This section is from the "Henley's Twentieth Century Formulas Recipes Processes" encyclopedia, by Norman W. Henley and others.
Natural asphalt is not entirely soluble in any liquid. Alcohol dissolves only a small percentage of it, ether a much larger proportion. The best solvents are benzol, benzine, rectified petroleum, the essential oils, and chloroform, which leave only a small residue undissolved. The employment of ether as a solvent is impracticable because of its low boiling point, 97° F., and great volatility. The varnish would dry almost under the brush. Chloroform is not open to this objection, but it is too expensive for ordinary use. Rectified petroleum is a good solvent of asphalt, but it is not a desirable ingredient of varnish because, though the greater part of it soon evaporates, a small quantity of less volatile substances, which is usually present in even the most thoroughly rectified petroleum, causes the varnish to remain "tacky" for a considerable time and to retain a disagreeable odor much longer. Common coal-tar benzine is also a good solvent and has the merit of cheapness, but its great volatility makes the varnish dry too quickly for convenient use, especially in summer.
The best solvent, probably, is oil of turpentine, which dissolves asphalt almost completely, producing a varnish which dries quickly and forms a perfect coating if the turpentine has been well rectified. The turpentine should be a "water white," or entirely colorless, liquid of strong optical refractive power and agreeable odor, without a trace of smokiness. A layer 1/5 of an inch in depth should evaporate in a short time so completely as to leave no stain on a glass dish.
But even solutions of the best Syrian asphalt in the purest oil of turpentine, if they are allowed to stand undisturbed for a long time in large vessels, deposit a thick, semi-fluid precipitate which a large addition of oil of turpentine fails to convert into a uniform thin liquid. It may be assumed that this deposit consists of an insoluble or nearly insoluble part of the asphalt which, perhaps, has been deprived of solubility by the action of light. Hence, in order to obtain a uniform solution, this thick part must be removed. This can be done, though imperfectly, by carefully decanting the solution after it has stood for a long time in large vessels. This tedious and troublesome process may be avoided by filtering the solution as it is made, by the following simple and quite satisfactory method: The solution is made in a large cask, lying on its side, with a round hole about 8 inches in diameter in its upper bilge. This opening is provided with a well-fitting cover, to the bottom of which a hook is attached. The asphalt is placed in a bag of closely woven canvas, which is inclosed in a second bag of the same material. The diameter of the double bag, when filled, should be such as to allow it to pass easily through the opening in the cask, and its length such that, when it is hung on the hook, its lower end is about 8 inches above the bottom of the cask. The cask is then filled with rectified oil of turpentine, closed, and left undisturbed for several days. The oil of turpentine penetrates into the bag and dissolves the asphalt, and the solution, which is heavier than pure oil of turpentine, exudes through the canvas and sinks to the bottom of the cask. Those parts of the asphalt which are quite insoluble, or merely swell in the oil of turpentine, cannot pass through the canvas, and are removed with the bag, leaving a perfect solution. When all soluble portions have been dissolved, the bag, with the cover, is raised and hung over the opening to drain. If pulverized asphalt has been used the bag is found to contain only a small quantity of semi-fluid residue. This, thinned with oil of turpentine and applied with a stiff brush and considerable force, forms a thick, weather-resisting, and very durable coating for planks, etc.
The proportion of asphalt to oil of turpentine is so chosen as to produce, in the cask, a pretty thick varnish, which may be thinned to any desired degree by adding more turpentine. For use, it should be just thick enough to cover bright tin and entirely conceal the metal with a single coat. When dry, this coat is very thin, but it adheres very firmly, and continually increases in hardness, probably because of the effect of light. This supposition is supported by the difficulty of removing an old coat of asphalt varnish, which will not dissolve in turpentine even after long immersion, and usually must be removed by mechanical means.
For a perfect, quick-drying asphalt varnish-the purest asphalt must be used, such as Syrian, or the best Trinidad. Trinidad seconds, though better than some other asphalts, yield an inferior varnish, owing to the presence of impurities.
Of artificial asphalt, the best for this purpose is the sort known as "mineral caoutchouc," which is especially suitable for the manufacture of elastic dressings for leather and other flexible substances. For wood and metal it is less desirable, as it never becomes as hard as natural asphalt.