Ask Woodiwiss: How do we repair burnt walls or smoke-damaged paint?

Let’s be clear: there are two kinds of problems we’re talking about here:

  1. Fire-damaged walls and ceilings caused by small grease fires, a candle, or some other small bit of damage extinguished almost by hand or with a fire extinguisher. If you had to call the fire department to bring out a hose and axe, that’s a much larger house fire with damage that requires a general contractor to look for structural problems.
  2. Smoke-damaged walls and ceilings, also from small kitchen fires or, more commonly, years of smoking cigarettes or cigars, is the other kind of repair work we’re talking about in this post.

Let’s also be clear that commercial and industrial buildings with smoke-damaged walls or burns caused by industrial chemicals, solvents, or manufacturing likely also require different considerations for everyone’s health and safety. 

What we’re talking about here is for homeowners or small businesses and offices where minor damage or smoke stains can be repaired as part of a modest paint job.

There are 5 steps to repairing burnt walls and ceilings

Repairing walls damaged by fire or smoke is challenging because the smoke causes odors that are among the most pervasive and hard to remove. When our crews assess a home, we’re looking for obvious signs of damage, like stains, but also looking at the surface textures, location where the damage came from, ventilation options, and the smell. 

We also want to know what we’re dealing with so our crews can use protective clothing and PPE if necessary. 

There are five steps you can take to restore walls to their original condition:

  1. Assess the damage by looking for visible signs of cracks, holes, and other damage. If water was used to extinguish a fire, make sure it’s dried to prevent mold and mildew. If the drywall has been burned or charred, it will need patched or replaced. If you’ve never done drywall repair before, know that it’s a skill developed with experience and practice—if you try to do it yourself, you risk having a lumpy spot or visible “patch” line, even after painting the surface. 
  2. Clean the walls, first by using a dry cleaning sponge. Wipe down the walls with the dry cleaning sponge to remove dust and loose soot. A dry sponge works better to remove dust than a wet one, and it’ll let you see how much comes off. Then use a vacuum cleaner with a HEPA filter to remove any loose soot or debris that falls on the ground in powder form. It’ll remove the airborne hazards before walking around stirs it up onto the walls again.

    After that, use a sponge or rag with a mild detergent solution to clean the walls with warm water until there are no more stains or the smoke damage is removed. Rinse with clean water and let dry. Dish soap or vinegar is an excellent first step before resorting to heavy-duty commercial cleaning products.
  3. Repair any holes or cracks once the walls are clean and dry. Scrape off any loose paint or debris, then use a spackle or joint compound to fill in the damaged areas. Sand the area lightly to smooth it out. Let it dry completely before painting.
  4. Prime the walls, preferably using primer designed for smoke or fire-damaged paint to help re-seal the walls and prevent any residual odors or stains from bleeding through the paint.
  5. Paint the walls after the primer has dried. Use high-quality paint and apply two coats, allowing the paint to dry between each coat.

If the smoke or fire damage is confined to a small area, you’ll probably need to paint the entire wall to avoid obvious “patches”.

Cleaning smoke-damaged walls starts with wet cleaning

Smoke damage lingers. Smoking rates have dropped for years, but the most common situation we run into is a home owned for decades by an elderly couple that has passed on, leaving the house to their kids or for resale. Non-smokers will immediately notice the strong odor of nicotine and tobacco.

Sometimes you can paint over smoke damage, but only for the lightest of damage or a small section like where someone chose to burn candles too close to a wall. Cigarettes cause the most pernicious smoke damage.

Cigarette smoke can leave behind a visible “third-hand smoke” residue that can stick to surfaces and be difficult to remove. This residue builds up over time and cause a lingering smell and discoloration on walls and ceilings.

Any room where Grandpa smoked without the windows open is going to be tough. Third-hand smoke can remain on surfaces for weeks or months and often years. 

The longer the smoking has occurred, the more difficult it can be to remove the smoke damage from walls and ceilings. That’s why you can’t just “paint over smoke”; you’re sealing in cancer-causing chemicals into the walls.

Wet cleaning is the best way to remove smoke damage from walls and ceilings. A mixture of vinegar and water works well for minor damage or as a start. You can even use baking soda (not with the vinegar mixture at the same time, unless you want to conduct a volcanic 7th-grade science experiment in your kitchen) to absorb the odor.

For big jobs, we’ll use commercial cleaners like trisodium phosphate. Trisodium phosphate (TSP) is a commonly used cleaning agent that can effectively remove smoke damage from walls and ceilings. It’s a strong alkaline cleaner that cuts through greasy residues and other dirt and grime.

However, TSP can be caustic and can cause skin and eye irritation, so it’s essential to use protective gloves and eyewear when working with it. It can also be harmful to the environment if not disposed of properly. There are other all-natural cleaning product options at hardware stores if you don’t want to try TSP.

Then, after all the cleaning is done — which can take a while if we have to scrub the walls and ceilings with a sponge, we’ll re-prime and re-paint the damaged surfaces.

Woodiwiss Painting can handle your project’s walls, whether it’s from smoke damage or nearly anything else

Clean smoke damage or repair burnt walls easily by letting professionals do it. 

We’ll cover every inch of your home or building to remove soot, wipe down surfaces, and use all the most appropriate cleaning techniques and supplies to restore everything.

Call or email us to get started in the East Bay area today for a no-risk on-location consult.