I acquire a lot of pre-owned furniture to refinish. Some are from thrift stores. Some from yard and estate sales. I’ve even dragged furniture home after picking them up off the curb. Let’s face it, thrift store furniture sometimes comes with a little stink; but it’s not usually a problem. Today I’m sharing with you some easy ways to clean thrift store and other pre-owned furniture to remove those musty odors.
When I was younger I would never even consider buying from a thrift store. The smell of them was overwhelming and not in a good way. It’s understandable though. People donate old things that have been sitting around in homes for decades. Get them all together and whooooaaaa – a barage of old odors that resemble something like dirty feet! Yuk!
As I got older, had three kids (in lots of sports), money got tighter, and rooms in my home sat empty, I got creative when it came to furnishing my home (and later flipping furniture for sale).
I learned how to “clean” second hand furniture after I brought it home from that thrift store or garage sale. Here a few ways I “clean” pre-owned furniture and ensure those musty odors go away.
STEP 1: Sand Furniture With an Electric Sander
My #1 way to clean any piece of furniture is to exfoliate it. Yup! Just as you scrub off a layer of dead skin cells when you shower, furniture needs a good scrubbing too.
Much of the odor lingering on a furniture is in the top layer. If you remove that top layer then you also remove the odors. So how do remove a layer? Sand it.
An electric rotary sander is my most valued tool in my workshop. I use THIS one.
A rotary sander has a round sanding pad that moves in a circular motion. Orbital sanders are typically square and move back and forth. I’ve tried an orbital sander on one occasion when my rotary sander needed repair, but didn’t care for it. The circular motion removed the old finish so much easier.
Plus, with the rotary sander the sandpaper simply slaps onto the hook & loop (aka Velcro) sanding pad in one second while the orbital sander required menuevering two metal bars and sliding the sandpaper underneath them (which was supposed to keep it from coming loose but didn’t always hold well).
Depending on how much furniture you sand, you will eventually need to replace the sanding pad, but they’re super inexpensive on Amazon and are only held on by a few small screws. With all the sanding I do, I only have to replace the sanding pad about every two years.
You need to be cautious when sanding furniture. I only sand furniture outside and wear safety gear. The three items I always wear when sanding are:
You should never breath in the dust created from sanding down a piece of furniture. Even though the the electric sanders have a dust bag attached to them that captures most of the dust, there’s still some dust flying around.
Dust masks will keep most dust out of your lungs, but I’m super cautious and wear a gas and vapor mask because I’m sanding so frequently. Here’s a great article that explains the different types of dust and vapor masks and their ratings. Basically, aim for masks with the highest P95 and P100 ratings.
Here’s the mask I use: Vapor Mask, North Mask with this Honeywell Cartridge – rated P100
So what parts of the furniture need sanding?
If the furniture has just the average thrift store stink, then sanding the exterior wood is usually sufficient. I also like to quickly run my sander through the inside and outside of the drawer boxes. This sanding (exfoliation) process usually takes care of 95% of any dirt, oils, and thrift store odors.
STEP 2: Wash With Products + Sun & Heat
Every piece of vintage and antique furniture has dirt and oil on them that needs to be removed prior to apply any new products. Furniture polish used to be a very popular way to clean furniture, but that polish is oil-based which can prevent paint and other products from adhering.
To remove any remaining dirt and oils after sanding, wash the furniture with one of these:
- Krud Kutter
- Odorless Mineral Spirits
- Dawn liquid soap & water
If at this point, odors linger or if you started with a piece with heavy smoke odors, then you’ll need to continue washing.
I no longer bring home furniture with excessive smells or smoke smells; but in the rare instance that you just couldn’t pass up that gorgeous piece of furniture even though it had a “stronger than your typical thrift store” scent or has smoke smells, you need to resort to some natural and chemical alternatives.
Here are few options:
- Baking Soda: Set a box of baking soda in the dresser to absorb orders overnight. I’m told that kitty litter also works well absorbing odors.
- White Vinegar & Lavender Liquid Detergent: Create a liquid mix and wash the furniture inside and out with a damp rag.
- Mold Control Spray: Spray the furniture inside and out.
With each of these methods it’s best if you can set the furniture outside and in the sun for a few days to dry and air out.
STEP 3: Prime the Furniture
Steps 1 and 2 should have taken care of most odors. One more way to ensure thrift store odors are under control is to prime the furniture. There are several primers, both white and clear that that do the job.
Zinsser 1-2-3 Primer is a great basic primer that offers average stain and odor blocking. It’s what I use if I’m planning to paint a piece of furniture in a dark color.
Zinsser BIN Primer is the primer I use if I’m painting furniture a white or a lighter color because it’s the only primer I’ve found that prevents color bleed through. BIN primer is a shellac primer with a white color. It has a strong chemical smell, so be sure to wear a vapor mask when painting it on.
Zinsser Clear Shellac is similar to the BIN but without the white color. It creates a clear seal between the wood and paint layers. Like the BIN it has excellent stain blocking ability. So if you’re planning to leave the furniture natural (no stain) or even if you plan to paint it, then clear shellac is a good stain and odor blocker.
STEP 4: Paint, Stain, & Clearcoat
Paints, stains, and clear topcoats also aid in blocking odors and are the final icing on the cake, so to speak. Just about any product will do the trick and the produc you choose will really depend on what you want your finished piece to look like.
One thing I do recommend though is clear-coating (not painting) the drawer boxes. Once, many years ago, I painted the drawer boxes and it resulted in a rain shower of paint shavings every time I opened and closed the drawers. Instead, use a basic matte or satin clear-coat.
Here are a few of my favorites:
- Benjamin Moore Stays Clear
- Minwax Matte Polycrylic
- Minwax Wipe-On Poly
STEP 5: Clear-coat the Inside
If you’ve done Steps 1 through 4 and your seeing sensing some lingering odor, it’s most likely coming from the inside of the dresser and not the exterior that you’ve sanded, washed, primed, and painted.
Only in one very rare instance have I needed to take the added step of clear-coating the inside of a dresser. The clear Shellac or a a clear polycrylic would be a good option for this.
Now that you know that you can clearn thrift store furniture, isn’t it time to get shopping?!
Disclosure: This post contains links to products I use myself and recommend.
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