Cleaning up after smokers - nicotine & tar removal

5 years ago
last modified: 5 years ago

I started this last week and I have to say, it is a bear of a job. However I have gradually discovered a few things about this process that I've not seen mentioned elsewhere that I'd like to share.

We started out with those sponges they carry at Home Despot and Lows. Looking at them I surmised they would be of little practical value, but they were the only sponges either store carried - other than some natural real sponges that were stupid expensive. Tried using them for awhile until I stumbled across my first improvement in this process - just use plain white terrycloth work rags. They work tons better than those cheap sponges. There may be other types of sponges that work better, but plain white work rags are easily found all over the place. Use cheap white wash clothes or something similar.

I use TSP to prep for paint partly because it cleans well but mainly because it ALSO deglosses. That pretty much eliminates sanding except for spots that need the extra attention, such as massive drips and runs (I have some pretty awful drips and runs thanks to the shoddy work of the last person who tried to paint in here).

However I have really struggled trying to get the nicotine and tar off the flat paint on the ceilings. Doing that cleaning overhead would be hard enough without the smoking residue. I found a solution for that problem, which has some potential risks but in my case those risks are small and the reward is great.

Spray down a section of the surface you are working to clean with PLAIN water only - any kind of cleaner is superfluous and the way spray bottles and garden sprayers work they put too much stuff in the air to be breathed in, or that can settle on your exposed skin.

Work in small sections. This will work with any level of sheen, but the effects are most dramatic when working with ceilings painted in flat white, then any flattish paint on a wall, and lastly a satin or higher gloss paint on any surface.

Spray your work surface and wait a couple of minutes. You will soon see yellow goop (tar and nicotine) and it will look like it is being literally pulled out of the ceiling. Just wipe that away, no scrubbing necessary. Do this 3 or 4 times and move on to the next section. Do not saturate the surface with plain water. With ceilings especially - in the first place you don't want that goop dripping into your face and hair, and in the second, water easily soaks through flat paint and is absorbed into the underlying surface. I live in the High Sierras Desert so this isn't an issue for me as long as I give it time to dry - it dries quickly even if it absorbs some water during this process. Saturating your ceiling with water could damage it, and failing to allow it to completely dry before you prime and paint will cause the paint to fail.

However, that said, misting the ceiling like this works like magic. It looks like the tar and nicotine are being pulled out of the ceiling, but I imagine what is really happening is that the oily smoking residue is floating to the "surface" of the water. Regardless, this cuts WAY down on physical effort - no scrubbing necessary, just wipe the now-yellowish water off the surface. It also reduces the amount of time I spend trying to clean that gunk off. Too bad I only figured this out halfway through the cleaning process.

You still need TSP to degloss but its effect on nicotine and tar removal from flat-painted surfaces is probably pretty minimal with this cleaning method. Surfaces with some gloss still need a light scrubbing with TSP both to clean and to degloss.

The walls in this place are almost entirely painted in a semi-gloss. The effect of misting the surface seems less dramatic with the higher gloss paints, but it still helps cut down on the amount of effort and time you have to put into cleaning even those surfaces. Part of the issue is that you will get runs sooner on the vertical surface of a wall than on the horizontal surface like a ceiling, so you simply can't spray as much water at once (and then wait for it to work) before it starts running down the wall.

Its like magic. Areas of the ceiling I would have sworn were clean are much MUCH cleaner, much quicker, after I went over them again with the spray bottle in one hand and a rag in the other.

If you have damaged plaster or wallboard, misting with water may be a terrible idea.

If you have high humidity where you live, even turning the AC up and putting fans to work to help dry it out may still result in long dry times before you can actually paint.

If you oversaturate the surface with water you could damage your plaster or wallboard or even end up with big wet chunks falling off the ceiling.

If your walls and ceilings are smooth, effects may be less dramatic. My walls are "lightly" textured and misting really helps to get the tar/nicotine out of all those little nooks and crannies in the texturing.

You will never get ALL the tar and nicotine off a wall surface, especially if its a flat paint. I don't care what they say, even modern flat paints wash like crap. I'd rather not use it even on ceilings myself. At any rate, at some point you must declare yourself satisfied and move on.

And buy scaffolding, it makes cleaning and painting much easier. At my age, tottering about on a ladder is a terrible idea. Tottering about on a ladder with a paint brush or roller in one hand and a bucket of paint in the other would be totally ludicrous.

