How to Clean Stinky Furniture

Marian ParsonsAll Things Home, Antiques, Before and Afters, Cleaning & care, Furniture Makeovers, Tutorials27 Comments

One of the questions I’m asked most often is about how to clean stinky furniture.  Here is the most recent e-mail I received about that…

“I have an older dresser that smells awful! I have no idea what to do to alleviate the smell. It was my mom’s and now it’s mine. There hasn’t been anything smelly stored in it but I’m stumped as to what to do to have fresh-smelling drawers without having to sand the inside of the drawers down or douse it with chemicals. My only other thought is to spray or paint it with KILZ. Do you have any thoughts or suggestions?  Thanks for your time!”

Having bought and sold thousands of pieces of furniture over the past 10 years, I have done battle with many pieces that were stinky, musty, smelled like smoke or animal pee, or were just completely dirty and gross.  Sometimes it’s because I bought the pieces sight-unseen or I just didn’t take the time to give a piece the sniff test, so I was stuck with a stinky piece I had to do the best I could with it. There were other times that I knew just what I was getting into.  I loved the piece so much that I was willing to put the extra work in to clean it up and get it smelling nice.

So, I’ve learned a trick or two along the way about how to clean stinky furniture.

one | always give a piece the “sniff test”

I don’t always follow my own rule, but it will save you a lot of work if you just put your face down in the drawers or against the upholstery or in the cabinet for just a second to make sure you can live with the smell.  Anything that has a strong smell of smoke or animal urine will be tough (not impossible) to clean.  Just know that going into it, so you can decide if the piece is worth it or not.  Those smells will typically diminish, but never really go away entirely.  If a piece just smells musty, dusty, or “old”, you’ll be able to take care of that.

Here are a few of the worst, dirtiest, stinkiest pieces I’ve bought over the years…

The cabinet base that I rebuilt and paired with an orphaned hutch top

how to clean stinky furniture | miss mustard seed

The hardware cabinets – my hands were black after cleaning these and removing the plastic inserts in the doors.

how to clean stinky furniture | antique hardware cabinet | miss mustard seed

THIS primitive piece that I fell so hard for that I completely saw past the fact that it was gross and stinky inside.

how to clean stinky furniture | miss mustard seed

The chicken incubator that I turned into a coffee table

how to clean stinky furniture | antique chicken incubator | miss mustard seed

The chicken incubator was probably the worst ever.  It smelled so catty and it was just filthy.  The water was black when we washed it and it took almost an entire day to get it clean.  Oh, and the smell.  It was just awful.   I don’t know what I was thinking!

two | vacuum

I always vacuum a piece first thing.  Even if it looks pretty clean, it’s a good idea to remove the drawers, vacuum out the cavity, the drawers, the back, and the underside to remove cobwebs and dust.  It’s amazing how just removing the surface-level dust can make a piece smell better.

how to clean stinky furniture | miss mustard seed

three | clean with soap and water

I think most people are afraid of getting wood wet, but it really will be fine!  Even painted and finished pieces can be washed and scrubbed.  The key is to not let water sit on the surface and put it in a good place to dry.  So, if vacuuming alone doesn’t cut it, fill a bucket with warm water and some mild dish soap and give the piece a good, old fashioned scrubbing.  Dry it off with an old towel and then let it sit outside to dry.  Do not sand, paint, or finish it until it’s completely dry.

how to clean stinky furniture | miss mustard seed

four | use a degreaser

If a piece came out of a garage, workshop, or barn, it’s likely to have some grease on it.  Even furniture that comes out of kitchens can have a nice layer of airborne grease on the surface.  Soapy water won’t always cut it, so use a degreaser like 409.  Just spray it on and scrub it off.

how to clean stinky furniture | miss mustard seed

five | deodorize

The best way to deodorize a piece is to sit it outside on a sunny, breezy day.  Remove all of the drawers, open the doors, and just let it air out.  That’ll do wonders for musty pieces.  If it still smells musty, then I’ll try to absorb the odor by putting a cut of coffee grounds inside each drawer.  The coffee will absorb odors pretty well.  You can also use charcoal briquets or kitty litter.  Wiping the piece with a little vinegar mixed with water can also help neutralize odors.

I’ll then use some lavender sachets to help the drawers smell nice.  I’m not a big fan of using flowery-scented sprays, but you gotta do what you gotta do sometimes!

how to clean stinky furniture | primitive gray cabinet | miss mustard seed

six | seal in the smell

If you’ve gone through all of these steps (and I would suggest doing some of the, like scrubbing and airing out, multiple times if needed), then you have to go to the nuclear option – seal the entire piece with an odor-sealing primer, like KILZ Odor Killing Primer.  If the piece is really bad, you might need to do the inside, outside, back, bottom, and every nook and cranny to completely seal the odor.  I’ve never had to do that with a piece, though.  The steps above have always gotten pieces to a place where they are useable and won’t stink up a whole room.

how to clean stinky furniture | miss mustard seed

how to clean stinky furniture | antique chicken incubator | miss mustard seed

For those who have been asking how to clean a stinky piece of furniture, I hope this post answers your question!

If you’d like to see more furniture makeovers I’ve done over the years, you can find them HERE.

How to Clean Stinky Furniture

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27 Comments on “How to Clean Stinky Furniture”

  1. Sounds like good advice! After vacuuming and scrubbing, I often paint the interior of a piece to prevent odours from recurring. Going to look for the Kilz odour-sealing product. Thanks!

