Tuesday, March 9, 2010

Seriously... Rags!!!

This picture of a metal fabrication plant fire is here to make a point... OILY RAGS MAY CAUSE A FIRE!!!

I took this photo of the fire several years ago in Cannon Falls, MN.

As painters we constantly need to wipe our brushes on something to clean them, a dilemma on several levels. The first dilemma is and should be safety first. Any combustible material that is saturated with an evaporative solvent or oil is a fire hazard waiting to become a fire if not handled properly.

This info is from a Colorado Fire Dept. web site...

"What Is Spontaneous Combustion?
The Encyclopedia Britannica defines spontaneous combustion as the outbreak of fire without application of heat from an external source. This combustion can occur when flammable matter like oily rags, damp hay, leaves, or coal is stored in bulk. Spontaneous combustion, sometimes referred to as spontaneous ignition, begins when a combustible object is heated to its ignition temperature by a slow oxidation process. Oxidation is a chemical reaction involving the oxygen in the air around us gradually raising the inside temperature of something (like a pile of rags) to the point at which a fire starts.

Spontaneous Combustion Can Cause Fires
While spontaneous combustion isn't a common occurrence, it can be disastrous. Spontaneous combustion causes major fire losses each year. One of the most common scenarios is when floors or woodwork are being refinished and stain-soaked rags are left in a heap on the floor. Something as simple as not storing these rags properly can cause major fire damage.

In fact, the way combustible materials are stored has a lot to do with whether or not they'll spontaneously combust. For example, while an oil-soaked rag stored in a pail could heat up enough to burst into flames, the same oily rag laid flat to dry would probably have sufficient airflow to prevent heat buildup. Similarly, if the oily rag was placed in a tightly sealed jar, it most likely would not have sufficient air to allow the oxidation process to occur. That's why it's a good idea to look around your garage, storage shed, and yard on a regular basis to ensure that all flammable materials are properly stored. "

These thoughts are my own, I'm not suggesting that anyone take my information as the correct way. There is a plethora of information on the web concerning the safe use and disposal of oily rags and spontaneous combustion. Please read about it if you aren't familiar with the issue BEFORE you use rags of any kind, paper towels included, for cleaning up your oils and paints.

One product that will take care of the paint that we want to clean off of our brushes is paper towels; a paper product that is not only getting expensive, but that also results in a lot of 'throw away' waste that doesn't do much for making me feel like I'm being conscious of our natural resources in my painting methods and materials. I would guess that it's safe to say that most of us use paper towels, they're convenient.

The other, older solution is to use the old fashioned 'RAG'. I'll admit that I was watching a Morgan Weistling DVD, he uses rags, and that got me to thinking about what I use to clean those brushes. I decided to give rags another shot and am happy that I did. I'm not going back.

The affordability and safety of rags are what I started thinking about. Rags need to be absorbent, cheap, and as I realized, reusable. I have been buying them, terry cloth wash clothes at a local retailer, 18 for $4.00. But this summer I'll be hitting garage and rummage sales for T-Shirts, towels and flannel sheets that are CHEAP. There are a bunch of different sources for rags that are so much cheaper than paper towels. The paper towel expense is like throwing away money, use them up, the investment is gone. I know, it's part of the cost of the painting. Hey, cut that cost and make more money on the sale!!!

Rags, on the other hand, will last for many, many uses and do not eat up any our precious natural resources. Yes, it takes land to grow cotton, there's always a trade off but that's one that is less critical in my eyes than the overuse of our national forests for paper products.

Then there's safety. To solve the issue with paper towels I used one of those omnipresent plastic grocery bags for each painting session and it went to the outside garbage can, away from the house because they can still combust in there, at the end of every single day or painting session.

There are special fire safe cans, called Red Cans, that are made specifically for disposing of oily rags. You still need to empty that nightly.

So what to do with cotton rags then??? I ran across a Q&A site for 'garage heads', people who spend a lot of their time working on cars in garages, that had a great solution that I'm using. I'll mention that one following this...

