How to Get Musty Smell Out of Old Furniture (Naturally)

Use an old glass jar to make your coconut polish

use an old glass jar to make your coconut polish

In the midst of a furniture refinishing phase, I recently located an old turn of the century desk on Craigslist for twenty dollars! One evening, my dear husband picked up it up for me.  He unloaded the desk in the middle of our living room which, being the main room in a small apartment, is truly where we are living.  The desk was in pretty good shape, except for some peeling veneer and a funk smell that quickly emanated throughout the apartment.

It was a smell many people refer to as “old people smell.” Finally, the answer to the question “what is that old people smell?”  I believe it’s mildew.  At least I think that is what the grey fuzzy stuff growing on parts of the desk was.  And wiping it down with dish washing detergent did not help. The smell quickly overtook our little abode.  That did not make me feel happy and homey at all- especially when I could smell it as I tried to sleep that night.

The next morning the desk and all it’s drawers got sprayed down with some vinegar and were set outside to soak up the sun.  (Our neighbors love us I’m sure.) That helped, but did not totally cure our woes.  I knew I would be putting my papers, notebooks, other belongings into the desk and the thought of them coming out smelling made me gag.

I debated painting the whole desk with milk paint to seal in the smell but then my husband started a series of remarks alluding to the desk’s beautiful mahogany and the rainforest giant that was sacrificed to make it.  He wasn’t even sure it was mahogany, but just the thought was enough to give me pause and I decided not to cover the whole desk in white paint.

I researched online and somewhere in my search read that antique pros use citrus oil to get out seriously funky smells.  And then I found the 2 Little Superheroes blog post  where she used coconut oil to polish her wooden furniture and the bonus was it got rid of that musty smell.

Light bulbs went off in my brain.  Raw unrefined coconut oil is known for being anti-bacterial and anti-fungal.  I imagine this as the trees method of keeping coconuts full of water from rotting away- just musing.  I don’t know if refined coconut oil would work b/c people claim the process of refining takes out the anti-fungal properties.

A glass jar, some organic unrefined coconut oil, lemon essential oil, and lavender essential oil (just for the fun smell), and I was in wood polishing heaven.

coconut oil, lemon essential oil, and lavender (if you like)

coconut oil, lemon essential oil, and lavender (if you like)

Not only is the formula all natural, it smells like heaven and, most importantly, after using it- no more old people smell!  A few of the drawers needed a second coat after a day, but it worked.  Now my house smells like lemon/lavender/coconut- something I truly enjoy!

You might not even need the essential oils if you don’t feel like searching them out- unrefined coconut oil might be enough, but I did not test this theory.  A note on essential oils: cheap ones are often altered with synthetics and other chemicals that aren’t put on the label.  If you want the real deal check out Mountain Rose Herbs , their quality and prices are great!  Also Young Living has good therapeutic quality essential oils.

I’m obviously no expert on old furniture care.  I claim no knowledge on how to care for antiques.  I’m just a gal trying to get a bad smell out of her home.  So if you have a smelly, priceless antique that you really care about the value of, better research that with a professional.

Also, once you cover the wood with coconut oil regular paint will not stick well!  This did not bother me because I use milk paint.  On the parts I painted I put the milk paint on first and then sealed the paint with the coconut oil mix.

When I finish my desk project, I’ll share photos but for now, to the recipe…

I just made a Tablespoon at a time- it’s easy to mix up more as needed.

Lemon Coconut Furniture Oil

1 TB unrefined coconut oil

20 drops lemon essential oil


Lavender/Lemon Coconut Furniture Oil

1 TB unrefined coconut oil

15 drops lemon essential oil

10 drops lavender essential oil

Mix together in a glass jar and stir with a stainless steel spoon.  (Essential oils are reactive with certain types of metal- you want to avoid that!)  Rub into your furniture.  Let sit overnight.  Apply another coat if needed. For really bad spots use extra lemon.  Wipe off any excess.  To be extra sure I waited 24 hours!

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5 thoughts on “How to Get Musty Smell Out of Old Furniture (Naturally)

  1. Pingback: Milk Paint, Non-toxic DIY Desk Makeover | Inspirations and Explorations

    • Hi! My wood was pretty dry and it really soaked up the oil so I didn’t even think of greasy. Raw wood wouldn’t be a problem either. I could imagine a potential issue on wood with a really tough shiny topcoat. You could always try it & wipe off the excess after a few hours. Also every once in a while I will get a little whiff of that musty smell when opening a drawer, but it’s tolerable and in general the desk has been holding up well. Good luck!

  2. You can also mix white 1/2 cup vinegar, 1/4 cup water and a few drops of essential oil.. then set in a dish to leave in the drawers overnight. I agree lavender and lemon are the best for removing odor and leaving a fresh scent!

    • Thanks Lynn, that sounds like a great suggestion, especially if the wood doesn’t need polishing! Vinegar is so useful. I will be sure to try on my next piece that needs it.

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