We want to thank the artists who met with us to conduct studio visits. We appreciate your willingness to talk to us, and we have collected information from a variety of sources and professionals in the field on how to proceed with caution.
This is a short selection of information about the challenges of dealing with soot damaged art. They are observations and a starting point for treatment intended to help stabilize artwork and provide time to make informed decisions during the next steps of recovery. Please consult a local professional or refer to the AIC - Find A Conservator website for additional contacts and information about treatment. We are including a Quick Start Sheet, but it is important to read this comprehensive document first for personal safety recommendations and the safety of your artwork.
Printable Quick Start Tips for Soot Removal
Documentation & Examination:
Photograph affected room and objects before you move them.
Consult your inventory of items or create an inventory list to document damage, condition, and transportation of items. It will be important to update this for insurance and personal use.
Consider establishing a priority list such as vital business information or files, items already sold, and materials most likely to be successfully salvaged.
Exposure to heat may have caused objects and papers to become brittle. Review handling procedures before moving items.
If objects are wet, please do not disturb or handle them. Call a conservator.
If objects are dry, dry soot removal is the first critical step.
Always think about where things are going to go. Ideally you will want: 1) a storage space, 2) a "dirty" space where objects are worked on, and 3) a "clean" space where items are placed after basic soot removal.
These steps are the first steps in the process of cleaning. A conservator should be consulted to determine the next steps necessary for final cleaning.
Organic items may require air scrubbers or open air exchange to help reduce the scent.
Some commercial recovery services use ozone or hydroxyl generators during recovering to reduce smoke odors. Ozone and hydroxyls are powerful oxidizers and can actually damage organic-based materials such as rugs, furniture, paintings, books, maps, photographs, etc.
Do not turn on computers, electronics, specialized equipment or try to use hard drives that were left on site. Seek professional cleaning.
It is possible that materials exposed to ash and soot will not be brought back to their original condition or retain their original value.
Types of Possible Fire Damage:
Charred: Objects which are fully burned. May not be salvageable, please seek a conservator's opinion.
Scorched: Objects that have local surface charring but which remain intact or partially intact underneath. Will require a conservator's opinion.
Soot: Objects with smoke deposited on the surface of the work. It is the result of incomplete combustion, and can be removed in most cases. Will require a conservator's opinion but initial removal can be done. Works of art may not return to pre-fire conditions.
When there is a fire, everything in the vicinity will be covered in soot. Soot is oily and very fine particled. It is approximately 2.5 microns which is a size that is associated with deep lung penetration and can be considered carcinogenic in certain quantities.
Depending on the age of the building and items stored within, soot may contain lead, asbestos, arsenic, PCB’s, and other toxic substances.
Even if you don't see soot on the surface, it is worth testing and following the basic steps in soot removal.
Soot removal will take time. Please take frequent breaks, work in areas with ventilation but not fans, and be patient when working with materials.
Exposure to Soot and Ash May Cause:
Skin irritation, rashes, and chemical burns
Lung irritation and difficulty breathing - people with asthma, COPD, and other respiratory or pulmonary diseases should proceed with caution and consult their doctor.
Continued exposure without personal protective equipment could lead to additional health conditions
Sources recommend that if you experience itchy eyes, coughing, shortness of breath or difficulty breathing, wheezing, chest tightness or pain, palpitations, headaches and nausea, unusual fatigue or lightheadedness, you should exit the area to get fresh air and consult with your doctor.
Personal Health & Safety:
Please Wear Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) (these are the minimum suggestions, so please consult an Industrial Hygienist for more information)
Particle Mask or Respirator (N95 or higher)
Safety Glasses or Goggles
Sturdy Boots or Shoes
**if you have health issues, please seek professional assistance**
Soot Removal Methods:
The goal of soot removal is to make sure you get it off rather than drive it into the surface of your artwork. Each material will respond differently. Porous materials (for example: painted surfaces, plaster, stone, paper) will require the most skill. The sequence is dry vacuuming > dry brushing and wiping with sponges > damp cleaning. Damp cleaning should not be undertaken without specific instruction from a conservator or it can potentially cause damage.
