How to get rid of the musty smell from old wood furniture and remove odors from upholstery and leather couches, using natural, home remedies.
Can you relate to this experience?
You walk into a thrift store and you see a piece of furniture calling out to you. There is that perfect old dresser, that would look so great in your bedroom and it is exactly the right size. You are ready to grab your wallet and haul that baby home to you.
And then you open a drawer…
Whew! What is that smell inside of the drawers?
That dresser smells as bad as it is old.
Musty old is the best way to describe it.
But if you love it, and the price is right, there is still hope for a long-lasting relationship between you and that musty piece of vintage furniture.
Let me show you my tried and true methods for getting rid of old musty smells in furniture. I rely on natural and home remedies to remove smells from wood furniture and to clean the fabric and leather on couches, and chairs.
So far I’ve yet to encounter a piece that I’ve not been able to rescue.
If a musty smell is not the only thing that might be wrong with your coveted piece of furniture but you suspect pests than you will appreciate this article about how to avoid bringing pests home in old furniture (and how to identify, treat and prevent them).
This post contains some affiliate links for your convenience (which means if you make a purchase after clicking a link, I will earn a small commission, but it won’t cost you a penny more)! Read my full disclosure policy.
5 Steps to Clean Old Furniture That Smells
- Dust and Vacuum
- Clean it
- Degrease it
- Deodorize it
- Seal it
After you have given your piece of furniture a ‘sniff test’ to determine what kind of smell is in there, you have to decide if this is going to be worth it. Plain old musty and old, is usually an odor that can be removed.
Cigarette smoke or kitchen odors are already a bit harder, but usually, the piece is still salvable.
If it smells of pet urine odors or if something died in there, I would step away and not bother with it. Those smells are really hard and really foul, so I don’t want to deal with those.
Okay then, we have determined that this old piece of furniture smells musty. First things first let’s dust and vacuum. Give the entire piece, inside and out a good vacuum. Get rid of the dust, cobwebs and crumbs. Use a small screwdriver to loosen the dust in corners and crevices. Don’t forget the bottom!
Next step is to clean it. I like to use a mixture of a few drops of soap and a good splash of white vinegar in a bucket of water. White vinegar is a powerful natural cleaner and deodorizer that, while strong smelling itself at first, fully disappears when dry.
Use a cloth or gentle scrubbing sponge, and scrub every inch of the piece, including drawers, hardware, and the back panels. Make sure it dries fully, you could even do the scrubbing while it’s outside in the sun!
Leave your piece to dry completely. Sun exposure will help too. Drag all pieces into direct sunlight and leave them out there for hours, if possible. Bacteria love a humid environment to thrive and also like dark, undisturbed places. The sun will bake out any moisture that’s helping it to survive, and hopefully also kill surface bacteria as well.
The third step for cleaning thrift store furniture is to degrease it. Furniture that has been handled a lot, was used and stored in a kitchen or workshop, and/or has spills and stains on it, needs to be degreased.
By the way, this is also an important step if you later want to paint the piece, so it is a good idea for all furniture anyway.
Use a special degreaser made for this purpose (not your average kitchen cleaner) to get rid of all the oils in the pores of the wood.
Almost there, step four is to deodorize your piece. Getting rid of all the smells is the most important and sometimes most difficult step. There are several ways that can work wonders in removing musty smells from furniture. I like to go with all-natural home remedies. I’ll list a few you can try (in succession) down below.
The last step in cleaning old furniture is sealing it. If there are any lingering smells that the deodorizing process didn’t get rid of completely, it is time to seal it. If you are going to paint the piece, I recommend priming it with a product like an Odor Killing Primer. This will save a step in the prep and painting part of the makeover too.
Another option is to use pure shellac on the wood. Pure shellac comes in golden flakes that you dissolve in ethanol. It is the main ingredient of sealing primers but you can also use it pure if you are not interested in coloring your wood with paint.
In any case it is best to always apply a finish to wood. I wrote an article about what the best wood finishes are.
Related Reading: How to select the perfect pieces at the thrift store.
7 Ways to Deodorize your Furniture Naturally
There are several ways to remove musty smell from wood furniture, and most of them are natural, low-cost, and environmentally friendly. Did you know there are so many odor absorbing substances hiding in your kitchen cabinets?
