Is Reclaimed Wood Food Safe? 3 Critical Facts Explained

Kitchen utensils and jars of food sit on a reclaimed wood shelf with a reclaimed wood accent wall behind. Across the top of the photograph are the words, "Is Reclaimed Wood Food Safe? 3 Critical Facts Explained." on the right-hand side is a "food safe" icon, showing a wine glass and a fork in a circle.

If you’re currently building or renovating a kitchen or dining room, you know that finding good-quality, food-safe materials is no easy feat.

However, as reclaimed wood becomes more popular due to its sought-after look, impressive durability, and sustainable nature, many homeowners wonder whether it would be a good choice for the job.

So, is reclaimed wood food safe?

Reclaimed wood can be food safe, but not always. Usually, reclaimed wood isn’t the best material for food-related purposes since it can contain nails, insecticides, adhesives, and even lead. However, if treated right and secured from a reliable source, it can be used in kitchens and dining rooms.

So, if you’re considering using reclaimed wood for a surface that will come in frequent contact with food, you should be aware of a few potential safety hazards.

Therefore, before you decide, ensure you read through the following article to understand what you should know about the food safety of this material.

3 Facts About the Food Safety of Reclaimed Wood

Here’s everything you need to know about the factors that might impact the food safety of reclaimed wood:

1. It’s Essential To Verify the Source of the Material

Stacks of reclaimed wood planks with a green "verified" badge in the bottom right corner.
It’s essential to verify the source of reclaimed wood, which is even more important when your intended use is food related.

It’s hard to give a definitive answer on whether reclaimed wood is food safe or not because the answer to this question is highly dependent on the source of the material.

For example, some reclaimed wood panels might come from existing kitchens and dining rooms and are, thus, safe to be reused for the same purpose after undergoing necessary treatment.

On the other hand, the same material used in industrial or outdoor settings might not be as safe, as chances are it contains nails, adhesives, insecticides (or, on the flip side, insects), or even harmful chemicals like lead.

So, if you’re set on using reclaimed wood in your kitchen or dining room, it’s essential to verify the source of the material. If that’s not possible, I wouldn’t recommend using it at all to err on the side of safety.

2. Several Health Hazards Can Be Found in Reclaimed Wood

On the left of the image is a photograph of a lead paint detector placed against a painted wall by a person wearing blue rubber gloves. The display says, "reading." On the right-hand side is a photograph of flaking lead paint on a piece of reclaimed wood.
Lead paint is a hazard anywhere in the home, but in food preparation areas, it’s particularly problematic.

Here are just a few things you can find in poorly sourced reclaimed wood:

  • Nails. The last thing you want is to risk getting pierced by a rusty nail while trying to enjoy a meal. Moreover, if your food comes in contact with an unsanitized piece of metal, that can become a safety hazard of its own.
  • Insects. If the material has been sitting in an outdoor location and exposed to the elements for a long time, these little creatures might have made their way inside it. Spiders, beetles, and termites all love making their way into exposed wood.
  • Lead paint. Though lead paint was banned for residential use in 1978, reclaimed wood can date back way before the 1970s, with some variations being sourced from several centuries-old constructions. So, before you even bring reclaimed wood into your home, let alone use it in close proximity to food preparing/eating areas, you’ll want to screen it for lead contamination.
  • Adhesives. The same process should be followed for all other potentially harmful chemicals, adhesives included. Many smaller wood structures are built using adhesives, which cannot come in contact with food. So, while verifying the source of your reclaimed wood, it’s also important to determine how the previous structure was built and continue the vetting process based on that.

3. You Can Take Steps To Make Reclaimed Wood Food Safe

A wood surface comprising multiple planks is washed with a pressure washer. The wood to the right of the pressure wash jet is lighter colored, showing it is cleaner.
Cleaning reclaimed wood is one of the steps you should take to make it safer to use.

I’ve already mentioned that reclaimed wood has to undergo thorough sanitization and safety treatments before being sold for commercial use, especially if it will be marketed as food-safe.

However, if you still feel uneasy using repurposed wood even after verifying its source and history, the good news is that there are a few steps you can take yourself to ensure that the material is as food safe as possible.

Here’s what you want to do:

  • Ensure the lumber you’ve purchased is bug-free. The easiest way to do so is to treat the material with a heated kiln. Luckily, many reliable sellers will provide one for you upon purchase. As long as you follow the manufacturer’s instructions, heat treating the material like this will ensure that no insects (nor eggs) live inside it.
  • Search for and remove nails. Using a magnet, you can effectively find any hidden nails and take them out so as not to let them become safety hazards.
  • Use a lead detector. If you often work with repurposed materials, this piece of equipment is a must-have. It’s the only surefire way to ensure that the lumber you bring into your home doesn’t contain any significant traces of the harmful chemical.
  • Always wash reclaimed wood. Even if the material is sourced from a reliable source and free from any harmful chemicals, the transportation process can still introduce new debris and residue to its surface. That’s why you’ll want to thoroughly clean the lumber before using it in a food-eating or preparation area.
  • Use a food-grade sealant. This is the last line of defense that can help you ensure that your reclaimed wood is safe to use around food. Not only will using a sealant help enhance the safety of the material, but it’ll also help protect it in the long run.

With that said, neither washing nor sanding will remove harmful chemical traces in the wood, so none of these steps will suffice on their own.

The first tip mentioned on this list (verifying the source) is always the most important. The same goes for investing in harmful chemical detection devices that can help give you some peace of mind.

Final Thoughts

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to the question, “Is reclaimed wood food safe?” That’s because the quality and toxicity level of the material will ultimately depend on its source and the treatments it has undergone.

However, if you’re set on using reclaimed wood for your kitchen or dining room, there are some steps you can take to make the material a bit safer.

So, follow the tips outlined above before introducing any repurposed material in your home, especially if you want it to be food safe.

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