How can I clean oil soaked wood?
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  1. #1
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    I finally got the missing original pendulum for the E. Howard tower clock that I restored for the City of Lancaster, SC. The wood part, which is cherry or possibly walnut, is oil soaked over most of the 36 inch length. The oil is dark and has penetrated deeply into the wood. In the past I was able to clean oil soaked walnut pistol grips by soaking them in acetone, but the length of this part makes this approach impractical. I may have to secure a large tray and sufficient acetone to cover the wood. I thought about applying a caustic solution to saponify the oil, but am afraid that the lye might damage the wood. I would appreciate any advice you guys have to offer.

    Jim

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    get a big tray and add it to your costs

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    I've got some big metal trays for stripping paint off of old doors, just this kind of thing. I had them made up for me by a sheet metal shop that does duct work. They are about 6" deep, they just bent the metal and soldered the corners. I got two made, each big enough for a 9 foot long 42" wide door, for less than $300. I use lye for the stripping and haven't had any undue wood damage. But I don't think I have ever done a black walnut door either, so not sure how that would turn out.

    I would think that the acetone to fill one of those monsters would cost more than the tank!

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    Years ago, restoring antiques, we used Fuller's Earth to absorb oil from wood. It once was sold in drug stores, but I have not seen it in years. Should still be available, since it is an inert substance, and not toxic...

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    Jim

    You might ask this on the Gunsmith's Forum.
    I can't remember what some people used to get the oil out of some of the Army surplus rifle stocks they wanted to refinish.

    Hal

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    One technique that is proposed for cleaning the misc sludge off the rifle woodwork is to put the pieces in the dishwasher. I did that to my SMLE and it worked a champ- but it'd have to be a big dishwasher in this case, and I'd hesitate if there was any fine carving on the wood.

    Regards

    Greg

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    Jim,
    If your pendulum beam is not to large in cross section, a section of copper pipe with a plug soldered onto one end, or a galvanized iron pipe with a cap screwed on would give you a vessel to hold the acetone and at the same time you would have minimum evaporation. Since the acetone has proved to work in the past this may be a solution.

    OW

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    Murphy's wood soap.
    Straight up, not diluted. Pour it over the wood and message it into the woodgrain. Wrap it in saran wrap and set it in the sun for an hour or two.
    Unwrap and scrub with soft bristle brush and water hose. May have to repeat.
    I've spent a goodly amount of time refinishing teak and mahogany on an old Carver Santa Fe.
    You have to be careful what you apply to the wood.
    It's very hard to get bleach and other chemicals out of the grain. It can also affect any finish you may need to apply after cleaning.
    Good luck!

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    I've used "K2r" spot remover to soak up the castor oil from glow engined model airplanes for years. You spray it on and hit it with a heat gun. Repeat several times. Works a treat for that application.

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    I'm a "retired" gunsmith, and I've always used a thin paste of MEK and whiting, to remove oil that's soaked into walnut gunstocks prior to refinishing them. This seems to be about what you've got to do. You coat the wood with the mixture, the MEK(methyl-ethyl-ketone), disolves the oil, which is then absorbed into the whiting. This is removed, when dry, with course steel wool, and the process repeated, until the oil no longer is absorbed into the whiting.
    Good Luck
    Paul

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    wipe it off with with acetone then lay it on a tin roof in the sun and check it every 2 hours wiping it off. each time flip it. the sun will bake it out. i did it rifle stocks.

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    Paul ("pgfaini") has what you want. It does not have to be MEK. All you need is a solvent to soak into the wood and dissolve the oil. The solvent evaporates from the surface of the whiting, and the deposits the oil dissolved in the whiting. It could be something other than whiting (fine saw dust, flour etc) as all it does is give a surface to deposit the oil in other than the wood is was just dissolved out of.

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    Dont use a tray, use a pipe that barely accepts the wood. Cap one end.

    Suggestion: leach the oil out. Soak it with acetone (methyl chloride would be better) then snatch it out of the solvent and blot off the surface with something absorbant. Use the solvent to force the oil to migrate.

    A time in a vapor degreaser flushed with the solvent lance would probably be better - if you can find such an item these days.

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    The reason I used whiting with MEK, is because the MEK quickly evaporated, without soaking deeply into the wood. The whiting was very absorbant, and was easily removed from areas such as the checkering, with a toothbrush, without damaging the sharp diamonds.
    Soaking the wood in a solvent, in my opinion, would not only disolve some oil and allow it to be wiped off, but would soak more of into the wood where it couldn't be removed.
    Paul

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    Jim, if the wood is walnut do not use lye (caustic soda) or anything that contains it-walnut will turn black, very black.....

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    Hexane is more volatile than MEK and has little odour so you neighbours won't think you are runing a meth lab and call the nusiences in blue. Also it is a slightly better solvent for oil (it is used for oil extraction) OTOH if there are gums in the oil then MEK or acetone will work better. In Australia Hexane is slightly cheaper but not generally available in packages smaller than 20l.

