One of the nice aspects of collecting older and antique furniture is the link to the past that each piece inevitably represents. If we could only see all the places it had been and meet some of the people who had used/abused it. What historical events has it witnessed? Did it hear the radio report about Pearl Harbor or did it see a Civil War battle? Most of these things we can never know but only dream about or surmise.
Unfortunately there is another aspect to collecting old furniture and the history associated with it, something that sometimes is not so obscure: the smell. Some of the smells associated with old furniture are quite pleasant—the mellow aroma of well-aged cedar or the faint whiff of old finish when you open a long closed armoire door. But some of the odors we encounter can be downright offensive, depending on your olfactory sensitivity.
The smell most frequently associated with older furniture is the indefinable “musty” smell. We all know what it smells like, we just can’t describe it. To some people, it is just another property of the piece, but to some it is an annoyance that must be expelled.
More offensive and more readily defined is the sometimes acrid “moldy” smell that comes from the accumulation of growing organisms that abhor the light and love still, dank enclosures. Not only is this smell unpleasant, it can have health consequences and should be attended to immediately.
The final most common and most difficult to remove smell is that of accumulated tobacco smoke, sometimes from generations of cigar, cigarette and pipe smokers.
While all of these odors have different origins, the cure for them all is more or less the same—fresh air, limited amounts of direct sunlight and the judicious application of odor killers and absorbers.
In the mildest cases of “musty,” sometimes just opening up the doors and drawers on a piece for a few days will do the trick. Placing the item in an open garage or outside in the dry shade will speed up the process. Be sure the air can circulate freely around the piece and let nature take its course. Or you can give it a boost by using a fan to increase air movement.
Sometimes even after the worst of the “musty” is driven out by this process there is still a lingering trace of the “old” smell. In this case, try putting some dry carpet deodorizer or kitty litter in an aluminum pan inside the drawers and under the case. These substances can absorb a great deal of odor-causing material. They may take awhile to completely control the problem but they do help in preventing a recurrence.
More drastic action is required in the case of mold and mildew—the growing stuff. The best way to remove this little pest is with the use of household bleach and indirect light. A capful of bleach in a quart of warm water is the best mixture proportion. The key to successful mold and mildew removal is complete coverage of the piece with the bleach solution. Use a cloth (old T-shirts are great for this) slightly wet with the bleach solution and wipe down the ENTIRE piece, not just the area that exhibits signs of mold or mildew. Wipe the inside of cabinets as well as the back, the bottom and the top. Turn the piece over as required to get to all surfaces. The solution doesn’t need to sit on the surface to work. As soon as contact is made the problem is solved and the piece can be immediately dried with dry T-shirts. Then place the piece in indirect sunlight such as on a porch for a morning’s airing out. That should solve the problem. This same procedure will usually take care of pet odor problems, too, if the situation has not been allowed to exist for too long.
The last and most intransigent problem is tobacco smoke. In this case, more drastic measures may be required for a quick solution if you don’t want to wait another generation or so to enjoy the piece. Since smoke odor has a habit of penetrating into wood, into finishes and even into surface dressings such as wax and oil, it takes more work and more patience to get rid of it. Understand that it took many, many years for the piece to smell like that and it may take a long time, if ever, to get all the smell out of it.
Thoroughly clean all the surfaces with mineral spirits and clean rags. The spirits (also called “paint thinner”) will not harm an existing sound finish and you will be surprised what comes off with it – grime, old wax and polish, and even some physical traces of smoke. Then wipe the piece down repeatedly with diluted ammonia (a capful to a quart of water), alternating with washes of dilute vinegar in the same concentration every other day. Be careful not to mix the solutions of ammonia and vinegar, and also be careful not to saturate the piece with water. Let it dry overnight between washings. The vinegar, which is dilute acetic acid, will help remove some of the organic compounds associated with smoke. The ammonia will help dissipate the smell. Wipe the piece thoroughly, inside and out, bottom and back, drawer bottoms and sides, etc. Do the whole thing.
After you have the problem under control enough to bring the piece into the garage, open all the doors and drawers. Put kitty litter, charcoal or dry carpet deodorizer inside all the spaces in the cabinet and change it regularly. This may take weeks or months, so be prepared.
In the meantime, don’t put any kind of wax or dressing on the finish. You will only serve to trap the odor in the finish and the wood. Wait until the smell is gone, or at least down to a tolerable level, and then apply a good coat of paste wax to the exterior.
Fred Taylor is a antique furniture Worthologist who specializes in American furniture from the Late Classicism period (1830-1850).
Send your comments, questions and pictures to me at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Visit Fred’s website at www.furnituredetective.com. His book “How To Be A Furniture Detective” is now available for $18.95 plus $3 shipping. Send check or money order for $21.95 to Fred Taylor, PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423.
Fred and Gail Taylor’s DVD, “Identification of Older & Antique Furniture,” ($17 + $3 S&H) and a bound compilation of the first 60 columns of “Common Sense Antiques,” by Fred Taylor ($25 + $3 S&H) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800-387-6377, fax 352-563-2916, or e-mail email@example.com.
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