Zangobob's Blow Torch Heaven

Stories of Blow Torch Accidents and Near Misses

Before we get started with the Horror Stories, I want to call your attention to the most common and the most dangerous failure mode in a gasoline blow torch; The pump and check valve. When the check valve fails, gasoline will leak inside the pump and sit there. When you try to pump up the torch and draw the pump handle out to start pumping, this gasoline will squirt all over you! Over pressurizing a torch can make a check valve leak.


The Horrors of Torching !

I had a small, One pint Otto Burnz gasoline torch up and running and the flame started to die out. With the torch running, I drew the pump handle out to start pumping up the tank. PROBLEM! The pump filled with gasoline because the check valve was bad. The gasoline sprayed all over me and my cloths. Then...the gasoline caught on fire! I was not seriously injured, I didn't have to go to the emergency room, but I did have many blisters on my right hand. I have since healed up just fine. This experience scared the living S*** out of me, needless to say. Now, I ALWAYS have a five gallon bucket of water within arm's reach whenever I have a live torch. That way, I can either drench the torch or me, if something goes wrong!

I nearly missed disaster once as I was refilling a torch. I shut it down not realizing flame was not all the way out. There was a flame still inside the burner head about the size of a burning match head. My friend spotted it and saved me from a real disaster. Do not assume that just because you shut off the fuel valve that the torch is really out. ALWAYS double check to make sure.

My friend and I got together to do some torchin' on 12-23-98. He was working on an old Turner while he had another torch running several feet away. He had just finished pressurizing the tank on the one he was working on (I do not remember what he was doing to it) when, without warning, gasoline sprayed out of the pump into his face and on his clothes. FORTUNATELY, he was far enough from the torch that was running that nothing caught on fire. NOW, for the scary part! Last night, the torch that squirted gasoline out of the pump today was up and running not two feet away from three other operating torches! Now, just imagine what could have happened if that gasoline sprayed out that night instead of the following day, 12-24-98???

This next incident was not too serious, but it could have been. My same friend from the previous story had a Clayton Lambert model 700 running in his living room. (Ok, so he's more enthusiastic about his pet blow torches than me. What can I say?) He was in the process of pre heating it (that's when you set the drip tray on fire) and he freaked out just a little bit when the flames got a bit too enthusiastic. They flared up a lot! The three pictures above show how the drip pan burn progresses over time. It starts out small, then rises to its grand finale. He grabbed the torch and headed for the front door. No gasoline spilled and nothing caught on fire. I'm not sure I would want to try the living room trick, but that's me. The problem here, other than the obvious, is that the drip tray was filed up a bit too far. You only want to fill it about 3/4 full, at the most. When it is filled too full, the gasoline tends to come to a boil just before it all burns out. When it boils, it burns very vigorously. This effect is what my friend was seeing. Keep this fact in mind if you light torches. The gasoline will want to flare up toward the end of the burn. It's best not to overfill to minimize the time of this flaring burn.

This is a generic horror story. What I'm about to describe is a common thing with gasoline blow torches. I had a Clayton Lambert model 600 running for about half an hour. I did not realize it, but the pump was leaking gasoline very slowly due to a bad check valve. I went over to pick the torch up when the raw leaking gasoline caught afire. The outside of the tank was totally in flames. The fire quickly burned out as the gasoline either evaporated or burned out. The problem is when something unexpected like this happens, it can scare you into doing something dangerous on impulse. I was tempted to give the torch a toss just before the flames went out. Had I tossed the torch, that could have been a Bad Thing. If the tank ruptured when it hit the ground, I would have had a major fire.

Another fairly common problem is a torch that will not completely shut off. I was working on a Craftsman torch, I had it up and running for awhile and shut it off. I came back after it totally cooled down only to find a fine stream of gasoline coming out of the burner head. Fortunately, I did not have any other torches nearby, but this is obviously a problem to avoid. It's also common for these old torches to have a leaky packing nut. (this is where the fuel valve stem goes into the burner head) What will happen is there will be a small amount of fuel that will leak out and will eventually catch on fire. Not a problem in and of itself, except for the scare factor and the reaction of the torch user.

