Oily Rags = Very Dangerous

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Forum topic by JAAune posted 10-09-2015 05:23 AM 2503 views 0 times favorited 62 replies Add to Favorites Watch
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1614 posts in 1737 days

10-09-2015 05:23 AM

Spontaneous combustion is a hazard known to most of us but for those new to the woodworking scene (or those who are started to get lax due to complacency), oil-soaked rags will burn your shop down if not handled properly.

A church in the Chicago area just suffered a major setback in their restoration project ( I wasn’t involved but I keep informed about church restoration projects) and yes, oily rags were the culprit.


Excerpts from the Chicago Tribune (full article available here):


”The first fire crews were alerted about 5:45 a.m. Wednesday and the blaze was quickly raised to a 3-11 alarm, sending 150 firefighters to the church at 64th Street and Woodlawn Avenue along with extra equipment to fight flames that were already shooting through the roof, according to Chicago Fire Department spokesman Larry Langford.”


”Officials said “spontaneous combustion” in rags used to apply floor stain started the fire. Langford said workers had been varnishing the floor Tuesday night.”


”Deputy Commissioner John McNicholas of the Fire Department said the fire may have gone unnoticed for some time before the department was alerted. Crews had to fight the fire from outside because it had spread across the roof and there were fears the roof might cave in.”


”Inside the church, charred rubble covered the floor and water soaked the walls and pillars inside. Most of the roof was gone.”


Be careful out there folks. Those spontaneous combustion warnings on cans of finish aren’t there due to some silly legal incident. The danger is real.

-- See my work at and

62 replies so far

View TopamaxSurvivor's profile (online now)


17577 posts in 3096 days

#1 posted 10-09-2015 08:13 AM

Good reminder. Every time I use an oil that is one of my main concerns.

-- Bob in WW ~ "some old things are lovely, warm still with life ... of the forgotten men who made them." - D.H. Lawrence

View JeffP's profile


573 posts in 812 days

#2 posted 10-09-2015 09:57 AM

So what’s the best solution for this?

Do you keep a fire-safe metal can to throw them in?
Burn them after use?
Throw them away and let the garbage company worry about it?

-- Last week I finally got my $*i# together. Unfortunately, it was in my shop, so I will probably never find it again.

View Midway's profile


56 posts in 390 days

#3 posted 10-09-2015 10:06 AM

I put my rags in a plastic barrel outside my shop. The next morning all that was left was the metal axle.

It was so hot it went down in the concrete 2”.


-- Midway wichita,ks.

View AESamuel's profile


61 posts in 643 days

#4 posted 10-09-2015 10:11 AM

I put mine into water inside the shop then let them dry outside spread out, after drying they either get burned or chucked away.

View rwe2156's profile


2116 posts in 901 days

#5 posted 10-09-2015 10:35 AM

I used to think this was bunk till a friend of mine had his car restoration shop burn with about 4 cars inside.
Luckilly it was sealed so just (just) smoke damage.

So its for real. I put my rags on a clothes line outside the shop.

-- Everything is a prototype thats why its one of a kind!!

View Tennessee's profile


2410 posts in 1935 days

#6 posted 10-09-2015 11:43 AM

Mine get hung to dry, then my wife either washes it or I throw it out, depending on how it looks when dry. One trick I use is to never let more than two or three around the shop at a time.

-- Paul, Tennessee,

View waho6o9's profile


7119 posts in 1997 days

#7 posted 10-09-2015 01:18 PM

I put my oiled rags and plastic gloves in a water filled plastic jug,

good reminder JAAune!

View CharlesA's profile


2973 posts in 1218 days

#8 posted 10-09-2015 01:53 PM

Thanks. I try to be good about this, but the danger seems so remote that I get lazy.

-- "Man is the only animal which devours his own, for I can apply no milder term to the general prey of the rich on the poor." ~Thomas Jefferson

View pottz's profile


769 posts in 405 days

#9 posted 10-09-2015 02:06 PM

i know 2 people who have had fires from oily rags one was a trash can that totally melted and burned a fence and the other almost burned a house down.i soak mine with water and then spread them outside to is a real danger dont ever take it for granted burning wood belongs in the fireplace not your shop.

-- sawdust the bigger the pile the bigger my smile-larry,so cal.

View Gixxerjoe04's profile


831 posts in 997 days

#10 posted 10-09-2015 02:52 PM

Is there any particular oil/finsih that causes this? Also are we talking cloth rags or just anything used to apply the finish like paper towels and such?

View ChuckV's profile


2872 posts in 2948 days

#11 posted 10-09-2015 03:09 PM

Thanks for the important reminder. We have an outdoor firepit. I put my oily rags in there.

-- “And the products of wealth push you along on the bow wave of their spiritless undying selves.” ― I. Anderson

View BurlyBob's profile


3467 posts in 1686 days

#12 posted 10-09-2015 03:10 PM

I’ve got a chain link fence on either side of my drive way. I just hang them in the fence to dry and then toss them.

View helluvawreck's profile


22677 posts in 2287 days

#13 posted 10-09-2015 04:46 PM

Paper towels can ignite just like the rags if they are wet with solvent/stain. They may not be quite as bad because when they are soaked they don’t hold as much solvent as the rags and so don’t generate as much heat when they are drying. They can still ignite and cause a fire.

helluvawreck aka Charles

-- If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away. Henry David Thoreau

View ClammyBallz's profile


297 posts in 557 days

#14 posted 10-09-2015 05:08 PM

A couple bought the house across the street from work, before they moved in, they had some guys come in and refinish the floor. The crew left all the sanding dust and the finish soaked rags on the front porch when they left for the day. That evening, the rags ignited on the front porch and the fire traveled through the siding and up the wall to the second floor by the time the fire trucks arrived. When the firefighters hooked up the hose and attempted to soaked the porch, the pile of rags & dust went up into a big fire ball higher than the porch roof from all the vapors. You don’t think these things can happen, but the crazy part is that it was two weeks before Christmas when it happened and it was only 45 – 50F outside that day.

View OggieOglethorpe's profile


1175 posts in 1531 days

#15 posted 10-09-2015 05:36 PM

I throw oily rags and paper towels in a 5’er bucket of water. They’ll still harden up, but there’s zero fire hazard.

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