Achieving a natural or non-toxic finish that is durable enough for a table or desk top is only possible with a few select brands and products.
We can’t quite get to the same level of durability as an oil-based polyurethane, but we can get quite a good level of durability with either of these options.
There are two ways to go, the all-natural route with drying oils, finished with a wax for extra durability, or with a non-toxic water-based polyurethane. Both options are food safe, relatively durable, but differ in their application, odors, offgassing, and maintenance.
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The All-Natural Option
Tung Oil with Wax
Out of the all-natural finishes, tung oil is the most durable drying oil. You can mix it with citrus solvent, which is all-natural and food-safe. Fair warning – it is a very potent solvent when wet! I usually prefer to use odorless mineral spirits but that is not food safe and therefore not the best option for tabletops. (You could use it on a work desk but then you can’t put the wax over anything with mineral oil).
Natural oils are not required to list any VOCs but they do give off natural aldehydes and other compounds while curing.
To make the surface more durable you can add the Real Milk Paint company’s Wood Wax which is a walnut oil and carnauba wax. You can reapply the Wood Wax when the surface looks dry or worn. Just buff it in with a cloth to blend it into the old wax. You have to give it 5 to 7 days before lightly using the item and 15 to 30 days for a full cure.
This is not quite as durable as a water or oil-based polyurethane but it is easier to repair.
You can use code mychemicalfreehouse for 10% off with The Real Milk Paint company.
The mainstream recommendation for adding durability to a tung oiled surface is to add an oil-based polyurethane on top. But this is not a non-toxic option. Water-based polyurethanes can be non-toxic but do not adhere to natural oil finishes.
If you don’t do well with tung oil or the solvents used with tung oil, linseed oil is the next most durable natural option.
The purist linseed oil is a polymerized oil – this does not contain driers, solvents, or any other ingredients. It’s totally food-safe. The brand I liked the best is Tried and True. They have some options with integrated stains as well as just the pure linseed.
You can also add the walnut oil/carnauba Wood Wax over linseed to add durability.
Non-Toxic Water-Based Polyurethane
Vermont Natural Coatings is my top brand pick for a non-toxic, low odor, low, VOC polyurethane.
I found it to have a good balance of durable and low odor. I compared many different low-VOC brands of polyurethane – this isn’t the only option that could be used on furniture but it’s a good one. Check out the comparison if you want to test multiple brands.
The company recommends their PolyWhey Floor Finish for a clear water-based durable coating on your desk and tables. If you want an oil look you can use their Hydro Lacquer Reactive Sealer (which leaves an oil-based look to it) and then PolyWhey.
Another really good option is EarthPaint EasySafe 1K.
- Affordable Non-Toxic Countertops (and their finishes)
- Non-Toxic Polyurethanes Tested and Compared
- All-Natural Floor Finishes
- Comparison of Tung and Linseed Oil (additives, offgassing, tips)
Corinne Segura is a Building Biologist Practitioner with 8 years of experience helping others create healthy homes.
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