Routine and Periodic Cleaning of Walls and Ceilings

Technical Procedures Disclaimer

Prior to inclusion in GSA’s library of procedures, documents are reviewed by one or more qualified preservation specialists for general consistency with the Secretary of Interior Standards for rehabilitating historic buildings as understood at the time the procedure is added to the library. All specifications require project-specific editing and professional judgement regarding the applicability of a procedure to a particular building, project or location. References to products and suppliers are to serve as a general guideline and do not constitute a federal endorsement or determination that a product or method is the best or most current alternative, remains available, or is compliant with current environmental regulations and safety standards. The library of procedures is intended to serve as a resource, not a substitute, for specification development by a qualified preservation professional.


We’ve reviewed these procedures for general consistency with federal standards for rehabilitating historic buildings and provide them only as a reference. Specifications should only be applied under the guidance of a qualified preservation professional who can assess the applicability of a procedure to a particular building, project or location. References to products and suppliers serve as general guidelines and do not constitute a federal endorsement nor a determination that a product or method is the best alternative or compliant with current environmental regulations and safety standards.



  1. This specification provides guidance on the routine and periodic cleaning of painted and varnished wall and ceiling surfaces using wet and dry methods.

  2. Unless covered with fabric or paper, most walls are likely to be coated. The coating may be durable like paint, or it may be water-soluble and fragile like calcimine or whitewash.

  3. Walls and ceilings may be cleaned by both dry and wet methods.

  4. Although most of the dirt entering a building is brought in on footwear, a part of this becomes airborne, particularly if mats and floors are not cleaned promptly. The volume of airborne dirt which comes to rest on walls and ceilings is a small part of the total, but it builds up slowly on all surfaces and is often unnoticed except around radiators and air grills. Other dirt is deposited on walls through contact with people, objects or furniture.

  5. Historic Structures Precautions:

    1. Personnel should review maintenance manual for building before beginning work. Manual should indicate which surfaces have historic coatings and which have been repainted with either reproduction or modern paints.

    2. Historic materials should be cleaned by a conservator or other knowledgeable person.

    3. Contact the Regional Historical Preservation Officer (RHPO) before working on or around known historic fabric.

    4. RHPO shall be notified of any visible change in the integrity of the building's fabric, from environmental effects, such as biological attack, ultraviolet degradation, freeze, thaw, or structural defects, such as cracks, movement, or distortion.


  1. Dry Methods: Include brushing, wiping or blowing to remove dust and cobwebs from building surfaces and to keep the soil from becoming embedded in these surfaces.

    1. Painters' brushes may be used on window sills, cornices and ledges.

    2. Feather dusters or bellows are recommended but should only be used after all furniture is covered with cloths.

    3. Walls may be swept with a broom used only for this purpose. A broom can be covered with a cloth or a specially fitted cloth bag before using on surfaces.

  2. Wet Methods: Include washing the surfaces with a solution containing a cleaning agent, such as soap or a fine abrasive, and a liquid, such as water or ammonia. Sponges and cloths should be used to control streaking.



NOTE: See the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's list of Safer Choice Products, which meet the EPA's Safer Products Standards.

  1. A non-ionic detergent such as "Ivory Liquid", "Joy", or approved equal.

  2. A cleaner containing soda ash zeolites and/or citric acid. For painted surfaces, a mild detergent such as "Tide" should be used.

  3. Two sponges, one for cleaning solution and one for rinse water.

  4. Dry wiping cloths.


  1. Vacuum cleaner with dusting brush attachment.

  2. Two buckets, one for cleaning solution and one for rinse water.

  3. Round, soft, long-haired brush for dusting.

  4. Dust mop.

  5. Ladders.

  6. Drop cloths.




  1. Move furniture at least three feet away from the walls and cover with drop cloths or plastic sheeting. For wet cleaning, provide additional coverings to protect floors.

  2. If ceilings are to be dusted, furniture should be set compactly near the center of the room so that it does not have to be moved again for ceiling cleaning.

  3. Wall hangings, decorations, pictures, drapes, curtains, roller shades, etc. must be removed.


  1. Select method of cleaning (dry or wet cleaning) based on type of wall or ceiling material.

NOTE: For walls and ceilings coated with lead-based paint, take special precautions. Consult RHPO for guidance in undertaking a risk assessment to identify lead hazards before proceeding with work.

    1. Oil-based and latex paints, varnish, and modern coatings may be washed safely using both wet and dry cleaning methods.

    2. Because calcimine and whitewash are water-soluble, surfaces finished with these coatings should be cleaned ONLY with dry methods. No wet methods are permitted.

NOTE: Some conservators and architects use an imitation whitewash that can be cleaned with wet methods if carefully used.

    1. Shellacked or oiled wood surfaces should NOT be washed with wet methods.

    2. Wet methods for other materials may be tried after receiving advice from a conservator.

  1. Dry Cleaning Methods

    1. Regularly dust using a vacuum cleaner and a round, soft, long haired brush or a treated dust cloth.

NOTE: Take care when dusting not to rub adjacent vertical surfaces, which can leave dirt residue and abrasive marks on walls or smears on glass.

    1. Regularly dust tops of baseboards, window sills, door panel moldings, tops of mantels, tops of door and window trim, and tops of doors and other horizontal surfaces on walls.

NOTE: The rate of dirt accumulation is much faster on horizontal surfaces than on walls or vertical surfaces. Therefore, even if a horizontal surface is above eye level, it should be cleaned regularly.

    1. After a heating season, check areas above radiators or wall grilles for dust build-up.

    2. Periodically dust cobwebs from walls and ceilings, especially at corners. Lift cobwebs outward and upward so that they do not smear.

    3. Periodically dust walls and ceilings using a vacuum cleaner with a dusting brush attachment. Start in a corner at the floor and move upward to the cornice.

      1. A light, even touch with overlapping strokes provides the best cleaning.

      2. Clean the vacuum attachment frequently to avoid streaks.

  1. Wet Cleaning Methods

    1. Regularly spot clean to remove smudges and marks left by hands, furniture and other objects.

NOTE: The areas requiring the most frequent spot cleaning are around light switches, thermostats, doors, the wall side of stairs, bell pulls, wall sconces, etc.

      1. Rub spot gently with a clean sponge, dampened ONLY with clean, clear water.

      2. Dry with a clean wiping cloth.

      3. If water alone does not remove the spot, mix 1 to 2 tablespoons of detergent in 1 gallon of warm water.

      4. Rub the spot gently with a clean sponge dampened with solution. Blend the spot into the remaining surrounding surface.

      5. Rinse with a clean sponge dampened with clean, clear water and allow to dry.

    1. Periodically dust walls and inspect and dust areas around radiators and air grilles as described above under Dry Cleaning Methods.

    1. Periodically wash walls with a mixture of 1 to 2 tablespoons of liquid detergent in 1 gallon of warm water.

      1. Wash walls beginning at a lower corner of the room, including the baseboard.

      2. Moisten an area of approximately 5 to 10 square feet. and rub with a clean sponge dampened with the solution.

NOTE: To prevent water from streaking the wall, the sponge used for the cleaning should be wet but not dripping.

      1. Rinse the area thoroughly with clean, clear water. Two rinses may be necessary to remove all the cleaning solution and dirt from the wall.

      2. Change rinse water frequently.

      3. Dry the area with a clean cloth.

      4. Continue the process of wetting, rubbing, rinsing, and drying around the lower portion of the room.

      5. Each section being cleaned should overlap slightly with the previous section.

      6. Proceeding up the wall, wash the upper portions of the room and the ceiling in the same manner, working from a step ladder. Painted woodwork should be washed with the walls.