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How to Clean Walls and Wallpaper

Learn how to remove smudges, smears and fingermarks from your walls with these expert tips.

Excerpted from Houseworks, by Cynthia Townley Ewer
A woman cleans wall molding with a soft rag.

Soft with paint or bright with wallpaper, walls frame the life of the household — but too often, they also wear it! Daily living tends to deposit smudges, smears, and fingermarks (especially if there are small children in the household), marring the beauty of walls and woodwork. Painted or papered, keep walls clean and gleaming with these tips for wall cleaning and maintenance.

How to clean painted walls
On your mark, get set, prep! Cleaning painted walls is a big job, so be prepared. Push furniture to the center of the room, and lay down old sheets or canvas drop cloths to catch soapy drips. Avoid plastic tarps; they don't absorb water and become slippery when wet. To protect your hands and to remind you where pictures belong, cover picture nails with a chunk of household sponge.

Assemble your wall-washing tools: lamb's wool duster, white cleaning cloths, a natural sponge (avoid colored sponges, since they can deposit dyes on light-colored walls) and two buckets: one filled with cleaning solution and one filled with clear water for rinsing. Rubber gloves or washing-up gloves protect your hands; be sure to turn up glove cuffs to help contain drips. A step stool makes it easier to get to the high reaches for easy cleaning; tools with handles keep wall cleaning sessions safe.

Ready to Clean
In one bucket, mix a wall-cleaning solution. For normal soil levels, try a mild detergent solution to clean walls that consists of:

  • 1 gallon (4 liters) warm water, to which you add
  • a good squeeze of liquid dishwashing detergent


For more heavily soiled walls, you'll need a stronger alkali solution, but spot-test any cleaning mixture first to ensure it won't remove or lighten paint. Add all of the following to your bucket and give it a good stir before you start:

  • 1 gallon (4 liters) warm water
  • 1 cup (250ml) clear nonsudsing ammonia
  • 1 cup (250ml) white vinegar
  • 1 cup (250ml) washing soda (borax)


The second bucket should hold clean water, to be used for rinsing. Change the water if it starts to look very dirty as you work around the room.

Ditch the Dust
Dust is always easier to remove than mud, so remove any loose dust before bringing moisture into the mix. Circle the room with the lambswool duster, wiping walls and woodwork from the top down. Take the duster outside and spin the handle between your palms to release the dust.

Alternately, use a vacuum cleaner's extension wand and bristle brush head (used for upholstery) to remove dust and cobwebs from walls and woodwork.

Bottoms Up
Drips are inevitable when washing walls. Should they run down dry, dirty surfaces, they'll dry-and create long muddy stains. Avoid drip issues by washing walls from the bottom up. Yes, you'll drip onto already-cleaned areas, but the solution will be a quick swipe with a sponge, not a tough cleaning job.

Dip the natural sponge into the bucket of cleaning solution, and rub the wall gently to avoid removing paint. Work in small areas, washing and then using the sponge to rinse the area with clear water. Last, blot excess moisture with white cleaning cloths.

Take It to the End
When washing walls, always wash the entire wall, bottom to top and side-to-side. If you need a breather, take it between walls, not in the middle. Stopping the job before you finish the entire wall can cause "wash marks": a wave effect caused by stop-and-go wall washing. Avoid this by washing an entire wall in a single session, using the same type and strength of cleaning solution.

Wallpaper Cleaning Tips and Tricks
Wallpaper's bright colors and varied textures enliven any room — but that same color and texture can cause problems when it's time to clean. Protect your investment with these wallpaper cleaning tips:

  • Check manufacturer's guidelines. Because wallpapers differ in content and coating, follow the manufacturer's advice for appropriate cleaning methods.
  • Dust carefully. Use a lamb's wool duster, or tie a dry cleaning cloth over a broom to dust the walls before cleaning.
  • Older, noncoated wallpaper. Use a "dry sponge," found at the hardware store. This product lifts and removes surface dirt without moisture. Rub it lightly against the surface in long strokes to remove dirt.
  • Scrubbable or washable wallpaper. Use a natural sponge lightly dampened with a solution of warm water and a small amount of liquid dishwashing detergent. Before cleaning, test the solution in an inconspicuous corner to be sure it won't remove paper or coating. Don't scrub too hard or allow the paper to get too wet to avoid damage. Use cleaning cloths to absorb extra moisture after rinsing.
  • Fingermarks or smudges. Remove by rubbing them gently with an art gum eraser. Use a light touch to avoid damaging the area. Commercial wallpaper cleaners may also be used to lift the small stuff.
  • Cleaners to avoid. Never use abrasive cleaners — scouring powder or "soft-scrub" cleanser — to clean wallpaper. The abrasive granules which they contain can scratch the wallpaper's coating.

Excerpted from Houseworks, by Cynthia Townley Ewer

Text Copyright © 2006, 2010, Cynthia Townley Ewer, extracts from Houseworks, reproduced with permission from Dorling Kindersley Limited

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