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.
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.
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