Expert AdviceWalls & Ceilings

Nicotine Stains on Walls and Ceilings

Q: This spring I’m planning to do some painting. Before I begin, I must wash my walls and ceiling because they’re yellow from tobacco. Any suggestions to what I should use to clean both walls and ceiling.

Do you have any advice about cleaning or preparing first?

A: You may be able to wash nicotine from the walls before painting with hot water and Trisodium Phosphate (TSP). The best area to test this is where a picture was hanging. If after washing you can’t tell where the picture was go ahead and wash the rest of the area with TSP, then paint. However, if you still have a yellow border where the picture was, you will need to seal the walls with an oil or alcohol-based primer.

As far as a sprayed acoustic ceiling, if the nicotine stain is on the light yellow side you can paint the ceiling with an airless gun. If it is dark yellow to orange in color, then you will need to seal the ceiling with white pigmented shellac before painting. You should use an airless gun to prime and paint your acoustic ceiling, by angling your gun slightly and spraying it lightly in all directions.

It’s not recommended that you roll paint on your acoustic ceiling, as it is very porous. It will absorb a great deal of paint, and it’s nearly impossible to achieve even coverage. I liken it to trying to paint a giant sponge. Often, the entire layer of “cottage cheese” texture can come right off on the roller, creating a real mess.

However, you might consider having it resprayed with a new layer of acoustic for about the same amount of money you would spend in materials alone painting it. In fact, this is the Environmental Protection Agency’s recommended method for covering acoustic containing asbestos because painting releases hazardous fibers into the air.

It is also possible to have asbestos-free acoustic spray removed and replaced with new texture and paint, leaving your ceiling with the same surface as a wall that is ready to sweep and paint. I suggest exploring all these options before deciding what to do.

I recommend visiting a specialty paint store (like Sherwin Williams, Kelly Moore, etc. as opposed to a hardware or home improvement store that sells paint along with everything else) and talk to their very knowledgeable staff. They will be in the best position to ask you questions about your project, to advise you how to prep, prime and paint over that nicotine stained wallboard, and sell you all the products you need.

If you choose to hire a professional painter to do that for you, please visit our site at, type “Interior Painting” into the search box, submit a service request for “Find an Interior Painting Service” and let us match you with the ideal service professional in your area.

Good luck!

This information is brought to you by Keith Martin of Super Shooters Acoustic Ceiling and Texture Service in Sacramento, CA.

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