I put this page up in 2010, and it has quietly motored along, getting hundreds of page views a week. I am working to update this information with some of the new information that people have sent me - please do or comment to add anything you might know.
It seems to be incredibly difficult to find good information about how to paint, stain, or dye wooden toys with safe, non-toxic paints, stains, or dyes - so I put this page together to be a collected resource. Since little kids like my sons chew and teethe on these toys, I want to be especially certain that any coatings or colorings will be safe if ingested.
Here is one other page - from a talented toymaker - that has some useful information about paints and dyes, including some of the kinds of colors described on this page.
What I would love to know is what toy companies such as Holztiger, Ostheimer, Hape, Haba, and Buntspechte are using. They get great detail with their paints and colors (something that seems impossible with some of the candidates I've listed below) but claim to be very safe and non-toxic. Perhaps they are just using acrylics or watercolors, but that seems unlikely. Perhaps more likely is that they are making or sourcing their own specialty paints and dyes; in that case I would still love to know. They all merely say they use "water-based paints" - paints can be water-based and toxic as heck. I do not remotely think these companies are using toxic paints under any circumstances, but I sure would love to know what it is they are using. I have written to these companies; if they write back to me I shall share that information.
Please do if you have any further information you'd like to share.
Anything water-based will "raise the grain" of the wood, and it seems that softer woods such as pine are especially affected by this. Water-based colors may also make the end grain open up (it seemed to, in my experience) so it is rougher and harder to seal.
I read that a solution to this problem is to dampen the wood and sand the grain back down, and repeat that process once or twice.
Additionally, several of the brands of wooden toys I've listed above seem to whitewash or pickle their toys before painting details on. It is a very light wash, but it is visible on the toys I own, such as Holztigers. This might facilitate better detail painting; all of these water-based paints, dyes, and stains probably bleed significantly.
Several acrylic brands are certified as AP Non-Toxic, such as Plaid Folk Art Acrylics, and Martha Stewart has an acrylic line now as well. Acrylics are still plastic, but I believe that there is a fair chance that many of the wooden toys that are made by specialty manufacturers may be painted with acrylics. From ToyDirectory.com, a description of a Holztiger toy:
"HOLZTIGER toys are all handmade and painted with non-toxic, water-based acrylic paints. Every wooden figure has an additional topcoat of satin-finish water paint to make it resistant to perspiration and saliva." (What is "water paint," one wonders)
Artist-grade acrylics may be more likely to be toxic or contain unpleasant ingredients, especially heavy metals. Here is a great overview of artist paint toxicity, written particularly for pregnant painters.
NOTE: Their site tends to be very slow. Here is an Amazon.com link to one of their paint kits. This brand includes acrylics as well as other paints. Their site is pretty bad and I feel like I could use a lot more application-specific information about each kind of paint, but it seems likely that the paints they make would be very safe for toys. That said, this brand is also rather pricey, with the 12-bottle kit of acrylics at $40, plus $5 shipping. If I decide to buy more paint to try, though, this is at the top of the list.
Another forum post I read mentioned using powdered tempera paints. Tempera is - as far as I know - quite non-toxic (it's a very popular paint for children), but it is also kind of crummy. It dries to a fairly powdery surface on paper, though it might soak into wood better. Since tempera paint is so cheap I might pick some up to experiment, but as of right now I have not tried it. It seems likely to bleed out through the wood, but perhaps not if the wood is pickled/washed first.
Watercolors, like acrylics, are not non-toxic inherently, but there are plenty of non-toxic watercolors on the market, starting with supermarket Crayolas and moving upwards from there. Again, haven't tried them since I'm trying to find paints that are specifically designated as safe for toys, but I do suspect they'd bleed a lot.
The site "Crafting for a Green World" recently published an article about staining wooden toys using liquid watercolors - of which I am a big fan - and the results look very nice, though I personally would want to seal them. We use Sax brand liquid watercolors to great effect.
