MISS MOLLY IN THE STUDIO WITH ....
Molly, relaxing in the studio.
Like many of you, I'm familiar with the term "Spontaneous Combustion". Recently, the meaning took on a life of its own when my cat, Molly, spilled a container of linseed oil in my studio and we came perilously close to what could have been a serious fire.
It's my practice to use walnut or linseed oil to clean my brushes while I'm painting, rather than using mineral spirits. I keep a copper canister containing the oil on my easel tray, where I have easy access to it while I’m working.
My intention was to work only for a few hours one morning recently. I’m so grateful that I had reason to go into my studio at all that day. It was Sunday and I needed to do some preliminary work for the week to come. When I entered my studio that morning, I immediately sensed that something was amiss. Then I saw the copper canister lying on the floor beneath my easel.
It became abundantly clear that in true Siamese form, my sweet kitty Molly had paid my studio a visit. She finds my still-life stand an irresistible spot for the occasional snooze and my easel provides the perfect perch to launch her hefty self to her desired destination.
The linseed oil from the canister had spilled onto the Oriental carpet which covers carpet and underlay in my studio. The area was soaked. My husband and I needed to do something about the spill as I wanted to work for a few hours. Since the spot was directly beneath my easel in the area I usually stand, we put a folded bath towel over the grease spot and I went to work.
After a few hours, I left the studio and continued on with my day. It was several hours later that my husband happened to walk past my studio and noticed a sharp, acrid smell emanating from it. He immediately checked the oil spill area. As he pulled up the towel covering the oil spill he was instantly assaulted with hot fumes and such extreme heat that he couldn't touch the towel or the carpet. We both looked in horror at the towel and the Oriental carpet, where large brown burned circles marked both from the intense heat. The fumes were suffocating.
Quickly propping the Oriental carpet on a cinder block large enough to allow the carpet to cool, my husband began to cut away the second carpet and underlay beneath it, fearing that flames were very near. He needed a safety mask because the fumes were so toxic.
The instant my husband alerted me to the danger, the words 'spontaneous combustion' came to my mind. Afterward, when we were certain that we were no longer in danger of burning our home down and the studio windows were opened wide to air out the horrible fumes, I researched the term.
What I learned was frightening. Walnut and linseed oil are among the most common causes of fire from spontaneous combustion due to their quick drying properties. Coincidentally, it is the very reason that artists use them in their studios every day.
While investigating a few forums I learned that gases are produced as these oils dry. When the gases are trapped, as they were between the carpets and towel over the spill in my studio, or when wet oily rags are left in a pile, they combust without warning.
I learned that craftspeople such as woodworkers, who work with oils like linseed, are familiar with the dangers of trapped gases. Since they like to save and reuse their oily rags, they will ensure to dry them separately. They hang them somewhere safely or lay them on the floor (away from any heat source), outside or in their workshops to dissipate the volatile gases.
This is one of those take-your-breath-away experiences that will always stay with me. Considering myself to have healthy studio habits, I find it startling, in a sense, that I wasn’t more informed about the dangers of a product that I have used for years and considered so benign. I feel so grateful that this story turned out the way it did and I want to share it for the well-being of all my artist friends - or anyone who needs to dispose of oily rags.
As for Miss Molly … well, she didn't concern herself too much with all the commotion. What's important to her is she's still welcome in my studio, at her pleasure, and is wonderful company. I now take a few extra precautions which allow me to enjoy those comforting purr-ing sounds coming from the cozy red chair close by.
Hot, burned carpet caused by linseed oil spill in my studio.