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Wall Washing Secrets

It is an exceptional day indeed when you have to wash a wall completely. Certainly some walls would benefit from being washed, but it would be better to paint others instead, and some should be benignly ignored. Your decision about what to do will depend not only on the degree of uncleanliness, but also on the type of paint and type of surface as well.

Gloss and Semigloss Paints
These are the exceptions to our general disinclination to clean walls. Gloss and semigloss paints call for a thorough cleaning much more often than a repainting. They wash and clean up far more easily than flat paint, which is a primary consideration for selecting them in the first place.


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Do a test area first to be sure that you will do no damage to the surface. The test also tells you whether or not the walls need cleaning to begin with. If they don't look any different after the test, relax and wait until next year.
Flat Paint
It's much more laborious to clean flat paint, and it's much less likely to come clean of fingerprints, stains, smoke, grease, and so forth. Nor does it do as good a job resisting damage by the chemical action of cleaning. The paint itself can be discolored or damaged by the cleaning solution, or it can be worn right off the walls during the cleaning process.

Latex paints vary in several ways — ability to cover previous coats, resistance to fading, depth of color, resistance to running, and cleanability. Often to excel in one dimension the paint manufacturer must sacrifice one or more of the others. Cheaper flat latex paints are notorious for allowing stains to go right through the coating and for rubbing right off when you try to wash them. When you buy paint ask about its rated ability to be cleaned. It's often worth the extra dollar a gallon to get a premium grade of paint that will save you hours of work in the long run. You can also check the periodic reviews of house paints in consumer magazines.

But even if you bought an excellent grade of flat paint, its chief maintenance advantage is not that you can wash the entire surface of the walls. Rather, you are much more likely to be removing stains and spot-cleaning the small areas around the light switches and thermostat — hundreds of times during the lifetime of the paint, perhaps. But don't wash the entire wall! Only do this in case of emergency (like smoke damage) or your own personal choice and to heck with our advice.

So what should be done with flat-finished walls that are thoroughly dirty? Paint them. Painting may not be cheaper, and it certainly involves hard work (as does washing them), but the walls will look so much better when you're finished. For a bit more effort, it's worth it.

Most of these flat-finished walls that you are thinking about washing have seen a fair amount of history enacted in front of them in their years of service. The wall behind the rocking chair has numerous little nicks where the chair has hit the wall over and over and over again. There's an infuriatingly visible scratch next to the picture frame that was gouged when you jiggled the frame as you were cleaning it. Then there are those holes in the wall where all the pictures used to be before you rearranged everything a couple of years ago — plus the holes left over from the holiday decorations. Also the paint-free spots where you had taped up balloons for the party last summer. Remember the sickening feeling when the tape took the paint right off the wall? Oh, and those oily patches where people lean their heads against the wall while they watch TV? And then there's the corner where the dog sleeps. And the red crayon stains that you can still see despite your best efforts.

Unfortunately, even after you’ve washed these walls, a great many of these eye-sores will still be there. If you paint, they will be obliterated. With either job, you'll have to cover the furniture, move the furniture away from the walls, take down the pictures, and remove the drapes. This is a big chunk of work whether you're washing or painting. Paint. You'll be happier.

One exception to this rule is if you've had an accident in the room before all the normal wear-and-tear conflagrations have had a chance to transpire. Maybe some heavy-duty smokers turned the walls a shade of nicotine orange only a few months after you painted. Go ahead and wash the walls. Or maybe you moved into a house with walls so dirty that they have to be washed before you can even think of painting them. Or it may just be a matter of personal choice. If you feel better washing the walls, by all means go right ahead. The instructions follow.

The "inconspicuous test area" is even more important with flat latex surfaces. The chances of a bad reaction between the paint and the cleaner are greater than with other surfaces. Don't take a chance without trying the cleaner in an out-of-the-way spot first.
The Choice of Cleaner
We prefer clean, nonsudsy, nondetergent, non-anything-else ammonia for washing walls. There are many other possibilities, but ammonia works as well or better than anything else we've tried. And it's downright cheap. Get clear ammonia, which is generally sold in janitorial supply stores. Its major drawback—as in the case of all ammonia formulas—is its ferocious odor, but its superlative cleaning qualities are hard to pass up. With all types of ammonia, make sure the area you're cleaning is well ventilated.