Another site was for woodworkers who use a lot of rags to stain with oil based stains and solvents. Their solution is to use a 'drying rack' that allows the rags to be hung, not touching the other rags or themselves, with complete air circulation all around them. If the air is moving sufficiently around the rags, the air carries away the heat that does build up until the oil or solvent is completely innocuous, and the fire hazard is subdued. This is a pretty good solution, but I would like to be able to clean the rags too so that I can reuse them and not have to purchase more very often. $$$ Savings$$$

Other information suggests putting the rags in an airtight can with a lid, covering them with water and then taking them to a hazardous waste center for disposal. Again, safe but the disposal of them means that they can't be resused.

The solution that I am using, and the one that made the most sense to me for my needs, is from the 'garage head' Q&A site. They suggest that the rags be washed in a washing machine with 'SIMPLE GREEN'. Simple... but I am not about to wash my oily rags in the same washing machine as my oily painting clothes!!! ;-) My clothes aren't that dirty, just kidding. Not in my washing machine though.

What I do is this... At the end of a session, I put the rag(s) (I usually only need one rag per session) into a lidded, one gallon ice cream pale, full of concentrated 'SIMPLE GREEN' for an overnight soaking. In the morning I take them out, rinse in the sink with hot water and PRESTO.... they're clean and ready to be hung up or laid out to dry in preparation for another painting session!

I wondered then about the waste water from doing that. I'm comfortable with it for several reasons. Any water from the washing machine, sink, car washing in the drive way... is gray water and needs to be considered as eventually impacting our water supply. Not that I am happy that 'any' residue is present at all, I'm not. But I am comfortable in that the amount of residue from cleaning these rags is minute compared to what runs off of a driveway when the car gets washed. In a perfect world, neither would result in any run off.

On top of that, I'm using about 8 rolls of paper towels a week less! That's a lot of wood product saved.

If you made it all of the way through this post, you are one SERIOUS artist! Thanks for reading. I hope that it helps you keep your studio safe, and that you find an alternative to paper towels a good thing.


loriann signori said...

Thank you for the thoughtful post. I think I will try your rag solution. Thanks!

Tracey Mardon said...

Thanks Mark, presently I use blue paper towels and put them in old zip loc bags until the bag is full but this gives me pause. Also I wonder then if Simple Green is what you use on your brushes? Lastly, it's probably obvious but I was told that my son's work clothes(baker) should not be put in the dryer due to possible combustability.

Scott Dienhart said...

I have always used rags. I was actually wondering why if so many artists used paper towels maybe I should also. I always wondered what you guys did with them after.
A few years back one of our local liquior stores had a serious fire. I talked to the owner and he told me that he put a small rag with a small amount of linseed oil in the trash. Ever since that day I take all of my rags out to and old fashion metal trash can after they have aired out for a few days. I guess I'll skip on the papaer towels


Rae O'Shea said...

These are good ideas, I've been in two house fires and don't ever want to go through that again. What do you do with the rags when you are traveling?

Monica Burnette said...

Great ideas. I admit to using paper towels, but stingily. I put them in an empty gallon paint can I bought at Home Depot for $2. It has a tight-fitting lid to keep out air. I do have a lot of old tshirts I may have to dig out and try.

Kami Mendlik said...

This is really good info Marc. Thanks for the research and for sharing! I hope everyone reads this!

Shelley Ross said...

Cool, thanks. I'm going back! I was a rag user, but I used to toss those out too. Switched to paper towels about six months ago but now I'll try your suggestion washing with Simple Green.

Although I don't comment much, well, ever, I'm a subscriber and a fan. I always look to see your work and what you are up to and workshop locations. Nothing quite accessible to me yet, but if you ever come west, I'll be there.

Vancouver, BC

Robin Roberts said...

When I first started painting with oils I was really cheap, (not much has changed,) so I bought cheap paper towels. I realized I was getting lint on the brushes from the paper towels so I started using rags instead since I could reuse them. And, I also make my own detergent by combining 4 cups of soap flakes, 2 cups of washing soda and 2 cups of Borax in a container and using that a cup at a time to soak and wash the rags. Then simply rinse, dry and reuse. Thanks for the article and heads up.

Marc R. Hanson said...

Thanks for your feedback.

I'm glad this post is being read. Rags are nice to use, for one thing, you can wipe out paint easier! Not as a correction necessarily, but as a technique too. Paper towels leave residue if you're not careful, especially if you're painting on an a fairly good textured weave.

Again, it's when they're bunched up that they become a hazard... Jim's idea of hanging them up was recommended by several safety posts I read.

Putting them into the zip loc bags would only be good if there were NO air flow. And if you take them out to an outside disposal container, metal with lid.

