Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Got old musty furniture odors? A few solutions!

I got totally carried away a little wordy (who me?  what a surprise!) in a recent comment I left for another blogger on tips for getting rid of that musty "old people" smell we sometimes find inside thrifted, old furniture and other items.  These tips are pretty good, so I thought I'd expand on them with a post here.  I cannot take credit for them, as I know I've probably picked them up "here and there" over the years.    
To get rid of "old people" smell from thrifted furniture and other items, read on.
If a simple airing out of the item over time (out of doors, in the sun works best if you can get the item out there) does not solve the problem, or for stubborn smells, prepare to:
(1) Put the item in the freezer, for at least 24 hours. Yes, the freezer.  This works SO WELL. I have no idea how or why, but it does. Maybe the cold kills the mold? (ha! poet!) Now, I know you can't get an entire dresser in there, but perhaps the drawers will fit, even if you have to put them in there one at a time over a week's time?  Of course, small items like home decor accessories or even fabric or clothing will easily fit in the freezer.  Apparently this method works well on soft items like pillows as well (though I've not tried it for that).
True story:  I wanted a garlic roaster and found a really cute one shaped like a giant head of garlic on eBay.  Love!  The outside is unglazed ceramic, the inside is glazed.  The seller gave a great description of size, color, etc., but failed to mention that the thing reeked like it had been stashed in a moldy basement for 20 years!  That nasty musty smell grabbed onto the unglazed ceramic and was holding on for dear life.  Scrubbing it within an inch of its life did not help!  I was *thisclose* to just tossing the thing in the dumpster, when I found a tip somewhere that freezing musty-smelling things will take away the odor.  I thought "what the heck, this thing is destined for the trash" and put it in the freezer.  Behold, the next day I removed it and it looked (due to the scrubbing) and smelled (due to the freezing) brand new!  And the smell hasn't come back.  Now I love my garlic roaster!  
Another true story:  I fairly recently purchased a gorgeous vintage armoire that smells like the lady from the 1930s is still living inside.  Well, I suppose if she were still in there, the smell would be a lot fresher; suffice to say, I stored a jacket in there and thought no amount of airing would get rid of the odor!  Yuck!  There is no way that armoire is going to fit in my freezer, and I couldn't lift it to get it in there if it did, so I am going to resort to these other tips in an attempt to get rid of the odor:
(2) Thoroughly scrub down the insides of the cabinet case and outsides and insides of drawers with a (nice-smelling, if you can find it) disinfectant. Don't saturate the wood too much, you don't want it to swell or warp. Sometimes this works on its own, other times you have to do this, then move on to the other steps.
Baking soda can help neutralize odors.
(3) I've been known to make a thick-ish paste out of some baking soda and some lemon juice or fragrant essential oils, and a little water, and apply it to the inside of the cabinet case and all around the outside and inside of the drawers. Again, you don't want to swell or warp the wood, so watch how much water you use.  Vacuum up the baking soda solution after it dries, allowing it to sit for a while first. You can also sprinkle a thin layer of baking soda inside the drawers, let it sit for a while, then vacuum it up.  Run a damp cloth all around to pick up any remaining baking soda residue. 
(4) Lightly sand the inside of the cabinet case and the outside and insides of the drawers.  Sometimes that will work to take down a hairs-width of wood surface and also take the smell with it.  Again, vacuum up the sanding residue and/or run a damp cloth all around to get the last bit of residue.
(5) You can also try painting the inside of the cabinet case and outsides and insides of the drawers to seal in the odor.  But you have to be careful with this as too many layers of paint can either make your drawers and/or doors stick (especially if you use a glossy sheen paint) or make it to where you can't close or open them at all, as the paint fills the gaps or clearance between doors and drawers.  Use a light hand!
Dryer sheets - not really a solution to the problem!
(6) A maintenance tip: Dryer sheets (or scented sachets) inside the drawers do not really remove the odor as much as mask it, so you will have old people smell and lavender fields (or what have you) mixed together, which is almost worse than just the old people smell. However, to keep the insides of the drawers and your clothes smelling fresh (after you do the other procedures), I've placed USED dryer sheets inside the drawers. New dryer sheets can be too saturated with the lard or oil used to make them and can leave marks on clothes; used sheets still smell nice and are much softer and not as stiff, plus most of the lard/oil has been removed by running them through the dryer with your last load of laundry and they are safer against your clothes.
On a personal note, to rid my lovely armoire of the antique lady smell -- and because I cannot get the thing into my freezer -- I plan on doing steps 2, 4, and 5, in that order.  My armoire is like a wide open closet with a small open cubby for storage, so I don't have to worry about fiddling around with drawers. It is not an antique nor an heirloom quality piece so painting it is not a problem for me (it's already painted on the outside, and that needs to be redone), and I really want to convert the inside into a linen closet because I do not have one in my current apartment.  I think installing a removable shelving structure (because one day I hope to have a real home that has a real linen closet in it!) and painting the inside a surprising, pretty color like aqua with apple green accents would work nicely, and when the time comes that I do have a real linen closet, I can remove the shelving structure and convert it into an office center, an entertainment unit, or just back into an armoire! 
Hope some of these tips help you get rid of the antique people smell from your salvaged furniture!


