Old steamer trunk smells like moth balls

by Lynn
For decades, an old family trunk was closed up full of pictures, old Bible and other treasures. But, because of the moth balls, I can't use/display any because of the smell. I'd also love to use the trunk, but after days of sitting open in the sun, charcoal, vinegar,..you name it, the smell isn't going anywhere. It is lined with a paper product with a wood product under that. Since I don't know if I'll ever get the smell out enough for my sensitive nose, should I try selling it like it is, get it professionally refinished or try some other approach (not sure I'm up for the challenge of stripping the paper, refinishing the wood)? Thanks for you input!

  13 answers
  • Linda Sikut Linda Sikut on Aug 07, 2017

    Hi Lynn,

    Click on the link to this article for a couple of other ideas. There are at least two you didn't mention so maybe that's what you'll have to do. It also explains why it's so hard to get rid of the odor, which might help with the items inside.


    Good luck!

  • Johnavallance82 Johnavallance82 on Aug 07, 2017

    Sell as is and let the new owner do the work...........

  • Janet Pizaro Janet Pizaro on Aug 07, 2017

    Try putting cedar chips inside the trunk

  • Jeanette S Jeanette S on Aug 07, 2017

    Set it outside on a covered porch and spray it with "Odoban" which you can get at WalMart. You will have to spray it several times. Be sure and spray the outside and even turn it over and spray the underside.

    I prefer Oust, but Johnson and Johnson stopped making it...I have no idea why! Maybe it was too expensive. I would pay $10 a can for it if I could find it!

  • Casey Casey on Aug 07, 2017

    Try filling it with crumpled newspapers and closing it for a few days. This works with a lot of musty smelling books and shoes, so it might work for you.

  • Mat27205751 Mat27205751 on Aug 07, 2017

    Spray with vinegar (well), hot water to clean up the vinegar, if possible sit it outside a bit to air and boom!

  • Fiddledd224 Fiddledd224 on Aug 07, 2017

    Pour baking soda or Carpet Fresh in there, close the lid. Let it sit for a few days and vacuum.

  • J J on Aug 07, 2017

    Best you can do is air it all outside in the shade. Mothball stink is awful, ruins so much. the trunk I would put out in the sun. So sorry.

  • Lynn Lynn on Aug 07, 2017

    Thanks for the tips. I think I've tried most all of these in one form or another (I'll have to look back to see if it was Odoban I'd used). It's a shame as the trunk came over from Finland when my Great grandparents came to the states. Ideas on how to get it out of an old book? Off picture frames without ruining the finish? Sitting outside didn't help, nor vinegar (not on book), coffee grounds, charcoal...

  • Lana Hassell Lana Hassell on Aug 07, 2017

    Lynn, the smell will eventually go away. It will be awhile, but naturally, because these are family treasures, the wait will be worth it. Just be patient. I had the same problem. Patience paid off. Good ol' air worked. 😊

  • Paula Paula on Aug 07, 2017

    Have you tried baking soda? Rub the inside down with it...sprinkle extra inside.before closing it. Hopefully the next day the smells will be gone.

  • Sue28039999 Sue28039999 on Aug 07, 2017

    If you're even considering selling it, sell it as is. An antique loses value if it is altered by a novice rather than restored by a pro.

    As long as you leave the lining materials in the trunk, you'll not likely be able to get the smell out. Paper towels tend to absorb smell so you could try storing the trunk in a warm place (such as attic) with lid open and rolls of paper towels in it.

    (One drastic measure you could try without removing the lining materials might be to try to cover/replace the smell with something else you actually like -- such as a strong smelling potpourri or "essential oils" product or scented wax cubes or even strong coffee (anything that might could overwhelm the moth ball scent) -- by leaving it inside of the trunk for an extended time. Such products can help with some musty smells but not that well for smoke smells. )

    If you prefer to keep the trunk and use it for your own family heirloom, then go ahead and remove as much of the interior paper and wood product lining as possible. You can use products that remove wallpaper and glue and/or paint but do so in the open air or only in a place with good ventilation. A good a scraping tool will be needed as well and, likely, some sandpaper, too.

    Once lining materials are removed, scrub with a brush and cleaner -- such lemon Lysol or Mr. Clean -- to get any dirt residue out, sanding as needed.

    Wearing protection for your eyes and clothes, using a soft bristle brush (w/fuzzy ends that tend to hold the cleaning product) or a sponge, apply thick no-splash bleach over the entire inside -- one side at a time -- letting the bleach sit for about ten minutes on each side to absorb into the wood before wiping it off with a sponge and then turning the chest to do the next part. After than, put the open chest in the sun or in a warm space -- trunk of a car you rarely drive will do -- so that the wood can dry and, hopefully, most of the odor evaporate with the moisture.

    When you've removed as much of the smell as you can, you can line the entire inside of the trunk with your preference of materials: consider flooring panels of cedar or bamboo that would help block any residue smell.

  • Michelle Leslie Michelle Leslie on Sep 17, 2021

    Hi Lynn, place some fresh kitty litter inside the truck and it should absorb the moth ball smell.