Natural Wood Sealer: Which is the best?
I recently reached out to quite a few natural wood sealer companies to request samples of their product to try. My husband, being a master carpenter, was given the job of guinea pig, testing out each brand to find the best sealer.
We were not compensated in any way for their products or our review, except with product to try.
One of the common concerns in using a conventional wood sealant is the impact any potential arsenic in the product has on your health. According to the World Health Organization, arsenic can cause vomiting, abdominal/digestive issues, numbness or tingling, muscle cramps, skin lesions, skin cancer, lung and bladder cancer, and more. Another common ingredient is petroleum distillates, linked to everything from respiratory issues to liver and kidney dysfunction.
Traditionally, an eco-friendly wood sealant would have been made with an oil or wax, such as tung, beeswax, or linseed, and something like vinegar or mineral spirits. Recipes abound online for how to make these, but their results may vary. Some people complain of having to reapply too frequently or of mold issues. Truth be told, if we want something totally natural and traditional there WILL be more work involved. But what happens if you still live in the modern world, can't swing the homemade version, but aren't willing to compromise on safety for yourself or the environment?
This is what we wanted to know when we contacted a multitude of natural wood sealer companies and asked them to take part in our review. In total the following companies offered their samples: ECOS, Safecoat (2 samples), EarthSase (2 samples), Homestead House (4 samples), and Master's Blend (2 samples).
Our priority in terms of what we looked for started with sustainability and whether its toxic to the user, but also included the performance (because nothing can be considered sustainable if it doesn't really work). We looked for the following in each brand:
- How eco-friendly is it?
- How was the coverage?
- Does it have an odor?
- Does it perform as expected?
- Does it hold up to the elements?
- How does it look?
Based on the categories of samples we received, we chose to sample them in batches and side-by-side where possible, so that we were sure any differences were not based on the moisture or quality of the wood. We also tested most with the various natural wood stains we were reviewing in case this showed us any differences.
ECOS sent us their WoodShield Varnish (Satin) to test out. It's a water-based, very low odor, and zero VOC finish. It also contains no solvents, although its MSDS does list the use of titanium dioxide in its exterior versions (we used interior).
The WoodShield left a hard, moderately shiny finish, and we found it to have good water-resistance. Of all the more sealer finishes we tried (not oil or wax) this one was probably also the most eco-friendly.
SafeCoat's Acrylacq is both SCS and LEED certified, water-based, low-VOC, and non-toxic. The MSDS only listed basic precautions and no "warning" or "danger" label. The odor was low but pungent.
We found this one to have good water resistance, but a slightly cloudy appearance to the final product, especially when water was applied. It dried quickly and left a shiny, satin finish, like you would expect from an acrylic finish.
SafeCoat PolyureSeal BP
SafeCoat's PolyureSeal is also SCS and LEED certified, non-toxic, water-based, and low-VOC. The same MSDS precaution applies to Polyureseal as the Acrylacq, as well as the same low but pungent aroma.
This one had the best water-resistance of any of the wood sealer types we tried. The water immediately beaded and run off the applied area. We tried their gloss finish and didn't see a big difference between it and the satin Acrylacq finish.
This natural wood sealer from EarthSafe contains no VOCs and had almost no odor. Unfortunately it's MSDS, which didn't list all its ingredients, does disclose that it contains an ingredient "known by the state of California to cause cancer or birth defects".
This was rather disappointing to find out after the fact, since we actually really liked this wood sealer. It left a hard, shiner surface, very water resistant and dried quickly with no odor. I do hope they'll disclose their ingredients or make changes to their formula to remove anything potentially hazardous, as it's otherwise a great sealer.
EarthSafe Stain and Sealer
EarthSafe also sent us a natural wood stain and sealer in one (in the color of Fruitwood).
It is also water-based and non-toxic with zero VOC, bu it did have a strong odor. An added bonus was that it is a two-in-one product, which cuts down on consumption and waste, however our thoughts on it as a stain are better discussed here.
Because this is a stain and sealer the viscosity was thicker and a little more challenging to work with. We applied two coats and saw good coverage and consistency in its application.
Miss Mustard Seed Waxes
Three waxes were sent to us by Homestead House to sample as a wood sealer/finisher: Furniture wax, antiquing wax, and white wax. Each wax is made from beeswax and caranuba wax, with a white tint given to the white wax and a darker tint given to the antiquating wax to create the desired effect. All three had minimal odor, although the tinted waxes were a little more pungent.
All three worked really well at repelling water, either beading the water and just running off. The antiquing and white wax gave an obvious different effect to the wood, while the furniture wax just amplified the wood's natural appeal.
None of the three waxes left any gloss or sheen and instead gave a nice natural effect to the wood, bringing out its grain and conditioning it. They only thing that may be a drawback is how often it needs to be applied if you're using it as a natural wood sealer. It's not a one-time deal like some finishes. Depending on the climate and other factors, you may need to apply anywhere from every 6-18 months.
Homestead House Hemp Oil Finish
The Hemp Oil from Homestead is food-safe, contains no chemicals, and is 100% hempseed oil with nothing but a natural nutty aroma.
After application we almost couldn't tell it had been applied. It doesn't leave a sheen or gloss of any kind and until we looked carefully we didn't realize that what it really does is bring out the natural grain of the wood, which was really beautiful. However, even after two coats, it wasn't as water-resistant as we had hoped. Leaving water on the hemp wood sealer we didn't notice any beading or repelling. Instead it absorbed a little too much water. If you're using it for something like a bed, where contact with water in unlikely, this might be okay. We personally wouldn't use it for a table or floors where water may cause damage.
Master's Blend Tung Oil
Master's Blend Tung Oil is 100% pure, non-toxic, and sustainable. And the aroma is not even what could be classified as an "odor"; instead it just smells nutty and totally natural (and also very minimal - we could barely smell it, even when using it indoors).
The drawback we found with the tung oil was how long it took to dry between coats - 2-3 days! We do not add a solvent to increase drying time (they offer a safer citrus solvent), so that may have changed our entire opinion of it. As it was, it dried unevenly and so slowly that we would be hesitant to use it again until we tested it with the citrus solvent. The finished result was also not what we expected. The website claims a tough, hard surface but we felt the wood just looked dry after awhile, and not at all "hard".
Master's Blend Preserve
The Preserve is actually a wood sealer used primarily for things such as cutting boards, wooden utensils or bowls, children's toys, etc. It's 100% natural, made from a variety of nuts, and the only aroma was just that - nutty.
We tested this on our wooden cutting board and spatulas, none of which had been treated in years. They sucked up 2-3 coats pretty quickly because of this. It was easy to apply, although greasy and a little messy. However, once you wipe the wood, there is no greasy feel left and everything was conditioned and looked great (even after several soapy washes). Application again would need to happen anywhere from every 6-12+ months, depending on usage and conditions. We were really happy with this one though.
Our Verdict: Which did we prefer?
It really depends.
Whenever possible I'd probably opt for the oil finish or the basic furniture wax first, simply because they are by far the most eco-friendly choice. However, if you're sealing something against water, using the finishes professionally, or wish to avoid the need to reapply frequently, these probably wouldn't be your first choice. Because of that they aren't the most practical choice for many consumers who might be interested in non-toxic options, but not willing to sacrifice the results they're looking for.
Of the sealant finishes we were most impressed with the EarthSafe and ECOS brands of wood sealer. I wouldn't call them the most sustainable option in the world (especially compared to oils and waxes), but they are certainly a much safer alternative to conventional choices when used with precaution. And the results were great from each, consistent with what you'd want to see and long-lasting. We'd certainly use them both again.