Removing Soot From Exposed Wood and Painted Surfaces: How to Clean Soot from Wood, Walls, and Ceilings

Even a small fire can produce a significant amount of smoke and soot. Not only does smoke and soot travel further than flames, but they cling to walls, ceilings, furniture, cabinets, and almost any surface. Because soot is acidic, it can cause thick black stains on almost any surface. Removing soot damage from wood and painted surfaces requires taking action quickly and using the cleaning agents for the job. It can also involve a bit of elbow grease.

Soot damage? Call 1-888-443-3110 now for a free estimate on fire damage restoration.

How Soot Causes Damage

Soot is a byproduct of fires and is composed of particles of carbon left over from incomplete combustion. Ranging from a light grey to black charcoal in color, smoke and soot may appear as a dry powder or as an oily film.

Regardless of whether it’s powdery or oily, soot particles are highly acidic and cling to walls due to electrostatic attraction. Because soot is four times smaller than a dust particle, it can spread quickly and coat any number of surfaces. Due to soot’s acidity, it can leave thick black stains quickly.

Types of Wood and Painted Surfaces You Can Remove Soot From

  • Hardwood Floors
  • Wooden Cabinets
  • Exposed Wood Beams
  • Wooden Furniture
  • Walls (Both Plaster and Drywall)
  • Ceilings

Steps to Removing Soot Stains from Wood and Painted Surfaces

  1. Vacuum Up Soot Residue – Remove as much soot, dirt, and debris as possible, but avoid touching the vacuum hose to the soot stain.
  2. Dry Clean Soot Stains – Use a dry cleaning soot sponge to remove soot stains, working top to bottom.
  3. Wet Clean Soot Stains – Use a cleaning agent with a degreaser to remove remaining soot stains.
  4. Prime and Paint Walls – Apply a stain-blocking primer and at least two coats of paint.
  5. Polish or Refinish Wood – Apply a wood polish or strip and refinish the wood to protect and restore its luster.

What to Know Before Removing Soot from Wood Surfaces

Wood is porous, which allows soot, smoke, and odors to easily permeate the surface. This can make cleanup difficult and may require vigorous scrubbing. Additionally, the cleaning process differs for finished wood and unfinished wood.

Finished Wood

Finished wood is coated with a varnish, stain, or sealer that can protect it from smoke and soot damage. The majority of your wood furniture will be finished wood, including cabinets, tables, dressers, desks. Hardwood floors are usually finished wood as well.

While finished wood offers some protection against soot strains, it’s important to begin cleanup as soon as possible. To clean finish wood, you will need to gently work a cleaning agent into the wood grain. This helps pull the soot out of the wood and makes it easier to remove.

Depending on the extent of the damage, it may require repeated applications to completely remove the soot. Additionally, chemical cleaning agents and intense scrubbing can also wear away the finish on the wood. In this case, it may be necessary to refinish the wood after removing the soot stain.

Unfinished Wood

Because it has no protective coating, unfinished wood is more susceptible to smoke and soot damage. Unfinished woods are commonly used in construction and include structural beams, wall studs, and roof decking. Some furniture may have unfinished wood inside, such as dresser drawers and the interior of cabinets.

While cleaning agents can be effective at removing soot stains, unfinished wood is prone to water stains. For that reason, it’s important to use both cleaners and water sparingly. Work in small sections and

Try to avoid allowing cleaners and water to soak into the wood for an extended period of time. Additionally, use fans or dehumidifiers to speed up the drying process once the stain has been removed.

Unfortunately, some soot stains may remain even after a thorough cleaning. If you are concerned about the cosmetic look of unfinished wood, it may be necessary to paint, stain, or seal unfinished wood in order to conceal soot stains. The alternative is replacing the stained wood.

What to Know Before Removing Soot from Painted Surfaces

Unless the soot stain is very minor or the paint is a dark color, you will almost always need to repaint the stained surface. Despite needing to paint, it is still important that you clean the soot stain. Without removing the stain first, the soot will eventually show through over time.

Additionally, it is important that you allow a primer first. This will help cover soot stains as well as smokey odors associated with fires. While it is not absolutely necessary to prime the entire surface, it is recommended. This will ensure your top coat of paint has an even finish.

What to Use to Clean Soot Stains

Removing soot stains is a multi-step process and will require the right cleaning agents. While many name-brand products are available, commercial or industrial grade products may be available in larger quantities or lower prices. Considering you may use a significant amount of certain products, it may be more cost effective to order in bulk.

Dry Cleaning Soot Sponges

Dry cleaning soot sponges are one of the most effective tools at removing soot stains from wood and painted surfaces. Despite their name, they actually do not contain any chemicals at all and designed to work best when dry.

These sponges are often called soot remover sponges, chemical sponges, chem sponges, and wall brite sponges. While they will get dirty while removing soot stains, cut away the stained portion to maximize the cleaning power of each sponge. Dry cleaning soot sponges are available at most hardware stores and through many online retailers.