Mix 1 to 2 cups of ammonia per gallon of water. If you use cool rather than warm water, fewer fumes will drift your way. Our second choice is TSP (trisodium phosphate), which we actually prefer when we are washing walls in preparation for repainting. The TSP seems to leave the surface microscopically etched, which gives the paint a better "bite" on the surface. The few streaks it leaves won't matter because you're just going to paint right over them anyway.
See If You Can Get Away With Spot-Cleaning
Usually the only walls you ever need to wash are in the kitchen and bathroom. These rooms are normally covered with a gloss or semigloss paint that should respond well to cleaning. But often there are just a few streaks over a kitchen countertop, or a few lines on bathroom walls caused by condensation. Just wipe off these areas with an all-purpose cleaner and a cleaning cloth when you're doing your normal weekly cleaning. Sometimes that's all that's really needed to keep them relatively spotless. The idea is to spot-clean absolutely whenever you can get away with it. If not, proceed with full washing. Most bathroom walls could use complete washing once a year or so, and the kitchen every couple years or so.
If this is a kitchen or bathroom, there usually isn't much furniture to move away from the walls. But regardless of the room, move the furniture that will be in the way and then pay particular attention to the small items. For example, move the garbage can out of the room so you don't collide with it later. Move or cover trays of little items like makeup and perfume so cleaning solution doesn't drip on them. Move items on the kitchen counters away from you or out of the way in case you have to stand on the countertops as you work.

Take down the curtains or drapes. And then, unless they are nice and clean, wash them or send them out to be dry-cleaned. The only time you don't have to take them down is when you aren't washing the window frames. But since the frames are usually just as dirty as the walls, that won't generally be the case. Okay, okay! You can leave the drapes up if it's too much of a hassle: if they are too heavy, or you won't be able to put them back up, or you just don't want to bother. But be aware that they will slow you down as you try to clean the woodwork under and around them if they are left in place. Get miniblinds out of the way by pulling them all the way to the top position or send them out to be cleaned also. (Look in the Yellow Pages under "Venetian Blind Cleaners.")

Remove all the pictures from the wall. Don't remove the nails. Be careful, however; the nails practically disappear from sight once the pictures are off, and they turn into deadly little pieces of metal that slice fingertips and rip sponges. You can protect yourself from them by hanging a cleaning cloth from each nail as you remove the picture. The cloth will remind you where the nails are so you can avoid any mishap with them as you wash your way around the room. As you're using cleaning cloths anyway to dry the wall, you can put the cloths to work when you collect them back from the nails as you come to them.

If the windowsills and baseboards are even moderately dusty, vacuum them first with the brush attachment. It is extremely important that you take the time to follow this Instruction. If your home is like many where the walls need washing, the baseboards and windowsills are also nice and dusty. You do remember what happens to dust when you add water to it. Mud. And it is much more tedious to remove mud by hand than it is to remove dust with a vacuum cleaner. Don't forget to vacuum the high molding. Cobwebs are much easier to vacuum away than to wash away — especially as they have a lousy little habit of swinging loose and landing smack in an area you just cleaned. Vacuum the walls themselves only if there is visible dust on a flat latex surface.

If You’re Washing Walls After Washing the Ceiling

If you plan on doing the ceiling during the same session as the walls, do the ceiling first. If you've just finished washing the ceiling, go to the same corner in which you had started the ceiling. As the ceiling is now clean, you don't have to worry about disturbing the uniformity of its appearance. This means you can safely continue to use a flat mop on the walls all the way up to the ceiling.

Tie your cleaning apron snugly around your waist. Hang the bottle of all purpose cleaner on its appropriate loop and put the toothbrush in its pocket. Load five to ten cleaning cloths in a large apron pocket, and put the white pad into a plastic-lined pocket. Set the flat mop and the cleaning tray with its extra cloths and supplies just outside the door of the room you're cleaning. Take the bucket and the clear ammonia to the nearest convenient sink.

Max about cup of clear ammonia in about a half a bucket of warm water. (Adjust this formula according to how dirty the wall is.) We prefer using one side of a double bucket for reasons that will shortly become apparent. Carry the bucket to the corner of the room you're about to clean. It doesn't really matter, but for uniformity we start in the left-hand corner of the room farthest from the door we will eventually exit from.
This is back to basics, but the Speed Cleaning book Rule 1 applies—“Work around the room once without backtracking”. Clean everything as you come to it — upper molding, door frames, windowsills, and lower molding — not to mention the walls also. Work to the right and from top to bottom as you proceed. Use the flat mop to wash, and a cleaning cloth over the mop to dry. As with ceilings, save time by not rinsing except in extreme cases.
Work from the Top Down!
Just about every book we've read on the subject, and every person we've ever talked to, says to wash walls from the bottom up. The stated reason is because streams of cleaning solution run down the wall and cause anxiety-provoking streaks. Right, but don't you have exactly as many dribbles of cleaning solution running down the wall if you work from the bottom up? Of course you do. The same number of dribbles are going to travel the same paths — in one case on a dirty surface, in the other on a clean surface. Streaks may appear to be catastrophic at first, but eventually they blend into the background as the cleaner takes effect on the whole surface. The only danger is when dribbles are left on the wall for a long period. In that case, you'll be making work for yourself by having to blend them into the background. The correct technique is to manage the cleaning solution on the wall. When you see solution running down the wall, wipe it off with a cloth before it has a chance to cause trouble.

