How To Get Rid Of Smoke Smells and Prep Kitchen Cabinets for Paint (Reader Questions)

Ask your housekeeping, cleaning, organization and laundry questions at If you’ve “Liked” the Housewife How To’s Facebook page, you know that I regularly answer reader questions about housekeeping dilemmas. Sometimes, when the questions involve situations many of us may face, they’re best answered in a blog entry. This week’s entry involves two somewhat similar problems: getting rid of the smoke smell in a recently purchased home, and getting read to repaint greasy kitchen cabinets in a former smoker’s house.


Dear Katie,

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We recently moved to a house that the previous family were HEAVY smokers. We have cleaned all walls and windows, and even painted the entire house — minus two bedrooms. We painted most of the ceilings, too. Yet we can’t kick the smell! We’ll come home, and it smells as if someone just smoked in the house. It’s so frustrating. HELP!


Dear Misty,

I have some bad news, and some… well, just bad news. Getting rid of the smell in a former smoker’s house is extremely difficult. As you’ve already discovered, it seeps into everything: carpets, walls, ceilings… even the insulation. That doesn’t mean there’s no hope, but it’s not going to be easy.

As you’ve already discovered, the smell will still seep through if you paint the walls and ceilings without first removing the layer of nicotine which builds up when people smoke indoors. If you hadn’t already painted, I’d be telling you that a variety of heavy-duty chemicals can get rid of that layer (TSP, or tri sodium phosphate, being one that my painter recommends), but there’s also a more natural solution: 2 cups white vinegar, 1/4 cup Borax and 1 gallon warm water. Wash the walls from top to bottom, left to right. Work in 3 foot wide sections, and rinse with clear warm water as you go. Change the cleaning cloth when it starts turning brown, and change your washing solution when it starts to look cloudy. Let the walls dry, then go back over them with a damp, warm cloth. If you’re still seeing brown, you’ll need to repeat the process before moving on to the next step.

Ordinarily, the next step would be to use a good primer, such as Kilz. This puts a fairly impermeable layer between the wall and the fresh coat of paint you’re getting ready to apply. Not only does it keep any remaining smoke smell on the walls from seeping through, it also helps make sure that nasty nicotine layer won’t affect your new paint color. But it sounds like you’ve done both, and I’m guessing you don’t want to repaint what you’ve already done. So use the method above to paint the remaining ceilings and two rooms.

It’s very possible the smell is coming up from the carpeting, too. So, sprinkle baking soda heavily and work it into the carpet with a scrub brush, then let it sit overnight. Vacuum well, taking care to use the crevice attachment at the base of walls and where the stair riser meets the tread. Then steam clean your carpet but, instead of using carpet shampoo, add the same amount of vinegar to the water dispenser. (This is why vacuuming extremely well beforehand was so important.) You’ll probably want to steam clean two or three times using this method — working the room at different angles so you’re cleaning all sides of the carpet fibers. Since the vinegar not only lifts the nicotine but also makes a great odor killer, this should make a huge difference.

Next, clean all other hard surfaces. Use a homemade cleaner on painted wood work, scrub tile floors with the vinegar/Borax/water mixture mentioned above, and clean recessed light bulbs, windows and wall mirrors with a homemade window cleaner.

Still have a stench? Then it’s possible the culprit is your home’s heating/cooling system. Follow these steps to clean your A/C unit, or consider hiring a professional duct cleaning service.

Good luck!


This next letter comes from my Extra Dear friend Kim of Musing Minds.

Dear Katie,

I am giving my kitchen a face lift, painting the Shaker style cabinets and putting some bead board panels in the insets in the cupboard doors. I’ve painted the lowers already, but the uppers have a coating of that greasy, dusty, stick gunk from cooking (and there’s probably a bit of that nicotine stick from smoking even though it’s been six years (Yay!) since I quit.

What’s the best way to get that gunk off the cabinets so the paint will adhere better?



Dear Kimmy,

I’m so proud of you for quitting smoking! If you’ve read this far, then you know smoking indoors didn’t just increase your exposure to (and harm from) cigarette smoke, it also affected every surface in your house.

As far as prepping the upper cabinets for painting, it’s basically the same method that I described to Misty: either TSP or a mixture of water, vinegar and Borax. Note, though, that TSP is very potent stuff, and kitchens tend to be small, so if you use that method you’ll want to do it on a day when you can open all the windows for proper ventilation. That’s why I recommend the water/vinegar/borax mix. Be sure to have lots of clean, white rags ready, and swap them out as soon as they start looking dingy. Wash the top of the cupboards first, then the interior, and finally the outside (including the hinges). Work left to right, top to bottom, until you’re finished.

Next, you’ll need to roughen the surface to prepare it to accept paint. You can do this using a liquid sandpaper (Rustoleum makes a good one), but like the TSP, it’s powerful stuff that requires good ventilation. Of course, you can go the manual route and use sandpaper. If you do, follow with a tack cloth to clean up all the sanding residue.

Finally, after you’ve removed the doors and hardware, prime the surfaces with Kilz. Not only will this keep any nicotine gunk from seeping through (and discoloring your new paint job), but it will cover up any remaining grease residue so your fresh paint adheres properly.

Be sure to send me photos when you’re done!



I love to answer reader questions about housekeeping dilemmas. If you’d like to ask one, feel free to contact me via email or leave a note on my Facebook page! (Please don’t use Twitter, though. It’s just too hard to answer in 140 characters or less.)

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