Solvent, Thinners and their Practical Uses

Demand for isopropyl alcohol in 2020, brought with it increased interest in everyday solvents and their uses.  So, this is our quick guide to solvents and thinners with additional tips that you may not be aware of! Solvents and thinners are used for many tasks including cleaning, softening, thinning and extending. It’s useful to know which one to use, when cleaning brushes and equipment or for thinning paint when spraying. The most commonly used solvents and thinners especially in the paint industry and DIY are:

  • White Spirit
  • Isopropyl Alcohol
  • Acetone
  • Methylated Spirits
  • Standard/Cellulose thinner
  • Multipurpose, Xylene based thinners

If you work with solvents or thinners regularly, you are probably familiar with the safety precautions, but nevertheless The HSE Guide to working with solvents  is useful resource.

Check out the uses and some of the more diverse, but practical applications for these common solvents and thinners

White Spirit:

White Spirit is used for brush cleaning and thinning a wide range of oil/solvent based paints, varnishes and wood finishing products. It is the recommended thinner and cleaner for many, though not all, of paints here at Palatine Paints.

  • Colour: Clear, colourless
  • Smell: Strong (like traditional paints)

Additional uses for white spirit

Use white spirit to clean bare wood or metal before oiling, priming, painting or varnishing. Moisten a rag with white spirit and wipe the surface until the all the dirt has been removed, then dry with soft clean cloth. Some varnished wood can also be cleaned with white spirit, but we always recommend doing a test patch first. Hand tools like shears and garden furniture can become sticky with tree sap or resin which white spirit will usually remove. Similarly, white spirit can work on removing residue from sticky labels but note that acetone often works better.

If the paint you’re using is white spirit based, use it for rescuing paint spills, just dab with white spirit on a cloth or cotton wool. This will be fine on most surfaces but check first with small spot test. Oil and grime is easily removed with white spirit from bike and engine parts, simply apply with a cloth or even soak smaller parts directly. Tip: work at hard to reach angles with something like a toothbrush.

Isopropyl alcohol:

Isopropyl Alcohol, IPA, or isopropanol is a versatile alcohol with a high level of purity, used extensively in many every day products. Also known as rubbing alcohol, you’ll find IPA in all sorts of items such as cleaning products, dishwasher rinse agents, spray deodorants and de-icer. Isopropyl alcohol has become well known because of its efficacy in hand sanitising, crucial for tackling spread of the Covid-19 Corona Virus.

  • Colour: Clear, colourless
  • Smell: Strong, alcohol

Other uses for isopropyl alcohol

Where water based cleaners are not suitable such as electronic devices, IPA is an extremely effective cleaner. For cleaning and sanitising areas that many people touch, apply IPA on a clean cloth or low lint cotton wool, cotton buds are ideal for access small crevices. Some examples:

  • Glasses and lenses
  • Door bells and keypads
  • Phone screens and keyboards
  • Kettles and door handles

Use Isopropanol on a cloth or paper kitchen towel to remove ink from whiteboards and similar surfaces. While it’s great for those little areas like sink plug holes and around taps, you can also use it to clean hair brushes and make up brushes. Simply dip them in a container of IPA to clean and kill germs, then rinse and allow to dry.

Getting rid of certain smells is simple with a little isopropyl alcohol, so spray some into shoes in order to deodorise quickly and effectively. Similarly, where tupperware has absorbed food smells, apply with a cloth then wash and rinse as usual.

Alcohol has a much lower freezing point than water so in an emergency, if you have IPA handy, make your own de-icer. To do this, mix 1 part water: 2 parts 99% pure isopropanol in a spray bottle. Lastly, try dabbing some IPA on grime, sweat and sauce stains in fabric too – it often works but as always…do a test patch first.


Also known as dimethyl ketone, 2-propanone, and beta-ketopropane, Acetone is commercially manufactured but is also found naturally in plants, trees and in humans (as a by product of metabolism). A versatile solvent, acetone has many uses including thinning polyester resin, vinyl and adhesives. It is also useful in preparing surfaces such as metal, and wood prior to painting. Acetone is a good solvent that is a component of some paints and varnishes as well as for most plastics and synthetic fibres.

  • Colour: Clear, colourless
  • Smell: Sweet, slightly fruity

Alternative uses for acetone

Acetone is well known as a nail polish remover but caution must be taken using it neat as it is highly flammable; we recommend purchasing a dedicated nail polish remover instead.

Ideal for thinning fibreglass resin and cleaning fibreglass application tools, acetone is effective in dissolving two-part epoxies and superglue before hardening. Furthermore, acetone is a popular and successful solvent brush cleaner and heavy duty degreaser

Acetone will perform many tasks similar to those of IPA. Additionally, use it to remove sticky residue and stains from surfaces like glass and porcelain or try it on scuff marks or surface scratches on glass. Rub in gently until there is some evidence that it is working, if not discontinue and try another method.

About methylated spirits

Another alcohol with similar uses is Methylated Spirits which is used in both industrial and domestic settings. Methylated spirit is ethanol, with added methanol which makes it unfit to drink and is dyed purple to make it recognisable. Commercially, it’s known for its use as a thinner for French polishing and for removing wax from wooden furniture. It is highly effective at de-greasing and cleaning wooden surfaces prior to oiling and waxing. Like acetone, methylated spirit is useful for cleaning windows and white boards.

  • Colour: Purple
  • Smell: Bitter

Other common paint thinners

  • Multipurpose or Xylene based thinners – strong thinners commonly used for thinning fast drying paints and for cleaning spray guns
  • Standard thinners – a mixture of recycled solvents used for cleaning spray guns and for thinning cellulose paint

Cleaning solvent based paint off brushes and rollers

Here are some tips on how to clean brushes and rollers used for solvent/oil based paints and varnishes:

  1. Check the tin to ensure you have the correct solvent (white spirit etc) for cleaning the paint used (details will always be on the tin)
  2. Remove excess paint by tapping the brush – avoid dragging the brush against the rim, as it will make it difficult to re-secure the lid to make it airtight
  3. Wipe the brush with kitchen roll or old cloth and fill a container with the solvent – a jam jar is fine for smaller brushes, but it’s worth investing in a paint kettle for rollers
  4. Clean your brush or roller by gently agitating it in the solvent until all the paint has been removed
  5. Wipe with a dry cloth

Keep the container and re-use the solvent for future brush cleaning as the paint will settle to the bottom leaving you with re-useable solvent at the top. Eventually you should be left with solid paint waste, which is easier to dispose of (ask your local council for details). Avoid leaving brushes soaking in solvent for any length of time as it can damage the bristles and the filament. If you use oil based paints regularly, the Brush Mate system saves having to go through this process after every use. More information about paint waste and the environment is here.

Solvents and thinners require special transportation, as members of the British Coatings Federation, we only use registered carriers to ensure compliance with ADR legislation. Browse our Solvents and Chemicals Section here.


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