Tips to remove soot from any surface

The oily black film known as soot is nasty to clean. A by-product of smoke, this combination of oil, carbon and tar can settle into microscopic cracks in many areas of your home. Run your finger across a wall with soot on it, and the oils in your finger, combined with the soot, will permanently mark the surface. Even after you clean the wall, that soot mark will remain. So what should you do?

Tips to remove soot from any surface

1. Before you start

  • Assess how widespread the soot contamination is to see whether you need to call a professional.
  • Test in two or three rooms in an inconspicuous, high area.
  • Take a paper towel folded into a pad, dampen it with water and wipe across the surface. If the paper towel turns grey, you've got dust. If it turns black, you've got soot.
  • If there's a lot of black on wiping and in several areas, call a pro.

2. To eradicate soot

  • Systematically plan your cleaning.
  • The general rule is to work from the top to the bottom of an area — except when using the wet method. Then you'll need to work from the bottom up.
  • First remove as much soot as you can through a dry method.
  • Wear old clothes, rubber gloves, a baseball cap, a disposable paper dust mask and safety goggles, especially when you are removing loose particles.

3. To start: the dry method

  • Vacuum, sweep or feather dust the surfaces involved.
  • Use a quick, flicking motion with a broom or duster or keep the vacuum head about six ml (1/4 in) from the surface to avoid scratching it.
  • Don't rub — unless you want a huge smear to clean!
  • Place newspapers under affected surfaces to catch soot for easy removal.
  • Vacuum upholstery, using the attachments suited to cleaning furniture. If this doesn't work, call a professional fire and smoke restorer or even a drycleaner specializing in soot removal (ask at your local fire station if there is anyone they would recommend).
  • Use a heavy-duty cleaner and degreaser specifically recommended for smoke removal on walls and ceilings or on unfinished wood.
  • Saturate a sponge with the cleaner, wring it out thoroughly and apply the sponge to the surface in methodical lines so you can keep track of where you have cleaned.
  • To apply to ceilings or walls, attach the soot sponge to a pole.
  • When the sponge is filthy on all sides, wash it out and begin the process again.

4. Next: the wet method

  • The wet method is the last resort after you've removed as much of the soot as possible by vacuuming (or dusting or brushing) and using the soot sponge (the dry method).
  • Put down a plastic drop cloth and wash the surfaces with a solution of warm water and a couple of drops of degreaser.
  • Apply liberally to the surface with a sponge, rag or hard-bristled scrubbing brush.
  • Rinse with water and wipe dry.
  • If necessary, repeat this procedure.
  • If a small stain remains after repeated washing, apply mineral turpentine carefully with cotton buds made by tightly rolling cotton balls around the end of a wooden skewer. These are preferable to commercially available cotton buds, because solvents can dissolve the plastic stalks.
  • Lightly moisten the bud with the turpentine and gently roll it across the object.
  • Don't rub or wipe, since this might ingrain the soot and carbon in the surface of the object.
  • Never fully immerse an object in solvent.
  • Work slowly and methodically.
  • Test this method on an inconspicuous part of the object first.
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