The Steps To Painting Over Smoke Damage On Your Walls/Ceilings

Jeremy Holderness

One of the toughest challenges to overcome when painting the interior of your home is covering stains on your walls and ceilings caused by smoke, soot, or nicotine.  

Soot and smoke damage can come from wood-burning fireplaces, candles, or a small kitchen fire. Obviously, nicotine staining is the result of people smoking cigarettes indoors.  

But regardless of the nature of their origin, they all present the same problem, which is that they are extremely difficult to paint over without the stains and/or odor bleeding through the paint.

Unfortunately there's no miracle paint on the market that will successfully cover most of these stains, so the best solution will always be to remove and block the stains and odor before you paint.

This article is intended to address nicotine staining and small smoke-stained areas only.  If you and your family are attempting to clean-up in the aftermath of a more widespread house fire, it is best to leave this job to a professional smoke, fire, and water remediation company to handle the repairs to ensure they're done right.

Step 1:  Dry Cleaning

Yes that's right, dry cleaning.  Dry cleaning sponges, also known as "chemical sponges", are the best initial tool for this job since they do a wonderful job at removing the bulk of the soot or staining without smearing it and making the situation worse.  

Dry cleaning sponges do not actually contain any chemicals at all.  In fact they are made of a natural vulcanized rubber that scoops up and absorbs the residue into their pores.  

Once you're ready to get started just follow these steps:

  • Protect all floors and furnishing in the room where you'll be working with plastic sheeting, as excess soot can fall onto and ruin them.
  • This can become a messy job so be sure to wear old clothing, gloves, and eye protection.
  • Start at the top and work your way down.  Begin with the ceilings, then move to the walls, working from the top to the bottom.
  • When wiping with the dry sponges, use straight, parallel strokes that overlap slightly.  Do not use the sponges to scrub the surface.
  • Check the sponge after each pass.  Once it's become clogged with debris, remove the surface layer with a razor blade or break-away razor knife to reveal a clean layer.  Do not attempt to rinse the sponge out or clean it with water as it will no longer work properly if you do.
  • If you're dealing with a larger area, keep several sponges on hand so you can finish your cleaning project.

Step 2:  Wet Cleaning

If you can still see the staining or soot on the surface after using the dry cleaning sponges, you'll need to move to a 2nd wet-cleaning step.  For wet cleaning, you don't want to use just any kind of household cleaner.  

The absolute best cleaning product for this use is Trisodium Phosphate or TSP.  TSP has long been used as an effective heavy-duty cleaner, but is no longer readily available in some areas.  In this case you can substitute TSP-PF -- which is just the phosphate-free version of TSP -- in its place.

TSP typically comes in powder form and should be mixed with warm water per the instructions on the box.  Be sure to continue wearing your old clothing and protective gear.  

Using a regular cleaning sponge, wring out the excess liquid and wipe the surface from top to bottom with the same overlapping, parallel strokes as you did with the dry sponge, without scrubbing.  

Once you've cleaned the area with your TSP solution wipe down the surface with clean, warm water to remove any cleaner residue before proceeding.  Allow the surface to dry completely.

Step 3:  Priming

Although steps 1 & 2 may remove the bulk of the surface debris, there will likely be some staining that remains, and in the case of nicotine or heavy smoke staining -- there is also likely to be a lingering odor.

Applying paint directly over top of the remaining stains or odor will not cover them up.  You'll need to apply a good, solvent-based stain-blocking primer to prevent them from bleeding through the paint.

You may be able to get by with a product such as Zinsser's Cover Stain, which is an oil-based stain-blocking primer.  But many times it will require the use of a pigmented shellac primer to completely block stubborn stains and odors.  Zinsser also makes the best product in this category, B-I-N Primer.

The drawbacks to BIN are that it is very thin, so it can be messy to work with, but most importantly -- with it being a shellac base product -- it has an extremely pungent odor, so you'll definitely want to have good ventilation and a high quality respirator.  Despite the downsides of using the BIN Primer, it will do the job for you every time, so you won't have to worry about having to prime it again.

FYI, BIN Primer is also very effective at blocking water-stains from bleeding through your finish.

Step 4:  Painting

Now that you've properly cleaned and blocked the stain you can go ahead and apply two coats of your favorite interior latex paint.  Of course, you'll need to follow normal interior house painting steps, as well as steps for any caulking, patching, or other prep work that needs to be done.

If you're located in the Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania area and would like some assistance with painting over smoke, soot, or nicotine stains on your walls/ceilings please give us a call at 813-570-8800, visit our 'Contact Us' page, or click on the button below to have us contact you.

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