Painted Surfaces

Tar and nicotine build up on painted walls and ceilings can be a real problem. It can be extremely difficult to clean cigarette smoke odor from walls, and to remove it from paint. Covering it might be a better option, but requires a careful selection of materials to keep the tar from escaping.

I once lived in a house which had been owned by a long term smoker.  On really hot and humid days, the tar in the paint would work it’s way to the surface and run down the walls.  The process of the tar working its way to the surface is often referred to as bubbling. The tar will work not only through paint, but most primers as well.  Have I mentioned that tar is a very difficult problem to solve? Don’t worry though, locking it in is possible if you follow the right process.


filthy wall

Scrubbing the walls is the first step.  For this, I recommend using a very powerful cleaning agent: ammonia.  Be forewarned, ammonia is very powerful. It is dangerous to get it onto your skin, and especially dangerous to your eyes.  The chemical smell released from ammonia can be overpowering, and you definitely want to take precautions to ventilate the home as you work with it.  . Ammonia can be fatal if swallowed, so make sure it remains very well labeled and out of the reach of any pets or children. Above all, never mix ammonia with bleach as the resulting mixture can release a deadly gas.

Ammonia Warning

Don’t let these warnings about ammonia scare you away.  If you prepare to work with ammonia upfront, you will find its powerful cleaning properties doing a lot of the work for you. Beside making sure the entire home is well vented by having multiple windows open while you work with it, ensure that at least one window near you is open.  You may also want to place a few fans around your work area to make sure air is circulating. Use goggles and latex gloves to make sure no ammonia will get into your eyes or onto your hands.  While it might sound like overkill, I strongly recommend you use a respirator mask.  Such a mask will also prove useful when applying primer to the wall.

Trial Run

I recommend doing a trial run of exposure to ammonia so you can experience the odor for yourself before getting ready for the work. Put a small amount of ammonia into a container and leave it on your table for around 30 minutes.  This will give you a feeling for how powerful the odor can be. You definitely want to do this at a time when you can leave the windows open for a few hours afterwards, and probably when you can leave the home for an hour or two when you are done.  Once you are comfortable with the ammonia and other tools, you can dive into the cleaning.


A mixture of ¼ cup of ammonia to 1 gallon of water is a good strength for cleaning painted walls and ceilings.

Test First

It’s a good idea to test against each different type of paint first to make sure there aren’t any unexpected reactions from the water or ammonia.  Remove air vent covers or outlet covers to reveal painted surfaces you can safely test on without worrying about any unexpected results being visible.


Once ready to dig in, it’s a straightforward process. Apply the mixture directly to the wall and scrub it slightly. A Swiffer or similar mop can be used with a cleaning cloth to apply the mixture with maximum efficiency.  Allow it to sit for 5 to 10 minutes, and then wipe off with a dry cloth.  Ensure lots of circulation to help it dry.  You may also want to run a dehumidifier to maximize drying.  As you will have windows open for circulation, be mindful of the humidity levels outdoors, and don’t do this work on a particularly humid day as that will slow the drying down considerably.


The ammonia will do a lot of the heavy lifting of tar cleaning. Once it’s thoroughly dried, I recommend a second pass with warm, soapy water. Apply the water, scrub slightly, and then wipe it off. Follow quickly with a final rinse of clean water to remove soap residue.

Ceilings, too

Use this process to clean all painted walls in your home.  You will want to apply the same process to the ceilings.  While doing ceilings, be very mindful of the ammonia-water dripping from the mop.  Make sure you don’t stand directly under the mop head.

Any Other Painted Surfaces

The same process can be used for any other painted surfaces in your home, such as painted hardwood doors or floors, as well as any trim around doors and windows throughout the house.

Metal Surfaces

Metal surfaces in your kitchen are likely to contain a mixture of tar and grease from cooking.  The same process can be used on refrigerators, stoves, and ovens to cut through this tarry, greasy substance.


Once you’ve removed as much of the tar as possible, cover up what is left.

The right primer for the job

Primer is generally used to form a sealing layer before applying new paint, but tar will bubble through most mainstream primers.  A few primer products are designed to be strong enough to successfully hold back tar and other difficult contaminants.  Kilz brand is most often recommended for this.  Prices can vary a bit, check current prices on Amazon

Consider Help

Priming and painting is something you get better at with practice, and it’s another case you may way to consider hiring a professional for.  I’ll reiterate my advice to get at least two quotes and check online for reviews before making any final decisions. Most painters will be willing to come to your home, talk about the specific work, and give you a price quote.  You may want to look for someone with specific experience working with Kilz primer.

Use Precautions

As with the ammonia, this particular primer has a strong chemical off put.  It’s vital that you have good ventilation while working with it.  At least one window near you should be open. Follow the same precautions with goggles, gloves, and ventilator mask as you did with the ammonia.

Prepare Carefully

If you decide to apply the primer and paint yourself, preparation is the key.  Carefully cover anything you don’t want to get primer on it.  Apply painters tape to the edges of where you will be painting, and work slowly and carefully to make sure the tape is straight and the edges are very firmly pressed down.  When ready, the primer can simply be painted or rolled on.  I recommend having someone on hand ready to help deal with any issues that come up and to help keep your supplies in order so you can carry on with the application of the primer. Work slowly and methodically to minimize mistakes. Apply the primer evenly, and make sure you cover everything. Once finished, give them primer plenty of time to dry.


Once the primer has fully dried, apply a fresh coat of paint.  While you can relax the safety precautions with the paint and proceed without a ventilation mask, preparation remains the key.  Be sure to very carefully cover anything you don’t want paint on and to use painters tape on edges beforehand. Check everything twice to make sure take is straight and that the edges are down firmly so that no paint can seep underneath the tape and ruin your straight edge.

A word on paint spraying

It is also possible to use a paint sprayer to apply both the Kilz primer and the paint.  I recommend sticking to a roller and taking things slowly and carefully instead. However, if you do decide to use a sprayer instead, be sure to fully understand the process first.  Many primers and paints, including Kilz brand, require the product to be diluted for usage with a sprayer, so carefully check instructions before proceeding.


There is a huge amount of work involved in cleaning, priming, and painting your walls and ceilings. However, once finished, you can rest assured that you have just buried a lot of tar and odor behind a layer of primer which it won’t be getting through.  Along with that, you get a fresh coat of paint and new colors in your homes.  Choosing a color can be somewhat difficult.  It can be difficult to understand how the full room will look once the paint has been applied.  You also need to consider how any natural light coming into the room will be impacted by the new color, as some colors absorb light more than others.  Be sure to talk through the space you are painting with someone at the paint store for their advice before taking this final step.