spoon, but still allows the wood to breathe.
There are a wide variety of oils recommended to use on wood kitchen tools, and every person has a different recommendation or favourite.
In general, there are oils that dry and harden, and oils that don’t dry or harden. The Real Milk Paint Co. has a great post explaining the difference between drying oils and non-drying oils and giving examples of each.
A drying oil hardens by reacting with air, or oxidizing, though it can take a long time to do so. The oil forms a solid, protective surface that lasts longer and won’t melt or wash away.
The oxidization process of drying oils produces heat though, so you need to follow important safety steps in disposing of oil soaked rags, similar to working with wood stain. Do not leave them bunched up or they can spontaneously combust.
In addition, wood pieces finished with some of these oils can turn rancid, particularly if they’re put away in air-tight storage before they’re fully dry. Make sure to leave them out and exposed to air for as long as necessary to avoid that problem.
Examples of drying oils include: linseed oil, tung oil, and walnut oil.
A non-drying oil will stay soft when exposed to air, which also means they are more easily washed away when doing the dishes or stirring a pot of something. If you choose a non-drying oil for your wood, you will need to reapply it more frequently.
Non-drying oils have the benefit of being less combustible and you don’t need to dispose of oil soaked rags in any special way.
However, non-drying oils can turn rancid and sticky on your wood items, as well as discolour them. Washing your wood kitchen items often and only renewing with oil occasionally will help prevent that.
There are many food-safe non-drying oils. Examples include: coconut oil, mineral oil, olive oil, and peanut oil.
But which oil should I use?
I found a lot of conflicting opinions about whether you should use drying or non-drying oils for various kitchen tools, and which oil is the best.
To read more information about this topic, including some other opinions, check out:
Earlywood – They prefer mineral oil.
Arbutus Arts – They prefer walnut oil, but like others as well.
Sylva Spoon – They actually use milk to seal spoons, but also discuss oil finishes as well
The Real Milk Paint Co. – They use tung oil, or a tung oil mixture.
Note: Do your own research about nut oils if you or anyone in your family has a nut allergy.
Lee Valley sells a lot of fancy products for food-safe wood finishing. But special products are not necessary when you can use simple products you can find at the grocery store or pharmacy. Let’s look at what I chose.
Conditioning a Vintage Wood Bowl with Mineral Oil
To renew and protect the surface of my vintage wood bowl, I’m choosing mineral oil. Mineral oil is a non-drying oil, which is perfect for a wood bowl that won’t be getting dipped into hot cooking liquids all the time.
I also don’t wash this bowl often. The only times I give my fruit bowl a good wash is if something happened to go moldy in it. When that happens I’ll give it a quick scrub with vinegar first, and then wash it with warm, soapy water.
You can find mineral oil at a drugstore or pharmacy as it is used as a natural laxative. The bottle we have came from IKEA and was meant for treating wood cutting boards. You can see it has a food safe symbol on it.
Joshua Vogel has a great article on Food52 where he explains the method for oiling cutting boards and other wood tools, as well as a suggestion for how often to apply it, applying less frequently with time as you build layers of a finish.
To condition, you need to flood the item with oil – or pour a puddle on/in it. Then use a clean and lint-free cloth to wipe it over every surface. Don’t use paper towel as it will leave little fibres. Then buff off the excess with another cloth. Because I had treated my wood bowl with several coats of mineral oil last summer, I chose to just put on two coats this time. I did the second coat the day after.
Conditioning a Vintage Wood Ladle with Walnut Oil
For the vintage ladle, I decided to use walnut oil, which is a drying oil. Unlike the bowl, the ladle will be dipped into hot liquids. And while I don’t use it every other day, I will be using it frequently enough that it will get washed often to prevent it from getting sticky.
I found walnut oil in the grocery store, both in the oil and vinegar aisle, and the organic section. As it can be used for salad dressings, walnut oil is definitely food safe.
I poured some walnut oil into the bowl of the ladle and then decided to use my fingers to spread it out over the whole surface in an attempt to not have walnut oil soaked rags to worry about disposing of safely. Only I poured in far too much and needed to buff it off anyway. I chose to use paper towels so I could dispose of them, but it was a bad choice because it did leave little linty pieces that I had to pick off. The following day, I did put one more coat on because I felt there were some areas that needed a second layer.
To dispose of my oil-soaked paper towels, I covered them in water and disposed of them in a bag. When I reapply future coats I will search for a rag I can wash properly or dispose of, rather than using paper towel.
The Final Result of Cleaning a Vintage Wood Bowl and Ladle
After cleaning a vintage wood bowl and ladle, followed by conditioning, they both look so much better. The bowl and ladle look richer in colour and less dry. Neither item smells or feels greasy. It makes me happy to know that I’ve brought them back to life and am giving them a new purpose.
I can’t wait to put my ladle to use with a big pot of soup, and to load up my wood bowl with a beautiful fruit or some freshly baked biscuits.
Frequently Asked Questions About Wood Kitchen Tools
No, the high heat and prolonged exposure to water can cause the wood to dry out, warp, split and crack. In addition, dishwasher detergent will scratch the surface of a wood cutting board over time, or cause glued layers to split. While wood is naturally antibacterial, cracks in wood create space for bacteria to grow.
It is best to clean your wood bowls, tools and cutting boards in warm, soapy water by hand. Dry afterward with a clean towel.
No, it is not safe to put wood in the microwave. Not only could you start a fire, but the high heat will damage your wood items.
Wood bowls are great as salad bowls. The oils in salad dressings will help to condition the bowl as they absorb into the wood. Wood bowls are also great on the counter as fruit bowls. Another use is to serve fresh breads and rolls in them. Imagine a wood bowl with a tea towel and fresh baked biscuits or scones inside. Or fill them with snack foods such as popcorn or chips.
Yes, you can definitely put hot foods such as soup in wood bowls. You’ll even have the added benefit of good insulation from the wood to protect your hands from high heat.
If you are putting wetter foods in wood dishes, be sure to not let them sit for too long, and to wash them out as soon as possible after.
You should wash your wood items soon after each use. This will make them easier to clean and less likely to absorb stains.
It really depends on how much use they are getting, and how often they are being washed. In general, a good rule of thumb is to condition them whenever the wood looks dry. Again, conditioning helps to restore the moisture to the wood and prevent cracking.
It is best to avoid soaking wood items in liquids for a length of time – either when washing them, or when cooking or serving liquids. Exposure to moisture can cause damage to your pieces, such as swelling, warping and cracking.
Wood is naturally anti-microbial, and so wood dishes that are properly cleaned and conditioned with food-safe oils are safe to eat from. However, if they become cracked, that provides opportunities for bacteria to grow. So you should discontinue use of any cutting boards, bowls, or utensils that have cracked or split.
You might also like Old Wood Boxes and Drawers for Storage.
Cleaning a Vintage Wood Bowl and Ladle
Using vintage wood items in your kitchen can be a great way to use items with vintage charm in a practical way. Knowing that you can clean and condition them with simple household materials makes it easy and affordable to hunt for vintage wood items and add them into your kitchen.
I want to hear from you. Do you like using wood tools in the kitchen, or do you prefer other materials that you can safely put in the dishwasher? Do you condition your wood spoons and cutting boards every so often? What oil or product do you like using? Let me know in the comments.
All the best,