Mineral spirit uses are widespread. But how do the solvents compare, and how do you properly select one vs. the other?
First, let's separate the solvents into the petroleum distillates. Because the most highly used mineral spirits are petroleum distillates, this reduces the remaining products to a number that’s easy to handle.
Petroleum distillates are all distillations of petroleum. They include paint thinner (less refined mineral spirit that contains other types of solvents), naphtha, toluene, xylene and some “turpentine substitutes” such as Turpentine and T.R.P.S. The primary use of these solvents is to clean oil, grease, wax for wood finishing, oils and varnishes (for example, polyurethane varnish) — as well as parts washing. All of the petroleum distillates and turpentine do essentially the same thing at different evaporation rates.
What is turpentine used for?
Turpentine is a distillation of pine-tree sap. Turpentine was originally used as a thinner and clean-up solvent for oil paint and varnish, and also as a grease and wax cleaner.
Now with the growth of the automobile industry, a large number of petroleum solvents have supplanted turpentine because they are less expensive and have a less noxious odor. The only sector that predominantly uses turpentine is the fine arts. To distill petroleum, it is heated higher and higher and the gases released at different temperatures are condensed into the various liquid solvents.
Mineral spirits vs. Naphtha
Naphtha is ideal for cleaning all types of oily, greasy or waxy surfaces. Mineral spirits are better for thinning oils, (including polyurethane varnish) and oil-based paints because it leaves more time for the coating to level after brushing. Naphtha is a stronger solvent than mineral spirits, and as such, the use of specialty naphthas is on the rise. Some common uses for naphtha solvents include portable camping stoves, lanterns, blowtorches, and lighters, feedstock to produce petrochemicals like propylene, pyrolysis gasoline and ethylene, and industrial chemical supplies. Mineral spirits are strong enough for any normal operation. Mineral spirits and “paint thinner” are often interchangeable.
Toluene and xylene
Toluene, nicknamed “toluol,” and xylene, nicknamed “xylol,” are the strong, smelly, fast evaporating and “dry” parts of mineral spirits and naphtha. Toluene can be added to gasoline fuels as an octane booster, is found naturally in crude oil, and is used in oil refining and the manufacturing of paints, lacquers, explosives (TNT) and glues. Toluene may also be found in paint thinners, paintbrush cleaners, nail polish, glues, inks and stain removers.
The problem with these two solvents is that they are relatively toxic. Recycling both toluene and xylene and of critical importance. Whether it's used as a color and lacquer, latex paint, metal and plastics, etc., improper disposal can not only negatively impact the environment but affect your nervous system and overall health.
Odorless mineral spirit uses
The mineral spirits left after the toluene and xylene are removed is sold as “odorless” mineral spirits. As such, it is a weaker mineral spirit than regular mineral spirits and is more expensive because of the extra steps it takes to produce it to become odorless. Despite this fact, it still appears to be strong enough to thin all common oils, varnishes and oil paints, and thus requires special recycling.
These solvents have chemical characteristics similar to turpentine, in that they have the solvent strength of naphtha but an evaporation rate closer to mineral spirits.
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