Jane said...

These are great tips! Thanks for posting this information. I would have never known to put things in the freezer. I have several old books with that musty smell...have you put books in the freezer? I'm definitely going to give it a try.
Hope you're having a great week.

Cindy said...

ok, here is one from my friend who has a shop that is loaded with cool vintage furniture, and i've tried it, it totally works. this is mostly for cabinets and chests and stuff like that. get some old fashioned kitty litter, you know the cheap kind, i used the cheap kind that is scented. and just put a bowl of it inside the cabinet or armoire or whatever... it's pretty amazing how well it will get rid of the smells in a few days...


Sharon (Roses and Rust) said...

Very useful tips! Thanks for sharing. (I wonder if that old people smell bothers old people??) x Sharon

Rosemary@villabarnes said...

Nice tips. Liked your post on blogger problems as well. I'm your 19th follower, and I was flattered to see my blog on your sidebar. Keep posting.

Stacy said...

Kimberly, thanks for stopping by my little corner of blogsville. Your sweet comment left me blushing for sure. I am not an author and I do not write for a living, but I do enjoy it tremendously. I derive great pleasure from putting my thoughts into words and my blog is a real creative outlet for me.
I'm very excited to have found your post on getting rid of the "old folks" smell. :o) Most of what I own has been purchased second hand and these tips will come in handy. Keep the great stuff coming. Will be visiting often.


Deanna @ Sentimental Redo said...

LOL you crack me up. Old lady from the 30's living in your armoire + the photo of the old couple is perfect. I have a headboard I need to deodorize, now all I have to do is wait. In a few months I will be living in a freezer. I guess our 6+ months of winter has some benefits.

Meghan @ Wishful Thinking said...

Hilarious! Fantastic tips - I can't believe putting stuff in the freezer works!

Karen said...

These are great tips for people like us who love to re purpose and buy vintage items. I didn't know about the freezer method, thats great to info. Thanks for the visit and the follow and for the sweet comment. I'm following you as well.

Kathy said...

Great tips - I have gone into homes only to turn around when met with distinct old odor. Now I think I may give some of these tips a try -

Faded Plains said...

These are some great tips...thanks for sharing.

Cindy said...

Ok, put a bowl of that cheap clay scented kitty litter in it... it totally works!


Anonymous said...

So the freezer idea is worth trying, but does your freezer pick up that smell? I could put the drawers in there, but I am afraid my freezer (or worse) the food might pick up the smell. Comments? Opinion? Let me know!

The Sterling Cherub said...

Hi Anonymous: You didn't leave an e-mail address, so I can't reply directly to you, and I'm not sure if you check back on blog comments, but on the off chance you do, I'll answer here. No, neither the freezer itself nor the food picks up the moldy smell. That said, I've never put a large item that was moldy smelling, or large *amount* of moldy-smelling items in my freezer for the simple fact there is not room to do so. I've only ever put a small item in there, and it came out without the moldy smell, and my freezer and the food were fine. You may want to give your item a wipe-down with a bleach-and-water solution (if it's safe to do so) before putting it in the freezer. Also, one of my readers, Cindy, has suggested using plain, old-fashioned clay cat litter. If your item is small enough, maybe you could bury is in the clean cat litter or spread some inside of the item (say, in the case of it being a drawer or container that smells bad) to kill off some of the odor before putting it in the freezer, which I believe kills off the mold itself. Mold tends to thrive in warm, moist places, which the freezer is not - in fact, freezers are obviously very cold, and the air inside is dry. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Hello! What do you think is best to remove the smell from the OUTSIDE of an armoire? I agree that what you've said for the drawers, etc would be great, but the outside of my armoire smells :/. Thank you, Erin

The Sterling Cherub said...

Another Anonymous comment wiht no e-mail address; I can't reply directly to you, so will answer here. I'd first try putting the armoire in direct sunlight to see if that can kill off the odor. Depending on the material the armoire is made of, I'd afterward also try to wash the outside of it thoroughly, either with a TSP and water solution, or something like Murphy's Oil Soap diluted with water, maybe even follow that up with a baking soda and water wipe down, and then just plain water, dried off really well so if it's wood, it won't warp. Gently sanding down the outer surface also may be helpful, that will remove a fine top layer of the wood (if your armoire is in fact wood) and you can then seal it, or even paint over it, which should either rid or camoflage the smell. Good luck!

Anonymous said...

Thank you for your tips concerning the outside of my armoire. I've taken it outside in the sunshine, sprayed very diluted bleach water on the inside and backside. I've also used diluted Murphy's oil soap on the outside. I'm hoping that will do it! If it does, I'll let you know! Oh, I had put small lemon wedges (on foil) in each drawer overnight, and it seemed that helped a bit with the drawer smell but it could have been my imagination lol. Thanks so much for your tips! ~Erin

Anonymous said...

You sound like just the authority to possible help me. I've purchased 3 old windows, obviously kept in a damp garage or basement. They are pretty stinky. I've set them outside periodically when weather permits, and have had them inside, in airconditioning for 6 weeks.

Can I seal the wood safely, with a matte finish, clear enamel or varnish or something? These are meant for the bedroom, and I certainly don't want the smell to take over my retreat.

Any ideas?