How to Use Mineral Spirits
Back when I first started woodworking, I really struggled working with stain. I often finished projects with my hands covered in the stuff, and had no idea how to get it off. Then one day, I discovered mineral spirits.
It was a total game changer. Instead of going to work after finishing a project with my hands covered in brown blobs, I actually looked like a professional human being. It was magic.
I soon learned many other handy uses for mineral spirits, and they’ve become a staple in house. If you’re not using them yet, let me bring you to the light!
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What Are Mineral Spirits?
Water is often called the “universal solvent,” because it dissolves just about everything. Except oils. And that’s where mineral spirits come in.
Mineral spirits are a solvent that dissolves oil. Oil-based wood stains and finishes, sticky sap outside, adhesive left from stickers; all of these are things that can be dissolved with mineral spirits.
As a result, I categorize mineral spirit uses into two categories: woodworking, and general purpose cleaning.
When working with wood, mineral spirits can be used to clean stain and finishes off brushes, clean the wood before finishing, temporarily changing the color of the wood to highlight flaws, and thinning stain or finish for other purposes.
For general purpose cleaning, on the other hand, mineral spirits can be used to break down sap and sticky adhesives. It can also be used as a degreaser, primarily in the auto industry. I don’t know if it’d be my first choice in the kitchen.
Back in the day, mineral spirits also used to be a solvent used in dry cleaning, although that’s no longer the case. Better (less flammable, less smelly) solvents have been developed, and mineral spirits fell out of favor for this purpose.
Finally, I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that mineral spirits are also called “stoddard solvent.” If you’re browsing the ingredient list of a finishing product and see “stoddard solvent,” know that that’s actually just mineral spirits.
How to Clean Paintbrushes With Mineral Spirits
First off, I want to clarify that you shouldn’t use mineral spirits every single time you use a paintbrush. Latex and acrylic paints should be cleaned up with water.
Mineral spirits should only be used if you’re working with an oil-based product, like traditional wood stain, or oil-based polyurethane.
If you’re not sure if you should be using mineral spirits, read the can of your product. Most finishing products indicate if they should be cleaned up with water, mineral spirits, or in the case of shellac, denatured alcohol.
Step 1: Pour Mineral Spirits into Container
Pour the mineral spirits into a container that’s large enough to hold your paintbrush all the way up to the bristles. I typically save disposable Tupperware containers (like the kind that spreadable butter comes in) for this purpose.
You don’t need to completely fill the container, but the paintbrush should be able to be submerged past where it’s saturated with product.
Step 2: Submerge Your Paintbrush
Submerge your paintbrush in the mineral spirits, and swirl it around to allow the mineral spirits to get in between the bristles of the brush.
I typically do this for a minute or so, pushing the brush up against the side of the container to help push the spirits between the bristles.
Step 3: Comb the Bristles
Remove the paintbrush from the mineral spirits, and set it on a rag. Comb through the bristles, preferably with a paintbrush comb, but if you don’t have one of those, many other comb-like things will work.
I… usually use a cat brush. This one:
Obviously a paintbrush comb is better, but this gets the job done. If you don’t have anything similar, a fork is a not-great but doable last-resort option. If you go that route, do wash the fork before you eat off it again.
As you comb, mineral spirt/product mixture will leave the bristles and sink into the rag. Awesome!
Step 4: Dip Your Brush Back In the Mineral Spirits, and Repeat
Resubmerge your brush back in the mineral spirits, mix it around, and comb it out as many times as you deem necessary to get the brush clean.
Step 5: Wash the Brush with Soap and Water
Finally, wash your paint brush with soap and water. I like to use dish soap at this point, because it breaks down the remaining mineral spirits, and doesn’t feel quite as oily.
The soap and water should rinse out any remaining mineral spirits or product. Then you can lay out your brush to dry.
Note that you shouldn’t pour the used mineral spirits down the drain; they can contaminate the groundwater.
Instead, brush them out (you can use a rag, not the paintbrush you just cleaned!) on scrap wood or newspapers to dry. Dried mineral spirits can be tossed in the trash.
Diluting Stain With Mineral Spirits
I actually have a whole post dedicated to diluting wood stain over here, but I’ll give you the quick version now if you’re not up to reading a dedicated post on it.
Traditional oil-based wood stain can be thinned with mineral spirits, which will result in a lighter color since the stain is diluted.
Water-based stains should be diluted with water, and gel-stains really shouldn’t be diluted at all, so if you’re using either of those, go check out the full diluting post.
Step 1: Pour Stain into a Container
Just like above, I recommend doing the mixing in an old tupperware container. Pour the stain into the container, making sure you’ve poured enough stain for your entire project. You don’t want to have to remix later, and end up with a different solution.
