As a furniture makeover artist, one issue that I have to deal with regularly is furniture with bad odors. Nobody wants a piece of furniture that stinks, right? In fact, I’d say “does it smell OK?” is the most frequent question I am asked by potential buyers.
Bad smells can run the gamut from cigarette smoke, to mouse pee, to just plain old age. The fact is, furniture that is over 75 years old (which is mostly what I work with) is going to have some smells.
Eliminating bad odors is especially important in pieces that are going to be used to store clothing. You don’t want your clean clothes coming out of the drawers smelling like someone’s old cigarette smoke.
There are all kinds of tips out there on how to get rid of bad smells, so when I brought home a dresser that previously belonged to a heavy smoker a while back I decided to do some serious experimentation and figure out what really works and what doesn’t.
Baking soda: I placed open bowls of baking soda inside the drawers for about 10 days. Initially I used an older box of baking soda, so when that didn’t work I went out and bought fresh baking soda, just in case that was the issue. Nope, after another 10 days the drawers still smelled smoky to me. Cross this one off your list.
Fresh Wave: This is a product that claims to remove odors with all natural ingredients. I’ve tried the spray as well as the odor removing packs in the past and not had much luck with either. With this smoky dresser I tried spraying the drawers both inside and out with the Fresh Wave, as well as the interior of the dresser while the drawers were removed. I sprayed heavily directly onto the wood. It made no difference at all, don’t waste your money.
AtmosKlear: Another product that claims to eliminate odors rather than just masking them, and another product that did not work on cigarette smoke.
Water and Vinegar: This is something I’ve been using recently for cleaning furniture before I paint it. However, I recently read that vinegar is not a good de-greaser, so I’m going to go back to my TSP substitute again. And the vinegar/water mixture was powerless against the smoky dresser. I even tried the vinegar/sunny day combo by wiping each drawer inside and out with a mixture of vinegar and water (about 1/2 cup vinegar to a gallon of water). Then I spread the drawers out on the lawn on a sunny day and left them out for about 8 hours. Like I said, powerless against the smoky smell.
Dryer sheets: I like using dryer sheets to add a pleasant scent to a drawer that just has that sort of ‘old’ smell. But dryer sheets are really just masking a smell and are not helpful for something like cigarette smoke or the dreaded mouse pee. I’ve also had some potential furniture purchasers say that they hate the smell of dryer sheets, so they can definitely backfire on you.
Vodka: Although I didn’t try vodka on this smoky dresser, I did try it a couple of years ago on another smelly piece. I’d read somewhere that Martha Stewart recommended it, but I’m beginning to think that might be an urban myth. I basically wiped the drawers down inside and out with straight up vodka. I didn’t even dilute it with water (or cranberry juice, ha!). It did nothing except waste some really good vodka. I suppose you could just drink the vodka, and then you won’t really care whether or not the dresser still stinks. That’s one way to solve the problem.
Newspaper: After trying numerous solutions that really didn’t work for my smoky dresser I was starting to despair and think that I was going to have to go to my last resort solution (more on what that is in a minute). But my friend Terri suggested I try newspaper. And guess what? It did a pretty good job! Here’s the trick, you have to give it time, and you have to keep changing out the paper as it absorbs the smells. This is not a quick fix, but it is a cheap fix. Just crumple up sheets of newspaper and place them in each drawer. Then change them out every couple of days until the smell is gone.
But if you don’t have several weeks set aside for the newspaper method, I’ve found that the one technique that eliminates bad smells every single time is … drum roll please …
Paint: Paint works every. single. time.
Do you remember the fabulous cupboard I bought last year?
It wasn’t until I was unloading it from the truck at home that I noticed it had a bad smell. I don’t know what to attribute the smell to, other than just old age, although it may have been stored in a barn for too long. I cleaned it thoroughly and sprayed it heavily with Fresh Wave inside and out. I brought the piece up to my bedroom and put all of my clothing in it, along with a few dryer sheets for good measure. A few days later I pulled out a t-shirt and put it on. As the t-shirt started to warm up with my body heat I noticed that it had taken on the smell of the cupboard. Do you know that feeling? You think ‘ewwww, what’s that smell?’ and then you realize it’s you (or your t-shirt anyway)! The Fresh Wave definitely had not worked, and the combination of old barn smell mixed with dryer sheet was positively nauseating. I immediately had to take the shirt off. I re-washed all of the stuff I’d put in the cupboard, and then I spent the next six months piling my clothes on top of the cupboard instead of inside it (I’m not proud of it, but it’s the truth)!
Clearly I had to come up with a better solution.
So I decided to just go with what I know works for this one. Paint.
I emptied everything out, and then I painted all of the surfaces inside the cupboard with Fusion’s Inglenook. And when I say all of the surfaces, I mean all of them including the undersides of the shelves and the back sides of the doors. This is the secret to successfully blocking the odors. If you’re working with drawers you have to paint them inside and out as well.
This might sound like a drastic measure, but it really didn’t take that long. Maybe 20 minutes or so per coat (and I did two coats). The nice thing about using Fusion paint for this is that I didn’t also have to add a topcoat, plus once the paint is cured it will be fully washable. Once painted, I left the doors open for about a week so that the paint could cure a bit before I put anything back in. Then I gave it the sniff test. Ahhhh. The stink was gone!
My clothes have been back inside the cupboard for over a month now and they still smell fresh and clean when I pull them out to wear.
By the way, I really like using a cupboard like this for my clothes rather than a dresser with drawers. I can open those doors and grab everything at once. I use locker baskets to hold scarves, underwear and socks. It works great.
And now it smells great too!
So the next time you have a serious odor problem consider reaching for either the newspaper or the paint.