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Nicotine on Walls

I am selling my grandmother's house. The kitchen walls and ceiling are glossy; the rest of the house looks like an eggshell finish. She was a heavy smoker for 50+ years. The walls and ceilings are yellow and brown and sticky from nicotine. I think they used to be white. Do the walls and ceiling need to be washed before I use a primer sealer stain blocker or can I just start painting? The final topcoats will be off white and a light mint green.  I have dusted all the surfaces. Please advise me which products to use to get the best results. I've read about TSP and am afraid to use it.

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Posted 2012-02-24T01:30:19+0000  by april480 april480




TSP is actually very versatile. A small handful in cool water is farely gentle, larger amounts in hot water is quite strong. You will want to wear kitchen gloves while using a farely strong solution. The easiest way to apply it is to load it in a garden sprayer. Spray an area starting from thebottom of the wall. Have a sponge and bucket of clean water handy to rinse the surface. Do protect the floor to prevent the TSP solution from pooling on the floor.


It is highly advisable to remove heavy accumulations of nicotine before painting over it. If you can see the yellow on the wall, you should wash it. Nicotine is water soluble. If you paint over it with a water soluble primer or paint, it will immediately bleed through as a yellow stain! The Original Kilz or Cover Stain, or BIN by Zinsser are excellent.  Kilz and Cover Stain are oil based, BIN is shellac based (alcohol).  In my opinion, BIN is by far the best at stopping both the nicotine bleed through and the odor. BIN is used by painters who do fire restoration work to stop the soot  AND the acrid fire odor.  All three of the products mentioned have strong odors and are quick drying. they can be re-coated in about an hour. You will want the room well ventilated.


TSP will help break down the glossy surface of the paint. Here again BIN excells. BIN will stick to almost anything and almost anything will stick to it.


As to the finish coat: Where you have primered, the regular Behr Premium Plus or Glidden paints will be fine. They will also give you the most "bang for your buck". I would probably generally  stay with the eggshell finish. Going over a well sealed wall, the eggshell will hold its maximum sheen, being almost like a satin finish.


Realtors will normally advise that you stay with light, neutral colors. Prospective customers will not be turned off by distinct colors chosen and can live with the neutrals until they impart their own tastes to their new home. One advantage to a light neutral is that you can also run it up onto the ceiling. This saves you a LOT of time painting and the nuisance of working with multiple paints.


The biggest offender in lingering nicotine odor is the carpet. Have it professionally cleaned, or if the budget allows, have it replaced. Nothing sells a home like that new house smell which eminates from new paint and new carpet!

Posted 2012-02-24T02:52:29+0000  by ordjen

Hello Aril480, and welcome to the community!!


Ordjen has some excellent suggestions, I would also add this, considering that the walls are covered with the nicotine tar, also look at the the window treatments, woodwork and the glass.


My early years at Home Depot I assisted a group of fellow employee, we were working on a woman's apartment that had not been painted for more than 20 years and she was a heavy smoker, we did exactly as Ordjen describes. Once the tar was removed from the walls, ceiling, and windows, the difference was literally day and night different. I Also agree with Ordjen color suggestions, try to keep it neutral. 


Posted 2012-03-02T15:04:31+0000  by Angelo_HD_CHI

I would also be careful about getting any of the nicotine on your skin or breathing in any residue.  It is a poison and can be absorbed through the skin.  Wear gloves, safety glasses and a respiratory mask with good ventilation if you are washing any of it from the surfaces.   I would try to eliminate it if only to prevent any future harm to buyers - you don't want to think of a toddler peeling off some of the paint and ingesting it.  It wasn't hard to wash off - just disgusting.


I once rehabbed a place where a lifelong smoker had lived - it took an entire roll of paper towels to clean one window.   (I am a registered nurse.)

Posted 2012-04-14T03:56:18+0000  by Seasider

Hello seasider, thank you for suggesting the safety precautions, it's great to have a nurse's feedback. It's amazing the coverage cigarette smoke has, I can't envision what the person's lungs look like after all of those years smoking, pretty disgusting.



Posted 2012-04-19T13:16:38+0000  by Angelo_HD_CHI



I remember my doctor brother commenting on how when he went through med school years ago, they did disections of both smoker's lungs and non-smoker's lungs. The non-smoking lungs were nice and pink. The smoking lungs were black. He commented on how he thought every smoker should see such a visual example of why you should

not smoke!


Just looking at the wash water after washing down a smoker's house has always been enough for me! 


There is nothing wrong with smoking other than it is expensive, unhealthy, dirty and smelly!

Posted 2012-04-19T20:08:04+0000  by ordjen
WOW april480!

I have requests for help covering nicotine so often, I can't keep count.

Nicotine on walls, after years of indoor smoking, is not an easy material to paint over.

However, these two simple steps will help care for this problem just as Ordjen recommends:

1) Warm water and TSP ... as well as numerous cleaning rags and a considerable dose of elbow grease; and

2) One of the oil-based or shellac-based primers ... Zinsser Cover Stain, Kilz Original, or Zinsser BIN.

Cleaning nicotine residue off of walls is no easy task, so start with a strong commitment to complete the project or consider a contractor for this project.

Posted 2014-07-10T23:37:01+0000  by Pat_HD_ATL
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