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Denatured Alcohol in Woodworking

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Denatured Alcohol in Woodworking

Denatured alcohol is a fairly strong solvent used for various industrial purposes. Denatured alcohol is basically ethanol that has been mixed with other substances to make it unpalatable, foul-smelling, and unsafe for human consumption. 

Ethanol, also known as grain alcohol or ethyl alcohol is the only alcohol safe for human consumption and is used in various ways for this purpose most notably in the manufacture of alcoholic beverages.

Some of the substances that are added to ethanol to create denatured alcohol include methanol, gasoline, acetone, isopropyl alcohol, isopropanol, benzene, castor oil, pyridine, methyl ethyl ketone, and methyl isobutyl ketone among others. 

The most common additive, however, is methanol which makes methyl alcohol. The concentration can be as little as 10% to as high as 50%. This is why denatured alcohol is in many cases also called methylated spirit. 

Methanol is highly toxic when consumed by humans. As little as 10 percent methanol added to ethanol can cause blindness and in many cases is usually fatal. Despite these dangers and the deterrent taste and smell of denatured alcohol, addicts have been known to use it as a surrogate alcoholic drink and is generally not safe to keep around them. 

Uses of Denatured Alcohol in Woodworking

As a Mixing Agent for Shellac

Shellac is a natural resin that has been used in woodworking as a sealant and also as a decorative agent for years. The best mixing agent for shellac is denatured alcohol. Shellac comes in flakes and dissolves very well in denatured alcohol to form a thick paste that can be applied using a brush on bare wood.

The resultant mixture forms a film over the wood protecting it from harsh light, water damage, and other elements. Shellac use has decreased in recent years in favor of polyurethanes and varnishes but expert craftsmen will still use shellac on bespoke and luxurious furniture for indoor use as well as artistic decorative woodwork.

As a Sanding Aid

Denatured alcohol is used to create a smoother surface when sanding down wood which makes for a better overall finish to the wood. Once the wood is sanded down, the sawdust produced is brushed away but much finer wood dust remains present on the surface.

A cloth dipped in undiluted denatured alcohol will clean off the excess fine dust left behind leaving a smoother surface. In addition, denatured alcohol evaporates quickly and this will cause the natural grain of the wood to rise. 

Sanding the surface again after cleaning it with denatured alcohol should produce an even smoother surface primed perfectly for the application of a stain, paint, or a finish.

As a Cleaning Agent

Denatured alcohol acts as an excellent cleaning agent for wood surfaces because it is a fairly strong solvent and therefore breaks down the chemical structure of a stain, extricating it from the surface it is adhering to. 

Because it is not powerfully corrosive, it does not affect the surface being cleaned. It also dissipates or evaporates rather quickly which means it cannot linger on the wood and damage it. Stains such as ink, ketchup, turmeric, and food colorants can adhere to wood quite stubbornly and can be impossible to clean using other softer solvents.

Since denatured alcohol is stronger than acetone, for instance, care must be observed when using it to wipe off stains on wood. Denatured alcohol must never be sprayed or poured directly onto the wood. Instead, lint-free cloth should be dipped in denatured alcohol and used to gently sponge the stain off.

Dyed denatured alcohol or methylated spirits can become a stain themselves if the alcohol is applied directly and left unwiped on wood.

To Remove Scratches

Denatured alcohol can be effective to smooth out small superficial scratches on wood. A good example is the scratches often found on student desks and sometimes on office furniture. The rather shallow scratches can disappear when rubbed using denatured alcohol. 

By raising the grain of wood due to quick evaporation a decently forceful rub using a cloth should resolve most scratches.

To Remove Shine and Glue

The more commonly used varnishes and finishes we have on the market cannot be effectively removed using denatured alcohol and thinners will work faster to remove them. Denatured alcohol, however, strips away shellac smoothly and quickly. 

If you would like to renew a shellac finish or strip it to introduce a different finish, denatured alcohol is the best solvent for a shellac finish while also cleaning and smoothing out the surface of the wood.

Dried glue on wood is also best wiped off using denatured alcohol instead of peeling it away or scraping it off. Dried glue readily breaks down in denatured alcohol and gets sponged off easily.

Precautions

Skin Contact

Denatured alcohol is not particularly corrosive but exposure to bare skin is not recommended. Denatured alcohol used for woodworking, in particular, maybe more concentrated compared to what is used in cosmetics. 

While it will not readily cause a burn, by dissolving the natural oils that coat our skin, the skin is left exposed causing irritation, redness, hypersensitivity, and skin breakouts. Always use gloves when working with denatured alcohol.

Inhalation

The smell of denatured alcohol is distinct and fumes cannot go unnoticed. Working with denatured alcohol without face protection can be very uncomfortable and the fumes can cause nausea and drowsiness given prolonged exposure.

While some people claim to get used to the smell, inhaling the fumes is also not recommended as this can cause respiratory health problems both in the short and the long term.

When using denatured alcohol, always wear protection to prevent inhalation.

Ingestion

If consumed, denatured alcohol will certainly cause health problems immediately. Consumption will bring on nausea, vomiting, severe pain, disorientation, heart palpitations, blindness, and possibly death. Seek medical attention immediately in case this happens.

Storage

Denatured alcohol is specifically indicated based on composition and concentration which means there is denatured alcohol for different uses including domestic use. For utmost safety, only use denatured alcohol when certain of the classification and always store it away from flames, direct sunlight, children, and pets.

Tom Martins

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