I've also looked at zero-VOC interior paints and the like, but without a great deal of success. There seems to be a lot of focus on environmentally-friendly paints in the EU, but that hasn't translated to a lot of available products in the U.S., and even those in the EU don't appear to be rated for use on toys (or often even wood.)
I have tried milk paint (also available on Amazon) and I like the results, with a couple of caveats: it is not cheap, at all, and you'll definitely wind up on the "rustic" end of the spectrum of colors and effects. I ordered the full sample pack for $52, which is rather a lot of money for rather a small amount of paint, and I've tried three of the colors so far. It's fairly simple to control the dilution (if not the stubborn clumps of powder) - I just winged it with some water and powder and a cheap brush. After it was dry I sanded it back down with a scrubby and sealed it with beeswax polish. I'll use it again.
Paul Greve sent me some great photos of the terrific toys he paints using milk paints:
While I'd love to try this, it is prohibitively expensive, at $12 for a half pint of one color! They also don't say anything on the site about using it on wood or for toys, so it probably isn't certified or approved. For the wealthy out there, you can find it here.
I know of at least one toymaker who makes and sells his toys using Do It Best (made by Rustoleum - possibly not anymore) Latex Enamel. This is supposed to be non-toxic once cured but I personally think that it seems a little heavy on the chemicals to make it really safe for toys.
A visitor emailed me to ask about using Flour Paint, and I have not. It looks interesting, but I wonder if the ratios would work at smaller quantities - there's various boiling of things like linseed oil involved. Additionally, it's important to note that this paint is only as non-toxic as the pigments you choose. Some pigments can be incredibly toxic and some completely benign - so it's important for you to research your pigments as well as your recipe.
Either food coloring or gel colors (such as those used for cake decorating - I tried Wilton gel colors, since that's what I had) can be used. However, you can't really "paint" with them, as far as I can tell. They bleed tremendously through the grain, so while you could get perhaps some stripes or gradations, any kind of real detail will look a mess.
Additionally, the gel type of food colors must be diluted significantly. If you use too much gel and not enough water, it can sit on top of the wood and be quite tricky to get completely off. I discovered this first-hand. I had to wash the piece, and it's possible it will continue to bleed some color.
However, if what you are going for is bright, solid colors, food coloring works great and can be easily sealed with natural polish or shellac (see below.)
Update 12/2014: A visitor writes in with the following food dye-related experience:
The food dyes gave lovely brilliant colours on naturally very light plywood. I used them undiluted. Except for the purple, which I was unable to obtain by mixing different quantities of red and blue, so I bought some, which happened to be a gel, so I had to mix with water. The woodgrain raised only ever so lightly, but I sanded very lightle with 244 sandpaper anyway. And I had purchased some beeswax/jojoba oil mixture, which I rubbed in. This mixed with the dye on the toys, so gave me lovely coloured hands, but which washed off relatively easily with normal hand soap. The resulting toys were beautiful, I was really pleased with myself, but when I gave them to my grandson for his first birthday, it turned out that the food dye/bees wax mixture melts on warm children's lips and gives them brightly coloured lips, plus stains in everything they touched afterwards and the toys don't look so nice anymore. I've taken them home and hope a few more coats with the beeswax/jojoba oil will reduce the staining problem.
These I would truly love to try, but it's $17 for 3.5oz of one color - another prohibitively expensive option. You can buy them from Highland Woodworking if you have deeper pockets than I do.
If you're in Australia, a super option might be UBeaut Water Dyes. I wrote to them to see if they export to the U.S., and they suggested food coloring (which as noted is not an entirely satisfactory solution), so I'm not sure if they would ship overseas (their order form is a bit prehistoric.) I may give it a shot if I can't find a really good local option.
Visitor Yama says:
"I have had *very* nice results using plain ol' blueberries and other berries. Basically the reasoning goes as this: anything that will stain that white tablecloth you cannot use until the last kid is off to college, will probably/likely stain wood.
