ewwww, what’s that smell?

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.

26 thoughts on “ewwww, what’s that smell?

  1. If I didn’t want a color, do you think a couple of coats of some kind of clear sealer might work like polyurethane, shellac or some other clear coat? I have a piece where the drawers smell either like bug spray or oil. Pretty nauseating, so I need to find a solution. I’m glad you happened to write this when I need a solution to my dilemma. Thank you!

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    1. Absolutely. I should have thought to mention that in my post. You can use a clear sealer as well as paint to seal in smells. Best of luck with your piece!

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  2. I don’t know if it would work on wood furniture but charcoal really works for when a freezer or fridge goes without power and the stuff inside goes bad. Put a pan of charcoal inside and change it daily and in a few days no more smells.

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  3. So glad to have your blog back! And so happy you did the experimenting for me. I do run into the funky old furniture smell and I do think that painting over the wood inside is a great method. I have one piece that has been sitting in my garage a little while and there is still a slight odor to it. I didn’t paint the underside of the drawers so I will try that to see if that eliminates all the odor! And I have a small writing or lap desk that is kinda smelly so I’m going to put newspapers in it today. Another informative post.

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  4. I have tried several of these on a dresser I purchased at a barn sale. I think maybe it was a mouse condo for awhile! EEEWWW!! Straight bleach didnt budge it. I think I will try the clear finish as well, maybe poly? Thank you so much for the post today!

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    1. Mouse pee is the WORST. Usually mouse pee has saturated the wood, so just cleaning the surface isn’t going to cut it no matter what you use. I think sealing that piece inside and out is going to be your only solution.

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  5. Thanks so much for the information! I just got deja vu of my mother placing newspapers in all the cabin drawers and cupboards when it was first opened up for the summer (after a good cleaning, of course.) 😀 I’m guessing all paints are not created equal? I can’t imagine that milk paint would conceal smells. Now I’m wondering if it’s Fusion’s sealing properties that make it work? I’m guessing any high performance latex paint would work. Would love to know your thoughts/experiences with milk paint. Welcome back and hope you get lots of rest this weekend!

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    1. I agree with you Cynthia, I don’t think milk paint would work to seal in odors. Milk paint provides a ‘breathable’ finish and by itself doesn’t create an impervious, ‘sealed’ surface which is why we have to add a top coat to it for durability. Plus, in my opinion, it would never be worth the effort to use milk paint for this purpose (I fully admit that milk paint is more difficult to work with than Fusion or latex paint). It would not be washable and it would require more steps because it needs a top coat. I have used regular latex paint in an eggshell finish to seal smelly drawers in the past and it also worked great. Thanks for bringing up this topic Cynthia!

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  6. Thanks for this very timely post as I’m currently struggling with this issue. I have two side tables that has been covered with baking soda for the last 5 days and just last night I opened one of the drawers to still smell smoke. I’ve already painted the outside and was a little surprised that the outside didn’t smell smokey so now I’m anxious to paint the inside and put this theory to test. Fingers crossed, Thanks for sharing all your trials and saving us a lot of frustration!

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    1. Chuck the baking soda. It definitely did not work on my piece. Best of luck with the painting method, keep me posted on whether or not it works for you!

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  7. Glad tbe newspaper worked!! I’m going to be storing fabric in my “new” old dresser and I’d hate for my grandaughters future American Girl doll clothes to smell like smoke.. lol. Thanks for going the extra mile to find a solution…just another great service offered by Quandie. Glad you had a good time on your trip…now to rest up and get to planning your next destination. I vote for Ireland…and I vote for me to tag along!

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  8. Older newsprint an an amonia base to it, newsprint used to come off on fabric, your fingers etc.
    Newer newsprint does not come off on your fingers.. so might not work as good as old newsprint on odors.
    When you seal it with paint, it does not remove the odor, it covers it up until the finish is sanded again, or the paint/sealer cracks and dries out and releases it again.. like a bad dream coming again..

    I am not sure what the permanent solution is. Cat spray is even worse, I tired a few solutions with nothting working. I think experience would dictate that if you are NEW at redoing furniture, I would avoid a bad odors if you are selling the piece to unsuspecting owner who might at some point try and refinish it or fix a damage that can happen to finish.

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    1. All very good points Mary Ruth. I think you are very right about paint sealing the odor in and that it could rear it’s ugly head again if that seal becomes compromised. I’ll be sure to keep my readers posted about the long term efficacy of the paint that I used on my clothing cupboard. Even as an experienced furniture re-habber, I do my best to just avoid bringing home pieces with bad odors. But sometimes you don’t notice them until later, and sometimes a piece is just so fabulous that it’s worth dealing with the smell problem (as was the case with the smoky dresser).

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  9. Welcome home from your travels! In addition to covering odors I love the look of inside-painted drawers and cupboards as the paint brightens the inside and makes it easy to see and find everything.

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  10. Thank you so much for all the testing of the various products. You just saved me time and money. I purchased a wonderful old oak dresser last April. It was on a day that was cold and rainy outside. The booth at the fair was outside so I didn’t notice the awful smell at the time of the purchase. We got home and I placed it in my husbands workshop. Last week our weather in the Seattle area was in the 80’s. When I opened the garage the smell from the dresser was just awful. I brought it out in the sun and gave it a good scrubbing with TSP and kept it in the sun all day. Still stunk. The next day vinegar and water and more sun. Still stunk! I went to Home Depot and bought a neutralizer for pet stain odors. I scrubbed it down again and left it in the sun. Still stunk! I decided that I was going to give it one more day in the sun and if it still stunk I was going to get rid of it. I didn’t want to waste my time or money painting it. OK. You convinced me. I will give it a try. Wish me luck! The dresser is a beautiful piece and I would like to keep it.😕

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