This June, I decided to paint my garage. This required the removal of years of old paint, which I removed with one of my Craftsman blow torches. I almost finished the job when I had to fill the tank and repressurize the torch. This one was one of my better functioning torches. It had a real nice pump with good, solid action. When I repressurized it, much to my surprise, it developed Viagra Effect while it was heating up. Hmmm... I immediately shut the torch down. I took the pump out of the tank and the entire check valve assembly was missing! The system apparently came loose and fell out; All of the parts to which were in the bottom of the tank. Because the leather was in really good shape, it had a tendancy to hold back the gasoline even though the check valve was gone. I learned two things from this. First, the check valve can develope a leak at any time. Second, by keeping the leather in good condition, I prevented a leaking gasoline situation. Fortunately, I was alert enough to notice the malfunction and, without question, shut the torch off and THEN investigated what went wrong. That gasoline would have eventually leaked out and cought on fire, I'm sure. Fortunately, it did not happen while I was on the ladder!

Recently I found a Turner Baffle blow torch. I cleaned out its innards, repacked its check valve replaced the pump leather and cleaned out the fuel tube. I fueled it up and lit it. All was going very well so I assumed that the torch was fixed. Later that day, I decided to burn some leaves and yard waste. The fire was not going very well because the leaves were a little damp. I got out that Turner Baffle! I was using it to help burn the rubbish, holding the torch in front of me when I noticed that my leg was wet. There was a fine stream of gasoline squirting out of the bottom of the blow torch! You see, Turner torches have a steel bottom. It was a little rusty, but I did not think anything of it. Obviously, it rusted all the way through. fortunately, that gasoline did not catch on fire. I shudder to thing of what may have happened. I shut the torch down immediately and removed myself and the torch from my burning pile of leaves. As a result of this experience, any of my torches that have rusty bottoms will not be lit. These things are dangerous as it is without taking more risks!

Potentials For Accidents

In this section, I want to describe potential dangers of torching. These things have not happened to this author personally, but they are indicators of what awaits the unsuspecting torchologist. The biggest danger is that of gasoline leaks. These can come from a torch that has sprung a leak in some way, or spilled gasoline near a functioning torch. Realize too that these antique blow torches are very old. Aging can make the fuel tank weak compared to when it was new and therefore, suseptible to springing a leak. The fitting at the tank for the burner head nipple, fill plug and air pump also can become leaky. The torchologist must be alert and watchful for such possibilities.

People who light their torches and find that they work really well invariably reach for tin cans and other scrap metal around the house to see what their little gem is capable of melting. If you are one of these people, pay particular attention to the following. Most, if not all chemical compounds change into other chemical compounds when heated to a high temperature. Things that 'burn' are actually undergoing a rapid oxidation process. These new compounds can be very toxic, even if the compound being burned is not toxic. An aluminum beer can is usually the first victim of a newbie torchologist. Aluminum is basically harmless by itself. However, when aluminum burns, it gives off a very toxic gas that can make one sick. This author highly discourages you from doing this. Do not burn brass for the same reason because the white smoke given off when it burns is a very toxic gas. Supposedly, this white smoke can do permanent damage to your lungs. When weldors do a brazing operation, they pay particular attention to good ventilation and are very careful not to inhale the fumes from brazing and thus avoide the health hazards that they may create. So, do not burn anything with your torch. This writer found out about aluminum and brass toxicity while reading up on Oxy-acetylene torches and Oxy-acetylene welding. These cautions are probably transferrable to gasoline torches as well. Generally, it is good advice not to operate your torch without very good ventilation! The BEST thing to do is not light the torch at all! I DO hope that when you recondition your torches, that you bring them up to snuff to the point where they COULD work, but do not actually LIGHT them to find out!

