Need help cleaning old wood - believed to be smoking residue

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Forum topic by ezgnann posted 08-31-2015 03:54 PM 756 views 0 times favorited 8 replies Add to Favorites Watch
View ezgnann's profile


30 posts in 2046 days

08-31-2015 03:54 PM

Topic tags/keywords: finish

I have a picture of me an infant that is printed on wood. The picture is covered in these random brown spots. My parents were smokers (hey, it was the 1970s after all) and my dad believes that it is smoke residue and nicotine on the piece.

Are there any recommendations on how to clean it without damaging or destroying the pictures?

-- Woodworking is cheaper than psychotherapy and better for me than whiskey

8 replies so far

View JBrow's profile


750 posts in 343 days

#1 posted 12-19-2015 02:44 AM

Have you cleaned up the embossed photo? If not—

I am a smoker of cigars in my garage workshop. When the white interior metal garage door becomes coated with an amber tone which is residue from cigar smoke, I have found success in removing the residue using Simple Green, It is a liquid soap than can be mixed with water.

Acetone, available in a home center like Lowes or Home Depot could also work, but it is a stronger solvent than soap and could damage either the finish or the photo.

Also, and the first thing I would try is plain water and if this doesn’t work, then simple liquid dish washing soap mixed with water.

Another idea would be to try furniture paste wax. While rubbing on the wax, the residue may be dissolved in the wet wax. If the residue dissolves in the wax, remove the wax BEFORE it dries – working in small areas at a time. If the residue does not dissolve in the wet wax, go no further. Applying wax to the entire project if it has little or no effect would make removing the residue all the more difficult.

However any efforts in cleaning should be proceeded by determining, if you can, the finish that was originally applied to the wood. I would guess an oil finish or polyurethane. Polyurethane is pretty tough so washing with soap and water would probably be safe. I am unsure about the effect of acetone on any type of finish. If the finish is an oil finish, you may be able to successfully remove residue by re-applying the oil finish. The solvent in the oil finish could dissolve the residue and thus be removed by removing the freshly applied and still wet oil finish.

Notwithstanding the finish or solvent, find a small inconspicuous location and try these or any other methods in this area first. If any damage to the embossed photo is noted, then you must try something else.

My last thought is that perhaps the discoloration is not due to a residue on top of the finish, but rather a failure of the finish itself.

Good luck in you efforts.

View realcowtown_eric's profile


557 posts in 1360 days

#2 posted 12-19-2015 06:28 AM

take some plain jane white bread and roll it into a ball. Then dab it on in an inconspicuous place. it may lift it off the surface.

If not my next best suggestion is to find an art conservatorwith a specialty in photographic restoration.

While Photographic paper prints were usually washed to remove chemical residue and maybe they have some secret solution to wash it out, this may have been a black and white emulsion laid down on the wood, exposed and developed and then hand coloured…...that was quite a great thing to do before colour emulsions were available. The fact that this is on wood makes me think that this is quite likely . So they may not be nicotine stains, but “fixer” (sodium thiosulphate) stains, as it would be quite hard to wash the fixer out of the wood. . The hand colouring tints were water soluble, so any kind of washing may quite possibly remove all colour

Check out this site

And from what I read there, I wouldn’t even try the bread dough without talking with them, as it may add furthur organic material that might in time make the problem worse.

Good luck with that dilemma. It may be costly.


-- Real_cowtown_eric

View MrUnix's profile


4039 posts in 1622 days

#3 posted 12-19-2015 06:45 AM

My last thought is that perhaps the discoloration is not due to a residue on top of the finish, but rather a failure of the finish itself.
- JBrow

That was my thought as well… I’ve been a smoker for 40+ years and have never seen stains like that from smoke… instead, more of a uniform, even amber tint across the surface, and definitely not splotched like that.


-- Brad in FL - To be old and wise, you must first be young and stupid

View CharleyL's profile


190 posts in 2787 days

#4 posted 12-19-2015 05:29 PM

Duplicate post – Deleted

View CharleyL's profile


190 posts in 2787 days

#5 posted 12-19-2015 05:50 PM

Have the photo professionally scanned into electronic form before you attempt any manual restoration. That way you can proceed with an electronic restoration if your attempts at manual restoration fail. If the glass is stuck to the photo, leave it stuck. Clean the glass carefully and then have it professionally scanned with the glass still in place.

The photo equipment stores sell a professional photo cleaning fluid for cleaning photos and negatives, but be careful. Test it on a very small spot in the corner where possible damage won’t show before using it on the whole print. It usually works well, but some old photos can be destroyed if the photo chemical composition is wrong for the cleaner. Pre 1950 photos may not do well when these methods are employed.

This is a good instruction sheet

Some years ago I did professional photo retouching and restoration, but I no longer have the ability or the equipment. (None of the models used in advertising are as perfect as they look in the ads. Trust me, I know. I was one of the people who fixed their photos for the ads.)


View Fred Hargis's profile

Fred Hargis

3848 posts in 1916 days

#6 posted 12-19-2015 06:33 PM

I would expect smoke residue to be more even without the spots, I’m not all that sure it’s the problem. Regardless, the approach would be the same: use caution and start with the less aggressive cleaning approaches first.

-- Our village hasn't lost it's idiot, he was elected to congress.

View Don Butler's profile

Don Butler

1081 posts in 2818 days

#7 posted 12-19-2015 09:05 PM

Sometimes spots like that are a result of insufficient “fixing” in the printing process.
I haven’t actually seen any wooden prints, but I know that they are sometimes done by depositing a photo emulsion directly on the wood and then processing it as if it were a regular photo print. This takes me back to the “good ol’ days”.
The problems that can arise, producing discoloring, come from a couple of things. First there could be a reaction between the chemistry present in the wood itself and the chemicals used to make the photo print. Tannin is a component of some woods that can produce brown spots just about the same color as I am seeing in the photo you showed.
The other thing can be the chemicals in the photo process not being completed. The developer chemical has to be neutralized with a “fixer”, something that stabilizes the image and the developer that inevitably remains in the print.
Insufficient fixing will eventually result in discoloration.
What to do? I suspect the spotting is not on the surface but right in the image. If that is so, only painstaking and expensive hand retouching will restore the photo. If that turns out to be true, you might be better off to go the route of making a copy, either by scanning or with a digital camera, and repairing the image in the computer, and then place it on another piece of wood.
There is a method of printing the retouched digital image on a sheet of film and transferring it to the wood, after which the film is removed.
In most cases, old, stained or damaged photos of any type should not be repaired. They should be preserved as they are. Digital images can be repaired without touching the originals and if mistakes are made, they can erase them without any consequences.
I hope you will think carefully about trying to fix the original.
Best wishes,

-- No trees were damaged in posting this message, but thousands of electrons were seriously inconvenienced.

View dhazelton's profile


2289 posts in 1719 days

#8 posted 12-20-2015 12:50 AM

You said it’s ‘printed on wood,’ which I assume to mean is affixed to wood. The spots are either form the acid in the wood or in the adhesive. Photos can also discolor if in direct contact with glass in the frame and don’t have an airspace from the matt. If you cherish it go to a photography studio and they can either conserve it or scan it as suggested and clean it up in photoshop and give you an archival print on acid free paper. If it’s your only copy and you want to preserve it don’t try home remedies as some people are suggesting.

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