I don't use Simple Green for anything other than household cleaning, not for brushes.

And if fact, I'm going to try your recipe Robin. Simple Green isn't cheap.

I haven't traveled with rags yet. I suppose there will be times when I'll resort to paper towels, like at away painting events.

Monica, just keep that thing outside away from anything that might burn in case it does ignite.

Scott and Rae... it's really scary how easily it can happen. I've only known of it happening to others, fortunately.

Thanks Kami and Shelley.

Chad said...

This is timely, I was just checking out a new art store about an hours drive from here and they were selling "painting rags". I grabbed a bag but ended up not purchasing them. I may have to reconsider... thanks for the research regarding cleaning that was a big reason for the hesitation. Question, what kind of ice cream was it? :)

Lisa McShane said...

Great post and something I've been wondering about. I haven't used paper towels in my house for 20 years but now I use them for painting - that's silly. I do have a box of rags - old tshirts, old sheets, old&clean socks and I'm going back to them. I like your wash technique (because of course these aren't going in my nice washing machine!) I'll try it with Biokleen, the same thing I use for clothes.

In art school our wood shop teacher put the fear of fire into me with a story about an artist who worked in the garage. It was a 1970's style split level w/ the bedrooms above the garage. Oily rags =the whole house burned down.

I have a metal can w/ a lid in my studio but that's probably not good enough. Going back to rags and dropping them into a wash bucket each night sounds like a much better approach.

Jamie said...

I buy a large box of cotton rags at Home Depot. If I remember correctly, it was about $10 for the box, which lasts me ages. I put them into a large plastic barrel at home (unused), and whenever I have old sheets or T-shirts, those get added to the barrel as well.

I see I haven't thought through the disposal issue nearly carefully enough, and I'm probably not alone in that! I wonder why the suggestion is to use Simple Green. Why not Tide or some other laundry detergent with the water? I've kinda fallen off the "rag wagon" lately and have been using Viva, but this post has prompted me to go back to my rag barrel, and if empty, to make another trip to Home Depot soon.

Maybe I'll do some acrylics now! (Stop cringing, Marc. ;-) )


Bruce Trewin said...

Mia culpa...paper towels....well I will have to rethink this and I also have had lint problems, so thanks again Marc.

My only concern is that we live out in the country and use a septic system...wouldn't want oily residue tainting the vines would we? So we are not supposed to rinse any such products in the sink...what to do, what to do???

Marc R. Hanson said...

Robin... What is "washing soda"... Comet or something like that?
Also... "soap flakes"... like Tide, etc.?
And I can't find Borax around here, can't believe it. Every grocery and hardware store used to carry that...

Marc R. Hanson said...

Safey first no matter what the choice right?

If you can build up a large enough supply of old shirts, sheets, towels, etc., toss them if septic or storage cleaning isn't best.

I like Robin's idea, a cheap cleanser or as Jamie mentioned just regular old detergent.

Simple Green is spendy. I had a jug and read about it being used in the auto shops so went with that. But I can see that it's going to go fast.

Robin Roberts said...

Arm & Hammer makes washing soda. It is different from baking soda so be careful there. Soap flakes are basically as it says, flakes of soap. I use Dri-pak soap flakes. I am sure that is not the same thing as detergent. I get them at the grocery and they are typically in the all-natural/"green" section. In our store, the borax is with other detergent.

Colin Page said...

Great post marc. I always use rags and put the word out that I am always happy to take old tshirts and towels. I haven't had to buy a rag or paper towel in years. Really good post for people to think about. We have to be VERY careful with our flammable materials. Thanks.

Andy said...

Thanks Marc.

I discovered your blog a couple of weeks ago and have now read virtually everything on it. Some great info here. You've inspired me to get back outside and to find things to paint.

I look forward to an article on how you deal with the "dreary" side of plein air painting - things like cleaning brushes & palettes, carting wet paintings and choosing what colours to put on the palette before that first stroke.

Kathryn Clark said...

I started out using paper towels but then switched to cotton rags when I saw an excellent painter recommend them. And I LOVE 100% cotton RAGS! This year, I recycled a worn out cotton flannel bed sheet and will have the very best rags for years to come. If you don't use flannel bed sheets in the winter, tell your friends you would like theirs when they wear out. They take the paint out of your brush better than any thing else and can be used for a long time.