In fact, it’s worth noting how much stain you added, so that if you do have to remix later, you know the formula you used.
Step 2: Add Mineral Spirits to the Container
Add mineral spirits a tablespoon at a time, stirring between each and testing out the stain to see if it’s the shade you’re looking for. By adding a little bit at a time, you can really control the process and make sure you get the exact shade you want.
Remember, it’s easy to add more mineral spirits if you need too. It’s less easy to take mineral spirits out!
Step 3: Test Stain
Every time you add mineral spirits to the stain, be sure to test the stain on scrap wood and see if it’s the color and consistency you want.
I recommend the scrap wood you test on be the same wood you used on your project, that way you know exactly what the stain will look like on your wood. Different woods take stain differently, and you want the most accurate test you can get!
How to Use Mineral Spirits as a Cleaner
Mineral spirits are great for cleaning sap and anything else with oil-based adhesives, such as the back of price stickers.
As a nice example, my car spent spent the summer underneath a pine tree. It’s now January, and there are still sap drops stuck to my windshield.
And this picture is after 6 months of the blobs being attacked by windshield wipers!
Obviously, I’ve been putting this off for months, but since I’m writing this post, it seems to be the perfect opportunity to show you how useful mineral spirits can be (and finally clean my car! In my defense, my dad, who was the one who parked my car under a pine tree, promised he would clean off the sap spots…)
Step 1: Dampen a Rag With Mineral Spirits
Take an old rag and pour out enough mineral spirits to dampen the rag.
Step 2: Place the Rag Over Sticky Spot
I placed the damp rag over the sap spots, and squeezed a bit to deposit the mineral spirits on the sap. Then I let the rag sit for about a minute.
Since it was January in Minnesota, this was a cold minute, but I guess it’s my own fault for not cleaning the sap in August.
Step 3: Wipe Away the Sap, Grime, or Adhesive
Once the mineral spirits had softened the sap, it was really easy to wipe away.
Other Uses For Mineral Spirits
Highlighting Wood Flaws
Have you ever stained wood, only to find that you didn’t sand away all of the marks from the milling process, and there are weird dark lines? This happened over and over to me, until I figured out this trick with mineral spirits.
If you dampen a cloth with mineral spirits, and rub the cloth on the wood, it mimics the effects of stain or finish, and highlights all of the imperfections.
That way, you know if you need to keep sanding before you apply stain or finish to your piece.
I use this trick all the time now, and it’s definitely improved the quality of my finishes!
How to Renew Wood Finish With Mineral Spirits
Mineral spirits can also be used to revive old finish that’s become dirty and grimy. This primarily works with oil-based finishes, so be sure to test the mineral spirits on an inconspicuous part of the furniture before you start rubbing away at the center of the piece.
Start by dampening a rag with mineral spirits. Then buff away any dirt and grim by working the rag in circular motions against the wood. Then rub with a clean dry cloth.
If you want to take this to the next level, you could finish it off by rubbing on a thin coat of clear furniture wax, although this is entirely optional.
How to Make a Tack Cloth with Mineral Spirits
Tack cloths are slightly sticky cloths that are used to clean sawdust off of wood before finishing or painting. As it turns out, you can’t make a tack cloth with mineral spirits, but many people think you can, so I wanted to address this here.
Tack cloths are actually made from turpentine, not mineral spirits. Pour a little turpentine onto a cotton rag, enough so that the rag is damp but not dripping. Add a little varnish, and rub the rag to distribute it throughout the cloth.
Then your tack cloth is good to go! You can store these in a sealed jar, but honestly, I would just use them right away. Turpentine and varnish are both flammable, and saturated rags can spontaneously combust. I wouldn’t take that risk.
And just to be extra clear: yes, there is a difference between mineral spirits and turpentine. They are both solvents, but turpentine is stickier (making it better for a tack cloth,) and dissolves more solutions than mineral spirits.
However, mineral spirits are cheaper and less odorous, hence why they’re the go-to solvent for oil-based paints and stains.
Using Mineral Spirits To Clean Up Disasters
One of the most frequent beginner mistakes when applying wood stain is to apply the stain, and never wipe it off the wood.
Wood stain is intended to soak into the wood, not dry on top of it. So if excess wood stain isn’t wiped off, a sticky mess is what remains. You can read all about addressing this mistake in this post!
In this case, or when other oil-based finishing products don’t dry properly, mineral spirits can be used to clean up the remaining mess.
Grab a scotch-brite pad, and pour the a tablespoon of mineral spirits or so on the mess. Then scrub vigorously to dissolve and remove the product.
