Stinky Stuff: Get Rid of Old Furniture Smells

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.

The most common and most difficult smell to remove from old furniture is that of accumulated tobacco smoke, sometimes from generations of cigar, cigarette and pipe smokers.

The most common and most difficult smell to remove from old furniture is that of accumulated tobacco smoke, sometimes from generations of cigar, cigarette and pipe smokers.

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.

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.

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.

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.

Send your comments, questions and pictures to Fred Taylor at PO Box 215, Crystal River, FL 34423 or e-mail them to me at

Visit Fred’s newly redesigned website at and check out the new downloadable “Common Sense Antiques” columns in .pdf format. 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 shipping and handling) are also available at the same address. For more information call 800.387.6377 (Monday through Friday only, from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. Eastern Time), fax 352.563.2916, or e-mail All items are also available directly from the website,

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  • Katherine Fox

    What about getting rid of mothball smells? This is worse than cigars to me!

    • Diane Land

      I had the same question too. I’ve had some luck with first, wiping the insides of the drawers, etc. with Murphy’s Oil Soap then airing it out. I also will line the drawers with scented drawer liners and even “Bounce” sheets. However, the smell is always there to some degree. Hoping someone else has some more ideas.

      • Suzanne

        My suggestion, try using Pledge Grab It ~ Orange Scented, they work the best for polishing and odors inside and out.

  • Don Shanley

    I’ve had luck with first a dilute vinegar wipe down inside then putting aluminum lasagna pans of charcoal bricquets inside and closing it for a few days. The charcoal can be renewed by spreading out in the sun for a day then repeating.

  • Thank you so much for this article..It’s just what I’ve been looking for!

  • Windsor Cottage, Antiques & Gifts

    A good way to get rid of odors is with ground coffee. Take fresh grounds (not from your coffee maker) and put in the area. Leave for a few days and remove. This works best with drawers, cabinets, closets. Doesn’t work that well with furniture, unless you can put into a confined space.

  • Clam

    The author, who seems to be determined to remove any existing patina that gives old furniture its value, should, at the very least, distinguish between “mineral spirit” (by which I assume he means what the British call White Spirit – a substitute for Turpentine) and “thinners”, an aggressive chemical used in modern cellulose paints, which is capable of harming or even removing practically any finish.
    In my workshop we use “magic cleaner” ( a mixture of one part turpentine, one part boiled linseed oil and one part alcohol, shaken before each application to a rag), applied with a modicum of elbow grease, works wonders, removing grime and old wax, enhancing existing patina and leaving the pleasant smell of turpentine (which soon disperses) in its wake.
    Water, or any aqueous solution, should be used sparingly and care should be taken that none “pools” in, say, a joint, swelling the wood before it can be removed. Sunlight will, of course, lighten some woods (such as mahogany) and darken others (such as oak) so should be limited in its application.
    Bleach does kill moulds, but be careful not to get it on, say, a baize-lined drawer, nro leave it on wood too long because, surprise, surprise, it will behave as advertised and start to bleach the wood wherever the finish is absent or damaged.

    • Marian Whitcomb

      Thanks Clam, I have been looking for a less toxic cleaner than methyl hydrate and laquer thinner 1/2 and 1/2 which my husband swears by, and my chemist PhD cousin says will give me cancer.

    • Hi Clam,

      Does the linseed oil come in a boiled state or do you need to boil it? Also, when you say alcohol, do you mean regular rubbing alcohol? Thanks, Bill

  • Thank you for the information I will try it today

  • Ann Marie Talorsky

    Thank you Mr. Taylor for your suggestions. They worked!! Not sure I would take any advice from others who are simply guessing at suggestions — they are not experts like you are.

  • Candy Lambourn

    I have some retro chairs that have a vinyl seat but have that “musty” smell to them as I believe they were in a barn for some time, how do I get rid of that smell?

  • Elsie

    I also would like a remedy for mothball smell. I have a jewelery drawer in my vintage dresser. It is fabric lined and has velvet ring holders. I have tried leaving dishes of baking soda, charcoal, dryer sheets and loose tea inside this space for weeks. Smell is still there.

  • accentrique

    I’ve had pretty good luck with a commercial product called “OdoBan”, that I purchased at Home Depot. I was amazed how it banished that “brown” odor that comes from stale old cigarette smoke and residue. One caution, though. If you spray it on an object, or in a room, the initial fumes are rather strong and I recommend isolating the area or object for a day or two. The fumes dissipate, leaving no detectable odor. As with anything, use as directed.

  • Katherine Clifton

    Thankyou for this interesting article. I can confirm that tobacco smoke and tar are particularly difficult to get rid of. Some years ago I moved into a house that dated from 1879 (fully restored) and had been lived in for more than forty years by heavy smokers. When I washed the doors and windows in preparation For painting, I was shocked at the thick brown tarry residue that melted from them. I hate to think what their lungs are like!
    I used a basic combination of hot water and a general cleaning product and I wore rubber gloves to do the job. I kept the windows open as much as possible, as I am a great believer in fresh air.
    The house smelt much l’essere ‘smoky’ after the treatment.

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