Bob Couch replies: Any varnish that is fully cured is considered “child & food safe”. However, fully cured can be one to two months in some cases.
Shellac is “child safe” once it can be sanded and a fine white powder is produced. Shellac is used to coat pills and in other food coatings because it’s a natural material.
A fully food safe (therefore child safe) choice is a finish Christian Becksvoort uses on cherry. He mixes Tried & True Varnish Oil, which is a true boiled linseed oil, with Epifanes Interior Varnish (rubbed effect varnish) about 50/50. The process is to rub it on and work it in for a bit then wipe off the excess and let it dry. He uses the interior varnish because it has no UV filters so it allows the cherry to naturally darken quicker. I’ve tried this finish and I like it a lot. You can see him demonstrate this on the Fine Woodworking website. Search for Christian and his candle stand project.
Bill Taylor replies: The only one that I know to be totally safe is shellac. Since this concerns a child I am assuming there is going to be mouth contact. Shellac is used as a material in medicines. BUT the common vehicle is denatured alcohol. It is used to dissolve shellac and is poisonous, intentionally so. Could you dissolve shellac flakes with some other vehicle, vodka maybe?
Just a funny thought on my behalf but if you spill bourbon on a shellac surface, you dissolve the shellac finish. Maybe we have a chemist who knows if the denatured alcohol completely evaporates and leaves no poisonous residue. Different things are used to make the alcohol denatured creating another variable. Alcohol is used as a streak free glass cleaner because it evaporates cleanly. Well now you know or don’t know!
Elliot Savitzky replies: According to Bob Flexner in his book, Understanding Wood Finishing, all finishes are food safe if they have enough time to fully cure. Some finishes however, take quite a bit of time to cure. If you want something immediate, either shellac or mineral oil would be safe. Shellac is not great if the piece is subject to moisture and mineral oil needs repeated applications for protection.