Howdy, Stranger!

It looks like you're new here. If you want to get involved, click one of these buttons!

You can send an email to [email protected] if you have questions about how to use this forum.

Safe handling of oily towels?

Looking for advice on the best way to dispose of oily paper towels. I'm paranoid about spontaneous combustion. 

Let's say I use a handful of paper towels during a painting session. They have paint and oil in them.  How should I safely dispose of them - or am I being too paranoid?


  • You can use one of those metal fireproof containers. Fill it partially with water and put the towels in there. Better than burning your house down :)

    You can also just use a normal trash bin but dump or spray some water over the towels at the end of the session. I'm not sure if this is 100% effective.. seems like it might be though.
  • edited November 2019
    At the end of every painting session I take my handful of used paper towels run them under water until soaked, and place these in a plastic bag and place them in the freezer until trash pick up day, every 2 weeks. Snow and ice in winter work in my favor as well.
  • A metal can with a metal lid and an inch or two of water in the bottom will work as well as one of those expensive "fire proof" cans. An old 2 quart cooking pot with a close fitting metal lid purchased at a garage sale works for me. I even used it to teach people how to use fire extinguishers with burning kerosene in it and showed them how the lid can safely put the fire out too. 
  • The metal cans can result in fires, the idea in a factory type environment is that the fire would be contained and the general environment, say a bunch of machine tools and concrete floors, not be affected by a fire inside a heavy metal container.  Since the containers have heavy lids, they should smother themselves even if a fire breaks out.  This approach would not entirely work in my space.

    If I am worried I put the towels outside, flat, not balled up, and weight them down.  They dry quickly.  But with paints designed to dry over a long period, that still leaves final disposal unresolved.  And paints can also stain outdoor surfaces, where my usual problem to date has been drying oils for woodwork.  And machine oils.

    In terms of best practices, I have inert gasses for welding in my shop, you can put those in a container and throw in what you will, and combustion will not occur.

    Occasionally I am headed out of town, and I need some way of dealing with the rags. I have been knows to place them in the trash at the local park.  Same final pick-up either way.  No question the risk of combustion is real, but I have yet in 40 years of rags had anything catch on fire.  So far no flaming bins at the park either.  Very important not to ball rags up.  Lay them flat.

    Some of the suggestions by others seem like better approaches.  I see demos where people say they are going through a roll of towels per plein air picture.  That seems like a lot of waste.  Sorta cutting down trees as fast as one is painting them.  Bryan Mark Taylor, for instance.
  • I would think about soaking the rags in a non-drying oil like cheap supermarket olive oil which would not dry out or oxidize.
  • I used to think that spontaneous combustion was only an issue for industrial quantities  of rags, but a few years ago I was finishing a piece of furniture with an oil based finish and put the oil wet rag aside for a while. When I came back it had become uncomfortably hot to the touch. It probably would have taken a bit more volume to actually ignite, but not much. 
    Admittedly there was a lot more oil on that rag than one Is likely to use painting, but I have been very careful ever since.
    House paint stores sell empty quart and gallon paint cans. I keep one nearby half filled with water. Soiled paper towels go in there, pushed under the water with the lid on top. When the can is full, I squeeze out the water, put the paper wad in a plastic bag and leave it out with the trash. 
  • What if you are only using walnut oil and no mineral spirits or turps?  I would think the flash point would be way higher than it gets in a studio. 225 to 350f

  • edited December 2019
    The label on my bottle of walnut oil warns against spontaneous combustion.
  • flashpoint isn't an issue because the atmospheric temperature is not an issue. a cotton rag with linseed oil on it will generate it's own heat. it's the same process as fermentation. there are a number of other products that can do this. The cans are used because they exclude the oxygen. oily rags left outdoors are not likely to combust (if not piled up) because there's an abundance of free air to cool them down and carry off the heat before it can build up to ignition temperature.

  • Thanks very much @BOB73 for that bit of info.  
  • @BOB73 question for you about using a paint can with lid; wouldn’t concentrating the rags in that container accelerate the heat generating fermentation process with no free air flow?

    wouldn't putting the rags, say, in a plastic bag where you can press the air out and seal the bag work better?  
  • GTO

    The heat will build in any container, if there is no oxygen it can’t ignite.
    However, a plastic bag will melt and then it’s dial 911.

    I have posted this short video several times but it is worth repeating.

    Linseed Oil and Spontaneous Combustion


  • I use my discarded oily towels as fire lighters in the wood heater in my studio. They burn great. I put them in there after use so even if they ignite spontaneously before I light the fire they can't do any harm. 
  • Good grief --- I oil out my paintings quite often with some Refined Linseed Oil bunged onto cloths.  Well, I'll have to put this one on the long list of things to be careful about.   Thanks Denis.
  • Thanks for posting that @dencal
  • @dencal is right (again) the oily rags issue is best contained in metal cans with close fitting lids. ignition may still occur but with the lack of free oxygen, the rags will likely smolder rather than produce flames. I've tried numerous times to recreate the process but it always takes too long and most often produces a charring effect without actual ignition. A pile of cut grass clippings is more likely to combust. The metal paint can is a good idea but I haven seen one in years, they're more often made of plastic now.
  • I got a metal paint can and have some water in it.  So now I put the rags , paper towels in that with the close fitting lid.  
  • @dencal and @BOB73
    Thanks for sharing this information! 

  • FYI. I got the metal paint can at a hardware store that sells paint and will mix paint to whatever color you like.  
Sign In or Register to comment.