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How to Safely Dispose of Oily Rags

Ask This Old House general contractor Tom Silva discusses the proper disposal techniques for oily rags to prevent spontaneous combustion


  1. Whenever using oil-based finishes, it’s important to properly dispose of the application tools to prevent spontaneous combustion. It really does happen – it even happened to Tom Silva!
  2. Once the rag is no longer in use, soak it in a bucket of water. Then, wring out the rag and allow it to dry flat, preferably outside.
  3. The key is to keep anything from smothering the rag as it dries, since it releases heat as it dries. This can raise the temperature of the rag, or the thing on top of it, to a high enough temperature that it can combust.
  4. Once the rag is completely dried out, it’s safe to throw away. Tom suggests disposing of it in an outdoor trash can rather than in the house. Better to be safe than sorry!

Tom explains that as long as rags are left uncovered by other objects and are allowed to dry flat, they do not pose the risk of spontaneous combustion. For extra caution, Tom likes to soak them in water and then allow them to dry flat. The buckets and empty paint can he showed in the segment can both be found at home centers.