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

Advice about wood care

Nothing lasts forever, but wood is tough stuff. Proper wood care will keep it looking good indefinitely, and it 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. Surface finishes such as lacquer or polyurethane, neither of which I use, may be waterproof at first, but will eventually crack, allowing water to penetrate. When moisture comes in contact with the wood fibres, they swell slightly and the finish starts to break down.  The water will 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 patina 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. Just use the bowl – it’s a functional item. Wipe it after use. Hand wash it quickly, scrub it with detergent if necessary, and dry it immediately with a towel. Re-oil it occasionally 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.

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 and exposure to light. Some fade, and others become darker and richer. Finishes with U-V protection may slow the change.

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 it. If necessary, first wash the bowl with detergent to remove any dirt and wax, and dry thoroughly. Let it air for a few days.  Then just follow the instructions on the can. I  use a food-safe, plant-based drying oil such as hard wax oil or 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 can 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 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 finishing oil such as Danish oil or tung oil or hard wax 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 looks good, improves water resistance, and also act as a barrier to the oil in salad dressings. Mineral oil doesn’t dry in the wood, so 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.