1 Sun Exposure
The first thing you should do if wood furniture is stinky is ensure it is dry. Place it outside in the natural sun light with all the drawers and doors open. Give it some time and let it dry thoroughly.
2 Clean It
An obvious one, we know. Use soap and vinegar as described above. You might invest in wood cleaners, like anti-fungal detergents, or something like murphy’s oil wood soap. But I find that sometimes simple soapy water can be enough to cut into the old smell.
3 Coffee Grounds
We all know that there are multiple great home and garden uses for coffee grounds, and deodorizing is just one more for the list! Place small bowls of coffee grounds in the dresser drawers or on each shelf of the piece, and give it 24-48 hours to be effective.
4 Baking Soda
Like vinegar, baking soda is a well-known and often used home cleaner and deodorizer.
Growing up, my mom would sprinkle it onto our stinky sneakers on the weekends, and she always had an open box in the back of the fridge, doing its thing!
Sprinkle the powder lightly over the surface of the shelves and in drawers, and do your best to have it make contact with the sides of the piece as well. Make sure it gets into corners. Give it a few hours, and vacuum it out.
While great for a topical cleaning solution, vinegar will also pull odors out of the air.
Place a glass container or two of vinegar and water inside (like the coffee grounds approach), and give it 24-48 hours to absorb odors in the air (or whenever your nose tells you it’s done).
6 Unscented Kitty Litter
Kitty litter is another inexpensive option. Small (2-3 handfuls) bags or bowls of unscented kitty litter (think sandwich bag, upright and open) placed throughout the piece will also absorb undesirable odors, as it’s designed to. Some folks say this works quicker than the other methods!
7 Strip, seal and stain.
If none of these approaches work, consider stripping and sanding the piece down to remove the outer layer of the surface. This, combined with a new stain and sealant, will likely do the trick.
Related Reading: How to Choose the Best Furniture for Flipping for a Profit
How to Get rid of musty Smell in upholstered Furniture
Getting a sour smell out of furniture with upholstery can be tough. The easiest way is to remove and replace the fabric and cushion materials. If replacing funky-smelling upholstery isn’t an option, here are a few techniques to tackle the smell!
1 Baking Soda
A baking soda sprinkle is extremely effective at minimizing funky odors in upholstery. Let it sit for an hour or so (or overnight), and then vacuum up.
2 Steam Cleaning
The steam cleaner you use on your floors and bathroom, usually also has an attachment that is fit for carpets and upholstery. Use the steam cleaner after you have sprinkled the baking soda and vacuumed it up, for a double whammy effect.
3 Wet Cleaning
If the above methods didn’t suffice, you can try to wet clean the fabric. Most towns have carpet/upholstery cleaning machines available for rental, and it’s a super effective way to kill bad bacteria and leave a fresh scent behind. Just make sure the piece fully dries afterward!
How to Remove Smell From Leather
If your leather couch or chair has a bit of a funky smell to it you can try the following method. Leather needs special attention and can’t be treated like regular fabric.
To remove smells from leather try mixing 1 part lemon juice to one part water. Use a cloth to wipe down the entire peace. It’s a gentle solution and has organic properties that both deodorize and prevent new stinky smells. However, make sure you follow with a wet cloth with only water and with a dry cloth, as lemon could potentially bleach the surface if left on too long. However, this also depends on the type of leather- we wouldn’t recommend this with suede!
I hope any and all of these tips will help, and you will not hesitate to bring that dream dresser home from the thrift store.
BONUS TIP: place some bags of lavender, dryer sheets or fabric pieces infused with essential oil in the drawers of your new – old piece of furniture to keep it smelling fresh in the future.
Let us know in the comments below if you have any other tips for the community on how to de-stinkify thrifted furniture!
Marianne Songbird is the founder of Songbird, where she hopes to inspire everyone to create a home they love, one DIY project at a time. She shares anything from craft ideas to home decor inspiration and from DIY projects to decorating hacks. Originally from the Netherlands Marianne and her husband Lex are currently renovating a 250-year-old farmhouse in Germany.