Cigarette, Smoke, Ashtray (copy)

Getting rid of the smell from cigarettes takes several steps. AP file photo.

Dear Ken: How can you get cigarette smoke stench out of the walls in a house? — Carolyn

Answer: It requires more than just washing, although that’s a good place to start. First, degloss the surfaces with some fine sandpaper (say 120 grit), taking care to wear an appropriate breathing mask. Then use some white vinegar and warm water, or TSP (tri sodium phosphate powder) to wash the surfaces. Rinse, then it’s on to the most important step: a good primer/sealer undercoat product, like KILZ or Bullseye 1-2-3. A couple of coats and you’ve sealed the smell away from the room’s interior. You can then paint with a good acyclic latex product.

Also, don’t forget the “soft” surfaces in the house. The drapes and their linings, the carpet and even the pad can absorb and radiate cigarette smoke.

Dear Ken: My wife and I had to run an errand while you were talking on the radio show about refinishing old dark cabinets. Could you let us know how you do this? — Paul

Answer: I ran across a set of cabinets in an early ’80s house that looked like fine oak furniture. When I found out they had started as dark walnut stained, builder-grade cabinets, I had to investigate this transformation. The owner said she had considered a whole new set or at least a complete refacing job, but developed a severe case of “sticker shock” when she got the quotes.

Around the house:

Ken Moon — Around the House

Realizing that the cabinet doors were made from real oak frames and oak plywood, she decided to strip and refinish. Zip Strip brush-on remover was used for the rails (the framework the hinges are screwed into), but the doors proved too daunting, and so were sent to a professional stripping shop. Many antique dealers either have such a facility — where they dip the whole door into a warm and very corrosive chemical solution — or they have access to one.

Once the wood was exposed, she sanded with (first) a 100 grit and then 220 grit sandpaper. Then it’s simply a matter of choosing what clear finish you want to apply. She used MinWax 209 natural wood finish (two coats) and then applied the same brand’s polyurethane finish.

If you want a one-step job, you can consider a Danish oil finish, like Watco. Either way, you’ll end up with a very mellow, golden oak glow on your old (formerly ugly) kitchen cabinets.

Most of these doors came with spring-loaded hinges to close the doors automatically. They’re fairly expensive to replace, so this owner simply recoated them. Degrease them with TSP or mineral spirits, apply a spray-on gray metal primer, and then paint with a brass or bronze overcoat.

The cost for all this? About $1,200. Much less than the thousands for new cabinets or refacing.

Dear Ken: I have two skylights in my open beam ceiling. I heard you discussing a way of covering them from the inside so you didn’t lose any heat but still got the light. Could you please let me know how to do this? — Dan

Answer: In many cases, the shaft from the skylight itself down to your ceiling line isn’t all that attractive. It’s hard to keep clean and — in the case of a bathroom — can collect condensing moisture from bathing. One answer is to install a translucent panel at the bottom of the shaft, which will allow daylight to pass through from the skylight but hide the connecting pathway.

You can use a 2-by-4-foot plastic panel — the same kind you see in office building ceilings. They come in several styles, from a plain flat matte-like finish to a crackled or stippled look that diffuses the light more completely. I prefer these latter finishes because they tend to hide the inevitable dirt and dead bugs that collect on their upper sides.

To support the panel, simply “picture frame” the opening at the ceiling line with some baseboard or other wood trim cut to a slightly smaller size than the panel and whose edges rest just inside the opening. You can then angle the plastic panel through the opening, turn it flat and let it rest on the lip of that frame.

The effect is quite stunning. The panel lets a soft, subtle glow of daylight into the room; and the now dead air space in that vertical shaft is an extra insulator that will keep the room warmer than it has been. If you’d like, you can even attach a small lamp fixture halfway up the shaft to duplicate the effect at night. Keep the wattage small, though — about 60 watts or less, equivalent.

Dear Ken: We have an older brick home. Over the last week, we’ve noticed a 2- to 4-foot crack on the plastered basement wall. It looks like something is busting through. What’s going on? — James

Answer: It’s probably not serious. This plaster is notorious for sloughing off concrete when its exterior surface — the one next to the wall — gets wet. Some moisture is undoubtedly percolating in from the outside. Check all your drainage elements, like gutters and downspouts, and see if there are any leaks or drips from plumbing pipes or outside faucets.

I’d remove whatever plaster wants to come off and apply a masonry paint instead. Wet the old material before you remove it and take appropriate precautions, since it might contain asbestos.

Ken Moon is a home inspector in the Pikes Peak region. His radio show airs at 4 p.m. Saturdays on KRDO, 105.5 FM and 1240 AM. Visit

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