Book Burning
January 24, 2010 2:22 PM   Subscribe

How to get the smoke smell out of books?

Long story short: My apartment building burned. My unit was mostly smoke and water damage. I had a lot and I mean, a lot of books. Many are just ruined, and the insurance company will have to pick the tab up. Others, however, came out okay, except for a faint smoky smell. I realize I can write them off, but some of them I want to keep for sentimental reasons. How can I go about removing the odor? To be clear, these are both paperbacks and hardcovers.

Thanks in Advance
posted by dortmunder to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
Lava rocks.
posted by Elmore at 2:29 PM on January 24, 2010

Have you tried baking soda or charcoal (in a closed container, with the books separated from the charcoal)?
posted by Houstonian at 2:31 PM on January 24, 2010

Your local Servicemaster's or fire recovery service should have a room that they process smoke damaged items. My books were one of the few things of mine that came out not smelling like smoke post-fire.
posted by moojoose at 2:37 PM on January 24, 2010

Best answer: This isn't about smoke specifically but is a decent outline for managing book smells generally.
How do I eliminate or reduce a musty odor in a book?

Our neighbors at the Northeast Document Conservation Center say this: There is no guaranteed way to remove the musty smell from old books, but there is a strategy that may be successful. This musty smell is most often noted in books that have been moldy or mildewed in the past. The first step is to create an enclosed chamber. This is most easily done by using two garbage cans, one large (with a lid) and one small. The object to be "deodorized" should be placed in the smaller can, which is then placed inside the larger can. Some type of odor-absorbing material should then be placed in the bottom of the larger can. Odor-absorbing materials to try include baking soda, charcoal briquettes (without lighter fluid), or kitty litter. The lid should then be placed on the larger can, and the chamber should be left for some time. You will need to monitor periodically to see how long the materials need to be left inside the chamber.
posted by jessamyn at 2:43 PM on January 24, 2010 [9 favorites]

It will take time. Soot needs to be removed from the covers and spines, then the books will need airing out, or using activated charcoal as Houstonian mentions.
posted by Ghidorah at 3:05 PM on January 24, 2010

Best answer: We had a big house fire two years ago. The house had to be completely gutted. The books were all wiped off, stuck in storage for 6 months and then taken out and wiped off again. They smelled for a couple of months, and now don't smell at all. Including the ones that I got out of the children's room where the fire started. The fire cleanup company wiped them off (very badly), and then when I got them back out, I wiped off the covers and sooty bits with baby wipes. I then kept them separated until the covers had dried off. (They weren't valuable books, just regular ones, so I wasn't paying for, or wasting time on any fancy smoke removal techniques. Also, there were at least a thousand books.) I really thought they would stink up the house and I'd have to eventually throw them away, but no. They are all fine. They didn't stink up the house at all. There were a few slightly mildewed ones - i wiped them off, kept them standing up and open until dry; they are fine. I just found one that was deifinitely in the fire and looks a bit black where the lamination on the cover is disintegrating and it just smells like an old paperback. If you want to keep something, keep it. It can be probably be cleaned. I kept a soot-covered velvet baby dress that was stepped on by firemen. I dug it out of a pile of wet ceiling sheet rock and washed it and, except for the lace on the edge, which is a bit brownish, looks perfectly fine.

You can memail me if you have more cleanup questions. We paid people to clean up, they sucked, I re-cleaned everything myself. I wish I'd kept some things that I threw out that I didn't think could be cleaned, since everything else cleaned up so well. I threw away a fabric loveseat and chair because I figured the smell would never come out - some of the cushions got packed away in the POD and they didn't smell at all when we took them out, despite never having been washed. (My paintings are still a bit dark, but I didn't want to mess with them more than I had to.)
posted by artychoke at 5:18 PM on January 24, 2010

Ziploc bag with kitty litter left for a few weeks works to get cigarette smoke out.
posted by mediareport at 6:37 PM on January 24, 2010

My experience with after-fire smokey smell is similar to artychoke's. After a serious fire in my small cabin, I was told over and over that the smokey smell would never go away unless I spent a lot of money and used special paint, etc. I did none of that and the smell gradually dissipated. I actually left charred framing members in place, which may have actually helped as they were charcoal, after all! I wiped my books and they are odor-free.
posted by Hobgoblin at 9:54 AM on January 25, 2010

For a small scale DIY operation, I support the bag and kitty litter method, but at a recent AIC conference, I learned about some advances in dry ice blasting - great for larger-scale post-fire recovery. In some cases, the books ended up cleaner than they were before they were damaged by smoke. Very compelling!
posted by ikahime at 4:42 PM on January 26, 2010

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