Musings of An Old Man

by Brian K. Moore

Spontaneous Combustion

Thirty or thirty-five-years ago Phyllis and I built a house for a couple named Culp. The house had an unglazed terra cotta tile floor in the living room, dinning room and entry. Unglazed tile is tile minus the slick, shiny finish that tile usually has. My brother, my nephew, my son and I, were the tile layers. This was our first experience with unglazed tile. When it came time to grout the tile we spread the grout on the tile with a trowel in the normal manner, forcing it into the open joints in the tile. Then we proceeded to wipe the surplus grout off with pieces of burlap as we were accustomed to doing with glazed tile.

Most of it came off quite nicely, but a small amount adhered to the unglazed surface and would not come off even if we used a little water. I suspect that the regular tile guys have a way of handling this, but we sure didn’t know about it.

At this point we had to start from where we were. We had a nicely laid tile floor that had lots of stains from the grout on it. We said, “We’ll take it off with muriatic acid.” This is a common procedure for cleaning stains off masonry. So we tried a sample patch. It cleaned it up some, but there was still an unacceptable amount of stain left. We then tried hydrofluoric acid. It softened the tile, and was therefore not usable!

We had noticed that when we would wet the floor with water or the acid solution, all the stains would disappear for as long as the floor stayed wet, but they would come back as soon as it dried. It looked great as long as it was wet. It even enhanced the terra cotta color! We decided to see if we could make it look wet all the time.

We tried a few samples with various commercial sealers. None had the effect that we wanted, so we said, “Let’s try making our own sealer.” We tried various concoctions on samples that we had made by purposefully putting grout stains on scraps of tile. We ended up with a mix of one part boiled linseed oil, one part paint thinner and just a touch of black paint. The black paint darkened the grout joints just a little bit setting off the red terra cotta tile.

It did a great job on the sample, so we put it on a small section of the entry floor. A small section so that if it went bad on the real floor, we would not have a whole lot to tear out. We let it dry and it was beautiful. It would have been a good finish even if it was not needed to hide the stains.

Our next step was to apply it to the whole floor. This took most of a day. We applied it with a big brush and then wiped off as much as we could with rags. Enough soaked in to the unglazed tile to create the wet look and mask the stains. When finally we were done, we cleaned up and put the rags soaked with our homemade stain in two cardboard boxes and took them home to dispose of.

At home I put the two cardboard boxes of soaked rags in a plastic garbage can in the garage. Then for some unknown, lucky, reason I thought “you know that is not a very good place for those rags,” and I moved them into a metal garbage can outside of the garage. It had been a long hard day so right after dinner I went to bed.

In the morning I started out to get rid of the rags. As I approached the metal garbage can I felt heat. I thought “the sun must have been shining on this garbage can.” I pulled the lid off the garbage can and flames shot up three feet! There was a faucet and a hose right behind me, so I grabbed the hose and turned the water on and doused the flames.
I walked to the faucet and turned the water off. When I turned around the can was on fire again! This time I really soaked it.

This made a believer of me! I had always thought that spontaneous combustion was a “theoretical possibility,” but it just wouldn’t happen in real life. Well, I found out!

Just about this time I realized what would have happened if I had not moved the rags from the plastic garbage can in the garage to the metal garbage can outside. The spontaneous combustion would have occurred, and the plastic garbage can would have melted in short order and the saturated rags would have had an unlimited air supply and there would have been a big fire in the garage! This would have happened after we all were in bed! Maybe we could have saved the house, maybe not.

My dad used to say, “Experience keeps a dear school, but fools will learn in no other.” Maybe even fairly smart people will learn in no other!