However I can still totter about on scaffolding without much danger of falling off. At least a lot less danger than if I were trying it on a ladder, LOL! I bought an indoor scaffold that folds up pretty small from Home Despot for about $150, only a little more than the cost of a good ladder.

I feel the money was well-spent because its a lot safer to use the
scaffold not only for this cleaning and painting job, but also for everyday tasks like changing light bulbs in ceiling
fixtures. My dad fell off a ladder trying to change a light bulb and
that was the beginning of the end for him. He cracked a vertebra and
lost a lot of strength and condition while it oh-so-slowly healed.

This scaffold is smaller than typical construction scaffold - narrower, and you can't go up as high and it doesn't stack at all. If you're used to scaffolding, keep in mind that you don't have as much space on this or you might find yourself stepping off it by accident. Scaffold neophytes need to be careful as well but at least they don't have ingrained "scaffold habits" in place to resist, LOL!

So use undyed plain rags and skip the crap sponges from the Big Box stores

Use scaffolding instead of trying to do this on a ladder

And mist your surface to bring as much of the nicotine/tar off the wall surface as possible. Be careful not to saturate the surface with water - mist lightly, wipe, do that 3 or 4 times, and move on.

I wish I had known all these things before I started. Hope it may be useful to others in similar situations. Well, except the scaffold, I have had that from day 1, and glad to have it, too, LOL!

Comments (15)

  • jn3344
    5 years ago

    That's a lot of work. So people still smoke in their houses?

    Is your finish nice and even? Or can you see blotches?

  • PRO
    Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting
    5 years ago

    I hope you still prime with either Zinsser BIn or Coverstain, or you just wasted a whole lot of time.

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    Unfortunately, tobacco smoke can leave a horrible build up on walls and ceilings, and depending on how much and for how long a smoker lived in the place, it can be just as horrible to clean. If the ceilings are actually yellowed, TSP and elbow grease are really what's called for. Don't try to paint over it if it's really bad, it'll just bleed through. I don't know that I've ever found anything better for odor removal from carpets and drapes than white vinegar. A solution of half vinegar and half water with just a bit of carpet soap, really soaked in, vacuumed out, soaked in, vacuumed out.
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    Obviously, using the TSP is going to be useless now because you would just be washing their layer of freshly applied paint. I wouldn't really think that TSP is necessary to use at all anywhere. There are other cleaners you can buy that will be just as effective. TSP is mainly used as a prep for paint and it has to be rinsed really well. There are other products that do not need to be rinsed as well which means less work for you. And, if the TSP is not rinsed well enough, then you run the risk of having a paint adhesion issue, which you really want to avoid. I guess you could try other cleaners and then step it up to the TSP if those don't work, but if I remember right, the nicotine/tar material isn't that hard to get off....most anything should work, even hot water. You could now just use the oil based Kilz on the walls that they have painted to take care of any odors or staining that is leeching through. Don't buy the latex version (Kilz2). It doesn't kill stains or stop odors or really do anything that it claims to do. You need the smelly stuff. I would also use Kilz on the floors that are being carpeted.
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    Painting will not work. Over time, the smell will come back. I used this cleaning solution and it was horrific/awesome seeing the nicotine come off of the walls. This was after a former landlord painted and the smell was still around. You will need gloves, sponges, rags, and lots of ventilation. Mix: 1 gallon warm water 1/2 cup plain ammonia 1/4 cup white vinegar 1/4 cup WASHING soda (not baking soda- this is usually in a box found in laundry additives area of market near the Borax or on the internet if your store doesn't have it) If you want, you can put it in a spray bottle for ease of application. Apply it and let it sit for a few minutes, and then begin wiping it off with a clean wet rag or sponge. Depending on the amount embedded in the walls, you may need to repeat it several times before it stops oozing brown. After your walls are clean and dry, you can paint them. They will look worse before it gets better, but trust me, this works and once you get a nice coat of paint and no smell it is totally worth the hassle. The pic below was taken after completing a section of a window well.
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  • Michael
    5 years ago

    I hope you flood rinsed away the TSP, or you just wasted a whole lot of time.

