1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Linseed

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LINSEED, the seed of the common flax (q.v.) or lint, Linum usitatissimum. These seeds, the linseed of commerce, are of a lustrous brown colour externally, and a compressed and elongated oval form, with a slight beak or projection at one extremity. The brown testa contains, in the outer of the four coats into which it is microscopically distinguishable, an abundant secretion of mucilaginous matter; and it has within it a thin layer of albumen, enclosing a pair of large oily cotyledons. The seeds when placed in water for some time become coated with glutinous matter from the exudation of the mucilage in the external layer of the epidermis; and by boiling in sixteen parts of water they exude sufficient mucilage to form with the water a thick pasty decoction. The cotyledons contain the valuable linseed oil referred to below. Linseed grown in tropical countries is much larger and more plump than that obtained in temperate climes, but the seed from the colder countries yields a finer quality of oil.

Linseed formed an article of food among the Greeks and Romans, and it is said that the Abyssinians at the present day eat it roasted. The oil is to some extent used as food in Russia and in parts of Poland and Hungary. The still prevalent use of linseed in poultices for open wounds is entirely to be reprobated. It has now been abandoned by practitioners. The principal objections to this use of linseed is that it specially favours the growth of micro-organisms. There are numerous clean and efficient substitutes which have all its supposed advantages and none of its disadvantages. There are now no medicinal uses of this substance. Linseed cake, the marc left after the expression of the oil, is a most valuable feeding substance for cattle.

Linseed is subject to extensive and detrimental adulterations, resulting not only from careless harvesting and cleaning, whereby seeds of the flax dodder, and other weeds and grasses are mixed with it, but also from the direct admixture of cheaper and inferior oil-seeds, such as wild rape, mustard, sesame, poppy, &c., the latter adulterations being known in trade under the generic name of “buffum.” In 1864, owing to the serious aspect of the prevalent adulteration, a union of traders was formed under the name of the “Linseed Association.” This body samples all linseed oil arriving in England and reports on its value.

Linseed oil, the most valuable drying oil, is obtained by expression from the seeds, with or without the aid of heat. Preliminary to the operation of pressing, the seeds are crushed and ground to a fine meal. Cold pressing of the seeds yields a golden-yellow oil, which is often used as an edible oil. Larger quantities are obtained by heating the crushed seeds to 160° F. (71° C.), and then expressing the oil. So obtained, it is somewhat turbid and yellowish-brown in colour. On storing, moisture and mucilaginous matter gradually settle out. After storing several years it is known commercially as “tanked oil,” and has a high value in varnish-making. The delay attendant on this method of purification is avoided by treating the crude oil with 1 to 2% of a somewhat strong sulphuric acid, which chars and carries down the bulk of the impurities. For the preparation of “artist’s oil,” the finest form of linseed oil, the refined oil is placed in shallow trays covered with glass, and exposed to the action of the sun’s rays. Numerous other methods of purification, some based on the oxidizing action of ozone, have been suggested. The yield of oil from different classes of seed varies, but from 23 to 28% of the weight of the seed operated on should be obtained. A good average quality of seed weighing about 392 ℔ per quarter has been found in practice to give out 109 ℔ of oil.

Commercial linseed oil has a peculiar, rather disagreeable sharp taste and smell; its specific gravity is given as varying from 0.928 to 0.953, and it solidifies at about −27°. By saponification it yields a number of fatty acids—palmitic, myristic, oleic, linolic, linolenic and isolinolenic. Exposed to the air in thin films, linseed oil absorbs oxygen and forms “linoxyn,” a resinous semi-elastic, caoutchouc-like mass, of uncertain composition. The oil, when boiled with small proportions of litharge and minium, undergoes the process of resinification in the air with greatly increased rapidity.

Its most important use is in the preparation of oil paints and varnishes. By painters both raw and boiled oil are used, the latter forming the principal medium in oil painting, and also serving separately as the basis of all oil varnishes. Boiled oil is prepared in a variety of ways—that most common being by heating the raw oil in an iron or copper boiler, which, to allow for frothing, must only be about three-fourths filled. The boiler is heated by a furnace, and the oil is brought gradually to the point of ebullition, at which it is maintained for two hours, during which time moisture is driven off, and the scum and froth which accumulate on the surface are ladled out. Then by slow degrees a proportion of “dryers” is added—usually equal weights of litharge and minium being used to the extent of 3% of the charge of oil; and with these a small proportion of umber is generally thrown in. After the addition of the dryers the boiling is continued two or three hours; the fire is then suddenly withdrawn, and the oil is left covered up in the boiler for ten hours or more. Before sending out, it is usually stored in settling tanks for a few weeks, during which time the uncombined dryers settle at the bottom as “foots.” Besides the dryers already mentioned, lead acetate, manganese borate, manganese dioxide, zinc sulphate and other bodies are used.

Linseed oil is also the principal ingredient in printing and lithographic inks. The oil for ink-making is prepared by heating it in an iron pot up to the point where it either takes fire spontaneously or can be ignited with any flaming substance. After the oil has been allowed to burn for some time according to the consistence of the varnish desired, the pot is covered over, and the product when cooled forms a viscid tenacious substance which in its most concentrated form may be drawn into threads. By boiling this varnish with dilute nitric acid vapours of acrolein are given off, and the substance gradually becomes a solid non-adhesive mass the same as the ultimate oxidation product of both raw and boiled oil.

Linseed oil is subject to various falsifications, chiefly through the addition of cotton-seed, niger-seed and hemp-seed oils; and rosin oil and mineral oils also are not infrequently added. Except by smell, by change of specific gravity, and by deterioration of drying properties, these adulterations are difficult to detect.