YMMV, etc. and likely light will degrade such color, but so far my blueberry puzzle is holding after 6 months."
Once again I can't get a clear answer as to whether these products are truly safe for toys, and they don't come in a huge range of colors, but I'm including them here for the sake of completeness.
Recommended for outdoor use only! - these stains contain a solvent that dries to a non-toxic finish, but is not appropriate for indoor or small toys.
Barbara Butler makes play structures and stains with her own Tung Oil Wood Stain colors. I'd definitely like to give these a try and may see how one of her small palette sets works out - it's not cheap, but it's not as expensive as several of the other options described here. It is described as non-toxic and used on equipment for children, but I have not contacted them to ask if their stains would be acceptable for use on smaller toys that might be chewed on. That said, their stain seems to be based on the now-defunct Woodburst Tung Oil stains.
Not recommended by the manufacturer for toy use. I contacted Minwax to inquire about using their stains on toys, and sadly they told me that they cannot recommend their products for such a use (despite several posts in their forums claiming that it would be just fine to do so.) This is not a huge surprise given the broad base of applications for Minwax.
Vermont Natural Coatings [Web Site] [Facebook] was suggested by commenter Paul Greve who says: "i make wood toy cars and use milk paint…spraying w/ hvlp gun and also w/ brush. Depending on color/look i want w/ good results. I primarily use a pre mixed from General Finishes as powder has limited shelf life and wholesale orders need to be consistent. I cannot say enough good things about Vermont Natural Coatings as a topcoat which I spray…inside…next to a wood stove."
I tried Amber Dusick's (aka Etsy's Woodmouse) Beeswax Wood Polish recipe and it worked great. I will eventually order some jojoba oil, but in the meantime I've used olive oil and that's been fine. It is true that the beeswax goes a little grainy in the microwave so I may try the double-boiler method next time, but the graininess rubs away when polishing so it's not really any big deal.
Behlen Salad Bowl Finish or Clapham's Beeswax Finish - This finish is formulated specifically to be food-grade, hence the name. I've read good things about it, though I haven't tried it.
CLARK'S Cutting Board Finish and John Taylor Butcher Block Conditioner Food Grade Mineral Oil and Natural Waxes (among others) - I would imagine that these are very similar to salad bowl finish, but they are separate products. This approach seems like it would also work really well.
Shellac is a little weird. It's made from bugs and it's complicated, sticky stuff. Thus I have avoided it, since I have no problem using the beeswax polish listed above. White shellac I believe is bleached, and apparently there can be drying problems if the shellac is older than 6 months. And it is sticky as heck.
Update 12/2014, via email from visitor Richard:
"My name is Richard and I have been making toys for years for my children, grandchildren, great-grand children and for the church's daycare.
First I would like to ease your mind about shellac. Shellac is indeed made from bugs as is #4 red dye and other food ingredients you have been consuming for most of your life. Shellac is FDA approved for use in food. It's definitely no worse than Bees wax.
It is a great sealer for wood and yes it and nearly everything will "raise the grain" which is normal and a light sanding with a 220 grit paper between coats will give you a fine finish. If I am leaving the wood a "natural" finish I use the amber shellac and clear if I'm coloring it.
I add food coloring to the shellac to give it a tint and successive coats will give a darker color.
So there you have it a proven and perfectly safe and edible finish for your toys."
Many people claim that water-based poly is non-toxic when cured. JW Etc. is no longer available, but this site claims to have a replacement: Liberty Art Finishes:
Liberty Art permanent acrylic varnish. For use over acrylic or oil based paints. Dries to a soft matte, satin or high gloss varnish. For use on most surfaces. Milky when wet, dries clear. Water-based. Low odor. UV resistant. Non-yellowing. Quick-drying. Indoor and outdoor. Non-toxic. Made in the USA.