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Smoker, plus poor paint, caused a mess on walls

QuestionRecently I purchased a 1960 home that had been smoked in for many years. What's the best way to get rid of the smoke smell and to paint all the walls and ceilings throughout the house?

I washed the bedroom walls with warm water and TSP, but the paint separated haphazardly from the walls. Some pieces came off in 8-by-10-inch chunks, while hundreds of other pieces range from pinhead size to nickel size to strips 1/32-inch wide and 12 inches long. It's a mess.

I suspect that the bedrooms were painted without proper preparation and water-based paint was applied over oil-based paint. Some of the paint separated easily, but most remains. I'm concerned that if I try to paint over this, the defects will show through. I've talked to a painter and employees at several hardware and paint stores, but no one can tell me how to remove the paint. Any good ideas?

AnswerThanks for letting me inspect the bedroom walls in your home. It appears to me that you have a threefold problem: first, three very thin layers of different-colored finish paint; second, poor quality paint; and third, a topcoat applied over high-gloss latex paint, not oil-based as you suspected. Because of this, the first layer didn't achieve a good adhesion, and the TSP just loosened the topcoat.

Nicotine is difficult to remove because it absorbs into porous surfaces, such as walls and woodwork, and it is water-soluble, so it can bleed through latex paint. The best way to get rid of cigarette odors and residue is to seal them with a solvent system. There are several products on the market, but I recommend Zinsser's B-I-N, a shellac-based product. It's a favorite among fire restoration contractors because it permanently seals in smoke odors. The product has a strong hospital-like alcohol smell but no residual odor once the solvent has flashed off.

While it's not necessary to clean the ceiling and wall surfaces before applying B-I-N, I believe you'll get a better bond if you remove as much of the residue as you can.

TSP is a great cleaner, but it's impossible to flood interior wall and ceiling surfaces with enough water to rinse away its crystals, a residue that will interfere with paint adhesion. Instead, clean the walls using ammonia, which leaves no residue, mixed in warm water. The manufacturer recommends 1/2 cup of ammonia to 1 gallon of water for general-purpose cleaning. You can increase the ammonia to perhaps a 50:50 solution and even use it full strength for tough jobs (such as yours). Test your solution first in the worst areas to determine the proper mix for your project.

As with most painting jobs, time spent in preparation will pay off with high-quality results. In your case, preparation will take time and probably be messy.

With a house over 40 years old, it is very possible that lead-based paints were applied to the walls and woodwork. For your own safety and for the safety of your family, I recommend that you proceed as if your walls have been coated with lead-based paint.

Lead was a common ingredient in both interior and exterior paints in homes built before 1960. The Consumer Product Safety Commission issued a ban against lead-based paint in 1978 so homes built between 1960 and 1978 also may contain lead paint. Take the time to visit www.epa.gov/iaq/lead.html, "An Introduction to Indoor Air Quality." Also check out www.nsc.org/library/facts/lead.htm and read the introduction to "Lead Poisoning." On this page and in the body of the text click on "Download an order form" to order a lead dust test kit from The National Safety Council for $29.95. Type "lead test kits" into your favorite search engine or check at your local home improvement store to purchase a kit to test your home for the presence of lead.

You can take simple steps to prevent or reduce lead exposure yourself, but I would contact a lead inspector and/or hire a person with special training to remove lead-based paint. Look for this specialist in the Yellow Pages under "Lead Detection & Removal."

If lead is not present in the area you are working in, then begin by washing the entire area with an ammonia solution, as discussed above, to remove both the TSP and nicotine residues. After all the surfaces dry, sand down the edges of any paint that remains tightly adhered to the surface of the high-gloss paint to avoid ridges telegraphing through the new finish. Also lightly sand any glossy areas using a drywall pole sander with 3M's 320-grit white Tri-M-ite sandpaper to knock down the sheen. Whenever you are sanding, ventilate the area and wear a protective mask. After sanding, wipe off the dust.

Next apply one coat of B-I-N using a good-quality synthetic 3/4-inch nap roller. After it dries, sand trouble spots, wipe off any dust, and reapply B-I-N to those sanded areas. To build texture, which will help blend and conceal any remaining layers of existing paint, apply Zinsser's Bulls Eye water-based primer sealer using a 3/4-inch nap lamb's wool roller.

If after one application of Bulls Eye you still see trouble spots or existing paint layers telegraph through, sand again, wipe off the dust, and apply a second coat of primer. It normally takes two coats of primer to get the overall effect desired before you can apply any topcoats. Finally, apply two layers of topcoat paint using the 3/4-inch lamb's wool roller. Be sure to allow at least one day between all primer and finish coats

Copyright © 2005, 2006, & 2007 LAF/C.R.S., Inc. All rights reserved.
Question answered by Leon A. Frechette.

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