How to: Get musty odor out of an old dresser


This dresser looks great but smells musty, which is aggravating its owner’s allergies. (Reader photo)
October 9, 2013

QI have refinished an oak chest that I bought at a secondhand furniture store. It retains a musty smell that sets off my allergies, and I am not usually very sensitive. I have washed down the insides thoroughly with bleach and vinegar and applied an organic spray that uses enzymes to get rid of odors. I have left it in the hot sun for several days and now on the porch for weeks to air out — all to no avail. Any ideas? I had stripped the old varnish from the wood using Formby’s formula and steel wool, and I refinished it with Formby’s tung oil, a method I have used with great success for years on other pieces of used furniture.

Washington

A

You need to seal the wood with a finish that will block the smell. Carrison’s Restorations in Manassas (703-369-6318) uses lacquer, but shellac is also effective and more suitable for application by nonprofessionals, says Michael Wells, who has worked at the shop, owned by his brother, for 16 years.

They disassemble drawers by tapping at the corners until the old, usually brittle glue gives way. Then they scrape off all the old glue, thoroughly sand the wood and reglue. After that, they spray the lacquer. For a four-drawer chest, the fee is about $550; for a two-drawer chest, about $350.

Sanding the surface, which for drawer interiors can be done only with the drawers disassembled, is the surest way to remove the mildew smell. You’ll also wind up with fresh glue. But if you’re not careful or if nails were added over the years, you risk splitting some of the wood. So if you’re not particularly handy and can’t spring for a professional restoration, you might try just spraying or brushing shellac over the drawer interiors without taking them apart. Brush away any puddles at the corners.

On the Web, you might find cautions against doing this, for fear that sealing the drawer interiors will cause a moisture imbalance in the wood that will cause joints to fail. Not so, Wells says. “Old glue is what makes joints fall apart.”

For years I have used Brasso to shine copper bowls and brass candlesticks. They looked great very shiny. Now the Brasso and other brass cleaners make them look dull, so I think the formula may have changed. What can I use?

Potomac

Yes, the Brasso formula has changed.

For people who want to do the polishing themselves, Joe Grenon, owner of Awesome Metals in Kensington (301-897-3266; www.awesomemetals.com) recommends Wenol Metal Polish (www.wenol.com) or Simichrome Polish (simichrome-polish.com). Local hardware stores might carry one or the other.

Or you can take your pieces to a professional shop to have them polished and sprayed with a clear lacquer, which will block oxygen in the air from reaching the metal and causing it to tarnish again. On decorative pieces kept indoors, Grenon estimates this treatment will last 15 to 20 years before it would need to be redone.

You can buy spray cans of lacquer, but Grenon doesn’t recommend coating your pieces yourself because of the risk of drips, sags and missed areas. “It’s like trying to paint a car in your driveway,” he says.

At Awesome Metals, prices start at $35. Polishing and lacquering a pair of brass candlesticks costs about $150. The shop also does big projects, such as a chandelier for $800 or a bed for $1,500.

Have a problem in your home? Send questions to localliving@washpost.com . Put “How To” in the subject line, tell us where you live and try to include a photo.

The Checklist Read Jeanne Huber’s roundup of home-improvement tasks you should tackle in October, such as cleaning cobwebs, at washingtonpost.com/home.

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