Begin with dry cleaning as follows:
Do try to remove as much soot as possible in-situ before moving objects and artwork. Removing soot and ash before handling will help keep the soot from becoming ingrained in the surface of the artwork.
Do use personal protective equipment (PPE) to protect yourself from potentially toxic contaminants in the soot. (OSHA document for PPE). Wear gloves and cover your hair with a shower cap and wear a proper disposable mask. If you have to remove the mask for any reason while you are working, set it outside of the contaminated area with the face part down on a clean surface so no contaminants get into it. Also remove gloves and wash your hands frequently.
Do use a vacuum with a HEPA filter. You may need a soft brush to move the soot towards the vacuum head. For the first round of work, use an extremely light touch to prevent the soot from driving into the fibers, etc. Allow the vacuum nozzle to hover over the object, but do not touch the surface during the initial stages of soot removal.
Don't move pieces before the worst soot is removed if possible.
After vacuuming, you can begin dry cleaning of surfaces using recommended sponges.
Here is a list of soot remediation supplies available on Amazon.
Organic materials are more sensitive than inorganic materials.
Porous surfaces are more sensitive than nonporous materials.
Intricate surfaces are more sensitive than smooth surfaces.
Light colored materials will show staining more than dark materials.
Packing materials must be replaced after cleaning.
Soot and Ash - Video from the FAIC Field Guide to Emergency Response Series (7 min) This is a great overview of the first stage of cleaning.
Hands On! Detection and Cleaning of Soot - Registrars Committee Western Region (RCWR) webinar with speaker, Rosa Lowinger (1:01:11). This recording is long, but is packed with great information.
Disaster Recovery: Fire and Soot Damage by Susan Duhl, Art Conservator/Collections Consultant
AIC News: "The Hidden Hazards of Fire Soot" - By Dawn Bolstad-Johnson, MPH, CIH, CSP
After the Fire: Advice for Salvaging Damaged Family Treasures - FEMA
Comparison of Dry-Cleaning Sponges Used to Remove Soot from Textiles - by Allison M. Anderson
Soot - AIC Wiki
Surface Cleaning of Paper - NEDCC
To Remove Smoke Smells from Paper Based Materials - Library of Congress
Soot, Char Damage and Odors on Books & Paper - California Preservation Clearinghouse
Comments on Removing Soot and Cleaning Oil and Acrylic Paintings - Summary of discussion for Guadalupe Center Artists (2/17/05)
Outline for Handling, Housing and Storage of Paintings - Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
Condition Reporting - Paintings. Part II: Examination Techniques and a Checklist - Canadian Conservation Institute
Condition Reporting - Paintings. Part III: Glossary of Terms - Canadian Conservation Institute
Example of Condition Report Form - Harry Ransom Humanities Research Center
Personal Protective Equipment - Occupational Safety and Health Administration
Soot, Char, & Ash: It’s More Toxic Than You Think - The Red Guide to Recovery
Emergency Response and Salvage Wheel - FAIC
NOTICE OF RISK. Working with objects after a disaster can at times involve substantial risk of injury, property damage, and other dangers. Dangers particular to such activities include, but are not limited to, smoke inhalation, fume exposure, soot exposure, chemical exposure, exposure to toxic materials, and exposure to possible carcinogens. By providing suggestions on how to remove soot TX-CERA is not providing medical advice and encouraging readers to seek professional medical assistance. All the information on this website is published in good faith and for general information purposes only. TX-CERA strives to make the information shared on this website and through social media as accurate as possible, but the organization makes no claims, promises, or guarantees, and expressly disclaims liability for errors and omissions in the contents listed. We are not liable for any losses or damages in connection with the use of our website. Any action taken upon the information on our website is strictly at your own risk.