If the natural materials and softer lines of antique or vintage-looking baby furniture appeal to you, a wooden high chair might top your wish list. New wooden high chairs are as safe as their plastic counterparts, as long as they include the same safety features. A vintage or antique wooden high chair is safe for use only if you've ensured that the finish is free from lead or other toxins, and if it has safety features that meet today's standards.
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One benefit of plastic high chairs is that they're easier to clean than wooden ones, especially wooden chairs with elaborate leg turnings that trap little bits of food. Plastic trays can go in the dishwasher; some new wooden high chairs come with plastic removable covers you can pop into the dishwasher as well. If you have a vintage high chair, clean the tray thoroughly with hot soapy water every time you use it to prevent food from sticking.
A new wooden high chair poses no more safety risk than a plastic chair, since it's manufactured to today's safety standards. An old chair, however, might not have a crotch post, which keeps your baby from falling through the bottom of the chair. The safety strap and crotch strap, which can serve as a substitute for a crotch post, might be broken or missing. This leaves nothing to keep your little one in the seat if the tray falls off and he tips forward or if he maneuvers both legs through one leg opening of the chair. A newer wooden chair that's certified by the Juvenile Products Manufacturers Association should meet all safety standards for preventing falls.
Toxins and Bacterial Contamination
Old lead-based paint poses a risk on vintage wooden high chairs. Rather than painting over old paint, strip it off and refinish the chair with water-based paint or a stain certified as safe for use on an eating surface. Drying oils such as linseed, tung and diluted varnish penetrate into the wood and harden it. Although you might worry about bacteria accumulating in wood more than it would on a plastic high chair, wooden cutting boards contained less bacteria after exposure to raw meat than plastic boards when tested by researchers at the University of California, Davis. While you're unlikely to cut raw meat on your toddler's high chair tray, the study did show that wooden boards didn't pose additional risk over plastic ones, even when both were scratched with use.
If you use a vintage high chair, check the hardware to make sure all the pieces are accounted for and sturdy enough to hold your baby. Examine the hardware that holds the tray as it slides in place, both to make sure it's not loose and to see if your baby could pinch his fingers in the mechanism. Test the hardware that allows the chair to fold to ensure that the chair won't collapse while being used. A chair with a wide base has a lower chance of tipping over.