Besides, if you work from top to bottom you don't have to retouch the bottom as much. For example, if you clean the baseboard first, and then clean the wall above it, there is no way in the world you can clean that wall without dripping dirty cleaning solution onto your nice clean baseboard. So you have to stop and wipe the baseboard you just cleaned. How much smarter and quicker to wash the wall first from top to bottom and then wash the baseboard last — never having to worry about little drips splattering on your clean work. As Speed Cleaning Rule 3 says: “Work from top to bottom, Always, Period. Don’t argue.”
Use a Flat Mop
Stand a couple of feet from the wall so you can reach into the area you are cleaning with the flat mop. That is, don't try to wash the area right in front of you. Wash a strip about 3 feet wide and proceed all the way from the top of the wall down to the baseboards before you move ahead to the next strip. Stop to rinse the mop as often as necessary. If the room is too small, or the wall is too hard to reach because of immovable objects, you can take the pad off the mop and use it by hand. Or use a cleaning cloth or sponge on small areas. Keep the amount of cleaning solution running down the wall to a minimum by wringing the mop pad after you rinse it.
Wiping Dry
Each time you finish a strip of the wall with the flat mop, rinse the pad out, wring it as dry as you can, and put a cleaning cloth over it. Now use it to wipe that same area dry. This is the same technique used when doing the ceiling. Just run the cloth over the wall, holding the mop the same way as you did when washing. Stop and turn the cleaning cloth or put on a new one as often as necessary. It's important to keep the cloths uniformly dry and uniformly clean so the wall will have an even cleanliness after it dries. Wipe with the cloth before the walls dry of their own accord or else you'll end up with streaks. If you have trouble keeping the cloths in place, use old terry-cloth towels instead.
Lower Part of the Wall
After you clean the upper part of the wall that's out of reach, you will find it easier to stop using the mop entirely. At lower levels, the mop handle can start to become awkward to maneuver, especially in small or crowded rooms. You can remove the pad from the mop and use it alone, or you can use a large sponge or a cleaning cloth dipped in cleaning solution.

Baseboards, Molding, Doors, and Windows

You have to wash them. They won't go away. And it's fastest to clean them as you come to them. By cleaning them in turn, you don't waste time backtracking or making additional trips around the room to do them later.
Nooks and Crannies
Clean areas that are difficult to reach with your toothbrush. It works very well in the corners of windowsills or woodwork, around (and on) light switches, molding, and stubborn spots. Switch to a larger brush if you have to cover substantial square footage. Just keep it moving. If you need a little extra cleaning solution in an area, reach for your all-purpose cleaner rather than the bucket or mop.
These are easy. Just stand close to each wall in turn to clean all the way into the corner. First do one side all the way to the baseboards with the flat mop and then the other side all the way down. Then clean the corner baseboards and wipe the area dry.

If you can't get into the corner all the way because of the size of the room or some other obstacle, grab a cloth and use that instead.
Spots and Stains
The toothbrush and all-purpose cleaner are your first line of offense against spots and stains. If they fail, recall that you are carrying a white pad and fine steel wool. If you come upon a relatively innocent little black mark on the wall, say 1/4 inch wide and 1 inch long, please don't grab your steel wool and start scratching away at an area of the wall that measures a good 6 by 6 inches. That method may indeed remove the small black spot—the one that none of your friends could see without their glasses — or it could turn it into one that you can't miss from the next room. Be careful.

When using a white pad or steel wool pad on a spot on the wall, the idea is to concentrate its effectiveness on the spot and not the surrounding area. This is accom­plished by applying pressure with your finger on the pad on just the spot. You can even use something like the handle end of the toothbrush to concentrate the working surface of the pad.

