Understanding Solvents: Part I
Solvents make stains and finishes work. You will never feel really comfortable with finishing until you have an understanding of solvents.
Following is an overview of each of the most commonly available solvents. For a deeper understanding that better relates all the finish solvents to each other, see Understanding Solvents, Part II. For an explanation of lacquer thinner, which is composed of about half-a-dozen individual solvents, see Lacquer Thinner.
Petroleum Distillates and Turpentine
Petroleum distillates are distillations of petroleum. They include mineral spirits (informally referred to as “paint thinner”), naphtha, toluene, xylene and some “turpentine substitutes” such as turpatine and T.R.P.S. Their primary use in wood finishing is for thinning waxes, oils, and varnishes, including polyurethane varnish, and for cleaning brushes. Petroleum distillates are also used to remove oil, grease and wax.
Turpentine is a distillation of pine-tree sap. Before the mid-twentieth century, turpentine was widely used as a thinner and clean-up solvent for oil paint and varnish and also as an oil, grease and wax remover.
With the growth of the automobile industry and its need for petroleum products, a large number of petroleum solvents were introduced and these have almost entirely replaced turpentine because they are less expensive and have less unpleasant odor. The only sector in which turpentine is still used in any quantity is fine arts.
To produce solvents from petroleum, the liquid is heated and gases are taken off and condensed as the temperature increases. The process is called distillation—and thus, petroleum distillates.
The first gas to come off is methane, which doesn’t condense at room temperature, only at much colder temperatures. Then there’s ethane, propane, butane, etc.
Heptane and octane are used to make gasoline, a liquid that evaporates very rapidly. Gasoline is sometimes used as a cleaner, but it is very dangerous because it is explosive. Don’t use gasoline.
The petroleum distillates we use in wood finishing evaporate much slower than gasoline and are relatively safe to use in small quantities, even with poor ventilation. But it’s still not wise to use them in a room with a flame such as a pilot light, and you should protect yourself with better ventilation if you use them for long periods of time.
Furniture polishes are primarily petroleum distillates in the evaporation range slightly slower than mineral spirits. Many furniture polishes are emulsifications of petroleum distillates and water making them appear white (like milk, which is an emulsification of water and animal fat). Emulsified furniture polishes are better cleaners because they remove both solvent- and water-soluble dirt.
Mineral Spirits, Naphtha and Turpentine
The two most widely used finishing solvents are mineral spirits and naphtha. For our purposes, the principal differences between the two are evaporation rate and oiliness.
Naphtha evaporates faster than mineral spirits and is “drier,” that is, less oily. Naphtha is therefore better for cleaning all types of oily, greasy or waxy surfaces. Mineral spirits is better for thinning oils, varnishes (including polyurethane varnish) and oil-based paints because it provides more time for the coating to level after brushing.
Naphtha is a stronger solvent than mineral spirits, but this is rarely significant in wood finishing. Mineral spirits is strong enough for any normal operation.
To place turpentine among the petroleum distillates, think of it as having the solvent strength of naphtha but the evaporation rate and oiliness of mineral spirits. I don’t know of any situation in wood finishing where this is important. But the better solvent strength is important with some artist’s paints.
The nickname for mineral spirits is “paint thinner.” Back in the early days of mineral spirits, before the Second World War, all paints were oil-based. So there was only one thinner for paint. The nickname made sense.
Today, with water-based paints and finishes in wide use, the name could be confusing to beginners. Paint thinner is used only with oil-based paints and finishes, never with latex paints or water-based finishes.
It’s important to emphasize that mineral spirits and paint thinner are the same thing. Amazingly, there are manufacturers who try to trick you into paying more by labeling their containers “pure” mineral spirits and charging more.
The common naphtha available in paint stores is VM&P Naphtha. VM&P stands for “varnish makers and painters.” Stronger and faster evaporating naphthas exist, but these are rarely sold to the general public.
Toluene and Xylene
Toluene, nicknamed “toluol,” and xylene, nicknamed “xylol,” are the strong, smelly, fast evaporating and “dry” parts of mineral spirits and naphtha. These solvents are removed from mineral spirits and naphtha at refineries and sold separately as oil and grease removers. They are also used as solvents for some high-performance spray finishes such as conversion varnish. Toluene and xylene are very effective as oil and grease removers, but naphtha should be adequate for most situations.
Toluene evaporates a little faster than xylene, but this is significant only when using the solvent as a thinner.
The problem with these two solvents is that they are relatively toxic. They will affect your nervous system causing irritability and drunkenness, and in large doses could cause serious health problems. You should never use them in any sizeable quantity in a room without good exhaust.
One very interesting use for toluene and xylene is to soften latex paint. Using a dampened cloth (and solvent-resistant gloves) you can easily remove latex paint that has spattered off a paint roller, or even a full coat of latex paint, from any finish except water-based finish (you’ll remove the water-based finish too), without causing any damage to the underlying finish. In fact, the products sold specifically to do this, “Oops!” and “Goof-Off,” are principally xylene.