NowI will try Simple Green. That's a great idea.


Jala Pfaff said...

Thanks for the info, Mark. Good to remember.
I use only cotton rags. We have an event in the neighborhood every summer where anyone can put anything they don't want out on the curb. I cruise the 'hood, gathering old T-shirts...

Jala Pfaff said...

P.S. I don't reuse my rags. I throw them out (though I need to remember to take those out more often!). Cheap old stained T-shirts that people are getting rid of are so easy to come by (free in my neighborhood, but probably ridiculously cheap at a thrift store). I just give them one washing and then they are ready for use in my studio. I cut them up into nice-sized pieces so they're ready when I need to just grab one.

Stephen Magsig said...

Marc, thanks for this post. It has given this old artist a lot to think about. I will try the cloth rags and washing. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

I have come home from a day of painting and not decided for the moment what to do with the used paper towels, so stashed them in the freezer for overnight (inside the plastic grocery bag). Once I forgot them and they ended up "freeze-dried" and, hence, no longer hazardous....

I have read that some use the advertising yellow pages that get dumped on our doorsteps but never used as paint wipers. I do wonder about ink color transfer to brushes, though.

Randall said...

Cool post Mark! I didn't even think twice about using rags over paper towels. I knew rags would be best anyway. There more durable and I can quickly swipe, dab, slash, zig-zag my brush all over the rag and not worry about it terrying. I'm used to watercolors and splashing paint all over my trashcan and I like using paper towels to sop up the water or color when I use watercolors but oil painting in my opinion requires a rag, lol. Also I reuse my cheap papertowels after they dried, still works for sopping up a wet brush.

I wish you could reuse the soapy water of the simply green mixture can it be done? sort of like reusing mineral spirits after you rinsed your brush in it, I have about 4 jars that have mineral spirits in them and I use the oldest jar 1st since most of the paint has settled down. I haven't put a brush washer kit in yet just rotating my jars, lol. I was trying to find out if putting the jars in the fridge would cause the paint to settle faster, kept forgetting to test it out. Have you tried this?

Read your post on the panel making and thought that was cool. Which paintings have you done with those?


Sunny said...

Hi Marc. Ijust found your blog today and have made it all the way through your April 2009 painting redux. Firstly, I love your painting, the colors and the subjects. As for using rags, I agree. That's what my Grandma used to do, wash and reuse, so that is all I've known to do. Glad to see I am doing something right :)
I'll be tagging along , gleaning what I can learn, as I have never gone to school for art and it doesn't look like I am ever going to. I love these painting blogs I have found recently as they will be my "art classes". I appreciate all the work that goes painting every day and blogging about it. Thank you so much for making your blog available so others like myself can learn! Have a blessed day!

steve said...

Thanks for the rags tip. Hate the paper waste. Will search for the Simple Green stuff -- grocery store? Enjoy your blog every morning!
Steve Weeks

Marc R. Hanson said...

Hey... Steve, you can find that at most grocery stores or better yet, a big box home improvement type store.

I am so happy that I've made this switch. Since this post I have not used more than about 6 paper towels, and most of those were used to mop up spilled coffee on the counter top or computer!!!

I found that buying the cotton T-shirt remnants in the box has been the best bet. I intended to get to garage sales during the summer to scrounge up a truck load of T-shirsts... summer's over and I never made it to one.

Need to say that I am no longer saving, washing and drying them. Cotton is a renewable resource, readily available, so I am using and throwing them. They still go into a bucket of water and detergent to neutralize and prevent the fire hazard, but then they go into the trash on the morning of pick up.

It is so nice to not have to spend the money, use the resource and carry that big roll in my bag and under my arm while painting! I am also so much happier with the way a rag removes paint from the brush compared to a paper towel... no comparison.

Unknown said...

I so appreciate your solution for the rags. I am a new painter and was getting rags stacking up..I know that isn't safe and needed to find some solution. Simple green is on my list and will use your process.

Anonymous said...

I just discovered this today! Thanks. One question though: Will pouring the soapy water/Simple Green solution eventually kill the grass? I live in a small apartment, and the landlord is particular about keeping the lawns in good shape. Thanks!

bonnie252 said...

This sounds like a really good solution to a complicated problem.
I'm saving this post so I can refer to it again. Thank you.

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