We are frequently asked how to remove crayon marks from walls. Our method is to spray the area with Endust, agitate gently with the toothbrush, and wipe with a cleaning cloth. Then spray the same area with all-purpose cleaner to remove the Endust residue. Wipe clean and dry. The Endust works its way under the crayon mark and floats it off the surface. We have used this method on scrubbable painted walls as well as many types of wallpaper (especially vinyl). Again, you must pretest an area to make sure the procedure is safe for your particular wall surface.
Managing the Cleaning Solution
Change it often. If you don't, you will be able to see plainly the difference between a clean and dirty solution on the walls.

You're Finished!

If you persevere you will complete one trip around the room, which means that you're finished. Congratulations!

If You’re Washing Only the Walls and Not the Ceiling

When you clean or paint the walls without doing the ceiling, be sure not to disturb the uniform appearance of the ceiling or it will be painfully obvious. The reason a dirty ceiling may still look just fine is that the dirt on it is undisturbed. For example, if you molest that even layer of smoke on the ceiling by splashing water on it or by inadvertently cleaning a streak here and there with the mop, you'll make some brilliantly clean spots that are much worse than nice even dirt because now you'll have to wash the entire ceiling. There are better ways to spend Saturday afternoon.

The way to avoid touching the ceiling when cleaning the walls is first to clean the top foot or so of the wall with a cleaning cloth or a sponge, using a second cloth to wipe the area dry. Then use the much faster flat mop to wash the rest of the wall. Standing on a chair if you can — a ladder if you must — clean the strip at the top of the wall. But don't do the strip all the way around the room. Rather, clean a strip that you can reach from the chair and then move the chair ahead and wash the rest of the wall with the mop. (You're just working from the top to the bottom before moving on.) Except for this strip, follow the wall-washing instructions for flat mops that we have already described. Be very careful not to touch the ceiling at all.
Washing Walls Using a Ladder or Work Platform
There are times that you must use a ladder to wash walls. Let's say you don't believe us about how well the flat mop method works, or the dirt is such that you can't scrub hard enough with the flat mop, or the walls are too high. There is no way to avoid a ladder. So be it.

The basic strategies are almost identical to those used while using a ladder or a platform to wash ceilings, which are discussed under "Washing Ceilings." No sense repeating them here, but there are one or two considerations peculiar to walls that we should review.
Do the Top Half of the Wall First
Because the work platform will be in the way of cleaning the bottom half, you can wash only the top half of the wall on the first pass. As before, be sure to catch or wipe off streaks of cleaning solution that start to run down the wall. Clean the top half of the wall from one end of the work platform to the other, and resist the temptation to reach or lean past the end or you may upset the whole apple cart. Then set the bucket on the floor near the first part of the wall you washed from the platform.

Move the platform by moving the plank first, and then each chair or ladder. Next wash the lower half of the wall, including the baseboards. Then get back up on the platform and start again on a new section. Clean window frames, sills, door frames, and any other woodwork as you come to them.

Once again, after you’ve made one complete trip around the room, you’re done.
The proper way to maintain walls is to keep them free of spots and fingerprints. Each time you do your weekly cleaning, have all-purpose cleaner at the ready for new spots that have appeared. Remove them by spraying and wiping clean with a cloth. Anything that gets on the wall that might result in a permanent stain should be removed whenever you see it. Don't wait until you clean the house again.

The other maintenance is preventive in nature. Especially when you wash a wall, you'll discover things that could have been done to make the job easier. For instance, if the furnace vent is making a black area on the wall above it, install an air deflector. Oily spots on the wall from hair can be avoided by locating a pillow at strategic spots on the couch. If the chair is hitting the wall, move it out and put something under the legs so it doesn't move right back. As you clean house, be aware of spots being made on the walls that can be stopped by moving something. Then do it. It's a pleasant feeling to solve these little problems instead of just wondering about them as you're cleaning. You'll be grateful you did because the house will look better between now and when you wash or paint again — and those jobs will be that much easier too.


Wall Washing Secrets:  Created on October 10th, 2004.  Last Modified on January 21st, 2014


About Jeff Campbell

Jeff Campbell






Jeff Campbell is widely regarded as one of America's leading home cleaning experts. He has appeared regularly on HGTV, and his books have been condensed in Reader's Digest and Family Circle, and reviewed in USA Today, the National Enquirer, The Christian Science Monitor and other publications. Jeff's Speed Cleaning methods have created millions of leisure hours for hundreds of thousands of busy people — and all through helping people clean smarter, not harder. For more information, visit TheCleanTeam.