Musty smell in old dresser

topic posted Tue, November 28, 2006 - 5:31 PM by  Bredette
I have this beautiful 100 year old dresser someone gave me, but it has a very musty smell and my clothes smell when I wear them. Is there anything I can do to get rid of the smell? Lavender sachets are too weak to help this tough job.
posted by:
SF Bay Area
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Tue, November 28, 2006 - 7:59 PM
    how about putting the drawers outside in the sunshine? have you tried scrubbing out the drawers? or what about using a palm sander on the m? maybe that would freshen up the grain and decrease the smell.
    • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

      Sat, July 16, 2011 - 1:49 PM
      Cleaning up old dressers from my parents and grandparents estate, which are super, super, super musty, I cannot sing enough the praises of setting them in the sun for a day or two. Bring in at night to avoid dew. I used a spray wood cleaner/conditioner with bees wax in it, cleaned outside and inside the dresser completely. Smell gone. Several of these pieces are now sitting in our home, being used, and have no smell whatsoever. The cleaner can be found through the QCI HomeTrends website, or through Lehmans website in Kidron, Ohio, or perhaps a furniture or hardware store near you carries it. Tall can, black cap, bright yellow label...all very generic looking, but it works. PLEASE don't seal the unsealed wood surfaces, or you'll be sorry down the road. The recommendation of using a mild bleach solution is a good one also, as is mild soap, such as Murphy's Oil Soap. But, all i used was sunshine and the beeswax cleaner. All the best to you! PS: one would think Heloise or Good Housekeeping would have good suggestions on this topic, but I have not found any in their resources!
  • Unsu...

    Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Wed, November 29, 2006 - 6:47 AM
    You need to kill the mold.
    The best way to do this is bleach. Use bleach on a rag or brush or roller - get the corners.
    Do a rinse the same way to eliminate the possibility of calcium chloride salts which can bleach your cloths, you can also neutralize the bleach with some vinegar - don't pour vinegar into the bleach.
    Then let it air dry.

    To really lock in bad odors that won't bleach off and won't air out use shellac then follow with laquer. It's OK to coat all surfaces inside the Laquer dries with no residual sents.
    • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

      Wed, November 29, 2006 - 7:38 AM
      Speaking as a profesional, Restoration specailest, and Conservitor, Never coat the inside surfaces of wood furniture with anything that seals the wood . It MUST be able to breath and adjust to changing tempiture, and humidity conditions. ( no Shellac, Laquer, or Varnish )
      If it is compleatly sealed, in time the glue joints will weakin and come apart. or worse, the wood will crack. Furniture, exspecaily Dressers, Sideboards, Hutches etc. are subject to this. That's why the backs are so loosly fitted with very small nails, or brads, to alow for this expansion and contraction.
      • Unsu...

        Re: Musty smell in old dresser

        Thu, November 30, 2006 - 8:48 AM

        ******Never coat the inside surfaces of wood furniture with anything that seals the wood . It MUST be able to breath and adjust to changing tempiture, and humidity conditions. ( no Shellac, Laquer, or Varnish ) *********

        I disagree.
        Sealing wood from all sides prevents rapid expansion or contraction from humidity changes. It is rapid change that causes warping and joint failure. Sealing the wood protects it.

        The old school reason for not treating the insides of cabinetry are more involved with the limitations and problems inherent in the finishes then in use. There were issues such as smells being imparted to clothing, the ability of finishes to adhere to clothing, and of course it’s cheaper not to finish the insides.

        *****If it is compleatly sealed, in time the glue joints will weakin and come apart. or worse, the wood will crack.********

        That is an absolute myth. Joints especially glued joints will last far longer if they are not subject to the wood swelling and shrinking dramatically whenever the ambient humidity changes.

        ******* That's why the backs are so loosly fitted with very small nails, or brads, to alow for this expansion and contraction.**********

        It is not to allow for the movement so much as it is because there is no way to prevent it. However you haven’t quite got you mind around the function of a back for say a bookshelf. The back when fastened securely in place makes rigid an otherwise unsound frame.

