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Smoke and odour removal

Important to know

When paper-based library materials are damaged from exposure to fire additional degradation can be prevented by removing smoke residues, odours and charred material.

Material may also be wet from the use of water to extinguish the fire. If the material is valuable or particularly fragile you may wish to consult a conservator to assist with the recovery.

A list of conservators working in NSW and ACT is available from the Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials (AICCM)

Smoke/soot removal

  • The first step after fire damage is to remove as much soot from your item as you can. Set aside a clean dry work area with good ventilation. If there is a lot of dust and ash on your item, use a vacuum cleaner and gently brush the dirt towards the vacuum nozzle. Turn the vacuum cleaner onto the gentlest setting and attach a fine gauze or a piece of stocking over the nozzle to create a filter. A vacuum fitted with a HEPA (high efficiency particulate air) filter is recommended so that the dirt is not released back into the room. Do not place the nozzle directly or too close to the item. Handle items gently as they maybe brittle from charring.
  • If there is a layer of soot, you can use a product known as a “smoke sponge” or “dry cleaning chemical sponge”. The sponges are made from vulcanised rubber and are used without water. They are gently worked over the surface to collect the soot. Another cleaning product for paper and library materials is a “document cleaning pad”. This uses eraser granules, which must be brushed away afterwards. You can also use a kneadable eraser to remove soot by gently rolling the eraser over the paper. Kneadable erasers are available from art stores. All other products, and instructions on their use, can be obtained from specialty conservation suppliers.

Health and safety

Smoke and ash can be toxic, so protect yourself with a facemask and gloves obtained from a hardware store.

Odour removal

Books and other heritage items can develop odours in a number of ways. They can absorb smoke from a fire, and can develop musty smells from storage in damp, stagnant environments. A musty smell is often accompanied by the presence of mould. If you detect mould refer to the fact sheet Dealing with mould.

The following methods have been used to remove odours:

  • Aerate in the fastest moving airflow you can find. If the item is a book, try standing it up, fanning out the pages, and use a pedestal fan to increase the air flow. Take care with fragile items.
  • Place item in the refrigerator, in a plastic bag or greaseproof paper until the smell has gone.
  • Place item in a bag with one of the following substances: baking soda (bi-carbonate of soda), kitty litter, zeolite powder, Odour-eaters™, or other odour-absorbing commercial products. Ensure the item does not come in contact with the substance, as this may damage the item.
  • Note: Some companies use ozone chambers to remove odours. This is not recommended by the conservation profession. Ozone can degrade paper, leather and adhesives.

Further reading

NSW Rural Fire Service

Bushfires…protect your precious possessions, prepared by Marcelle Scott, Centre for Cultural Materials Conservation, University of Melbourne 2003

Advice on conservation

We are unable to give advice on conservation treatment of items.

The advice we are able to give is limited to what we understand to be ethical and safe for people and items.

For treatment purposes we recommend that you contact a professional conservator, who will be able to assess each individual item and give it appropriate treatment. A conservator will charge a fee.

Further information

Australian Institute for the Conservation of Cultural Materials

or contact

Collection Care Branch
State Library of New South Wales