How to Clean Fireplace Soot

Fireplace soot is a stubborn stain---soot is, after all, the basis for India ink. Since those of us who love a roaring fire in the dead of winter are unlikely to give up our fireplaces, soot is occasionally going to attach itself to soft surfaces like carpets, drapes and clothes as well as the hearth and mantle.

Clean Fireplace Soot

Although you should definitely call a professional for annual chimney cleaning and inspection, most soot removal can be accomplished using some old-fashioned techniques.

  1. Confine the mess and limit its spread. Mask the area around your work space with old sheets if it's large or newspaper for a smaller area. Cover any adjoining surfaces (like carpet next to a fireplace) and tape edges with masking tape or wide painter's tape if necessary.

  2. Vacuum the area thoroughly several times, being careful to avoid rubbing the soot into the surface. Soot is composed of tiny pieces of carbon bound by resins from the wood that vaporize as it burns. If you rub the soot, the particles break down and the resins attach themselves (along with some carbon) to whatever it lands on, so go lightly. "Shop vacs" work best because they're easiest to clean. If you don't have one and have to use your household vacuum, be sure to change the bag when you finish. Soot will clog the bag and limit the vacuum's ability to pick up dirt. If you use a bagless vacuum, remember to wipe it out well.

  3. Brush the soot off the surface with a stiff-bristled brush. Steel-bristled brushes work fine on barbecues and fireplace surrounds but a laundry or vegetable brush will work on other surfaces without risking a scratch. Use a bottle or even a tooth brush on fabrics and in corners. Hold your "shop-vac" nozzle over the area as you brush out the particles to keep them from lighting somewhere else.

  4. Mix up a solution of washing soda (sodium carbonate) and water and don your rubber gloves if the brush-vac process doesn't finish off the soot. Scrub with the stiff-bristled brush and blot with a lint-free cloth (old undershirts or diapers work well), turning the cloth to keep a clean area toward the stain. Repeat as necessary. If the soot is stuck to a delicate article of clothing, try washing it in baking soda (sodium bicarbonate), then in dishwashing liquid.

  5. Use stronger cleaners with care if sweeping and washing soda don't work. Tri-sodium phosphate (TSP), a surface cleaner favored by painters, and muriatic acid, diluted at least 9-to-1 with water can be used with care on hard surfaces like walls and bricks. Use boric acid or dishwashing detergent made into a paste on small areas. Try soaking fabrics like cotton and some polyester in a solution of water and dishwashing detergent overnight and then wash again in dishwashing liquid to "neutralize" the fabric. However many solutions you try, rinse completely between each step. Some cleaners, notably acids like vinegar or chlorine bleach, don't play well with others and release toxic gases when combined with other cleaners.

  6. Tip

    Keep the vacuum's brush attachment in the box unless you plan to scrub it out before putting it away--the bristles will pick up most of the soot. Look for washing soda in the laundry section, the automotive section or the Kosher section of your local grocery or discount store. It's also available online. It is not equivalent to either baking soda or TSP.


    Never use solvents before trying to vacuum or shake soot out of fabric. Once it's worked into a fabric, it's that much harder to extract. Always use eye protection and wear long sleeves and gloves when working with caustic solutions (TSP) or acids.