Not everyone will have turpentine laying around the house. It is a fairly specialist organic solvent that comes from the distillation of tree resin. However, it is still used widely in industrial settings and there are some specialist uses that might require its presence in your home. That means it’s worth asking if turpentine represents any kind of fire hazard and if so, what you should do about it?
Turpentine is flammable. Turpentine can catch fire around 95 degrees Fahrenheit (35 Celsius) as that is the flashpoint. This means it qualifies as a flammable liquid.
Of course, if you take sensible precautions then there’s no need to fear working with turpentine, here’s what you need to know.
Your # 1 priority is keeping your family safe. As a firefighter, I recommend everyone has updated smoke detectors that don’t require battery changes, like these ones from Kidde, a fire extinguisher, like this one from Amerex, and a fire escape ladder if you have bedrooms above the first floor, I recommend this one from Hausse.
Also read: What Makes Something Flammable?
What Is Turpentine?
Turpentine is a natural product made from the resin of trees. The trees must be living and are usually, though not always, pine trees.
There are many slightly different names for this product including wood turpentine, oil of turpentine, terebinthine, and terebenthene. It is also nicknamed “turps” by those who use it frequently.
It’s worth noting that “mineral turpentine” is not the same chemical. It can be used for similar things, but it has a completely different chemical structure. For the purposes of this article, we are focusing our attention on turpentine from trees and not turpentine from petroleum products.
The word “turpentine” comes from French via both Latin and Greek. And it literally means “resin derived from the terebinth trees”.
To get the resin, the turpentiners (the people who make turpentine) strip back the bark on the base of the tree and the tree then secretes resin to try and seal the hole in the bark. These cuts are made in distinct v-shapes often called “cat faces” by those who work in turpentine production.
The process does not, usually, harm the trees and you can see cat faces that have healed over on trees that are still living, but no longer involved in the production of turpentine.
Once the resin has been collected it is steam distilled in a copper still. The turpentine is the top fraction of the distillate and rosin, a solid resin, is left behind in the still.
Once it has been produced it can be used as a solvent for thinning paint or varnish (which is the most common household use for the chemical). It’s also used in industrial processes as a solvent.
It can also be split down into other chemicals, typically fragrances and it is in many different medicinal treatments too.
If you’ve ever had Vick’s Vaporub rubbed on your chest, then that contained some turpentine.
We should, perhaps, all be grateful that turpentine is no longer recommended as an enema solution for curing constipation. Allegedly, the effects were most unpleasant for the afflicted individual.
Also read: Is Hexane Flammable? What to Know
Are The Fumes Flammable?
Turpentine fumes are highly flammable. A product is only considered to be flammable if it will ignite in the presence of a spark at or below 199.4 degrees Fahrenheit (93 Celsius) and this is very much true of turpentine.
In vapor form or even in mist form (such as turpentine sprayed from a squeezy bottle), turpentine is highly flammable and could even lead to an explosion.
For this reason, it is important to keep turpentine in a sealed container in a cool, dark but well-ventilated space when you’re not using it. When you are using it, you should, ideally, work outside or in a very well-ventilated area and make sure there are no sources of flame or potential sparking nearby.
Also read: Is Smoke Flammable? You May Be Surprised…
What Is The Flashpoint?
The flashpoint of turpentine is 35 degrees Celsius or 95 degrees Fahrenheit. That is the temperature at which it will ignite in the presence of a spark or flame.
It will also auto-ignite, that is catch fire without any source of flame or spark, at a relatively low 220 degrees Fahrenheit (104 Celsius).
That means turpentine is a fire hazard.
It’s worth noting that in the home, you may have a small bottle of turps and as long as it’s stored correctly, it won’t introduce any major risks but, in the workplace, if there are large amounts of turps on hand, correct storage is absolutely essential.
Also read: Is Resin Flammable? [Epoxy, Polyester]
Can You Use It To Start A Fire?
Turpentine can be used to start a fire. It’s best to mix the turpentine with petroleum jelly before you use it as a fire starter.
This is a popular way to start a fire when living off the grid.
This allows it to adhere to the wood that you’re trying to burn (or the kindling) and reduces the chances of fumes coming off which might be explosive.
You need about a quarter sized shape of the mixture to get things going – don’t over do it.
Note: This can be dangerous and should only be attempted buy someone who knows what they are doing.
Some have even used turpentine to fuel a camping stove (though it isn’t recommended):
Also read: Is Benzene Flammable?
Is It Flammable When Dry?
In theory, no. When turpentine is 100% dry, the flammable components have evaporated and there is no chance of it catching fire.
There are two problems with this.
1. If the turpentine is not 100% dry, it will remain flammable – so you need to be very careful when disposing of rags, brushes, etc. doused in turpentine.
2. If the turpentine dries in a poorly ventilated space, there may be fumes hanging around that are still flammable.