Tips for removing a musty odor from wood furniture

Saving a Musty Oak Chest

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The Problem: Oak Chest Odors

I just found a lovely antique oak chest that has a ton of paint on it for free. I would love to re-finish it but it has that old musty smell that I can't seem to get rid of. I've tried charcoal and newspapers and left it out in the sun for several hours. I don't want to take the time to re-finish it if I can't get the smell out. Can your readers give me some ideas? Thanks.

Remove Paint, Then Dry

A musty odour is likely to be from mildew or mold. It may well be mildewy under the paint. Thing is, you won't know unless you remove the paint.

First of all, get it really dry. Put it in a warm dry room for several weeks, with it propped open. (Caution: Kids can get hurt from a falling lid. If you have kids, put a chair IN the open trunk to keep the lid from closing. If the smell fades, then you are likely ok.

Go over it with a wooden spoon pressing really hard. You're unlikely to harm solid wood this way, but if there are rotten spots, you may be able to make a dent.

If you decide that it's solid, but it still has a smell inside, then use a coat of shellac or urethane varnish for your interior finish coat. Cut in half with appropriate solvent (alcohol for shellac, thinner (usually) for varnish. This will increase the drying time, and make it thinner, so that it will penetrate deep into cracks to seal the smell.
Sherwood B.

Bleach and Water

Have your tried using a bleach and water solution? I use bleach mixed with water (1/2 bleach 1/2 water) to clean up musty odors on many surfaces. I just used this solution today to clean up my bathroom vanity cabinet that got musty from leaking water. You could try a more diluted concentration first if you are concerned that the 1:1 ratio of bleach and water is too much of a good thing. You can also rinse the bleach off after letting it sit for a wile to do its job with a soft cloth dampened with water.
Kathy F.

Sodium Bisulfate Is Used in Wine Barrels

I know that for wine barrels sodium bisulfate is used. You may want to wipe down (don't saturate the wood too much, if the chest is old this may cause the wood to crack) the interior with a solution and reapply till the odor is gone. A mild bleach solution may also work, again don't saturate the wood.
Dan G. of Albuquerque, NM

Antique Dealer's Advice

I also had a chest with a musty smell in it. My neighbor who is a antique furniture refinisher told me that the only way to get the smell out was to lightly sand the inside of the chest. Apparently old wood holds the odors and the only way to resolve it would be to sand a fine layer of the wood away.


Recently on a home improvement TV program was a very similar problem. Their solution was to burn incense inside the chest (the small concentrated cones) and they seemed to be pleased it the results.
Tania in London

Related: Removing Musty Smells from Furniture

Line It

Try sanding the inside of the chest to remove the mold/mildew if there is any. As a last resort, line the Oak Chest with Cedar. Good Luck!
Liz P.

Hobbyists Advise Bleach

My wife and I refinish old furniture for a hobby. The best solution for the musty smell we have come up with is to wash the entire piece of furniture with bleach and water. Then, let it set for about a week with mothballs in the drawers and covered with a heavy blanket or tarp. I personally don't like the smell of mothballs but stripping and refinishing usually will take some of the smell away. We have had some pieces that were so bad that this didn't seem to help. I hope this works for you.

Four Choices

When it comes to musty, moldy smells, Houston, Texas is probably on the top ten all time odorous places. I know of several ways, all inexpensive, all easy to do.

  1. Fill your chest with cedar chips, close and lock tight. Leave the chips in for at least a week to have the wood inside absorb the scent. It wouldn't hurt to drop some scented cedar oil or candle scent oil on the chips themselves. After a week dump the chips out and use them to refill Fido's bed.
  2. Fabric softener sheets. Throw several fabric softener sheets into the chest, close the lid and place the chest in the sun or somewhere warm to release the scent. When repacking the chest lay the fabric softener sheets in between your clothes or blankets.
  3. Cat Litter Box deodorizer by Arm & Hammer. Sprinkle liberally inside and rub it around the inside walls and lid. I would leave the deodorizer inside for a few days. It is a powder and mostly made of baking soda. It will not harm you or the pets. I have 7 cats and it helps with any kind of smell in any place.
  4. Vacuum cleaner scents. These come in small packages. Usually you sprinkle these inside the vacuum cleaner bag to release a scent as you clean. But in this case I would take the package, maybe two packages, place them in an old pair of stockings and throw them in the chest. Close the lid and leave it a few days. This worked wonders with a closet problem I had. I rotate the vacuum cleaner scents every month in my closet and it smells wonderful in there. The scents are very very cheap, about $1 a bag and last for a month or more depending upon the amount of space they are in.

Sunday B.

Another Antique Dealer's Solution

My mom and dad run an antique store and do a lot of refinishing. They usually take ammonia and water and wash out the inside of drawers and the inside of the chest itself to get rid of the musty smell. Make sure you do it outside and wear a mask of some sort. Make sure you set the drawers and the chest outside to air out and dry out afterward
James S.

A Cup of Coffee ??

I have heard that putting in a bowel of freshly ground coffee works sometimes. If that does not work, put on a thin coat (wash coat) of shellac and seal the offending ordor in. Hope this helps.
Jerry K.

Here Kitty, Kitty

In response to the woman who is trying to get the odor out of the oak chest. She might try kitty litter.

Try Moth Balls

I remember my mother telling me that mothballs left in a dresser or something else (room etc) that is musty for about 24 hours and then aired will help get the smell out. I've never tried it myself, but will if I need too. It's worth a try and should only cost you a few bucks depending on where you get the mothballs from. Some dollar stores sell them.
Wendy M.

Yet Another Use for Baking Soda

Try placing a bowl of baking soda, the same type you put in your refrigerator to keep it odor free. I have used this or vinegar to remove odors from my carpet. However of course you wouldn't use vinegar in this instance. Anyhow try the baking soda and let me know. My husband is in home renovation and remodeling he says if this doesn't work the only other thing would be to strip and refinish it. Sometimes when refinishing it can bring back out it's natural odors.
Suzanne & Danny in Florida!

Reviewed March 2018

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