What Does Creosote Smell Like? (Comparisons)

If you are suddenly getting a strong and unpleasant smell coming from a wood stove or fireplace, you may be concerned that it’s a sign of a creosote problem.

This may not be the case. It may be the remains of a small animal or it could be bits of plastic that got mixed with your wood. But those are different odors to creosote.

So, it’s important to know what creosote smells like. This article gives you three comparisons that are similar.

Gathering Comparisons

Because government regulations have reduced the use of creosote, you may never have smelt it before.

This depends on your age. I remember my great-uncle’s wooden house on the west coast of Ireland. The outer walls were treated with creosote. The house is gone now, but I recall the smell on a summer’s day.

But one person’s memories aren’t enough. I sent out messages and emails to my older well-seasoned contacts! The opinions coalesced around three comparisons.

Everybody should recognize at least one of them.

Three Smells That Are Similar To Creosote

Creosote has a sharp pungent smell that people report to be similar to:

  • mothballs
  • freshly poured asphalt or tar on a hot day
  • a mix of ammonia and strong cigarette smoke

The next three sections cover each comparison in more detail. We also have a bonus comparison for you at the end.

Why Creosote Smells Like Mothballs

The most common comparison used by my older contacts was the smell of mothballs in a drawer or wardrobe.

However, mothballs have also largely disappeared from use in homes. Younger people won’t know the smell, so I pushed for alternatives.

But I’ll explain what they are first.


Why were mothballs in houses?

Mothballs are small balls the size of plums that contain chemical pesticides with a pungent smell. They were used by an older generation to keep away moths and mice.

Your grandmother probably put them in the back of drawers in the bedroom and inside pockets of woolen clothes in wardrobes.

The point of keeping moths away was to prevent them from laying larvae in wool garments. Moth larvae love to eat wool, resulting in holes and shredded clothes.

Why mothballs are a good comparison

Mothballs are a good comparison because they often contained the same chemical ingredient as creosote.

When mothballs are made with naphthalene, this is what is also in creosote. That “naphtha” smell is so strong and acrid that It stings your nose.

Some people feel a bitter taste in the back of their throat when in a room with mothballs.

Fresh Asphalt Or Tar

A freshly laid surface made of asphalt or tar smells like creosote.

The terms “asphalt” and “tar” are sometimes used interchangeably but they are really two different materials. However, the liquid forms smell similarly.

You’ve probably walked by a house where the owner is laying a new driveway. The pouring of asphalt delivers a strong smell.

If a mild wind blows into your face, your eyes may start stinging from the acrid nature of the gassy particles.

There’s a similar smell if you’re walking beside a road being freshly tarred.  A hot day just makes the pungent smoky smell even stronger.

You may feel like holding your breath and picking up the pace to get past that stretch of road.


Tobacco Smoke Mixed With Ammonia

People often reach for the term “smoky” when trying to describe creosote while knowing that there’s more to it than that.

We can smell the difference between wood smoke and a build-up of creosote. So we have to go further than just smoky.

A better description is a mix of strong tobacco smoke and ammonia. Adding ammonia to the mix brings the unpleasant acrid sting that comes with creosote.

I should also point out that tobacco smoke also contains naphthalene, the chemical that can be present in mothballs. As naphthalene is also in creosote, that explains why people describe it as smoky.

Bonus Comparison: Sweaty Socks Soaked In Nail Polish Remover

weaty Socks Soaked In Nail Polish Remover

Here is one more comparison that one of my female friends volunteered. The reason I didn’t include it with the main three is that I can’t say I’ve ever been in the presence of this combination!

I guess It’s more of a mind experiment.

Start with the aroma of a pair of socks that have been worn by the same sweaty guy for two weeks in hot weather.

His girlfriend returns from a fortnight’s visit home to her folks. She is very unimpressed by the state of his footwear stinking up their small apartment.

She’d prefer to drop the socks into the waste disposal but they’re his favorites.

So, she pours a bottle of nail polish remover into a bowl, picks up the socks with tongs, and drops them in to soak.

My friend assures me that an hour later there was a strong smell of creosote throughout the room. I have to take her word for it!

Dean Casey
About Dean Casey

Hi, I'm Dean Casey, the founder and chief editor of HomeHeatingHQ.com.

With over 15 years of experience in the HVAC industry, my passion is helping homeowners achieve optimal comfort and energy efficiency in their living spaces. As a certified HVAC technician and consultant, I have developed a deep understanding of home heating systems, insulation, and energy-saving practices.

I started this blog to provide well-researched, practical advice to homeowners looking to improve their home's heating performance and reduce energy bills. Whether it's comprehensive guides, hands-on product reviews, or expert tips, my goal is to share valuable information with you, my readers.

I enjoy spending time with my family and exploring the great outdoors when I'm not busy writing and researching. I'm also an avid DIYer, always eager to tackle new home improvement projects and share my experiences with you.

If you have any questions or comments about home heating, please don't hesitate to reach out through the contact page on the website. I'm always happy to help!

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