  • Pyewacket
    Original Author
    5 years ago

    Brushworks, I don't know what your problem with TSP is, but it does NOT need to be "flood rinsed". It washes off easily with bleach water. The only reason you need to do that is because TSP saponifies grease and it can leave a soapy residue. I've been using it for 50 years. My dad used it before me. We have never had a paint failure after using TSP. We have seen paint failures from FAILURE to use TSP. A further rinse with plain water removes any bleach residue. The rinse steps are quick and easy and the time and effort involved are WELL WELL worth the cleaning and deglossing action of the TSP.

    No, I'm not using Zinsser or "CoverStain". I've never heard of the latter, but in any case, there are no stains to cover. Only residual particles of tar and nicotine (remember the part that said "you will never get it all off"?) that need to be encapsulated and sealed to eliminate any lingering odor they are causing. A double coat of Killz Original (oil based) takes care of that issue.

    I am getting kind of tired of snotty remarks on these forums from so-called "professionals". Ever since houzz gobbled up GardenWeb, there have been a lot of unwarranted intrusions by people claiming to be pros trying to tell homeowners we're too stupid to do our own work. Some are helpful, but a lot more are just snide and dismissive.

    I was clearly describing ONLY the cleaning process here. Most so-called "professional" painters won't do any cleaning at all. I wouldn't trust this work to "professionals" - the chances of a slipshod job are pretty high, and if they do a good job, its going to cost between $7,000 to $10,000. Could be more, depending on the size of your house. Some of us are not made of money. If we were, we wouldn't be moving into a house that smells of decades of cigarette smoke.

    jn3344, I'm not sure what you're asking. I don't have a "finish" yet. We start painting - priming, actually, 2 coats of Killz original then paint - about Tuesday or Wed. We have an accent wall to do yet, then rinse the great room. Everything else has been cleaned and thoroughly rinsed. We're skipping the bathroom and kitchen because both are slated for major work - a cast iron tub removal and base cabinet replacement in the kitchen. We will start in the first room we cleaned and move forward in order from there. Everything will have had at least a week to dry by the time we make the first round of primer.

    What do you mean by a "blotchy finish"?

    And yeah, people still smoke in their houses. Pretty much everybody who smokes, as a matter of fact. We lived in a no-smoking apartment for awhile where folks would stand in the stairwells to smoke and the smoke would just roll in under the door, even if I tried to stuff a towel under there. When it got cold, they just smoked inside anyway. I imagine most of them did that most of the time. Why should a renter care? Most of these folks probably don't expect to get their deposit back anyway.

    And in the interests of full disclosure - this method did not work on the great room ceiling. I don't know what they used to paint that, but it appears to be the original almost 60 year old paint. It has black grit in it and it washes right off wholesale with just a rag and plain water. What's under it is a weird yellow-ish substance. I don't think that is paint either. It may be whatever they used to tape gypsum board 60 years ago. The paint comes off in other areas in smaller patches, but over this yellow stuff it comes off altogether with no particular effort. We're not done cleaning that ceiling, much to our disappointment, as it is a 15x30 room and we had high hopes for the misting to make our work easier, LOL!

    Gritty paint was a thing decades ago apparently. The walls in my bedroom as a child had been painted with this stuff and it was just like sandpaper. We finally ended up peeling 150 years of paint and wallpaper off, right down to the bare plaster, to get rid of it. There is considerably less grit in this stuff on the ceiling, but it comes right off with just water and a rag, so I wonder what it actually is. It sure doesn't act like paint.

    I experimented a little with the spray bottle and TSP on an uncleaned area of ceiling in the kitchen (that's painted with normal ceiling paint as far as I can tell) and it seems to work better to wipe it down with a TSP soaked rag first, then spray. The TSP must "loosen" the hold of the nicotine and tar on the surface.

  • dchall_san_antonio
    5 years ago

    ummmm, at the risk of incurring the wrath, I'm going to say something anyway...

    We bought a 20 year old house a couple summers ago. Two of the rooms were pretty bad with smoke, so I just closed them off until we could get to them. We took out the carpet, that did nothing. One of the rooms had a popcorn ceiling, so we scraped that off (not that hard at all). The room still smelled bad, so we tried washing with vinegar and later with 409. That didn't help so we primed with the shellac type of BIN. At first it was hard to tell what we were left with because of the smell of the BIN, but after two coats of wall paint the smoke smell is gone.

    Had I known about spraying the walls or ceiling with water to draw out the tar and smoke, I still would not have trusted it not to return and would have painted with the BIN anyway.