Melamine Scrubbing Sponges

Closely related to soot sponges, melamine scrubbing sponges are often marketed as magic dirt erasing sponges that can remove dirt or marks from any surface. Unlike dry cleaning sponges, melamine scrubbing sponges do include cleaners and work both wet and dry.

You can make your own magic scrubbing sponges by soaking a melamine sponge in a quarter cup of water, a tablespoon of baking soda, and a teaspoon of borax soap. All the sponge to soak up the mixture, then wring it out until it’s just damp. Melamine scrubbing sponges are available at major retailers and hardware stores.

Oil-Based Wood Cleaner

Commonly marketed as oil soaps, oil-based wood cleaners are effective at gently cleaning dirt and soot from both finished and unfinished wood. Follow the manufacturers’ instructions for diluting and gently wipe surfaces with a soft sponge or a microfiber cloth.

Avoid allowing oil soaps to soak into unfinished woods, as they may stain. When scrubbing finished wood, always work in the same direction as the wood grain to limit scratches. You can find oil soap wood cleaners at major retailers and hardware stores.


Household cleaners with a degreaser can also be used to remove soot stains, especially thicker, oilier soot stains. Laundry degreasers may work as well. Avoid using any cleaner that is gritty, as it can scratch wood and paint. While degreasers may work on wood, they are most effective on painted walls and surfaces.

Mix the degreaser with some warm water and use a soft sponge or a microfiber cloth to wipe on painted surfaces. While you should apply some pressure, avoid scrubbing too hard as you may scrap way paint. Degreasing cleaners are available at most major retailers and hardware stores.

Dish Detergent

Most household dish detergents include a grease-fighting agent that is equally effective at cleaning smoke and soot stains. Avoid using any dish detergent that is gritty, as it can scratch painted surfaces and wood.

Mix the degreaser with some warm water and use a soft sponge or a microfiber cloth to wipe down soot-stained surfaces. While you should apply some pressure, avoid scrubbing too hard. Dish detergents are available at most major retailers and some hardware stores.

White Vinegar

Regular white vinegar is one of the most versatile cleaners. Not only will it break down oily soot stains, but it can even remove set-in nicotine stains. Mix one part warm water to three parts vinegar, then gently wipe soot-stained surfaces with a soft sponge or microfiber cloth.

When cleaning finished wood with vinegar, avoid allowing the vinegar to sit for too long because it can stain the finished. Avoid using other types of vinegar, like cider vinegar or red white vinegar, as they have more pungent odors and can cause stains. White vinegar is available at grocery stores and major retailers.

Baking Soda

Baking soda is another common household item that doubles as a versatile cleaner. Gently rub dry baking soda into most painted surfaces and unfinished woods with a soft sponge or microfiber cloth and allow to sit for a few minutes before wiping cleaning with a damp cloth.

However, baking soda may stain finished woods, so use caution. Additionally, baking soda and vinegar are known for their foaming chemical reactions. Although they do make an effective cleaner, it may be too vigorous for soot stains.

If you keep a box of baking soda in your fridge to limit odors, don’t throw that box away when it’s time to change. Instead, keep it for cleaning. Just remember to mark the box so you don’t mix it up with your cooking baking soda. You can find baking soda at grocery stores and major retailers.

Other Items You May Need to Remove Soot Stains

While the cleaning agent is the most important part of removing soot stains, there are a number of other items that will help the process go smoothly.

Rubber Gloves

Cleaning soot stains is messy and rubber gloves will help keep your hands from getting stained. They will also protect you from smelling like the cleaners as well.

Sponges or Cloths

Soft sponges or microfiber cloths will help you apply the cleaners, as well as wipe them away. You should have both wet and dry sponges or cloths available. Wet items usually clean soot the best, but dry ones are better at wiping soot residue away.


A shop vac with a hose is the best tool for sucking up soot, as it’s designed for high suction and has a large capacity. However, a regular floor vacuum with a hose or wand attachment will work too. If you use a regular vacuum, you should thoroughly clean the wand afterward in warm, soapy water and replace the filter.


A bucket is helpful at holding the cleaning agent. If you don’t have a bucket, a small pail, garbage can, or even a glass or plastic container will work just as well.

Drop Cloth

A drop cloth can help protect surfaces from damage while removing soot stains. While a heavy duty canvas or cloth will work, a plastic drop cloth offers better protection against drips and spills.

How to Remove Soot Stains from Wood and Painted Surfaces

Before you begin removing any soot stains, you should remove items from the area to prevent additional damage. You will also want to determine whether the soot stain is powdery or oily, as it will help you choose the right cleaner for the situation.

1. Vacuum Up Soot Residue

The first step to cleaning soot stains is vacuuming up as much debris as possible. While this will suck up some soot, it is mainly for removing dust and other particles that could scratch painted surfaces or wood during cleaning.

Whether you use a shop vac or a wand attachment with your regular vacuum, always work from the top down. This prevents soot from settling on an area you’ve already cleaned. Also, while you want to get the hose as close to the soot as possible, avoid rubbing it against the stain. This can scratch the wood or painted surface.

