Smoke and odour removal

After fire exposure, here are some ways to remove smoke residue, odour and charred material

When paper materials are damaged by fire, additional degradation can be prevented by removing smoke residue, odour and charred material. Items may also be wet from fire extinguishing. 

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 and ash can be toxic, so protect yourself with an appropriate face mask and gloves when handling and cleaning material. 

Smoke/soot removal

  • Set aside a clean, dry work area with good ventilation. 
  • Remove as much soot from your item as possible. If there is extensive loose ash and soot on your item, use a vacuum cleaner and a soft, clean brush to gently brush dirt towards the vacuum nozzle. Turn the vacuum cleaner onto the lowest setting and attach a fine gauze or a piece of stocking over the nozzle to create a filter. This will prevent suction of your item into the vacuum. A vacuum fitted with a HEPA filter is recommended so that the dirt is not released back into the room. Do not place the nozzle directly on or too close to the item. Handle items gently as they may be brittle. 
  • If there is a layer of dirt and soot on your items, you can use these products to remove the soot: 
    • a smoke sponge, or dry-cleaning sponge, made from vulcanised rubber — use without water and gently work over the surface to collect the soot 
    • a kneadable eraser (available from art stores) can be used to remove soot by gently rolling it over the paper 
    • a clean dry cosmetic sponge can be used in a similar way to the dry-cleaning sponge — these sponges can be washed, dried and re-used. 

Odour removal

Books and other heritage items can absorb smoke from a fire, or 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.

  • Air the items using circulated air. If the item is a book, stand it on its end, fan out the pages, and use a pedestal fan to circulate the air. 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, kitty litter, zeolite powder, Odour-eaters™, or other odour-absorbing commercial products. Ensure the item does not touch 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 information 

Conservation advice 

If you have further questions or would like specific advice about conservation, please contact us through ASK A LIBRARIAN 

We are unable to give advice on the conservation treatment of heritage items. We recommend you contact a professional conservator, who can assess each item and recommend options. A conservator will charge a fee.