  • paintguy22
    5 years ago

    The problem with using TSP is that it can cause paint failure. Just because you haven't had problems with it doesn't mean that nobody has. I find that Dirtex does the job just as well without the need for hardcore rinsing, so I skip the TSP. The issue is though, that many people think they need TSP for pre-paint prep. They don't know there are alternatives, so we try to educate them. Zinnser BIN and CoverStain will accomplish the same task as Kilz (original) which is why they were mentioned.

  • PRO
    Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting
    5 years ago

    Also coat of Bin and your done

  • jn3344
    5 years ago

    I thought you were done with your project. Also, you hadn't mentioned priming. So that's why I asked you about the quality of the finish.

    Since you are priming 2 coats in addition to all the other stuff...I guess you got it covered...

  • Pyewacket
    Original Author
    5 years ago
    last modified: 5 years ago

    Zinsser is neither more nor less effective than the Killz. One coat MAY do it, but two DEFINITELY will. Even if I were using the Zinnser (whichever way that goes, two n's or two s's, LOL!) I would still use 2 coats. It's better to just bear down and do what you KNOW will work than to take a chance thinking one coat MIGHT do it. I have no brand loyalty. Either will work. I chose the Killz because it is easier to find and costs less in my area.

    Coming along and claiming that "TSP will cause paint failure" and providing absolutely no evidence to back that claim up isn't going to fly. For every "pro" who claims TSP is awful there are others (professionals) who have used it properly and successfully for literally decades. Dirtex, btw, provides absolutely no deglossing whatsoever. I don't think it provides much in the way of degreasing to speak of either. TSP does both. However TSP can damage tile and grout so we'll be using something else in the bathroom once the tub has been hauled out of there.

    If TSP has caused paint failure for you, it wasn't the TSP that caused it. It was your incorrect application and use of it. Proper use can be finicky and time-consuming from the point of view of a professional who just wants to get in there, slap the paint up, and get out. However it is very effective and well worth the effort when you are the one living with the paint job and you don't want it to peel, blister, or otherwise fail to adhere in a few years.

    When we get around to doing the exterior, I WILL be washing the entire house down with TSP. It is the best thing I've ever found for getting rid of that chalky residue. I can't use a power washer or any sort of wire brush, nor sanding, because the exterior is clad in 60 year old asbestos shingle. So me, a bucket of rags soaking in TSP, and a regular garden hose will be doing it all.

    I've seen other houses in the neighborhood that are peeling, blistering, and have the new paint flaking off because the professionals they hired to paint didn't bother to prep, or didn't prep properly. MY house won't look like that when I'm done.

    I have had well over 50 years of success with TSP when prepping old walls for paint, between me and my father. I'd say 100 years, but I don't actually know how long its been on the market, LOL!

    @dchall_san_antonio - you did your paint prep with stuff I wouldn't have used nor would I recommend using it, especially for mitigation of cigarette smoke residue, but if it worked for you, great. And OF COURSE you had to prime - even using the correct cleaning methods and substances, you will never get all that stuff off. Any encapsulating primer will do. The 2 with which I am familiar are the Killz ORIGINAL (not the other primers they make) or the Zinsser BIN. You used the latter. I'm not surprised it helped.

    And I'm not surprised nothing worked until you primed over it with an encapsulating primer. I am surprised you got away with cleaning just the 2 rooms.

    There is tar and nicotine in every single room in this house, even the one no one ever smoked in because there was a parrot in there. They kept the door to that room closed. There was LESS of it, but it was still there and still not something you want to try to paint over.

    In the room where the chain-smoker lived (all 3 adults in this household smoked but one was a chain-smoker), I thought the walls were yellow. The same shade of yellow. They weren't. 3 walls had been painted a peachy cream, and the 4th wall was (supposed to be) white. That was tar and nicotine coating the walls, floor, ceiling and baseboards, ever surface in the house has this guck on it. Trust me, you are VERY lucky you got away with doing as little as you did, LOL! Good on you for taking the job on and seeing it through.

    @jn3344 - I thought that might have been what you meant. Nope - still working my way through this project. My son was too tired to go out yesterday or the day before so we've had a 2 day break, but we're off to the races today. I get tired too, but he's not used to this type of physical labor and we've both got a thing about heights, which makes doing the 10' ceiling kind of nerve wracking even on the scaffolding, LOL! So I'm careful to be extra meticulous up there.

