Dangerous Chemicals of My Youth
I used to be into chemicals long ago. I was young and not very savvy as to the harm those chemicals could do to my body. I am a bit wiser now with age. Still, chemicals give you a rush like no other. What strong chemicals can do will blow your mind.
The local drug store was a bit concerned when I called up and asked for Potassium Permanganate. It is a controlled substance, hard to get in Canada apparently because it is used in the processing of crack cocaine. There are also things like pure Nitric Acid, Potassium Dichromate, and industrial strength Ammonia, all strong reactive agents. Like buying a huge batch of fertilizer when you are not a farmer, there are things you try to source that may land you in trouble. Be careful what you ask for.
But making bombs is not what I was doing. I was finishing wood, by old fashioned methods of the last century, also quite dangerous, but I wanted to try them just the same. The old fashioned wood finishers were chemists using a witches brew of ingredients in their artistry.
Old fashioned recipe for a beautiful gun stock? How about Aqua-Fortis… strong water. It is actually pure-strength Nitric Acid. When used on something like maple, the acid quickly caramelizes the sugars in the wood, turning them an instant nut brown. You don’t have to put anything ON the wood, the finish is inherent IN the wood. Just make sure you neutralize that acid before you touch it again.
How about industrial strength Ammonia to fume white oak? It was discovered by Gustave Stickley, that old oak barn wood darkened time, from the exposure to ammonia in the air from animal dung. You can’t uncap ammonia in a closed room. Even a few drops can burn your eyeballs and skin. The smell can knock you over. If you don’t want to use something as caustic as ammonia you can apply some of the old fashioned Potassium Carbonate laundry boosters, like Arm & Hammer. The soaps that will also turn oak brown as well as other woods of a high tannin content.
Then there is cherry. It can age to a nice reddish brown with exposure to light and time, but you can speed that all up with household lye. It might burn your skin. Wear gloves. Don’t touch your eyeballs and don’t itch anything down below.
Potassium Dichromate is another one that was popular with wood finishers of the last century. It turned woods a beautiful brown without the need for stain, enhancing the characteristics and colours that were native to the wood itself. The only thing was, it is a very toxic carcinogen. Getting it on your skin can kill you just like the stuff from the spy movies.
If you want to go pedestrian, you can always dissolve some fine steel wool in a jar of vinegar, if you leave the lid loose. Otherwise it will explode. A steel wool and vinegar finish is called Ferrous Acetate in chemical terms. It is a cheap way to colour wood. The minute dissolved ions of iron actually rust into the wood pores, turning them brown.
There are also those who revel in experimenting with household items to stain wood. Coffee and tea are among the first. They may take a few applications, but they can start to tone wood. Some people combine them with the steel wool and vinegar mix. The tannins in the tea help. Some people also raid the spice cupboard. There are things like Turmeric, or even beets from the fridge, that are age old colouring agents. The bonus of course, these items are cheap, available anywhere, and very easy to get. There you go, reduced from exotic chemicals to tea in your old age. At least the zero VOC people will be happy.
Oddly, in the end my hard-to-get chemicals were easier to procure than I first imagined. This is Canada. People are trusting and friendly. I picked up the phone and called a chemical supply warehouse. Potassium Permanganate? Sure we have that. How much you want? When you see the professional handler in a light and temperature controlled room and hazmat suit it makes you think twice. He will hand you your product stuffed in padded and sealed bottles with warnings plastered all over about exposure to skin, breathing, etc. I wanted to get the full strength Ammonia and the full strength acid while I was there. I had to sign a waiver. The acid can only be contained in an inert glass container. The acid would melt anything else. The lady at the desk told me that if it came open or got broken in a car, it would vaporize the iron in the floor boards in a huge Hydrogen gas explosion. I had to sign the waiver that I would not transport it in a vehicle, while my vehicle was parked just outside waiting. The lady at the desk hummed and looked out the window while I got out my Visa.
Frank, the guy outside I was driving home was not so sure. “Frank, don’t be scared,” I said. “It is just pure strength nitric acid. Hold it between your legs and whatever you do, don’t drop it”. And don’t distract me while I'm driving. I don’t want to get in any accidents right now.” I never saw anybody sit in a vehicle so still and quiet. He was also a little pale. Frank soon found other driving arrangements.
I am sure I must be on a government watch list somewhere, but for very innocent reasons. I am now stuck with more pedestrian methods of wood finishing. We live in the not-so-inspiring days of zero VOC’s, which makes me miss the dangerous chemicals of my youth. You know, just out of curiosity, I wanted to try them out, at least once. It’s what young people do.