If you are using a shop vac, you likely will not need to empty the canister as you work. However, a regular vacuum has a lower capacity and may need to be emptied regularly. Emptying the canister outside will prevent soot from spreading throughout your property.

2. Dry Clean Soot Stains

You should always begin cleaning soot stains with a dry cleaning soot sponge. For walls and painted surfaces, start at the top and slowly work down. For wood surfaces, work in the direction of the wood grain to prevent damage.

While dry cleaning sponges can become saturated quickly, you can cut away stained portion to expose fresh material underneath. Continue to use the dry cleaning soot sponges until the stain is either removed or they stop being effective.

If you don’t have dry cleaning soot sponges, you can use melamine scrubbing sponges instead. When using homemade melamine erasing sponges, make sure they are as dry as dry as possible to prevent smearing the soot stains.

Although baking soda may be effective at cleaning some soot stains, it may damage finished woods. Sprinkle a small amount of baking soda and allow it to soak up the soot stain, then wipe clean with a dry cloth or sponge.

3. Wet Clean Soot Stains

If dry cleaning methods are not effective at completely removing the soot stain, use one of the cleaning agents listed above with warm water to clean it up. Unfortunately, too much water is likely to cause the soot stain to spread.

To prevent this, make sure you are using a cleaning agent that includes a degreasing agent. This includes degreasers, dish detergents, and vinegar. Mix the cleaner with warm water, then wring the soft sponge or microfiber cloth out as much as possible.

We recommend mixing up small qualities of soot remover, as the soot will make the solution dirty quickly. Using dirty cleaner will just push soot around, making the stain worse. Using a dry sponge or cloth to wipe away cleaners will help keep your cleaning solution from getting dirty.

Avoid scrubbing too hard, as it can scratch the surface. For wooden surfaces, continue to wipe in the same direction as the wood grain to prevent scratches. For painted surfaces, work from the top down and avoid allowing the cleaning solution to drip.

4. Prime and Paint Walls

Even after a thorough cleaning, the likelihood of some soot residue remaining on painted surfaces is high. In order to block out stains and limit odors, painting these surfaces will still be necessary.

Start by applying soot stains with a heavy duty stain-blocking primer. Soot stain blocking primers come in solvent-based, oil-based, and pigmented shellac. The oil-based primer is the easiest to use, while the pigmented shellac is the best at covering soot stains and odors.

Depending on the extent of the stain and the primer you choose, several coats may be necessary. After applying the primer, you can paint over with the regular paint of your choice. Always read the precautions for primers and paint and work in a well-ventilated area.

5. Polish or Refinish Wood

If the soot stain was minor, you have a good chance of being able to completely remove it. Once you’ve cleaned the stain, use a wood polish to bring back the luster of the wood. Follow the instructions for you polish for the best results.

However, it’s more likely that the wood will need to be refinished after removing a soot stain. In this case, you will need to sand the wood to remove the existing finish. This will also help remove any remaining soot stains as well. Chemical strippers are also available.

Once the old finish has been removed, wipe the wood down with a slightly damp rag to remove as much debris as possible. Then allow it to dry completely. Apply a coat of sealant per the manufacturers’ instructions. The sealant will both protect the wood and form a base for the stain to coat evenly.

Wood stains come in many varieties, so choose the best one for your situation. Whether you use a gell, oil-based, or water-based stain, always work in a well-ventilated area and follow the manufacturers’ instructions. Depending on the stain, you may need to apply several coats.

Finally, apply a finish coat to protect the wood. A brush-on finish is easiest to use, but spray-on finishes are also available. They require additional tools and take more finesse when applying to form an even coat. Again, make sure to follow the manufacturers’ instructions for application.

Professional Smoke and Soot Removal Services

While you can remove soot stains from wood and painted surfaces on your own, the specialists in the Restoration Local network have the equipment and experience to quickly remove soot stains after a fire. We’re the largest network of fire damage restoration companies, with contractors across the nation.Our directory includes an extensive list of independent restoration companies as well as major franchises including DKI Restoration and Steamatic. Choose a local fire damage restoration company from our directory now. In an emergency, call 1-888-443-3110 to speak with our nearest on-call fire damage cleanup contractor. Our on-call partners offer 24-hour emergency service, 30-minute response time, and a free, no-obligation estimate.

Author: Jeff Rooks

Jeff Rooks writes restoration content that helps homeowners restore their lives after a disaster or accident. Most days, you can find him cycling through Tampa. He also enjoys exploring new and delicious food and beverages around the world.

Restoration Local® Difference

Upfront Free
We Work With
All Insurance!
60 Minute
Save You

It takes time and the right equipment to clean up any type of residential or commercial damage. Restoration Local® connects homeowners and property managers to the largest network of restoration companies and disaster mitigation contractors in the country.

With thousands of restoration companies covering 95% of the continental United States, it couldn’t be easier to find an experienced and reliable contractor in your area. You can even read reviews from other customers who had similar issues.

If you need restoration services, call now to talk with the local on-call contractor nearest you now. Our on-call restoration companies always offer 24-hour emergency services, 60-minute response time, and a free estimate on all restoration services.