I also use this technique when I’m stripping furniture with Citristrip. After I’ve removed most of the Citristrip/paint/finish goop from the furniture with a plastic scraper, I get any remaining product off using mineral spirits and a scotch-brite pad.
You can check out my whole process for stripping furniture here.
One more thing to note: mineral spirits don’t clean up dried oil-based finish. Pouring mineral spirits on cured polyurethane is going to do nothing but clean it. But if your polyurethane hasn’t dried, then the mineral spirits will dissolve the product.
Same with stain – if you pour mineral spirits on wood that’s already been stained, and the stain has cured, the mineral spirits will do absolutely nothing.
Using Mineral Spirits to Clean Stain From Skin
I put this last use on here somewhat hesitantly, because the MSDS sheet on mineral spirits classifies it as a skin irritant (and indeed, we’re about to talk about the safety concerns of mineral spirits in the next section.) Mineral spirits can cause chemical burns if left on skin for more than a few seconds.
That said, I have successfully washed my hands with mineral spirits before in order to remove stain from my hands and nails. It did not hurt. There were no negative side effects.
In fact, one summer, I actually kept mineral spirits in the shower, because I kept getting stain all over my legs and needed to get it off. I foolishly hadn’t read the safety part of the label, else I probably wouldn’t have been brave enough to do this.
Regardless, my legs and hands are fine, and honestly, I’ll probably continue rinsing my hands with mineral spirits in order to remove wood stain from them.
I think the secret is that after using the mineral spirits on skin, wash with soap and water immediately. That way, the mineral spirits aren’t present on your skin long enough to cause any issues.
Using Mineral Spirits Safely
Mineral spirits are hazardous in a couple of different ways; they’re a skin irritant, release toxic vapors, and are highly flammable.
Therefore, there are a couple of precautions you should take when using mineral spirits.
If mineral spirits get on your hand (or, as I described above, you intentionally pour them on your hands,) wash your skin with soap and water immediately afterward.
Some mineral spirits are more vaporous than others. In recent years, odorless mineral spirits have entered the market. If you’re purchasing mineral spirits new, make an effort to purchase odorless mineral spirits so that the fumes are not a concern.
If you’re working with older mineral spirits, you should work in a well-ventilated space so that the fumes are not an issue. If you’re unable to do this, consider wearing a respirator. I have this one, and love it!
Finally, and probably most importantly, mineral spirits are highly flammable. They should be kept away from flames, hot areas, and ignition sources.
Rags that have been saturated with mineral spirits have the potential to spontaneously combust. Therefore, rags should be laid out flat to dry after use, not crumpled up in a ball.
Because of their flammable nature, mineral spirits should be stored in a cool, temperature-regulated space.
Mineral spirits can ignite at temperatures as low as 105 degrees Fahrenheit (per KleanStrip’s Safety Data Sheet,) so it’s important that they’re not stored in a hot garage during the summer.
Mineral Spirits and Food Safety
I’m often asked to recommend food safe products. Here’s the things: being able to classify a product as “food safe” according to FDA regulations is a giant hassle (there’s a bunch of expensive testing involved,) so the large majority of woodworking products aren’t classified as food safe.
That said, they all only use products that are deemed safe by the FDA to use as coatings that come in contact with food.
Meaning, once cured, most woodworking stains, finishes, and other products are formulated to be food safe. But they haven’t been clinically tested as food safe, and therefore can’t use the “food safe” label.
Mineral spirits are no different. I’m not sure I’ve ever encountered a brand of mineral spirits that advertises as food safe. But there’s nothing in mineral spirits that makes it not food safe after it’s fully cured.
Additionally, if you’re putting a finish on your wood, mineral spirits shouldn’t come in direct contact with your food anyway. So the risk really is quite minimal.
Disposing of Mineral Spirits
As mentioned above, mineral spirits in liquid form are considered highly flammable, and therefore a hazardous waste. They therefore can’t just be thrown in the trash, or tossed down the drain.
However, once dry, mineral spirits are harmless. Therefore, if you have excess mineral spirits (used or not,) applying them to a wood or paper surface and allowing them to dry is an effective means of disposal.
Scrap wood, newspaper, and cardboard are all possible items that mineral spirits can be painted on to dry. Once dry, the newspaper and cardboard can be thrown away as usual. You may still want to use the scrap wood, but it can be thrown away as well.
The trickier situation is if you’re working with mineral spirits that for some reason, won’t dry. In this case, they’ve probably gone bad. In that case, you’re going to need to deliver the mineral spirits to your local hazardous waste disposal facility.
I’ve never actually had this happen – even the mineral spirits that I found in my Great Aunt’s garage that had probably been there for over decade were just fine. But I’ve had wood conditioner, stains, and finishes all go bad on me before, so I didn’t want to rule out the possibility.