DIY Interior Painting: Tips for Prepping Nicotine-Stained Walls

by Reader Contributors

DIY Painting Prepping Walls photo
Improperly prepping walls before painting can cost you time and money. These tips can help you prepare nicotine-stained and greasy walls before a DIY paint job to ensure an effective job.

Dear Dollar Stretcher,
I was wondering if there are any painters out there? My husband and I need to repaint the interior of a home with years’ of cigarette smoking and dust/dirt. We would like to DIY most of it if we can. Any tips on effectively cleaning the walls and ceiling before we paint? Or, is there a primer we should use and just clean the dust/dirt/grime then paint? What about kitchen walls with grease?
Lisa G. of Albuquerque, NM

The Importance of Proper Cleaning Prior To Painting

Repainting your home’s interior takes time and money and even the best paint might not cover properly if the walls aren’t thoroughly cleaned first. Proper preparation of your walls’ surfaces can help ensure a long-lasting and professional-looking finish that can save you the time and money of fixing a poor paint job later.

Some key reasons to clean interior walls before painting include:

  • Remove dirt and dust: Over time, walls accumulate dirt, dust, and other contaminants that can affect the adhesion of the paint.
  • Remove grease and grime: In areas like kitchens and bathrooms, walls can become coated with grease, grime, and other residues (such as nicotine) that lead to an uneven finish.
  • Reveal imperfections: Cleaning the walls can help reveal any cracks, holes, or other imperfections that need to be repaired before painting. Addressing these issues before painting will result in a smoother, more even finish.
  • Enhance color accuracy: A clean surface allows for the true color of the paint to shine through. Contaminants on the wall can alter the appearance of the paint, making it look dull or discolored.
  • Save time and money: Cleaning the walls before painting ensures that the paint job will last longer and require less maintenance in the future.

Sign Up for Savings

Subscribe to get money-saving content by email that can help you stretch your dollars further.

Twice each week, you'll receive articles and tips that can help you free up and keep more of your hard-earned money, even on the tightest of budgets.

We respect your privacy. Unsubscribe at any time.

Product Recommendations and Tips for Prepping Dirty Interior Walls Before Painting

We asked our frugal readers to contribute their best tips and product recommendations.

A DIY Cleaning Solution and a Commercial Product Recommendation

A common cleaning solution for removing nicotine and grime is a mixture of warm water, white vinegar and dish soap. Mix one gallon of warm water, one cup of white vinegar and a few drops of dish soap.

Or you can use a commercial cleaning product like trisodium phosphate (TSP), which is designed to remove heavy grime, dirt, and grease. Be sure to follow the manufacturer’s instructions for mixing and use.

Proper Prepping Should Be Half the Effort

It is imperative that you clean the walls vigorously and thoroughly before you waste your time and money painting filthy walls. Preparing the surface should be half the effort of the painting process. I recommend a strong solution of TSP (available in painting section at the hardware store). Use rubber gloves and eye protection. This will remove everything – dirt, grease, smoke reside, etc. Rinse well with clean water and change the rinse water often.

Then spend money on good paint. If you are changing the color from dark to light, use a blocking primer like Kilz. I love Benjamin Moore paint — it gets a consistently highly rated in Consumer Reports. Spending a little more on good paint makes your painting effort worth it.
Beth of Bellingham, WA

Use Formula 409

Try formula 409. Our family got together to help clean the walls of a smoking relative. This stuff works well.

Totally Awesome Cleaner Can Totally Clean the Walls

I had a situation involving a whole home with grime, smoking and grease. I used countless bottles of Totally Awesome cleaner scrubbing windows, moldings, doors and light fixtures. The bathroom and kitchen walls and cupboards were scrubbed with water mixed with ammonia. The other walls and ceilings I used a lambs wool duster to remove the dust.

The bathroom and kitchen were primed with Kilz primer. Then all walls and ceilings were painted with Behr paint with primer. Trim and doors were painted with Behr self-leveling paint.

A Recommendation From a Forensic Cleaner

Use trisodium phosphate (TSP) found at Home Depot or Lowes. Hardware stores may also have it. Constitute as directed. This stuff takes off years of grime, smoke and mildew. Be careful with it. Don’t inhale it and USE GLOVES. I was a forensic cleaner for a long time and this stuff even gets off blood or ahem other things.

After that, use Kilz primer and paint as usual.

Clean the Walls With Dawn Dish Soap

I am in the middle of cleaning walls that have a lot of cigarette tar on them, and after trying different cleaning sprays and homemade mixes, the best thing I found for just cleaning them is Dawn dish soap! I just use a wet cloth with a good amount of Dawn and wipe them down, then rinse with another wet cloth (I don’t think this would work on wallpaper). This removes the sticky tar on the walls and ceiling. It worked so much better than anything else I tried.

After that (we are still on the cleaning stage), I was recommended Kilz primer to remove the rest of the stains and smells, since it stops the stains and smells from leaking through your new paint.
Kirsti S.

Give Pine-Sol a Try

My friend wiped the walls clean with Pine-Sol to get rid of smoke smell!
Jeff and Liz

Advice From a Painting Contractor

The surfaces should be primed with a sealer. Oil or latex would work. Two coats of primer is preferable. Bullseye products work great. Then finish with the paint of your choice. Lots of work but it beats trying to wash it off. I’m a former NY painting contractor and this is the only way we would tackle that problem.

Ammonia Is a Cheap, Effective Cleaning Solution

Tip to remove smoke and grease from you walls/ceilings before painting. Use a strong solution of ammonia with a one fourth water ratio to the ammonia. If that does not remove the troubled area, use straight ammonia.

A Few More Tips for Prepping Walls for Painting

  • Wear protective gear, including gloves, goggles and a mask to protect yourself from the chemicals and dust during the cleaning process.
  • Test the cleaning solution by apply the cleaning solution to a small, inconspicuous area of the wall to ensure it doesn’t damage the surface or remove any paint.
  • Clean the walls using a sponge or cloth, or a soft-bristle brush for stubborn stains.
  • Rinse the walls after cleaning with a clean sponge or cloth and clean water to remove the cleaning solution and ensure proper paint adhesion.
  • Repair any any cracks, holes, or other damage.
  • Prime the walls with a stain-blocking primer, which will help seal in any remaining stains and provide a clean, even surface for painting.

Reviewed March 2023

Pin It on Pinterest

Share This