Stains and Finish Safety in the Home Workshop

Although a number of high-quality water-based finishes have become available recently, solvent-based finishing products are still widely used, and considered superior for some applications.  Thus woodworkers must learn to protect themselves against the health hazards associated with organic solvents. Organic solvents can have a number of health effects. Short-term use can result in ailments ranging from headaches and nausea to skin and eye irritation.  With extended use, many solvents are known to damage the central nervous system or respiratory tract.  Some glycol ethers are suspected of causing birth defects, while other solvents, like methylene chloride, have been linked with cardiac arrest.

Solvents can be absorbed into the blood stream in a number of ways:  after being inhaled, or ingested along with food left in the shop, absorbed through the skin, or swallowed when vapors settle in saliva.  Most solvent based finishes are unlikely to cause harm when used occasionally, and are only poisonous if swallowed.  But you still need to be aware of the combination and concentration of organize solvents in a particular finish if you plan to use the product in large quantities or over an extended period of time.  The chart below lists the solvents contained in a variety of finishing products and assesses the relative toxicity of each one.  Be sure to choose the safest product for the job at hand.

Toxic Solvents Used in WoodWorking

Wood filler (paste and liquid) Petroleum napththa* mineral spirits* axetone** methyl ehtyl ketone** methyl ispropanol** isobutyl ketone***
Stains (aniline, wiping, NGR, gel and glazing stains; color pigments) Ethanol* mineral spirits* toluene*** xylene*** methanol*** glycol ethers***
Shellacs (white and orange) Ethanol* methanol***
Lacquers (spray and brush, sanding sealers) Acetone** methyle ethyle ketone** ispropanol** methanol*** xylene*** glycole ethers***
Lacquer thinner Acetone** methyle ethyle ketone** ispropanol** glycole ethers*** toluene***
Rubbing Oils (Danish oil, antique oil) VM&P naphtha* turpentine** toluene***
Drying oils (boiled linseed oil, polymerized tung oil) Mineral spirits* turpentine*
Varnishes (tung oil varnish, urethane stains) Mineral spirits* VM&P naphtha*
Polyurethanes (poly varnish, urethane stains) Mineral spirits* toluene***
Lacquer/Varnish removers Acetone** xylene*** methanol*** methyl isobutyl ketone*** toluene***
Waxes (paste wax, furniture wax) Petroleum naphtha* turpentine**
  *Safest Product ** Mildly Hazardous Product ***Product to be avoided if possible