Trunks from the 1927 Sears catalogue

How to Get Rid of Smells in an Old Trunk

Have you ever bought an old trunk at a garage sale or antique shop or inherited one from a family member? Wherever you got yours from, it’s not surprising that you may have found it appealing. To our modern eyes there is something about an old trunk that captures our imagination.

If only trunks could talk. Where have they traveled? What kinds of precious objects did they contain? What secrets, letters and lies were hidden in their secret compartments? We think all of these wonderful thoughts until we open the lid, and then…. ugh! I can’t use this! I’ll never get rid of the smell.

Trunks from the 1927 Sears catalogue
Trunks from the 1927 Sears catalogue

And you would be right… or wrong. You see, it all depends on what caused the smell.

Some old trunks are simply musty. Odor-absorbing deodorizers often work with these types of smells. Sometimes all it takes is a good airing on a warm sunny day outside on the deck to get rid of the smell. A wiping with a damp, (not wet) cloth that has a bit of vinegar in the water helps too. Make sure you air-dry it well.

Other trunks may have gotten wet and what you might be smelling is mold. You can usually tell if the trunk got wet by looking at the wallpaper inside the trunk. Are there watermarks? If there are, you know the trunk was soaked in water at some point and you won’t be able to get rid of the stains you see. What I have done in cases like these (where the rest of the trunk was in good condition) was to replace the old wallpaper with a new washable wallpaper. The vinyl surface of the washable wallpaper acts as a seal against any mold that might harbor in the wood.

There is one final type of smell that I have rarely been totally successful in removing over the many years that I have been restoring trunks. That is the smell of mothballs. Strangely enough, the smell of mothballs brings back memories of my childhood. Mom and Dad took me and my siblings to church every Sunday. You could always tell what season it just by the smells in the church. In the late fall all the ladies of the parish had just removed their winter coats, and that of their families’, from the mothball – protected trunks they kept in their basement. The smell was especially strong near our pew because one lady had a fur stole – the kind that still has the eyes and face and feet of the little furry critter. Moth balls had been used to protect it from other varmints, I guess. Poor thing.

Anyways, there is a good reason that textiles were well protected when stored in trunks with mothballs. Nothing with half an insect’s brain would go near the trunk. The smell permeated everything! And today, the smell endures.

There is no use putting any new wallpaper in such a trunk, as in the last method, because using water actually “reconstitutes” the smell to make it even stronger. The only success I ever had in making a mothball smell seem less obvious was by stripping all the paper from inside the trunk and washing the heck out of it with vinegar and water. I left the trunk to dry outside. Then I covered the inside with an oil based paint. Water based paints will only make the situation worse.

Once the paint was dry, I would often cover the interior with an appropriate wallpaper. After the wallpaper had dried I applied a coat of oil-based polyurethane over the wallpaper as well as on the outside of the trunk. If you do this, make sure you air out the trunk otherwise you could just be trading the smell of mothballs for the smell of paint.  Putting this final clear coat over the entire surface  in effect creates a “bubble” that seals in the smell.

It’s a lot of work but it might just be worth it if the trunk is important to you. Do you have any other ways of sealing in smells in a trunk that you want to share? Please leave me a comment.

For more information on antiques check these out:

The Truth about Insuring your Antiques

Test your Knowledge about Antiques –  Trivia  

12 thoughts on “How to Get Rid of Smells in an Old Trunk

  1. Thanks Johanne. I have 2 cedar trunks about 80 years old hand carved from China. I can’t get rid of moth ball smell. Can u help

    1. I’m afraid that there is very little you can do to get rid of moth ball smells if they have been in the trunk for that long.I have had limited success “encapsulating” the interior of the trunk in solvent-based, not water-based, urethanes and paints. Of course, the moth ball smell is now replaced with paint smells.:)

  2. Put ground coffee in a dish or sock and place in the trunk. Close it fir a few days. Gets rid of mothball smell!

  3. I recently bought an old trunk that has a tray and the whole inteterior is lined with fabric. It sinks to high heaven. Ugh, it’s unbearable! I tried using upholstery cleaner but the fabric began to come unglued. I really don’t wNt to rip all the fabric out. Can you give me any suggestions on how to get rid of the smell?

