Cleaning Up With Solvents
By Bruce W. Maki, Editor
When I have to remove glue, tar, grease
or some gummy substance, I turn to the world of smelly petro-chemicals.
No, not for aromatherapy, for their solvent properties. There is a wide
range of solvents that vary in strength and their tendency to attack
things that you don't want to dissolve.
I often start at the low volatility (and safer) end of the spectrum and
work down the list to the stronger stuff. The scale goes something like
Rubbing Alcohol - Very cheap, almost harmless, works on a few
Denatured Alcohol - Ethyl alcohol denatured (i.e. tainted to make
it undrinkable) with Methyl alcohol. Toxic. Methyl alcohol will
make you blind if you drink it. Dissolves many adhesives and gummy
substances, but not as well as mineral spirits. Dries quickly and leaves
Mineral Spirits - Common ordinary paint thinner. Widely
available. Dissolves most glues. Cheap, about $2 a gallon or less.
Will dry out the skin on your hands, turning it whitish. (I'm told it
draws oils from your skin). May leave a residue, which can be cleaned with
Goof-Off™ - Contains Methylene Chloride, a known carcinogen, but
also a very effective latex paint remover. Very good for removing glues
and gummy substances. Expensive, about $5 a quart at Home Depot.
Automotive Brake Cleaner - An excellent solvent, leaves little or
no residue, dissolves all sorts of things. May be very flammable. They
used to use Trichloroethane (TCE) in brake cleaner, which is almost
identical to Perchloroethane, which is dry cleaning solvent. But... it
seems that sales of TCE to the public have been restricted. I believe it's
because TCE messes up the ozone layer. TCE was cool because it was
non-flammable, so you could smoke a big fat stogy while you worked, if
you're into that kind of thing. So modern brake cleaners are a mix of
solvents which are usually flammable, but none leave much of a residue.
They are expensive, about $2 for a spray can, but a good thing to have
around for really quick spray-cleaning of oily/greasy parts. I have used
brake cleaner for spot-dry-cleaning to get grease or oil stains out of
clothing, with decent results
Acetone - Commonly available as finger nail polish remover. This
dissolves some petrochemicals. May work on glue. I haven't tried it on
much. I recently used acetone to clean urethane foam from a spray can,
before it had dried, and it worked perfectly.
Lacquer Thinner - Nasty stuff. Stinky. Quite volatile. Evaporates
quickly, so it's quite easy to create an invisible cloud of explosive
vapors. I use this for cleaning my spray guns when I use certain types of
fast-drying wood stains. Lacquer thinner seems to soften dried
urethane, and will definitely soften dried lacquer, which is the most
common finish on factory-made cabinets. I would not recommend lacquer
thinner for most people, unless you do a lot of wood finishing.
Carburetor Cleaner - Carb cleaner usually contains one of the
nastiest solvents I've ever known... xylene. It really stinks. It's
a known carcinogen. It burns great. I once set my car's engine on fire by
spraying too much carb cleaner on it. Luckily I didn't damage anything.
It's probably explosive if kept in a confined room, so ventilation is
necessary. Actually, ventilation (or a gas mask) is necessary for all of
I believe that every home needs a supply
of rubbing alcohol, mineral spirits, and Goof-Off, at the very least. This
basic set can clean almost anything. But keep these goodies away from
Often the biggest factor is the tool used to apply, spread or scrub the
solvent. There are many plastic scrubbing devices, such as dishwashing
brushes or those 3M Scotch-Brite pads. Many household plastics are of the
polyolefin family (polyethylene and polypropylene) and will not be
affected by the solvents mentioned here.
Look around and try different tools, and don't be afraid to raid the
kitchen. Some of the best cleaning tools are ordinary discount-store
items. It looks like we're goin' to Big Lots.