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How To: Care For Your Chef Knives

How to: Oil your wooden-handled knives

We all love wood-handled knives because they feel great, have soul, and they’re comfortable to use. Taking care of a knife with a wooden handle is actually not difficult at all and involves oiling and waxing the handle to mitigate the effects of dryness and or moisture.

Why is it important to maintain a wooden handle?

Wood can dry out. Whether you use it or not, wood is a natural material, it will be affected by atmospheric changes in the environment (Summer/Winter). There are plenty of stories of wood shrinking when transported to drier areas, or more humid environments and swelling (compared to where it was made). Some types of wood are more susceptible to this, but in general, a well-oiled handle will be less prone to movement, look more beautiful as well as feel better.

  • Stabilized wood handles are usually softer woods like burls, that has all of the pores, holes and extra space filled in with a resin to make the wood more durable, less likely to warp and in most cases, brightly coloured. It’s important to note that they are “less likely” to warp, rather than never.
  • Some non-stabilized woods are either naturally very oily and or very dense hard woods that are considered fairly “stable”, however they can still swell and shrink a bit.

Regardless of the wood being stabilized or not, any type of wooden handle will benefit from regular maintenance with oils, waxes and conditioners.

How do you apply oil to the handle?

It is important to know that there are many different ways and insights when it comes to maintaining wooden handles.

  • Clean (with a moist cloth) and dry the knife handle before oiling.
  • Apply a couple of drops, which is often enough and can be rubbed in with just your fingertip. It’s important to build up some heat when rubbing, your chosen treatment as it helps breakdown waxes that may be present and aid absorption into the fibers of the wood.

You will know the wood has had enough oil by following the general rule of thumb: If the surface looks “wet” after a period of 10 minutes or more it means that it can not absorb any more oil. If there are any dull areas, then you know you can apply more.

What are acceptable oils and waxes for kitchen knives?

Danish Oil

A very popular oil whose mixture is based on Tung oil that deeply penetrates into the wood. After applying and letting it dry it is key to rub the handle with a dry piece of cloth. That is how the natural pattern of the wood is best featured, but more importantly, you need to wipe off the excess Danish oil. If you allow the surface to dry fully. The advantage of Danish oil is that after applying it the wood won’t dry out as quickly.

Raw Linseed Oil

Another remedy from a bygone age. Apply a thin coat, let it sit and rub it afterward to remove access oil. Boiled linseed oil is also popular and drys faster than normal linseed oil which is great, however, this is due to chemical accelerates which, can react to some people’s skin.

Food grade mineral oil

Probably one of the easiest finishes available as it’s readily available from most chemists (just make sure it’s Food Grade and not Cosmetic Grade) and already incorporated in most cutting board finishes that are available.

Walnut Oil

Walnut is the better than mineral oil as it will actually cure within the wood (which is what you want). Unlike natural, it will not go rancid but this does come at a slightly higher price.

Conditioners, waxes, and polishes

These are blended from a selection of Oils and waxes (beeswax, carnauba wax), giving a polish second to none, and help maintain the natural beauty of your wood finish. You can pick up a tin of my [Cutting Board Butter here]

Why you shouldn’t use olive oil on knife handles?

An old wives’ tale is that you can also take care of cutting boards or wooden handles with olive oil (including sesame seed, peanut, coconut). And in the short term that is true. The downside is that after a while it will oxidize and go rancid, smell unpleasant and that’s not something you want. I have another blog post on “What are the best food-safe oils” for in the kitchen if you are interested.