Remedies to remove musty odor from old furniture

Updated 1/22/2013 11:31 AM

Q. I don't know if you have ever heard of this problem, but here it is: My grandmother gave me a dresser and a tall chest that my daughter uses for her clothes. The chests are about 80 years old.

We have noticed a musty smell or old wood smell on the clothes. I wash the drawers and line them with paper, but it does not seem to help. Even after washing the clothes, there still seems to be a lingering smell. Do you have any suggestions what I can do to eliminate this, short of throwing away the dressers?


A. Here are several suggestions:

• Place a shallow tray with cat box litter in each drawer and compartment for a few days. (If cats only knew what that stuff does for us humans, they'd meow their heads off!)

• Spray the insides of the dressers with Lysol or rub them with lemon oil furniture polish.

• Use Milsek furniture polish and cleaner on the insides.

• Remove all drawers and shelves and spray the insides with Nok-Out, manufactured by Amazing Concepts and distributed by Neo Products, toll-free at (888) 977-4848. You can also order it online at

• Try Magic-Zymes. Order it online at or call toll-free (866) 478-2368.

When using a spray, spray all unfinished surfaces, inside and out, with a light mist. Do not soak them, as it would damage the wood and glue joints. Let them air for a day or so. You may need to repeat the treatment several times to eliminate the musty odor, as it may have penetrated deeply into the wood. Don't worry if you get any spray on finished surfaces, as it should not hurt them; just wipe them off quickly.

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Q. Our open traditional brick fireplace has a piece of polished finished marble, 54 inches by 18 inches by 1 inches thick, resting on a bed of hardened fireplace cement about three-quarters of an inch thick. This 100-pound piece of marble is only resting on this cement and is no longer adhered to it.

The question is, when the fireplace is used, will the marble crack from the heat of the burning logs? This fireplace has not been used for several years since the marble was installed.

A. As long as the marble heats slowly, I doubt it will crack.

Q. In a recent column, you mentioned that house vents to crawl spaces should be closed year-round. What did I miss in the past years? I have always heard the vents should be closed in winter and opened in summer.

A. Some building codes still mention how much ventilation crawl spaces need, but real life has shown us that ventilating a crawl space can cause a lot of problems, including severe structural ones.


The reason is that vents admit hot, humid air into a cool space in summer, resulting in condensation on the framing lumber and the foundation. The wood absorbs the moisture, and decay sets in. In my years of inspecting homes in a cold climate, I have seen many such problems, but this scenario is even worse in the humid Southeast, where the decay can become so extensive that floors actually collapse.

For many decades, the National Association of Home Builders Research Foundation, now the NAHB Research Center, has recommended closing or not installing vents in crawl spaces whose soil is thoroughly covered with plastic or concrete. It is also a good idea to sniff in the crawl space every so often to determine if all is well. My crawl space had no vents and had a healthy smell in the 30 years I owned the house.

In the winter, having open vents can cause pipes to freeze, as well as cold floors and condensation.

Q. We are considering purchasing a property on the lake, and there is an issue with the level of the ground beneath the cottage.

There is a 4-foot frost wall on footings made of concrete block, and to comply with FEMA, it may be necessary to raise the ground level in the crawl space to 102 feet above the water level to get flood insurance for lakeshore properties.

Regarding the proximity of the spruce floor joists to the ground below, at what distance should we be concerned with moisture wicking from the ground to the structure?

I am thinking we need to bring the ground level in the crawl space up 2 to 3 feet or more. Would we be safe with covering the sand with 6 mil poly, or should it be more involved with a concrete slab (although the latter would be extremely difficult to install)?

Short of raising the whole structure, which is about 24 feet by 36 feet, do you have any other suggestions?

A. The complicated FEMA regulations regarding potential flooding make no sense to me. I have been told that if the crawl space is vented, the first floor above the crawl space is the benchmark. When I questioned that, I was told that the vents allow the water to flow out, but that, to me, would mean that the surging water level does not reach the first floor. And that does not take care of getting the water below the vents out of the crawl space; it would still have to be pumped out. FEMA told me that in unvented crawl spaces and basements, the lower level is the benchmark because the water can't get out on its own. Really!

I was also told to check with an insurance agency that offers flood insurance.

In your case, if the crawl space has the required number of square inches of ventilation for the size of the structure, you need to ascertain if the first floor is 102 feet or more above the normal lake water level.

If there are no vents, the simplest solution is to have the required number of square inches put in.

Q. My basement escape window frame was bent years ago and never repaired. It doesn't look really bad, but it leaks cold air in winter. I've used plastic window insulation kits to minimize this heat loss. Should this issue be a problem upon home inspection when selling the house, and might it be a local code violation? I don't think total replacement is necessary, but I'm uncertain who to contact for repair, or even if repair is possible.

A. The most important question is whether the window still operates properly as an escape. As to whether it is a local code violation, please check with your local authorities.

A general contractor is the person to perform repairs or replacement.

Q. I have a raised ranch built in the 1950s. The roof had two vents and, at a later date, I added two more. The first floor at the back of the house has a 2-foot overhang. When the temperature is below 30 degrees, the inside four corners of the house have moisture that gathers at the baseboard. A roofer and an insurance adjuster recommended that I add two more roof soffit air vents on each side of the house. My son said I have "California corners." How can I prevent the moisture, which when not dried out causes mold?

A. Although you do not say what type of roof vents you have and where they are located, I do not see how adding more would prevent condensation on the four inside corners of the house at the baseboards.

The problem seems to be caused by the construction of the house and, perhaps, some changes in your living habits if this problem has only recently developed.

Until the energy crisis of the 1970s -- and, unfortunately, still today in some cases -- the outside corners of frame houses were built of three studs and immediately sheathed so that it was no longer possible to insulate them, making them cold places.

You have several choices. You can have canned foam sprayed in these outside corners from outside and hope that it cures the condensation problem. You can have the inside of the two outside walls that form corners in the affected rooms covered with rigid insulation, and new drywall and trim applied. You can have the entire house exterior covered with 1-inch-thick rigid insulation and new siding. You can raise the indoor temperature and make sure there is no furniture in these corners. You can run fans aimed at the corners. You can look at what you may be doing differently that is adding more moisture to the house. If you have a warm air system, and it has a humidifier, consider shutting it off.

Interesting comment from a reader: "I have outdoor carpet where I have a little patio with a metal roof overhead. Near one edge, the rain blows in and it gets a mold. What works for me -- white vinegar and water. I mix it with mostly vinegar and pour it on. Then take the hose and the mold lifts right off."

Thank you. Very interesting. That's a lot simpler and less expensive than using the products I recommended. I'll add that to my file.

• Henri de Marne was a remodeling contractor in Washington, D.C., for many years, and is now a consultant. Write to him in care of the Daily Herald, P.O. Box 280, Arlington Heights, IL 60006, or via email at

2012, United Feature Syndicate Inc.

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