Wood care – how to clean, refresh and repair wooden bowls.

Advice about wood care

Nothing lasts forever, but wood is tough stuff. With proper wood care, things will stay looking good indefinitely, and can improve with age. Wooden kitchenware has been used  for centuries, and people value antique bowls for their aged appearance.

Cleaning wooden bowls

My bowls and other work have a moisture-resistant (but not waterproof) oiled finish. Moisture is the enemy of all wood finishes, because no finish is permanently waterproof. When moisture come in contact with the wood fibres, they swell slightly and the finish starts to break down.  Soaking will eventually allow the water to penetrate deeper into the wood, perhaps causing it to warp or crack.

If it’s a utility bowl, you can put it to hard every-day use and let it slowly develop a surface that reflects its history. But don’t put it in the dishwasher or keep it in the fridge. Don’t leave moist food in the bowl after use, and don’t let fruit spoil in the bowl, or it may stain. Don’t be too precious about it. Just use the bowl – it’s a functional item. Hand wash it quickly, and dry it immediately with a towel. Occasionally re-oil it if you wish. Repeated over the years, this will give a bowl a patina that will become part of its charm. Friction from a dry towel will improve the surface shine and help get rid of any superficial water marks. A ceramic bowl may keep its new appearance longer, but only until it chips or breaks! 

If you want to keep a wooden bowl in as-new condition, protect it from knocks and scratches. Don’t expose it to liquids. If you keep the bowl dry, it will need nothing more than perhaps an occasional rub with wax polish. Some wood species change colour slowly with time. Some fade, and others become darker and richer. Strong light will accelerate this, but no wood care will prevent it completely. 

Refreshing the finish

If, in spite of your best efforts at wood care, the surface of the bowl becomes dull, you can apply further coats of oil to refresh or brighten the surface. If necessary, first wash the bowl with mild detergent to remove dirt and wax, and dry thoroughly. Let it air for a few days.  Then just follow the instructions on the can. I  use a non-toxic, food-safe, plant-based drying oil such as Rustin’s Danish oil to protect the wood and show off the colour and grain. The oil penetrates the wood and hardens as it dries. It gives a durable finish that starts beneath the surface. It stands up to use very well, though contact with water will cause it to lose its shine. This is the finish I recommend for bowls that don’t have frequent contact with water. For those that do, try mineral oil as suggested below.

Salad bowls

The problem with wooden salad bowls is that oily salad dressings can soak in. The finish I use will act as a barrier, but no wood finish will prevent this in the long term. And non-drying vegetable oils such as olive oil eventually oxidize and turn sour. Clean the bowl immediately after use to remove oil and food residues and keep it fresh for as long as possible. Wash the bowl quickly by hand, or if necessary scrub it with mild detergent, but don’t let it soak in water. Immediately dry the bowl thoroughly with a towel, and make sure the air can get to it when you put it away. The bowl will keep its attractive appearance, but with frequent washing it will lose its surface shine. If you think the surface is becoming absorbent, it’s a good idea to top up the oil finish. A fresh coat of polymerising finishing oil such as Danish oil or tung oil that penetrates and hardens will seal the surface again and slow down the absorption of food residues and other oils.

A quick way to restore the bowl is to wipe on a little food grade mineral oil similar to this product. It soaks in, but won’t go sour in the wood. It improves water resistance, and also act as a barrier to the oil in salad dressings. Mineral oil doesn’t dry in the wood, so oil on or near the surface will wash off with detergent. It can be reapplied as often as necessary. Because it doesn’t dry, it can attract dust over time, so I only recommend it for bowls that will get used and washed often.

If food stains a salad bowl, the stains will slowly fade with further use, or at least blend in with later ones.

Repairing damage

You can remove scratches, superficial stains and small dents. Rub along the line of the grain with very fine abrasive paper, lubricated with finishing oil. Wipe off surplus oil before it dries. Some bowls are fragile, such as those with bark retained at the rim, and parts may break if subjected to rough handling. They can usually be repaired quite effectively with a little superglue.