Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Oil Paint from the Sea?

The Seine Boat - Stanhope Forbes
My last business idea failed miserably: Animal Rescue Steakhouse ("You'll come for the puppies, but you'll stay for the meat pie"). I couldn't convince the Venture Capitalists that in these days of belt-tightening, disposing of unwanted pets in a delicious Bolognese sauce is a sure bet.

Like Homer Simpson's product idea ("Nuts'n'Gum: Together At Last!"), we're surrounded by businesses that are born to fail. On a recent trip to Long Island, I found out that the local beaches were once strewn with large open kettles containing a stinky brew of rotting fish that were used to make paint. "Clearly I'm not the only idiot", I scoffed.

But I've always loved paint chemistry and old-timey bearded dudes with names like "Salty Jack", so this story appealed to me.  A little research revealed that the long history of rendering fish into paint is scientifically sound, and that in fact I am the only idiot...

Atlantic Menhaden
In the early 1800s, settlers filled barrels with water in which they placed menhaden caught by haul seine fishing. Weighted boards kept the dead fish submerged. As the fish rotted, some poor sod had the task of skimming the released oil off the top of the barrel. This process took several weeks. Fish oil was used in the manufacture of fertilizer, fish meal, animal feed, soap, the waterproofing of fabric, and exterior paint.

Paint produced from the oil was hugely successful. It turns out that the eastern tip of the Long Island once produced the nation's largest quantity of fish oil. Unable to meet the growing demand for oil, the industry sought ways to increase production. The modernized process began by cooking tons of fish in a double-walled revolving steamer. The fish were then moved to the steam screw press where the oil was hydraulically squeezed out, providing greater yields. On average, 1,000 fish generated 4 to 6 gallons of oil.

A fish sale on a Cornish beach - Stanhope Forbes
But where had this practice started? It was most likely developed in Northern coastal communities and used to protect exterior woodwork from the ravages of weather. There's an interesting old recipe from Greenland for fish oil paint, or 'train' (whale) oil:
2 kg of train oil (seal-oil, whale cod-liver oil or blubber).
300 gm of crushed resin.
About 1 kg of red iron oxide. 
The ingredients must be boiling when they are mixed. 
Heat some of the train to boiling point.
Add the crushed resin and, eventually, the remains of the train oil. 
When the mixture is boiling, add the pigment while stirring. 
If the preparation is done on an open fire you must be careful that the train oil does not catch fire. 
If occasion should arise, close the lid tightly.
Matte and relatively rough with an uneven surface and appearance. 
Weatherproof and fast. 
Will smell of fish oil in the beginning. 
About 2 weeks.
How to use: 
On rough wood outdoors.
About 10 years. After 5-10 years a coating of linseed varnish must be given to maintain the qualities. 

Old "Salty Jack" himself
"Modern paint is made up mostly of chemicals and other artificial substances. However, about a century ago, fish oil was used as a base for paint. Fish oil was used from many type of aquatic life, such as herring, sardine, whale and porpoise. Several studies, such as in the "Journal of the American Oil Chemists' Society," have been done to discover how fish oil was used as a medium for paint. The fish oil goes through a special process which turns it into a base for paint" [eHow]

It'd be hard to identify the true source of the technique (similar to the rumors surrounding Van Eyck's 'discovery' of linseed oil as a medium), but there's an apocryphal story about the discovery by Captain Robert Fergusson:

"There’s a high-seas adventure story behind the creation of Rust-Oleum Coatings. Captain Robert Fergusson didn’t intend to start Rust-Oleum Corporation nearly a century ago. He lunged for the container of raw fish oil before it spilled on his rusted metal deck.

But the Scottish-born sea captain noticed that his spill stopped the spread of corrosion. This observation led him to create the world’s first rust-preventative paint. But it wasn’t easy.

The Captain landed and settled in New Orleans to spend years conducting painstaking (and smelly) research. He finally settled on a fish-oil based paint that stopped rust, dried overnight and left no lingering aroma. Rust-Oleum Corporation was born."

Maximillian Toch; inventor of the color "Battleship Grey"
An article by paint manufacturer and industrial chemist Maximillian Toch published in 1911 called Fish Oil as a Paint Vehicle claims that "the oil that gives the best and most lasting results for painting purposes is the menhaden oil." He maintains that the drying qualities of this oil are similar to linseed oil. The man seems to know his stuff, and his article suggests that the knowledge of fish oil paint was around before Captain Fergusson's 'discovery' in 1921.

Then again, Toch also claimed that a bunch of paintings attributed to Rembrandt were not actually painted by him, so who's to know.

The Breadwinners - Walter Langley
Page One of Toch's article on Fish Oil Paint