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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 this:

Rubbing Alcohol - Very cheap, almost harmless, works on a few glues.

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 no residue.

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 rubbing alcohol.

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 these products.


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 children.

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.

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Written June 30, 2001