How to clean cigarette smoke from paintings?

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Removing cigarette smoke from paintings is a task that should be done meticulously and gently.  While professional refurbishing businesses should clean paintings of cigarette damage and odor, especially if the piece of high value, you may still be able to clean it yourself as well. 

How to clean cigarette smoke from paintings

How do you clean cigarette smoke off a painting?

Cleaning paintings that have been exposed to the harsh odor and soot of cigarettes is time-consuming, but in some cases, it is possible to revive these artworks. 

Step 1: Choose appropriate Space

Make sure you have a well-ventilated room to do this work in; this is any place with windows and vents that allows good airflow into the space you’ll be working in. 

Step 2: Protect yourself

Wear surgical gloves to protect yourself from any chemicals you will be using, which also acts to protect the painting from any oil or dirt your hands may have on them. 

Step 3: Lay down a barrier

Lay down a barrier between the tabletop and the picture – this can be kraft paper, drop cloth, or any general-purpose barrier. This protects the painting from any grime or different oils from the tabletop and protects the table from being damaged or stained. 

Step 4: Use an appropriate cleaner

Lay the painting face up on the protective barrier below; there are a few options to choose from for the next steps.

To clean off the cigarette vapor damage, you can use human saliva, diluted lemon juice, or sodium carbonate. Human saliva contains the enzyme amylase, which acts to break down dirt and grime and has been used for centuries to clean and restore paintings. To perform a deeper clean on the artwork, using a professional grade emulsifier or neutralizer is needed.

A well-known brand for both of these is Gainsborough. 

Step 5: Do a patch test

Once you have picked an appropriate cleaner for the painting, it is always advisable to do a small patch test on the corner of the piece to ensure that the selected cleaner works well with the artwork being cleaned and doesn’t damage or fade the pigments in the paint. 

Step 6: Clean your painting

Take a cotton swab to dip into the cleaner. I advise working in 3″ to 4″ squares to clean the painting, 5″ at the max, working the cotton swab in gentle circular motions.

NOTE: It is essential to work in these circular motions - not rubbing or scrubbing the piece with the cotton swab! Scrubbing, scraping, or rubbing can deface the original paint on the canvas, leaving scars that will require refurbishing later. If done on oil paintings, this may mar the image badly and be hard to correct. 

Step 7: Clean your painting

After you have gone over the artwork once, let it air dry completely. This may take a whole day, but it must be dried thoroughly before you can assess the outcome and scent of the finished piece. 

Step 8: Optional – seal your painting

If you are happy with the outcome post-cleaning, you can also seal your painting to ward off any remaining cigarette smell.

Is the process the same for all painting mediums?

This process will be very similar across all paint mediums – but a patch test is essential for every piece of artwork due to various pieces having varying degrees of cigarette damage. 

It is impossible to say what process will work best for each painting since every picture is different, made up of different paint mediums, and will have varying degrees of wear and tear. 

What not to use when cleaning paintings from cigarette damage 

When cleaning a painting with cigarette damage and smell don’t use Water, bread, potatoes, alcohol, vinegar, and baby oil. You can damage a piece of art further by using these methods.

These can be especially damaging to an oil painting specifically, although they are not recommended cleaning methods for any paint medium.

Will painting get rid of the cigarette smell?

While painting can mask any physical damage, unfortunately, it cannot hide the odor of cigarettes too well.  Because paint is a porous substance, it permeates into any paintings left in areas of cigarette smoke, even for short periods of time. The odor will be worse for paintings kept in or around cigarette smoke for years on end. 

While you may not get rid of the smell altogether, I would recommend you seal the painting with a sealer of your choice. 

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Doing this seals off the smell already permeated into the canvas while also masking the scent and keeps the new cleaning job-protected. 

NOTE: Oil paintings can become irreversibly damaged if their varnish is stripped off poorly or without the correct professional-grade solutions. 

It is also important to remember that select paintings may be beyond refurbishment when it comes to cigarette odor.  However, advancements in the preservation and refurbishing of paintings continue to grow, so a future solution to odor reversal on canvases is possible! 

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