  2. Young House Love recommends charcoal deodorizing packets that are sold on amazon and super affordable. You “recharge” them by putting in the sunshine one hour a month. The testimonials on their Instagram are crazy! (People write you Sherry and tell her all the smells they get rid of — smoke, spills, etc.)

  3. I have had good results sealing the wood with tung oil or your hemp oil after I have vacuumed, and scrubbed the drawers inside and out. It also makes the wood look very nice…and smell better, too. Nothing like the satisfaction of turning a sow’s ear into a silk purse.

  4. I will only use a shop vac for cleaning these pieces. Your vacuum can and will absorb those odors giving you an additional problem. I just go straight to the light wipe down with soap and water and proceed from there.

  5. I have never had to de-stink any furniture lol but I have used the charcoal bags when my contractor was going to use lacquer paint on my newly installed kitchen cabinets. Along with the charcoal bags I used Arm & Hammer opened boxes of baking soda on all kitchen counters and it really helped. I purchased the charcoal bags on Amazon. Thank you for all the tips I’ll keep them in mind just in case!

  6. I have cleaned a many stinky barn finds. I have washed, vacuumed & washed again. I have left mine outside with cedar blocks inside. They absorb most orders in a day.

  7. My family has always used scrunched up sheets of newspaper inside musty old smelling drawers etc. Does seem to work – assume it absorbs smells much the same as some of the other products mentioned. 🙂

  8. If you’ve never tried NokOut I would strongly suggest you give it a try! I picked up a beautiful dresser that was in a barn for decades with dozens of feral cats everywhere. I am sure you can imagine the smell. I went through your first four steps above, put it out in the sun, drenched it in NokOut and let it dry. I moved it into the garage at the end of the day and all told, it took several days to dry. I was pretty generous with the spray bottle! I did have to spray it down one more time, but after that the piece had NO smell left at all! Fantastic job! Their website has lots of great info.

  9. What about leather furniture? I stumbled across a leather chair and it smelled like smoke from a fireplace. Would you then recommend using your hemp oil to revitalize it? Thank you 😁

  10. My problem is mothball smell. Done most but not all methods
    Will try nok out
    Don’t know if I ever washed the drawers.

  11. I had a nasty stinky smoky aroma hutch hat i intended to tole paint. Washed it down with vodka. Did the newspaper thing too. But the prize was stuffing the drawers with fresh grass clippings and let it sit. Also you can get activated charcoal in the pet fish department. They used to come in sheets.

  12. I use charcoal bag sachets all over my house – one in spice drawer, one in each of my 3 bathrooms. put them in shoes, put them underneath sink near the trash bin – they are awesome. Get mine on Amazon.

    The thing about Kilz that one doesn’t expect is that IT is horribly stinky. I only used it twice and I tell ya I never will again.

    I love all the natural ideas you and your readers have shared. Thank you, Marian. Good help!

  13. I had the opposite experience today. I have a very old chest of drawers that was left behind by the seller of our first house. It was painted a greigy-pink at the time, so I stripped it decades ago and used it in the house until it eventually ended up in the garage as storage. Inspired by your recent painted oak transformation, I decided to move it to a bedroom today. I cleaned it up and sanded out some old water stains on the top. and am about to buy some vintage pulls for it. When I was putting the drawers back in, I noticed that they smell SO good–slightly floral. I have no idea why, but I’m fine with it!

  14. Put open bowls of unused coffee grounds in each drawer and let set for a few days! A friend taught me that trick from his days working in a car rental business. If a car was returned with cigarette smoke odors, they did the coffee grounds trick. My husband was sprayed by a skunk while inspecting a wooded lot and got into his work truck to drive home to change clothes. His work truck, of course, reeked of skunk. He did the coffee grounds trick for a couple days and was amazed his truck smelled fine! We now use the little coffee packets – often complimentary in hotel rooms – in our vehicles for air fresheners.

  15. This is great information I wish had know several months ago! Thank you! After buying an old dresser and bringing it home, I realized it smelled bad (really bad!). I spent much time on the internet researching best practices for the problem. After attempting to clean, disinfect, etc, it just wasn’t working, so the cute dresser and I ended up parting ways. Lesson learned.

  16. sometimes your posts are just timely…I found this perfectly natty, distressed metal tool box at a garage sale today for two whole dollars. when I got it home and opened it up it smelled like engine grease and it was pretty dirty. So I took it to the bathtub, scrubbed it out with Dawn…scrubbed it out again with TSP three times…I used a Mr. Clean magic eraser…then I sprinkled on some Comet and scrubbed it again…at that point I was scrubbed out. I decided to let it dry out and try cleaning it again tomorrow. I think it is worth the effort though…it’s perfect for the various bits and pieces I use when I’m painting !!

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  18. Hi. I had a problem also with my childhood furniture which I passed on to my daughter. For me, I wasted my time cleaning, washing, white vinegar, coffee grounds, baking soda, and a clear primer. My next step is to use Kilz, and cross my fingers.

  19. hello. so much good information and tips! l bought a EA wood windsor bench and did it reek of smoke, l scrubbed with cleaning vinegar and baking soda. leaving crumpled newspaper and little piles of baking soda out on it did the job in about 2 weeks.
    allison.

  20. Thanks for all these tips. I’ve had this problem before and it took ages to get the smell out. The primer one, I hadn’t thought of. Thanks for sharing.

  21. I have successfully used peroxide to remove cat pee smwll from the inside of an antique dresser. But I couldn’t get cigarette smoke from a chair and had to let it go

  22. .could you please put the address where you had your pots refurbished, I have lost it. Thanks so much. Becky

  23. I also put a cotton ball with a purifying essential oil inside a drawer or suitcase to remove the musty smell. This works well!

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