    The only time I've seen the kind of blotchiness you're talking about was my very first paint job on my own, when I let a sales guy talk me into their one-coat (allegedly) primer/paint combo to go up on brand new unprimed drywall.

    Sure enough, it soaked right into the drywall like it was a sponge and looked awful. It was pretty obvious it was NOT working right away so I didn't waste much time or material on it, just went out and got a good primer, double coated with that (its a habit of mine to double coat with primer on new or very old walls anyway but this REALLY needed the double coating). Years later the new owners contacted me through friends to find out what I had used because they were just now getting around to repainting it and wanted to know what I had used that held up for over a quarter century, LOL!

    Hopefully we will finish the washing and rinsing today or tomorrow. Then I'll go around with the orbital sander to get the worst of the paint runs and any other problem areas while my son comes behind me to clean up the dust.

    Then I'll be stripping trim. Then priming everything. Then we'll be in the homestretch.

    In some ways this is the hardest job I've ever done, between my general debility these days and having to clean tar and nicotine off (that's a first for me, I've never seen this before, lucky me, LOL!)

    In other ways, its the easiest. This is the first time I've ever been able to paint a completely empty house. It makes a lot of things lots easier.

  • jn3344
    5 years ago

    Yes that paint and primer combo product is terrible.

  • PRO
    Christopher Nelson Wallcovering and Painting
    5 years ago

    No matter what you think, there is hardly(if ever) a reason to double coat with a primer. That is all I will say on the subject. Look it up, the information is out there

  • groundbeef1
    5 years ago

    Too much text to read, I'm left there a question in there? BTW, TSP is a pain in the rump. And who in their right mind uses Kilz when BIN would have done it faster, with less residual odor?

    And also, I'd never buy a home occupied by a smoker. It's just not worth the effort.

  • jn3344
    5 years ago

    I took it as a how-to guide. "Here's what I did..." But yeah, lot of work of perhaps marginal value.

    I quit smoking some time ago, but even before then I wouldn't smoke in the house.

    When I worked in a bar ages would gag if you saw what it looked like during the day with all the ceiling lights on.

  • HU-527699950
    2 years ago

    Theorizing ahead of time that nicotine removal in my newly purchased house owned by heavy smokers would be laborious, I bought two sponge mops and a small paint roller frame. I knew that liquid dripping from the ceiling was annoying, so wondered how to thicken the TSP water mix so a thin coat would adhere while it sat. Although I couldn't find supporting information, I bought cornstarch, and boiled a quart or two of water with TSP and 1/4 cup of cornstarch as an experiment. With the roller frame on a handle cannibalized from a broom, I laid on a few passes. PERFECT! After cooling, the solution was between honey and syrup consistency. The thick, thick nicotine deposit settled out within a minute, and I rinsed with a wet sponge. It was so satisfying I took pictures, and should post a video. One sponge mop pass of rinse water on the ceiling make it look so bright white, it looked like I was applying paint. Granted, the rinse water did drip a little, but 90% of the nicotine came off in this first pass. I will do a 2nd pass with more TSP. The semi-rough ceiling texture did not pose a problem.

    Cornstarch is less than $1.50 for an amount that will produce 4 or 5 gallons of thickened TSP water, by my very rough calculation. TSP and cornstarch do not react together, so you're not compromising the TSP effectiveness. Also, the cornstarch made the solution slippery, so it just glided on, and although the paint roller sometimes slid, the application was consistent.

    I'm 61 and did an 18x17 room in about an hour or so. Even though it needs a 2nd light application, this is safe and easy and satisfying to see all the nicotine come off.

  • HU-527699950
    2 years ago

    I forgot to add, I bought a clean, cheap broom for light brushing where the textured ceiling was especially rough. 100% saturation and cleaning. I'm back to work right now, having a blast. No need for a ladder for this stage of cleaning. Also, I have to confess, the consistency is more like light syrup. I think my last mix was 1/2 c cornstarch for 2 quarts water. So you might spend more than a couple bucks on cornstarch if you buy in small quantities. Other than salt, it's the cheapest commodity in the store. Yes, it will drip, but not copiously. I doubt that any harmful gasses are emitted from boiling the TSP mix on the stove. The cornstarch mix must be brought to around boiling to achieve thickening.