Because white and yellow glues are the same chemistry as latex paint, you can also use toluene or xylene to soften and scrub these glues from wood when you have glue seepage or finger prints you didn’t fully remove during sanding. You will need to use a toothbrush or soft brass-wire brush to get the glue out of the pores.
Odorless Mineral Spirits
The mineral spirits left after the toluene and xylene are removed is sold as “odorless” mineral spirits. When understood this way, it’s obvious that odorless mineral spirits is a weaker solvent than regular mineral spirits. But I’ve never found this to be a problem. It still appears strong enough to thin all common oils, varnishes and oil paints.
The disadvantage of odorless mineral spirits, of course, is that it is considerably more expensive because of the extra steps necessary to produce it. You may find the extra expense worth it just to avoid the unpleasant odor of regular mineral spirits.
The turpentine substitutes, turpatine and T.R.P.S., are more similar to turpentine than to mineral spirits. These petroleum substitutes have a solvent strength closer to naphtha and an evaporation rate closer to mineral spirits. So they are useful to fine artists but provide no special benefit to wood finishers.
Alcohol is an entirely different solvent than petroleum distillates. It is used as the solvent and thinner for shellac. Alcohol is the solvent because it dissolves solid shellac flakes and the dried finish, and it’s the thinner because it thins the liquid shellac after the flakes have been dissolved.
(Notice the technical difference between the terms “solvent” and “thinner,” even though they are often used interchangeably. Alcohol both dissolves and thins shellac. Mineral spirits, on the other hand, doesn’t dissolve varnish; it just thins varnish. For more on dissolving and thinning, see What Dissolves and Thins What.)
There are two types of alcohol available at paint stores: methanol (methyl alcohol) and denatured alcohol (shellac thinner).
Methanol evaporates a little faster than denatured alcohol, but methanol is toxic and could blind or even kill you if you breathe too high a vapor concentration for too long. You shouldn’t use it in large quantities unless you wear a respirator mask or a good exhaust system in your shop.
Denatured alcohol is ethanol (the alcohol in beer, wine and liquor) that has been made poisonous so we don’t have to pay liquor taxes to buy it. This is the alcohol you should use with shellac.
In situations where shellac is not the finish, denatured alcohol has the further use as a felt-tip-pen ink remover. Dampen a cloth with denatured alcohol and wipe over the mark. You will remove it in most cases. You won’t damage any finish except shellac as long as you don’t soak the surface.
Propylene glycol is a very slow evaporating alcohol that is often used as a “flow additive” in water-based finishes. Unfortunately, this solvent isn’t widely available for consumers.
Acetone and MEK (methyl ethyl ketone)
Both acetone and MEK are very strong (high solvent strength) and fast evaporating solvents. Acetone evaporates faster than MEK and, in fact, is the fastest evaporating of all the solvents commonly available to consumers. It is used in many industries as a cleaner and degreaser.
In wood finishing acetone is used as a solvent for lacquers and, along with MEK, as a common ingredient in paint removers. You can add acetone to lacquer and shellac to get them to dry faster in cold temperatures. Acetone is also the most effective solvent for removing the oily resin from the surface of some exotic woods, including teak, wenge and cocobolo, before gluing with a water-based adhesive or finishing with an oil or varnish.
Acetone is unique in that it is the only common solvent that is exempt as a VOC (volatile organic compound) and HAP (hazardous air pollutant). VOCs are environmental (smog) pollutants. HAPs are bad for us to breathe. Both are regulated and their use is limited in many parts of the country. You can use as much acetone as you want, everywhere.
Click here to read about lacquer thinner.
Brush Cleaners and Deglossers
Brands of brush cleaner and deglosser (liquid sandpaper) vary greatly in their composition. Some are even water-based, but these work slower and are less effective than solvent-based.
You can usually substitute a brush cleaner for the mineral spirits or lacquer thinner you may otherwise use to clean your varnish or lacquer brushes. (It’s easiest to clean shellac with household ammonia and water.) Brush cleaners are usually more expensive, however.
What is left unsaid about deglossers is that it matters greatly what paint or finish you’re trying to clean and dull. Cleaning grease or wax is no problem, but high-performance paints and finishes such as powder and UV-cured coatings, catalyzed lacquer, conversion varnish and even oil-based polyurethane are very solvent resistant. So it’s rarely possible to dull them short of abrading with real sandpaper or steel wool.
Table 1 – What Dissolves and Thins What
Solvent Dissolves Thins Mineral spirits (paint thinner)
Varnish (incl. polyurethane varnish)
Varnish (incl. polyurethane varnish)
Alcohol (denatured) Shellac Shellac
Lacquer Thinner Shellac
Lacquer (nitrocellulose, CAB-acrylic)
Lacquer (nitrocellulose, CAB-acrylic, catalyzed) Glycol Ether Shellac
Lacquer (nitrocellulose, CAB-acrylic)
Lacquer (nitrocellulose, CAB-acrylic, catalyzed)