Lesson learned: when it comes to old furniture, smell before you buy

Musty chest of drawers

The scene on the front lawn of the Manse this afternoon: what was that Sedgwick woman up to?

If you happened to be in Queensborough today and drove or walked or biked by the Manse, you might have found yourself wondering what on earth that woman was doing in the front yard with a bucket of water and a deconstructed chest of drawers. Well, since that woman was me, I’ll tell you. I was trying to get the musty smell out of that chest of drawers, which Raymond and I bought a while back at an auction.

It seemed like a bargain at the time: $40 (as I recall) for quite a nice old piece of furniture in good shape. (I have since been to a lot more auctions and have decided that I overpaid. But I was an auction rookie then.)

After we got it home to the Manse we wiped and vacuumed it out, and put it upstairs in one of the spare bedrooms. (“The boys’ room,” Raymond and I call it, because it was the bedroom that my younger brothers John and Kenneth – you can see a cute photo of them at the bottom of this post – slept in when we were kids growing up in this house.) And we didn’t think too much more about it.

But in recent days I’ve developed a determination to get my clothes (of which I have way too many, like most 21st-century North Americans) actually put away in closets and drawers, as opposed to the alternative, which is messy piles and whatnot. Now, this is easier said than done in the Manse, because chests of drawers and closets are in extremely short supply; when this house was built in 1888, people just didn’t have all that many clothes.

I, on the other hand, do have lots of clothes, and that’s why I decided it was time to put that auction-sourced chest of drawers to use. Unfortunately, when I opened one of the drawers up, I was taken aback by the musty smell that came out. No way was I putting my nice clean sweaters in there.

And that’s why you might have seen me out in the front yard with the drawers taken out of the frame of the chest and the frame itself upside down. Employing a de-mustifying method that I totally made up, I scrubbed everything down with a combination of very hot water and Murphy Oil Soap. Then I left everything out in the hot sun and the steady breeze so that they would dry out and in the process (or so I hoped) the smell would dissipate.

By the end of the afternoon, when we moved the pieces up onto the Manse’s front porch, they definitely seemed to smell a lot fresher, but I think another scrubdown and day in the sun might be in order. Or – is there a better way? One suggestion I heard today was boiling water followed by hot sun. Or would industrial-strength vinegar and water be a good idea, I wonder? If you have any suggestions, please send them along.

Because, you know, if this doesn’t work out, that chest of drawers is off to the dump. And I am off to Ikea.

Meanwhile, I have made a mental note to self: before you buy, or even bid on, a piece of old furniture at an auction – or anywhere else – for goodness sakes open up the drawers and sniff!

8 thoughts on “Lesson learned: when it comes to old furniture, smell before you buy

  1. Spread a layer of kitty litter in the drawers, then close them tight and wait a few days. It works for musty books, too. Put them in an airtight container with a pile of kitty litter. It brushes right off when you are finished.

    • Oh wow, Elinor – now that is something I would never have thought of in a million years. But simple! And I bet a sprinkling of baking soda in with the kitty litter wouldn’t hurt a bit. Thank you so much!

  2. Hi Katherine! You might consider those old fashioned drawer liners. Crabtree and Evelyn used to make nice ones. Or create them yourself from heavy kraft paper. It’ll put a tiny distance between the drawer bottom and your nice clothes.

    • That is an excellent suggestion, Mimi – thank you! I like the old-fashionedness of it. Hadn’t thought of drawer lines in many a year. But yeah, even once I get the musty smell out (assuming that I do), I think it would be a very good idea to put something between that old wood and the clothes.

  3. Hi, I think $40.00 is a good deal. But I am sure you have seen a better deal since your purchase.Just seems the way it goes. I am just wondering if you put the drawers back in the dresser and placed a dish of white vinegar in drawer and then keep them closed. I have used idea to get rid musty smells. Also once the smell leaves you might try apply some paste wax to the wood or applying a coat of clear finish to help seal the wood. Plus if you decide take the dresser to the dump I would gladly take it off your hands. Plus save you a trip to the dump by picking it up. I have a Ikea dresser that is about 7 yrs old that should be in the dump.

    • Greg, thank you for the good suggestions! I had actually wondered about trying vinegar, and with you backing me up on that, I probably will – if the cat-litter trick that Elinor sent in a previous comment fails to eliminate the smell. Applying a finish to the wood is something I’d not thought of, but as soon as I read your words I thought, “Brilliant idea!” And yes, if all else fails and I give up on the dresser, consider it yours. I will let you know!

  4. I was curious how you made out with your dresser. I just refinished a nice 3 drawer side table that was my wife’s grandmothers. Turned out pretty good

    • Oh boy, Greg, with your refinishing skills we need you at our place! We decided to put the dresser to good use storing paper stuff – file folders and envelopes and financial records and the like. It serves a good purpose that way and it doesn’t matter if it still has a trace of a musty smell about it. My promise holds, though, that if at some point we decide we no longer need it, it is all yours!

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