Musty Smells in old furniture put a real damper on your vintage finds. Read on to see my solution to this age old (literally) problem!
You know the feeling, excitement upon seeing a beautiful vintage item and then realizing it has “The smell” as you get closer or open it up.
“Musty” is the generic term for it, but I feel like we each have our own experience with what that really means. I know it’s often referred to as the “old house smell”, which also isn’t pleasant. It can also happen across a variety of antique items. Old wooden furniture is susceptible, material of any kind (linens, curtains, etc) are often offenders, and especially enclosed items like trunks.
I won’t go into more detail on all the different notes these smells can take on, because most of them are less than pleasant to think about, much less try to describe in detail in writing. But I’ll say that for me, and this specific piece I’ll be sharing about today, the smell leans towards the “musty” end of the spectrum, and it has an almost formaldehyde quality to it. Lovely, right?
Now let’s back up a bit before I get too far ahead of myself.
Read on to find the history of this specific piece, and the ultimate trick that worked to remove the old furniture smell!
My Antique Steamer Trunk
Years ago I got a call from a friend asking me if I wanted a free steamer trunk! Uhm, Yes, please!
I accepted immediately! Sight unseen… And smells un-smelled.
It really is a beautiful old piece with beautiful character and patina. And knowing that they can be sold for upwards of $400, getting one dropped into your lap for free is an amazing value.
It’s spent some time in our room at the foot of our bed, some time as a coffee table, and more recently sits near our front door holding roller blades and extra pet food.
It’s beauty and functionality fit right in as part of our home.
But the musty smell inside has always bothered me.
Because of the smell inside, I’ve also felt limited about what I could or could not put inside! Nothing of value, or valuable to me had ever been stored in there.
Things I’ve tried to remove the musty smell.
I’ve asked about this specific piece a few times before on social media and I’ve gotten a LOT of responses and ideas about how to get these smells taken care of.
I even have an older post with 12 Tips for Cleaning Vintage Finds.
Here are the things I’ve tried previously, that for this piece, haven’t worked.
- Coffee grounds laid out in a pie pan
- Baking soda
- Cedar chips
- Leaving it open outside to air out
- Bleach water
- Soap and water
And this isn’t a post to be disparaging of those methods, because for some things they’ll work great! But for this trunk specifically, I just don’t think they are strong enough.
I’ve come to realize that I think the smell is really held in the lining and the glue of the trunk, and I guessed that they most likely wouldn’t go away completely until the lining and glue were removed completely.
Word to the Wise
Before jumping in to the tutorial for cleaning this trunk, I’ll say something to anyone who might be considering this project.
I’d take it on only if you are OK with this following process and the time it takes! If the idea of 5ish hours of work to get a similar piece ready for use sounds like a lot, this probably wouldn’t be a great item for you to see out at thrifts stores.
But if you, like me, accidentally find yourself the owner of a beautiful old trunk that just needs some major help on the inside… we’ve got this! Read on!
*This post contains affiliate links to products I know &/or love.
The Process for Removing A Musty Smell
Part One | Lining & Glue Removal
Once I started peeling back the lining material, I realized it was made up of an almost cardboard like material. Originally I thought it was a type of felt fabric.
For the first bits I wet down the cardboard and then used my plastic scraper tool to scrape away the lining and the glue.
THEN I decided to try using my steam cleaner.
Learn from my experience, and start your project with the steam cleaner! It made the work go much quicker.
Overall, this process took about 4 hours to scrape down to bare wood!
After it was all removed, I left it open overnight to help dry out any spots that were still moist from the steamer.
Part Two | Sanding
Next is the sanding to remove any old or rough texture or remaining glue bits.
I used 220 grit paper which I like to prepare in the same way each time.
- I cut the letter size sheet into thirds (the long way)
- Then I fold those 3 pieces into thirds, and just fold and turn them as I go until all 3 sides are spent.
Once it was sanded I vacuumed up all the dust inside the trunk.
Part Three | Primer/Shellac
Next I got ready to paint on my primer/shellac! I used this B-I-N Primer that is a stain blocker and blocks odors (hooray!)
I used a cheap chip brush because as far as I’m concerned, it’s not worth it to struggle washing out a more expensive brush after shellac!
Buy the cheap one and don’t feel bad throwing it away once your project is finished!
In order to keep from reaching over wet paint as I went, I painted in the following order:
- Top/inside of the lid
- The Bottom
- The back wall inside
- The side walls
- The front wall
I’m also really happy to report that this process covered about 95% of the smell!
After years I can open the trunk without dreading the old musty smells from before!
I actually think I might have some more success with my other list of non-conventional smell removal tricks now that the lining is gone! I’m excited to try a few of them out again and see how it goes.
Also, now that the inside is a blank slate, I’m considering a decoupage project!
I’d love if if you could let me know in the comments whether or not a DIY decoupage blog post that would be useful for me to blog about!
In the mean time, here are some other vintage and thrifted find related posts:
- Antique Mall Sales & Shopping Tips
- Reupholstering an Antique Chair
- Tips for Shopping Antique Sales
- Thrifted Pillowcase Turned Throw Pillow
- 4 Tips for Finding Decor at Thrift Stores
- What to Pack when Shopping Yard Sales
- How to Yard Sale with Children
- 10 Tips for Negotiating at Yard Sales