View Full Version : Are paper towels with oil on them closed in plastic a fire hazard?

02-18-2019, 05:27 PM
Iíve been reading various posts here that rags or towels with oil on them and bunched up together can spontaneously combust and start a fire.

I donít use turps, but do use linseed and safflower oil as a medium and also dip my brushes in overnight. When I wipe brushes thereís often a lot of oil built up on the paper towels. I keep them wrapped in a plastic bag in my studio until the bag is full and then they go upstairs in the kitchen garbage ó and they are bunched up in there, and the bag is closed. Is this a fire hazard?!?

I donít like to keep them loose and out in the open because they smell up the studio.

Marc Kingsland
02-18-2019, 06:33 PM
Depends on whether the bag is airtight or not. If oxygen can't get in, then spontaneous combustion can't occur.

02-18-2019, 08:48 PM
What we do at our shop is to fully wet out the towels with water - either individually under a tap or by adding water into the bag itself -then squeeze the air out of the bag, tie it tightly, and finally dispose of in the trash. We do this on a nightly basis, which is safest. Also, our trash goes to an outside container versus in a kitchen, which lessens the risk of fire spreading even if something did happen. For home use, if you do not generate a lot of towels, you can get smaller bags to use. The dousing with water is key - so if nothing else do that. Finally, we use one of these cans - https://www.uline.com/Product/Detail/H-1846R/Safety-Storage/Oily-Waste-Can-Red-6-Gallon? - and they are not prohibitively expensive for home use as well.

This video - while a bit dramatic - can serve as a cautionary tale for anyone mixing linseed soaked towels or rags with general garbage:


And their suggestion of placing the towels/rags into an airtight can with water is a good one.

Or read about what happened to Eric Silver of Blue Ridge Oil Paints:


As he states there: "This fire was caused by oily rags combusting inside a metal trash can with no lid. Although we have done things correct for many years, it only takes once under the right conditions. Please use extra precaution when disposing of rags in the studio. The thought of this happening in a home is terrifying. This was an accident, but an easily prevented one. Please do not underestimate this danger."

Ted Bunker
02-19-2019, 01:08 AM
Linseed oil is probably the worst offender along with tung oil for rag fires.

A old cracker tin or house paint metal can is good as long as the lid is airtight. Personally I'm not a fan of plastic bags, or plastic storage bins with lids, simply because if the rags or paper towels flash-off, the bag or bin might melt a bit before the lack of oxygen is exhasted. And if even a small hole melts-through air gets-in and the the whole thing goes up in flames. And it has to be airtight, not just closed like a bsthroom waste-bin with a pedal opening thingy...they're the worst since they're designed with venting to dry-out wet papers towels and tissues.

Wetted paper towels and rags in a sealed ziploc-type bag is fine when returning from en plein air, but dispose of as soon as safely possible...preferably that evening. NOT in your hotel room trash can...

If you're a serious painter, consider getting a commercially available flammible rags shop container. They're typically red, metal, and have a heavy lid...available through hardware stores, industrial supply shops or online. At minimum get a small galvanized steel garbage can with lid. My grandmother always called them "ash cans" since before municipal garbage collections they were for the stove and furnace ashes when people still used wood or coal to heat and cook...so they had to be fire and heat resistant.

Personally, I store flammibles outside away from the house on a concete pad or some bricks at the end of the day. My 5-gallon container half-filled with kitty litter for solvents, paint wastes and used brush-cleaning water sits right next to it. Even my used watercolor water goes into the kitty litter to evaporate. I have a septic system, and I don't want to contaminate my water-well nearby. They both sit near my recycling and trash, and occasionall the accumulated paper towels and rags go into the trash at the street for pickup.

02-19-2019, 05:15 AM
I keep my oily papers in an OPEN plastic bag in a large pot in the bath tub, thoroughly wetted, or covered with water. The bag is held open with clothes pins so it can't collapse on itself. I used to keep it outside until the ants found it...The day before garbage day the bag goes into an outside bucket--again with water, and again, held open w/clothes pins. Before pickup, it gets put into the bin.

02-19-2019, 06:23 AM
Thanks so much for all the advice and tips here!
I will now wet all the towels after painting, and keep them in our metal ash can we use for the wood stove that has a tight lid on it until garbage day.

Why isnít this more known about ?!?
Never once in three years of art school or many workshops has this been ever brought up. My neighbor, a longtime oil painter, said she didnít know about it either.
Thank god for WetCanvas and all the knowledgeable and generous people here!

02-19-2019, 06:29 AM
Sara ó that video is shocking! Also a good tip they show is to put water in an old metal paint can, drop oily towels in and bang down the lid.

02-19-2019, 10:49 AM
Sara ó that video is shocking! Also a good tip they show is to put water in an old metal paint can, drop oily towels in and bang down the lid.

I agree it was shocking and that the use of an old housepaint can would be a good solution as well - plus, if you don't already have some, you can get empty ones for fairly cheap at places like Lowes, Home Depot and I am sure other paint supply stores. For listings just search for 'empty metal paint cans'.

Glad you thought to ask about this topic. It definitely should be taught and talked about more, but sadly you are right that it rarely comes up.

02-19-2019, 09:42 PM
Since we are talking about stuff that can burn your house down, don't forget batteries! Some people collect depleted batteries in a bin to be taken to the recycling center. Someone locally lost their home to a box of "dead" 9 volt batteries in the garage that ended up having enough juice left in them to start a fire when at least one of them was shorted across the exposed contacts. Most lithium batteries, if penetrated through or shorted out in some way can also burst into flames. Old car batteries often have enough power in them to start fires if shorted across the terminals.

Wrap a couple of layers of duct or electricians tape over the contacts on your 9v and lithums before you put them in the recycling bin.