Thursday, November 11, 2010

A little more about turpentine

Turpentine was until recently the standard solvent for oil painters That has changed in the last decade or so and most painters I know you mineral spirits, a petroleum product, as their solvent.
Artists use a solvent to thin their paint and in the manufacture of mediums. It is still the preferred solvent for any medium containing damar varnish.

Turpentine is made from the exudate of various pine trees and derives its name from the terebinth tree which grows around the Mediterranean from which turpentine was originally distilled. Terebinth a relative of the pistachio is mentioned in the Old Testament, and Virgil's Aeneid. Various different pines give different qualities and varieties of turpentine. Venice turpentine, for instance is from the Western larch tree.

There were formerly many commercial uses for turpentine. It was made into a bewildering assortment of patent medicines such as the one pictured in the advertisement from the 19th century above. It was sold as a cure for pneumonia, diphtheria, toothache, headache, rabies and even cancer in both people and animals. It was to be applied to the skin and taken internally as well. Many cleaning products still contain turpentine today because of its solvent qualities and clean smelling pine odor. There are still patent medicines based on turpentine too. Vick's Vapo-Rub is one. Most of the industrial uses for turpentine have now been superseded with petroleum products.

Until about five years ago it was possible to buy a good quality turpentine at the paint store. Sadly, that is no longer the case. There are several ways of making turpentine. The old and best way was like making maple syrup. The pine trees were "tapped" (actually scored) so their sap could be collected. Generations of slaves toiled in the heat of the Carolinas and Georgia to produce turpentine. It was as nasty a job as any man ever had and often enough being sent to the turpentine farms was a death sentence. This sap was carted to the cities and boiled in a huge retort over a fire. The resulting distillate was bottled and used for paint thinner, lamp oil, and in the making of furniture polishes when mixed with wax. The navy used vast quantities of turpentine.

There is a cheaper way to make turpentine that is far less labor intensive than that. Stumps, bark, and branches are all ground up and the product of that is distilled and sold as turpentine. Technically that product is called wood turpentine. I believe that is what is now commonly marketed as gum turpentine. Gum turpentine smells sweet and piney, wood turpentine smells like benzine laced cadavers. If you open a can of turpentine at the hardware store today and smell it, it won't smell like Pine-Sol, it will smell like death. Don't buy that, and don't use it.

I recommend you use Gamsol. I use various species of odorless mineral spirits (OMS) but since lots of people are reading this I need to err on the side of caution and recommend the Gamsol. It contains far less of the harmful volatile hydrocarbons which evaporate and poison the air in your studio. Turpentine may cause skin and lung irritation, nervous system damage and kidney disease. I have never had an allergy problem with turpentine, but many people have. My own teacher, Ives Gammell developed this problem late in life and switched to mineral spirits because of that. The health risks being what they are, Gamsol is the best solution, I think. I do miss the pine smell of good turpentine though. I actually wore it as cologne in art school, it was highly effective there. God knows what I would attract if I tried that with the turpentine of today.

21 comments:

Bernie's Art said...

What is the position with W&N's Sansodor. IS it similar to the product that you use.

Philip Koch said...

"Benzine-laced cadavers." Now THAT'S poetry!

Actually I didn't know much of anything about my old friend turpentine's manufacture. Interesting stuff.

billspaintingmn said...

With a name like "Wizard Oil" it must have sold millions!
I'm considering Vic's Vapo-rub as my new cologne.
In the woods, I've noticed the pine needles of the fur tree
has that fresh smell, more than the other type of pines.

Faith Te said...

I'm curious what you think of Sansodor too, Mr. Kearns. I recently bought a small bottle of that because the "rectified turpentine" I have stinks so much. I cannot at all relate to the descriptions of what today's turps smell like (never smelled benzine before). Does "death" by any chance have a sharp spicy, peppery smell? Because that's what my rectified turps smell like.

Dan Corey said...

Hey Stape, seems counterintuitive that a product from a tree is more dangerous then one petroleum based... Have you heard much about the use of vodka in the winter time to whip into paints to keep em loose in the freezing weather? It must leave a good amount of residue in the paint film..?.

CM said...

Retzina Wine is delicious. One sip of it and you are back in Greece!

JoyLef77 said...

Stape. Thanks for the reply. I used the Walnut Oil with alkyd and liked it too; however, I am now using the Walnut Oil "neat," sans alkyd. I am liking it and wondered if you ever tried it. You're right about the warnings on the alkyd!

Kyle V Thomas said...

I can concur with the hardware turpentine. You described the scent perfectly. I bought a can because it was cheap, but the smell is awful.

Unfortunately, the W&N English Turpentine seems to be the best so far. Any other turpentine recommendations?

J Hopper said...

I too was impressed with the "benzine-laced cadavers" Hmmmmm.... Hope you're not speaking from experience - lol - Anyway - Thanks for another great post - fascinating! Gamsol is definitely the one.

Stapleton Kearns said...

Bernie;
I think that Sansoder is just a very highly refined version of mineral spirits.I have used it and it semmed to be fine, but it is expensive.
...............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Philip;
That's what it smells like to me.
..............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

bill;
If you use Vics for cologne you will meet sick women only. Or maybe those lookkng for sick men.
.................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Faith;
Turpentine should smell strongly of pine.I always loved the smell but you may find it unpleasant.I suppose that a rectified turpentine would smell like whatever its percuser turpentine smelled like.
................Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Dan;
I don't think that adding Vodka to paint sounds like a good idea at all. Vodka contains water and I don't think you want that in your paint at all.It might work, I don't know, but I think water in your paint is a problem.Try drinking git, that is its highest and best use.
.........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Dan;
Oh yeah, no drinking outside in the cold, it only makes you feel warmer, it actually can reduce blood flow to the extremities and make you more susceptible to freezing. Dangerous, drink when you get the painting home.
...........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

CM
That's right! Retzina is flavored with pine isn't it!
............Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Joy;
Remember the warning on flammability is because of the oil, not the alkyd. Whether walnut oil is more flammable than linseed oil I don't know off the top of my head but eliminating the alkyd won't reduce the flammability.
........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

Kyle;
I expect that the Winsor Newton is just fine. Smell it, you can instantly tell if it is the new stuff that is made from dead things and not sap.
...........Stape

Stapleton Kearns said...

JHopper;
I think that Gamsol is an excellent product and I often use it.
............Stape

Nat said...

I would like to know, if Gamsol can substitute turpentine in mixes with linseed oil, or with stand linseed oil and damar varnish as a painting medium.

Nat said...

I would like to know, if Gamsol can substitute for turpentine in mixes with linseed oil and damar varnish, as a painting medium. Thanks.