Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Cooking With Pallet Boards: Experiments with Plant-based Wood Finishes

So, I recently finished a new piece of woodcraft using repurposed materials. For this project, I wanted to use a single pallet board, regardless of its condition (lots of glueing and clamping and glueing and clamping some more to seal the large cracks and splits.) I also wanted to experiment making my own handmade wood stains and sealant from plant-based materials using no chemicals. The process was a bit more laborious than I expected, but I learned a great deal.

Strawberry, Spinach, & Kale Stem Stains

For a while now, I've guessed I could make a nice stain from foods with rich pigments. I decided to use strawberries (frozen), spinach (fresh), and at the last minute I thought that some purple fresh kale stems lying around might be interesting, too. My idea was to puree the plants in a food processor with white vinegar and olive oil (vinegar to preserve the color and oil to help seal the wood.) I then planned to strain the puree through a stainless steel coffee filter whereby I would be left with nothing but a beautiful liquid of rich, saturated pigment. That was wishful thinking and made for a lot of unnecessary work.

Because the pulp from the plants was so full of plant fiber, the mixture hardly strained at all. I basically made oil and vinegar smoothies as you can see from the picture below. They look pretty, but they were too thick to strain. I was able to get some pretty serious reds from the strawberry puree, but in VERY small quantities. The strained spinach was only faintly green and also produced very little liquid. The kale simply turned brown because only the outermost layer of the stems was purple while the majority of the interior plant fiber was more of a brownish green. I assumed this might be the case, but was happy to give it a try (I think I'll try beets and radishes for more a purple hue next time.)

Once I realized the puree wouldn't produce enough liquid, I cooked them down in pots which was MUCH more effective because it broke down the plant fiber. I was then able to strain the cooked purees and get much more usable pigment, though still not as much as I'd hoped. I'm happy with the end result but look forward to experimenting further in hopes of finding a more productive yield.

Now, on to the easier project - a natural beeswax sealant.

Beeswax & Coconut Oil "Paste Wax"

I LOVE the way paste wax finishes wood. I love the quiet sheen. Specifically, I like the earthy, natural quality that wax produces unlike polyurethanes and other finishes that I feel have more of a plastic look. I've always used Johnson's paste wax in the past, but I've grown tired of the chemical fumes it produces. This is especially annoying and unhealthy given my "studio" is often my kitchen table or living room floor. So, I decided to make my own beeswax and coconut oil sealant loosely following a few recipes I found online. Here's the formula I used:

• 1/4 cup grated beeswax
• 1 cup coconut oil
• Apprx. 15 drops of essential lemongrass oil (optional)

I set a thick glass Pyrex mixing bowl inside a large pot with about 3 inches of water on the bottom. You could also use a double boiler or simply put a glass jar inside a pot.

I then added the coconut oil and grated beeswax to the bowl and placed the pot on the stove using medium heat. Gradually, the wax and oil began to melt and coalesce as I stirred every ten minutes or so. Once the ingredients became a uniform tone and consistency with no lumps of wax (maybe 30 minutes), I removed the pot from the heat and added the essential lemongrass oil giving it a good stir.

From here, I just waited and stirred every so often to make sure the beeswax and coconut oil did not separate. I have read that patience is best and  problems arise in the form of lumps and separation if one tries to hurry the cooling process by placing in the refrigerator or outdoors in cold weather.

After a couple of hours, stirring maybe every 30 or 45 minutes, the wax seemed great. The beauty of this is that you can practically lick your fingers while you're messing with this stuff! It is also a great skin moisturizer, so simply rubbing the excess wax into your hands is an easy clean up.

Here's the finished box complete with its "all-natural" makeover. I'm happy with the pigments and like that the deep red from the strawberry stain really took hold in the end grain of the boards. The spinach hues are more subtle, but they are still visible throughout.

So, there you have it; my cooking with pallet wood "tutorial." Thanks for stopping by!

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