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Tips for Painting Over Smoke-Stained Walls and Nicotine

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Can You Paint Over Smoke-Stained Walls?

Smoke stains on walls, whether from cigarettes, or soot from a fireplace, are impossible to cover with paint alone. Nicotine is by far the worst. The tar and chemicals from cigarette smoke penetrate drywall and bleed through paint no matter how many coats are applied. I encountered this problem in my own house that was previously occupied by a heavy smoker. Practically every room had to be cleaned and primed before moving in.

Painting over smoke-stained walls should only be done after the surface is carefully cleaned and primed correctly. With the right prep work, the smoke stains and the odor will be covered completely by your paint. If the walls are severely damaged from smoke, replacing the drywall might be the better solution.

Restoring smoke-damaged walls is messy work that involves a lot of cleaning, but in this article, I show you exactly how to do it the right way so the stains don't bleed through the fresh paint.

My favorite pre-paint cleaner for nicotine stains.

My favorite pre-paint cleaner for nicotine stains.

1. Clean the Smoke Stains and Nicotine

Although you could prime right over the stains without removing them first, I don't recommend doing that. Smoke stains, especially from cigarettes, leave tar and carbon residue on the drywall. These contaminants can reduce primer and paint adhesion. Thoroughly cleaning the walls also helps eradicate the bad odor.

A common pre-paint cleaner is TSP (tri-sodium phosphate), and while TSP does remove smoke and nicotine stains from drywall, Krud Kutter de-greaser is more effective. I use the Original version for cleaning wall stains and grease from cabinets too. For smoke and nicotine stains, Krud Kutter works best at full strength.

Apply De-Greaser and Scrub

Cover the floors with a leak-proof floor protector before scrubbing the walls with de-greaser. Pour the cleaner into a plastic pump sprayer and mist the cleaner onto the smoke stains. Allow the cleaner to penetrate the surface for a few minutes before scrubbing. The easiest way to scrub the walls without destroying your wrist is to use a drill equipped with a brush attachment.

Cleaning smoke-stained walls usually requires repeated applications of de-greaser followed by clean water rinsing until the water no longer turns brown. I highly recommend wearing a dependable painting respirator throughout the entire cleaning and priming process to avoid exposure to VOCs.

The best primer for smoke stains.

The best primer for smoke stains.

2. Prime the Smoke Stains With the Correct Primer

The cleaning process removes chemicals and contaminants from the surface, but faint traces of the stains often remain. These stains are easy to cover up with the correct primer. My best piece of advice is to avoid water-based primer. Latex primer is great for paint color coverage and drywall repair patches, but it won't seal over smoke damage at all.

Applying a solvent-based primer sealer is the only way to cover smoke and nicotine stains and prevent bleed-through when you paint. The best primer hands down for this is Zinsser BIN. This is my personal number one choice for smoke damage. I've used BIN to seal smoke stains on many interior painting projects, including my own house.

BIN is a shellac-based primer sealer suspended in alcohol. The alcohol quickly evaporates as you apply it. The fast dry time allows you to paint over it in under one hour. The best way to prime smoke damage with BIN is with an airless sprayer, not a roller. While you can certainly roll this primer, and you might need to if the walls are porous, it's very messy because this stuff is thin and milky. It's also labor intensive to roll multiple walls and ceilings when you could simply spray it on in half the time.

Spraying Smoke Stains With BIN Primer

Wearing a proper respirator is an absolute must because you do not want to be breathing in primer fumes. Open the windows and use a box fan to filter out as many of the VOC's as possible. This product does smell bad, but it's worth it because you won't have any problems at all with stain bleed-through when you paint over it. Your paint finish will also turn out super smooth and uniform.

If you don't want to buy one, rent an airless paint sprayer instead. Rentals are cheap and practical if you only need to spray for a day or two. BIN sprays really nice with an airless sprayer without any thinning needed. I prefer it over oil primer because it dries faster and the smell doesn't linger after drying.

Use a 510 spray tip to spray the primer. I'm a big fan of the green FFLP spray tips from Graco. I use them a lot. The 510 tip produces a 10-inch spray fan, which is perfect for walls and ceilings. You can use a spray wand extension to make the spraying easier. Spray one coat over the stains. A second coat might be needed for heavy stains. Make sure everything in the path of over-spray is covered with tape and plastic.


3. Paint Over the Primed Stains

Cleaning and priming are the two most important steps. If you follow my steps and product recommendations, you won't have any issues with stains bleeding through your paint. The primer I recommended is an awesome sealer and will enhance the color and gloss of your paint too.

You can use any latex paint over solvent-based primer, whether it's BIN or something oil-based. Make sure you allow the primer to completely dry before painting over it. Sand the surface of the primed drywall with 120-grit sandpaper before painting. The easiest way to sand is with a pole sander.

Use premium latex paint to paint over the primed walls. Premium paints from Benjamin Moore and Sherwin Williams are good options. I really like Regal Select and Duration Home from both paint brands. In the event of lingering odor from the smoke damage, you might consider using an odor-eating paint to help eradicate the smell. In most cases, the cleaning and priming alone will remove most of the odor.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Matt G.