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    I've been boiling gunstocks (walnut)in TSP for 30yrs with very good results.

    These a mostly very old military stocks that had been absolultely soaked in cosmoline for decades.

    The oily scum will float to the top of the tank and has to be skimmed off from time to time.

    As soon as oil stops leaching out I remove the stock, rinse it in warm water and then put it in a shady spot and let it slowly dry. Once it's about 70% or so dry, I lightly clamp a couple boards down the sides to avoid any warping.

    Never had one "bleach" and never had one warp.

    Like the fellow above, I had a sheetmetal shop build a tank about 36" long and 8" wide by 6" deep.

    I had to replace the tank a couple years ago and it cost me $75 for the new one.

  18. #18
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    I'll second the solvent/whiting method. It's probably the most cautious approach of those suggested, and I have found it to be surprisingly effective on oil-soaked gunstocks. Several applications may be required. I also once used spray-on oven cleaner on a really oily Argentine carbine stock. It came out clean and undamaged, but you are likely to fear you are ruining your piece while the task is underway. Kim Steiner

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    Interesting range of methods. You want to remove oil (which is hydrophobic) from wood (which is cellulose-based, and hydrophilic). Should be easy - the hard problems are separating substances which are alike - e.g. ethanol-water.

    Water-based methods are based upon breaking up the oil into little droplets surrounded by hydrophilic molecules (soap method), or chemically reacting the the oil into something hydrophilic (base method). I would have thought water-based methods would swell the wood but you've heard of success with two methods from folks that have used them: Soap (Murphy's oil soap) which breaks up the oil and allows water to wash it away, and strong base (lye in oven cleaner) which basically turns the oil into soap, allowing it to be washed away. I think TSP has both a bit of both the soap and of the reaction stuff going on.

    But when you soak the wood in water, doesn't that swell and warp the wood? In a gunstock, which is thick, maybe the size of the wood resists the warp. But in a clock pendulum? I would worry about warpage.

    The solvent-based methods should work without warpage. Paint thinner/mineral spirits will probably work as well as anything if there is no gum or oxidized oil.

    You are trying to get the oil to dissolve and diffuse out of the wood. To do that, you want low oil concentration in the bulk solvent outside the wood (stuff diffuses from high concentration to low, so if you keep your bulk solvent oil concentration low, the high oil concentration in the wood causes faster diffusion out of the wood). The whiting (or K2R, or Fuller's earth) work because the oil binds to the whiting (or get's trapped in the molecular "cages" of the Fuller's or K2R's diatomaceous earth). This lowers the oil concentration outside the wood. You can achieve a similar effect with multiple changes of solvent. I would:
    1) wipe as much of the stuff off as you can physically, with a rag moistened with mineral spirits. If you have problems with some stuff sticking, try MEK or acetone (they are chemically/physically very similar - if you use one, you probably don't need the other).
    2) soak the item in mineral spirits (or mineral spirits with a little MEK). You might be able to find one of those foil turkey pans at the grocery store, and if you cover with aluminum foil, solvent loss should be minimal.
    3) remove the item, wipe it off, and see if it is oil-free enough for your taste. Repeat step 2 and this step until you've got the oil out. Instead of switching out solvents, you could use Fuller's earth, but it might take a lot of the stuff to capture the oil. Even if you use Fuller's, I'd do a final "rinse step" soak with clean solvent.
    4) Dry the item with a rag, and let the solvent evaporate out of the thing overnight. Mineral spirits, acetone, and MEK all will evaporate readily, overnight if you have the item in a warm, well ventilated space. Might want to wrap blotting paper around it and clamp it between to straight pieces of wood to ensure straightness.

    You have heard from others that this will get the oil out, I think without subjecting a long, thin wooden item to the possibility of warping due to water contact.

    By the way, you should 1) wear chemically-resistant gloves, 2) work in a well-ventilated area (outside, away from other people and animals is best), 3) wear a respirator, and 4) recover your waste solvent, LABEL it well (e.g. mineral spirits 90%, acetone 10%, with some leached oil) and dispose of it at your county's toxic waste disposal site. The labeling part is important - it costs a heck of a lot more to dispose of mystery solvent that it does a known, common chemical (or a mix thereof).

    I am guessing you should finish by using an oil-based finish, but I would ask for a critique from the experts on this site. The thinking is that any residual oil in the wood will screw up oil-based stuff less than it would other finishes.

    Good luck,

    Jim

  20. #20
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    Thank you very much guys; everyone's suggestions have merit, and I now have several non-destructive approaches to try. Also some warnings about what could damage the wood. I will post some pictures later.

    Thanks again everyone. It is such a pleasure to have concerned individuals share their experiences with those of us in need.

    Jim


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