    1. Gloria: if the fabric is coming off when you wet it that means that the glue is no longer good or else it’s a water-based glue that was never meant to get wet and it’s coming off now that you’ve wet it. The way I see it you have two choices:
      1 – remove the fabric completely , scrub the wood with a brush dipped into a solution of tsp and water followed by a wash of vinegar and water to neutralize it. Let it dry completely – several days then paint the inside with an oil based paint. I say oil based because a water based paint will only reconstitute the smell. Oil base paint will seal the smell in although you will have the smell of paint for a little while – you’d have to keep the lid open, possibly outside (but not in the sun).
      – the second option is to clean any dirt you see carefully off the fabric then seal the fabric with, again, oil based varnish or urethane type finish, again for the same reasons as above. This clear coat will ‘glue’ the fabric onto the wood and hopefully seal the smell in. If the smell you are talking about is from mothballs then your chances of success may not be great.
      It really depends how much you like the fabric or how much work it is to remove it. Good luck!

  4. To remove the mothball odor, strip the old paper, sand and scrape all surfaces (don’t forget the lid). Get down to the bare wood as much as possible.
    While H2O and vinegar is good for removing mold & mildew, it isn’t good for removing mothball odor because H2O will react with and enhance the mothball residue of either naphthalene or paradichlorobenzene.
    Open the trunk and keep it outside, in the sun. Turn it to keep as much of the interior in the sun. Pick dry (not humid) days if possible.
    Dust the inside with baking soda, and put the trunk in the sun again.
    Vacuum the trunk to remove the residue.
    Put activated charcoal in the trunk by itself for about a week with the lid closed. Spread the charcoal around to expose as much surface area of the charcoal to absorb the chemicals. If concerned about getting the trunk dirty, put down paper first.
    Use cedar oil, lavender oil. or lemon oil to mask any persistent, lingering odor. All of these, by the way, are a natural alternative to chemical mothballs.

    1. Yes these techniques may work on natural wood interiors but not as useful in situations where the interior has original papers. I can’t say I would put oil on the wood’s interior because the oil has been known to stain textiles and paper products that are placed in the trunk. A couple of coats of oil-based Varathane would seal in the smell and can be placed over original wallpaper without staining. Thanks for the comment.

  5. I don’t have a trunk, but I have a similar problem I am wondering if someone could help me with it…We recently bought a quarter sawn oak wardrobe c 1900, that stinks to high heaven of nicotine. I have washed it lightly inside and out with TSP…didn’t help, at all. I have waxed it with beeswax and lemon…which seemed to help a bit. Any ideas?

    1. Beverly: The techniques I mentioned in the post would be the same. Unfortunately you will have to get rid of the wax because the reason it helped a bit is because the wax sealed the smell in but in order to put Deftoil on the inside there cannot be any wax on the wood at all. If you give it a good scrubbing on the inside with tsp , rinse it well, let it dry then apply a coat of the Deftoil to put back some of the colour on the wood. Let it dry at least a week or two with the doors open then seal the inside of the wardrobe with an oil based varnish or urethane. You will have to clean the exterior too because the nicotine could just as easily be sitting on the outside even more than the inside. Use oil based products so that they are compatible with each other. Water based products may make the problem worse because it actually “reconstitutes” the smell. Good luck.

  6. I will certainly give this one a try! I have a couple of old suitcases that smell HORRIBLE…MOLDY! Maybe the paint treatment will work on them. Thanks for the information.

    1. Yes give it a try. It isn’t foolproof because it depends somewhat on how strong the smell is, but it is worth a try. Don’t forget to use oil based products. Good luck!

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