Jolie Kerr is a cleaning expert and advice columnist. She'll be here every week helping to answer your filthiest questions. Are you dirty? Check the Squalor Archive for assistance. Are you still dirty? Email her.
We are redoing our wood fireplace to make it a pass-through to the next room. We need to affix more fire bricks in order to do so, and it doesn't seem like a good idea to do that to dirty bricks—do you have recommendations for removing the soot out of the fireplace? Any help would be greatly appreciated, especially before my husband whips out the acid and kills us all.
You needn't worry about being killed by acid, because acid is way, way more than this task calls for. Probably.
There are, as you probably expect, a number of different ways to remove soot and smoke buildup. We'll go through those in order of least severe chemical-type stuff to most severe chemical-type stuff. You should, of course, chime in below with what's worked for you, if you've found yourself in a soot-removal situation and have wisdom to impart.
Soap, Water and Elbow Grease
LW didn't indicate how heavy the soot buildup is, so let's start with the simplest solution in the event this is a fairly low-soot situation. Good old soap and water will take soot off of bricks, but there's a catch: You'll also need to employ a scrub brush. Which means a lot of hard work on your part, because your own elbow grease is what's going to do the bulk of the cleaning. Which is fine! Hard work is good for the soul (and the biceps).
If that's not in the cards for you—either because it sounds too ghastly for words (fair) or because physical limitations prevent you from doing that much scrubbing (also fair, obvs)—and you own a power drill, great. Get a brush attachment for the drill and put it to good use.
(I'm tempted to cut this column short so we can convene in the comments to talk about our favorite drill attachments. I'm far too committed to your cleaning needs to actually do so, but do you think when I'm done here we could still maybe huddle up to swap drill-attachment tales? I've got a glass-cutter bit that makes me so nervous and so delighted all at the same time.)
So let's just say that your soot problem is bigger than what mere soap and water can solve. I come bearing other suggestions! The first of which is a soot-eraser. I mean, it sounds promising, right? The only thing is that the soot eraser is still going to require some labor.
Krud Kutter et al.
If the soot-eraser doesn't do it for you, either in practice or in theory, there are also plenty of spray cleansers out there that may be more to your liking. Krud Kutter is one, Brick Anew is another, this nice brick- and stone-cleaner is another. These are the kinds of things you'll find at hardware or home-improvement stores—poke around a bit, you're likely to find a few options along these lines. Follow the manufacturer's directions for usage, since some will require dilution, or specify that you apply the product and allow it to penetrate for X amount of time before scrubbing or wiping away.
And finally, we come to the acid LW was so dreading. Or rather, the alkaline the LW was so dreading, because TSP (trisodium phosphate, if you want to get all science-y about things) is alkaline, not acid. That is the beginning and end of our discussion of the pH scale. MOVING ALONG.
So here's the deal with TSP: It works, like, crazy good. It is also a capital S, capital C Serious Chemical and needs to be handled in a very specific way: namely, with gloves and goggles and ventilation. Do you hate me for making you wear dorky cleaning goggles? I get it, but still: Wear the goggles.
To use TSP, dilute a quarter- to a half-cup of TSP in two or so gallons of water, and scrub the brick using a sponge or brush. Because TSP is so very strong, it will do the bulk of the work for you, though some effort will be required on your part.
With any of these options, you'll want to put down a drop cloth of sorts to protect your flooring and work from the top down, as the soot and cleaning solution will drip downward as you clean.
Now, let's talk about drill attachments below, please.
Jolie Kerr is the author of the book My Boyfriend Barfed in My Handbag … And Other Things You Can't Ask Martha (Plume); more of her cleaning-obsessed natterings can be found onTwitter, Kinja, and Tumblr.
Image by Sam Woolley
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