Fire Paint

If you were to take a photograph of my washing, now, here, turning in a lazy fashion on a hungover Sunday afternoon, you would be able to enlarge the image at a later date and explore the twisted landscape smeared over the chromed handle of the machine. Hopefully the image would show my paperback copy of ‘Justine’ and the names scratched in angry letters on the front of the driers.

The laundryette itself is a grim slice of bleak urban squalor; patches of rust deface the machines where the enamel has chipped away. One of the tumble driers has been ransacked, the money-tray ripped out to expose a nest of coloured wires hiding in a square black hole. A torn cardboard sign helpfully taped to the machine says ‘Out of Order’.

A few weeks ago my local laundrette burned down, so I have been forced to start visiting this establishment, slightly further away. It’s not surprising that Automats should suffer from fire damage; all that fine, downy lint stolen from hundreds of garments and tenderly deposited in the remote crevices of a tumble-drier, just waiting to be ignited.

I recall hearing a lecture a few years back about a hospital which was destroyed by fire; it turned out that the culprit was the wooden construction, which had been repainted at frequent intervals, possibly to use up the department budget so that no excuse could be found for allocating any less funding the following year. (Means-of-Escape) (WarringtonFire)

Watching paint dry is supposed to be the proverbially dull pastime, but a brief study of paint chemistry reveals some hidden drama. Typical air drying alkyds will react with oxygen to become hard and glossy, but instead of finishing, this process continues slowly throughout the life of the material.

And when there are umpteen layers of paint, all made up of organic resin and all gently decomposing to liberate flammable scission products, it becomes a distinctly hazardous environment.

I was reminded of this by Patrick Baty’s recent article in the Daily Telegraph. Baty is an ex-soldier who now works as an architectural historian, and who advises property owners on the correct choice of colour for their seventeenth-century mansions. An enthusiastic and popular speaker, he takes a small chip of paint and identifies the numerous different layers, then takes his audience on a guided tour through the past like some Victorian fossil-hunter. (Historical Paint)

But having learned about the fire hazards of paint, I was amazed to learn about an independent researcher whose investigation of paint systems had led to the development of flame-resistant coatings. Michael Keenan noticed that dirty pieces of wood, caked with paint and fly-ash, stubbornly refused to burn when thrown onto a fire. Intrigued by this observation, Keenan spent years working in his garden shed trying to perfect a coating which would be impervious to fire; and his efforts paid off in 2004 when he won five Gold Medals at the INPEX in Pennsylvania, the equivalent of being carried shoulder-high around Wembley after the FA Cup Final. (British Inventors)(INPEX)

Perhaps if my local washeteria had decided to paint their chipboard walls with some of Keenan’s marvellous creation, I would not have to trudge up here to do my laundry…and they would still be in business.




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