While technically not a leak, if you open the fuel valve on a pressurized torch, gasoline will shoot out of the burner head for about three feet. The existence of this little fine stream effect is why some people use old torches for dispensing insecticides. Nonetheless, this fine stream can be a source for a real disaster if it comes in contact with an open flame. Equally bad is when this stream runs for awhile without the operator knowing it. The danger of leaking fuel is the single biggest safety threat when operating a gasoline blow torch. There is minimal risk of your torch blowing up, assuming it is not structurally unsound or the tank does not get grossly overheated.

It is common for a leak to develop around the packing nut, but these are generally small unless the packing nut is in bad shape. The fix for this is to carefully tighten the nut until the leak stops. Be very careful especialy if the torch is operating. The burner is made of bronz usually, and when hot, it is very soft. If you overtighten the nut, it could snap the threaded portion of the burner right off. When this happens, vaporized gasoline will rapidly escape from the system causing a rapid drop in pressure. The gasoline may return to a liquid and spray all over the place. If this catches on fire, you will be in big trouble! Therefore, NEVER tighten the packing nut unless the torch is shut down, cooled off and the pressure has been bled out of the tank!

I have mentioned already about the leaking check valve. Watch for leaks and/or be watchful for a pump handle that wants to pop out of the tank (Viagra Effect). Quickly shut the torch down if you spot a problem. Always assume the check valve is leaking even if it is not and use the appropriate safeguards. Pay attention to the torch surroundings and assume the worst and see to it that there is nothing nearby that could catch on fire.

Be careful when refueling a torch by always letting it cool down before refilling it. The burner gets very hot during operation and if you spill raw gasoline on it, it could burst into flames. When it has cooled, very carefully open the fill plug or remove the pump. Do not allow unburnt gasoline to leak out if you can help it.

Carelessness or arrogant indifference can be disasterous. Never operate a torch around other open flames, never smoke while torching, and keep any repair/refueling activities far away from other operating torches. Leaking fuel from these activities can be a real fire hazard. Furthermore, it is best NOT to see how many torches you can light at once or how quickly you can get one going. Safety will be overlooked by doing this. Moreover, if there is a problem with one of the torches, such as a leak, having other torches nearby can make the situation even more dangerous. Do not operate a torch if you have been drinking. No horseplay is allowed! These are not toys.

Let a torch completely cool down before you do ANYTHING to it! Trying to make a torch do something it was not intended to do is asking for trouble. If it works good with 40 pumps, then 80 pumps will be twice as good. NO! Do not do that! You could cause a weak fuel tank to rupture or the check valve/pump to leak! Do not operate the torch indoors and always have a plan do deal with an emergency by having water and/or a fire extinguisher handy. It is best to assign a person to function as a safety supervisor during a torchology session to see to it that all safety precautions are followed. If you MUST operate a torch, SAFETY MUST BE YOUR TOP PRIORITY. A properly funcioning torch is actually quite safe. The danger comes in when a problem develops. Remember that you are working with something that is 50 to 80 years old! Deterioration is inevitable.

Some Closing Thoughts

It may seem odd to you that, on the one hand, I'm going on and on about how dangerous it is to light a gasoline blow torch and that you should not try it, but on the other hand, I light the torches myself. I'm discouraging you from doing this simply because I am honestly concerned about your safety. I know myself very well with regard to my understanding, conservative judgement and attention to detail. Even at that, I have been burned (pun intended) lighting a blow torch because of dangers that I did not know existed at the time. If I get hurt, It is because I made a mistake and it's my choice to take that risk. Obviously, there is nothing I can do to keep you from lighting a blow torch, but if you do, hopefully my descriptions of what can happen will make you more aware or, at least make you think. The greatest dangers are the ones that we are not aware exist due to lack of awareness and/or experience. I do not want you to learn the hard way. Even though this page will be perpetually updated, I hope there will not be new stories to tell!

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Updated 04-02-07

Copyrighted (c) 1999,2002,2007 by Jeffery E. Glass Sycamore, Illinois USA. All rights reserved.