        At any rate I think you have it backwards. The freedom of motion to which you refer is usually needed in rail and stile door construction when there is a panel captured by the rails and stiles. That instance required a little room for the captive panel to expand without tearing the joints of the rails & stiles apart.
        • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

          Thu, November 30, 2006 - 5:13 PM
          Cliff, If you were correct, furniture would be made that way. At least the high end stuff, but NONE of it is, not even the best new furniture. And all those Antiques would have cracked and fallen apart long ago. Look under your wood table. Is it coated, has it fallen apart ?
          As for book cases, apples to oranges. book cases have open fronts. The old library sealed front type have loose backs with metal renforcements. Very large pieces like schifarobes ( port-a-closits if you will) have slats set in slots, with no atachments. Check the back of any well built inclosed peice, it has, or is supposed to have a loose back.
          Also if you coated the inside of any antique furniture, you would ruin the value.
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Wed, November 29, 2006 - 7:18 AM
    I've done many of these, It's bacteria. Wipe down the INTIRE inside with a mild bleach sulution. Don't saturate it , just wet it ( old school) *Or*....... use a spray disinfectant, there are many smell wells on the market. I use Clorox brand " spring mist ". The INTIRE inside must be lightly coated to kill all of the bacteria either way. I would go with the latter.
    If it has been stored in a bad enviorment, and smells on the exterior, a light coat of Lemon oil This will also re-hydrate the wood.
    After it has dried, put a coat of good old "hard paste floor wax" on all of the contact points on BOTH the drawers, and body. It will make them slide real nice like, and help prevent damage from jerking them around if they stick.
  • Unsu...

    Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Thu, November 30, 2006 - 9:18 PM
    dont know if this would do it... when I bought an old dresser I took out whatever paper liner was there and chucked it. Then I used something like murphys soap to clean the wood, let it dry then did a wipe with some sort of lemon oil? Let it all air out, put down new paper (not using the sticky side) and its been good so far.
    • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

      Fri, December 1, 2006 - 5:31 PM
      For some reason I think I heard that if you put old newpaper in the drawers for an amount of time the newpaper will absorb the odor. Or maybe that was with Tupperware.
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Thu, December 18, 2008 - 6:05 PM
    Ya know I had the same problem with my dresser....aaaand I tried a semi-weak bleach solution twice and let air dry between coats and that weaken the potent smell to a very noticeable smell. Then tried straight vinegar applied with a spay bottle then let it air dry. That seemed to work until I put all the components back together...a day later the smell was back. Then a friend said to use soap. So I cut up some Irish spring and inserted the little tidbits into every drawer. That only made the dresser smell like someone took a shower and then used the elderly to dry off. So Then I saw a show talking about how shellac is odorless after it drys and seals the wood...sooooo I thought it was worth a try. Now I have a sour funky half soap, half dead guy smell lurking in a dresser in my room that I use for a plant stand. Anybody have any other Ideas besides burning this twenty five dollar investment.

    P.S. I bought the dresser as a pair and the other has the same affliction except I haven't put the shellac to it yet...thoughts?
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Thu, December 18, 2008 - 7:25 PM
    20 mule team borax, LOTS of it. Shut the drawers for 2 -3 days. Give it the SNIFF test. If it's better dump the borax out wait a day to make sure the odor is gone.(you could also try large amounts of baking soda) Then seal the crap out of the drawers with poly. Latex would be fine since you won't be getting it wet. You could also use a good primer like BIN if it doesn't matter about the woodgrain to you. That does a pretty good job on odors as well as stains.
    • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

      Thu, December 18, 2008 - 10:38 PM
      try wiping down with oxy instead of bleach. put ground coffee in bowls in the drawers and shut them up. those are two other tricks i have heard of. if it is a valuable (to you) antique do not paint or shellac any part of it. it ruins the value. when i had this pro blem, bleach and vinegar, then drying in the sun worked for me. if there is high humidity in your house the smell will return though.
      • Unsu...

        Re: Musty smell in old dresser

        Fri, December 19, 2008 - 9:36 AM
        I have to think it's an ongoing mold problem rather than a lingering smell. We had the same problem with a newer Ikea dresser that was in a corner against two outside walls of our house with no air circulation behind it. When winter came and the outside wall got cold, along with the moisture from breathing at night (this is in our bedroom) and low air circulation, mold grew on the wall behind the dresser and in the bottom drawer, where all the clothes smelled moldy/musty. We cleaned the wall bottom drawer and back of dresser with a bleach solution, washed all the clothes, used a space heater to really dry out the area and drawers, and then now leave the dresser out about 2 inches from the wall so it gets more air circulation around it. Problem solved.
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  • Unsu...

    Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Sun, December 21, 2008 - 9:21 AM
    The problem you are describing comes from spirits living in your dresser. Spirits tend to smell because they are so old and don't shower. Send me $25 and I will get rid of the spirits.
  • Unsu...

    Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Thu, December 25, 2008 - 12:33 AM
    Try baking soda, it absorbs odor. After a week or two of that, try lysol or lemon oil.
    • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

      Fri, December 26, 2008 - 5:03 AM
      The cause of the unpleasant odor is mold fungus. Something about the ambient climate of the room where it's kept promotes its growth.... could be humidity combined with just the right emperature to keep a culture incubating within the wood's surface.

      So the first thought is to move that piece of furniture so it's set in a place where it will stay dryer, yet with just enough humidity to keep the old wood. If that's not possible, then the following fix suggests itself::

      Take the entire piece outdoors and let it sun-dry for a week. Or dry it in front of a fireplace or some room completely warm and dry next to a heat source for a week. Once it's all dry, and the mold all subdued, then brush on a coating of good quality furniture oil or tung oil or linseed oil into the open grain of all unfinished surfaces inside. This means removing the drawers and coating the inside of the cabinet as well as all inside surfaces of all the drawers. Let the dried wood soak up as much as it can of the oil, and re-apply another coat. After letting it sit a couple days, if there's any excess oil on the surfaces, then wipe that off.

      This oil treatment will effectively seal the surfaces of the piece against microbes penetrating and incubating. The wood will like it as a kind of moisturizing treatment. And the resulting aroma will be alot more pleasant for you to live with.

      As an afterthought, in addition you could treat the oil with your favorite scent or aromatic before brushing it on.
      • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

        Sun, July 17, 2011 - 1:57 PM
        I believe both Briggi and Dan are correct when they describe the smell as originating from mould, Briggi's method is to give ventilation and allow it to dry out which will kill most fungi as effectivly as the mild bleach solution that Dan is advocating. If neither work a solvent based 5 star wood preservative contains a very effective fungicide that works for up to ten years and will have the added benefit of preventing infestations of wood boring insects and moth larvae.
        The down side of this method is that it smells even worse than the mould until all the solvent has evaporated (about a week depending on the amount of ventilation and room temperature).
        • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

          Sun, July 17, 2011 - 6:38 PM
          wash with full strength cider vinegar then let air dry
          take an old cotton sock, fill with baking soda and sew it shut
          or just place an open box in each drawer
          either way it will take care of the problem
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Tue, February 7, 2012 - 6:14 PM
    It might be a case of mold infestation due to moisture. If you have already checked it out and found no mold, it could be excess moisture in the air that gives it the musky smell. Buying moisture absorbers and placing them in the drawer might help. Have you ever thought of getting a restoration service to check and maybe restore it to its former glory?

    Mark -
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Mon, March 26, 2012 - 8:28 PM
    Actually the smell in my beautiful cherry Bedroom set dresser drawers began when my neighbor suggested that I use something Olive Oil as skin lotion. After a while the clothes in my drawers started to smell a little rancid. Yikes! Now most of my dresser drawers can only be used for socks, jewelry, etc. Any ideas how to get this smell out. I was thinking of Baking Soda and letting it out in the sun after I read all the messages you received.
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Sun, April 22, 2012 - 1:13 PM
    I had the same exact problem and found that a mixture of white vinegar and water can do wonders for eliminating the musty odors within wood furniture. Mix a solution of one part white vinegar with three parts water and proceed to wipe down the wood surface for the musty furniture. I found this solution on this guide: There are several of other helpful solutions in the article as well. I wish you the best of luck!!! Tyler
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Mon, April 23, 2012 - 9:38 PM
    Would it help if you use a moisture absorber inside the drawer? It might be because of moisture that is causing the musky smell. The great danger is that there might be a mold infection deep insight where you can't see. If that is true, you might have something worse then just a foul smell. Beware of the health risks that come with mould !

    Steve -
  • Re: Musty smell in old dresser

    Mon, January 28, 2013 - 9:35 AM
    Okay, someone told me a long time ago (or I read it somewhere) that if you cut an onion in half an put it in your drawer it will absorb the musty smell. I have never tried it before now. I am currently trying it with a hutch my mother in law gave me. So far it seems to be doing a good job. It has been in the drawer for a day, I took it out and the drawer smelled like onions, but when I left it for a few hours and came back, both smells were significantly less. I will keep it in there a little longer and see if it does anything more. It is worth a try, it's probably the least likely to ruin your drawers than everything else said on here.

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