Q: I desperately need your advice. We have a cottage in our backyard that was run-down, dirty and smelled badly inside. We gutted the cottage and redid everything except for the all-wood ceiling.
The problem is that, after all our work, the cottage still smells. For a while we used the cottage as a kitchen and at that time I didn’t notice the smell so much. My husband’s great cooking with all the garlic must have covered it up. But now that the cottage has gone unused for a while, it smells again. I put my nose to the wooden beam and it stinks with that same smell.
Is it possible that the smell is coming from the wood? If so, what can we do to get the odor out? We have company arriving soon and I am embarrassed for them to stay there.
A: It’s not only possible but likely the smell is from the wood. Years of neglect and lack of ventilation probably is the cause of the unpleasant odor. It also could be that you’re especially sensitive to that musty smell. We mention this because cooking odors masked the smell. Heavy use of the "stinking rose" covers a lot.
With company arriving soon you probably don’t have enough time to permanently fix the odor issue. To get ready for your guests give the ceiling a good cleaning and ventilate the room before they show up. Your permanent solution is to refinish the ceiling.
Cleaning is a two-step process. First, give the wood a good scrubbing with trisodium phosphate (TSP), which is sold as a powder available in the paint section of your local hardware store. Mix a good handful of TSP in a gallon of warm water and stir until it dissolves. Use the abrasive side of a "scrubby" sponge to scrub the ceiling. This will remove most of the dirt and gunk that is causing the odor. We suspect the water will get dirty quickly so change the solution often. Make sure to rinse the ceiling with clean water.
Use drop cloths if the room is carpeted. Move any furniture out of the way. It’s inevitable that the water will drip and TSP followed by a bleach wash can stain. Also it’s a good idea to wear a long-sleeve shirt and to "glove up." TSP and bleach, even when diluted, are mildly caustic and can irritate sensitive skin.
Next clean the ceiling with a bleach solution. Bleach should kill any organisms contributing to the smell. Make the solution four parts water to one part household bleach. Again make sure any fabrics or carpet are covered or out of the room.
While all this is going on leave the windows open. Fresh air goes a long way in getting rid of foul smells.
You may find that the heavy cleaning is enough to banish the smell. But you’re not done yet. To solve the odor problem once and for all, seal the wood. If the ceiling is only stained and not varnished, the cleaning you’ve done is the preparation needed before applying a seal coat.
After your guests leave, apply two coats of water-based polyurethane to seal the wood. If the wood has a smooth surface, use a sponge brush to put on the sealer. They are cheap, disposable and give a good finish. If the wood is rough-sawn, you’ll need a traditional paintbrush to do the job.
So, to sum up, open the window to let the fresh air in. Give the wood a two-step cleaning with tri-sodium phosphate and bleach. And, after your guests leave, seal the ceiling.