Persistent smell from polyurethane

karinlJune 13, 2010

Some of you may remember the kitchen drawers my husband and I installed some months ago in our dishwasher opening, built of maple with maple slides. OK, so the drawers look great and they work fine.

We finished them inside and out with a clear urethane (Fine Paints of Europe Eurothane) in matte, and are happy with the appearance. What we're not happy with is the persistent smell. It's only one thin coat, and yet the off-gassing is just not stopping. I can't put any food in them yet, and even dishes or pots or dishcloths that are stored in them come out smelling quite unpleasant. We have been leaving them open most of the time in hopes that they would air out, but no dice so far.

I'm wondering if anyone has any thoughts on (a) how long this can reasonably be expected to go on, or (b) if there is something one might wipe the drawers down with to make it happen faster. I've started regularly wiping them out with just a damp soapy cloth, lacking any other strategy besides scraping the finish off entirely.

Or, I suppose, whether we could put on a second coat of something that would not be as objectionable, but that's also available in a matte finish and is impervious to water.

Thanks for any hope you can offer!


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Pull the drawers out and put them in a place that gets hotter than the rest of the house for a few days to weeks.

Now you know why the inside of drawers are often left unfinished or finished with shellac (the alcohol solvent in shellac evaporates easily).

    Bookmark   June 14, 2010 at 10:57AM
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Well thank you, Brickeyee, there's a solution I would never have thought of. How convenient that summer is coming up - suddenly there is an advantage to our baking-hot attic. Or maybe they should spend a few days right out in the sun.

Unfinished wood drawers in the kitchen were simply not an option because water happens. Our other drawers (20 years old) are also wood with an impermeable clear finish, and it sees constant challenge yet looks fine - I don't know what the finish is though, and was hoping to replicate it. I had ruled out most other finishes as I understood yellowing to be an issue, which we didn't want on the outside. Of course, we could have tolerated yellowing inside the drawers and used the very clear coat just on the outside. But it seems shellac does whiten when it gets wet, and this can happen on the outsides too - and some things do dissolve it, so I'm not convinced shellac would have been fully functional in a kitchen drawer.

I have to admit I find most of what I read about coatings to be so confusing that my eyes glaze over when I read it, especially as I seem to read a lot that refers to products I don't know where to buy, or stuff on the shelves isn't labelled as it is in articles (plus I'm in Canada and most info refers to American products) so I pretty much went with a brand name I had heard good things about and knew I could acquire. I had no idea the smell would be any more persistent than say, normal paint. Your response has prompted me to do some searching, and if anyone else is as confused as I am, perhaps the article linked below will be of some help.


Here is a link that might be useful: Very clear info about shellac by Jeff Jewitt

    Bookmark   June 16, 2010 at 10:36AM
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I love shellac. And I have two of Jeff's books.

Now. His article said:


1. It re-dissolves in alcohol so perfumes and strong alcoholic beverages like whiskey will mar the surface.

2. Forms white rings on contact with water. This is more of a problem with shellacs that have wax and old shellac surfaces.

3. Tendency to show scratches. The resistance to scratches can be improved by a simple waxing.

4. Has a shelf life after mixed in alcohol.

5. Not resistant to alkaline compounds. Alkaline chemicals such as lye and ammonia discolors and mars shellac because of its acidic composition. These chemicals are frequently found in household cleaning products.

6. Sensitivity to heat -- shellac starts to soften at about 150 degrees F. Hot items can mar the surface.

The reason I never recommend shellac as a kitchen finish are in numbers 2 and 5. It just is not worth the time, cost, and effort to use shellac when it is so easily damaged in every day use and cleaning.

Lacquer is longer lasting, but is subject to the same problems.

Polyurethane is tough, but chips easily and damaged spots cannot be easily repaired. Oil based poly does have the lingering odor problem. Water based poly does not have nearly the odor problem, but still has the repair problems.

Plain old non urethane varnish is still the best overall product, IMHO. Easily repaired(polyurethane is not easily spot repaired), tough, withstands most water and cleaning products, and is fairly easily applied.

    Bookmark   June 16, 2010 at 3:46PM
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Is The reason "you never recommend shellac as a kitchen finish are in numbers 2 and 5?"



[url=]Free Woodworking Plan[/url]

Here is a link that might be useful: Free Woodworking Beginners Guide

    Bookmark   June 19, 2010 at 3:04PM
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The inside of drawers are usually a rather benign environment.

Shellac works well there.

    Bookmark   June 20, 2010 at 11:11AM
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But water based poly is better, IMHO. Tougher and less prone to accidental finish damage.

As a further incentive, shellac from a can sitting on a shelf in a home improvement store might well be out dated(shelf life is seldom more than two years, even when cans say three) and will not be sufficient for an unsuspecting homeowner.

WB poly can have the same problem, but since poly is used much more, the chances of getting an over the limit can is more remote.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2010 at 1:12AM
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I appreciate the help here.

The thing is, the inside of my kitchen drawers is not necessarily benign - besides dishes or cutlery perhaps being put away still a bit wet, stuff spills, grease spatters, and stuff happens. Drawers are not always closed. Maybe your kitchen is different.

We used a water-based product on our floors that I believe to be polyurethane - I think it was Varathane... just another example of how names don't always help - I mean, could they choose a name more calculated to confuse people who already can't tell varnish from polyurethane? Anyway, I think that's what we used, and it hasn't held up well in the bathroom or kitchen wherever it gets dripped on; and in the kitchen grease gets through it. I do love the look - the old fir has a beautiful honey tone, and the satin finish allows the character to show - but I have to admit it's not impervious to water. So we didn't even consider it for the drawers. Maybe it would work for normal people :-)

Any thoughts on how long the smell of the oil based poly is likely to persist in the absence of baking the drawers?

And, could you give me a brand name of the varnish you have in mind, Mac, for future reference, or is it a generic product? In fact, could it be applied over the polyurethane in a pinch?


    Bookmark   June 21, 2010 at 2:37AM
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Does anyone still purchase pre-dissolved shellac?

A gallon of denatured alcohol and shellac flakes made up as needed eliminates the 'out of date can' problem.

'Cut' is pounds of shellac flakes per gallon of alcohol.

Scale to smaller quantities and just throw away any that is not used when the job is over.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2010 at 8:48AM
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I just did 2 coats of polyurethane on 5 doors in my mudroom and when I was done, I ran my Lampe Berger and you can't smell anything in there. No, these aren't a gimmick that covers up smell. No, your home won't blow up from buring an alcohol lamp while poly is drying. If that were true, I have been homeless a long time ago. I always burn my lamp after painting or using urethane. It works like magic!

    Bookmark   June 21, 2010 at 5:37PM
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brickeyee---I agree with you. That is how I purchase/store my shellac. But, I am not a DIYer when it comes to finishing. Go look at Home Depot---the shellac section shelf is full of cans of shellac. So is the floor finish area.

Last time I checked, several cans were over date. DIYers do not have any idea, as a rule.

karinl, when I need a prepackaged finish like varnish or lacquer, I buy it at Sherwin Williams or a dedicated woodworking store/website.

For water based poly, the blue cans of MinWax sold at home improvement/hardware stores usually does just fine.

    Bookmark   June 21, 2010 at 11:50PM
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Jem, I'd never heard of those lamps but that sounds like way too much fun not to try it! Hmm I wonder if it would work for alkyd paint odor too... that lingers for weeks.

Thanks again for the shopping guidance, Mac - I'll start watching what the specialty stores carry. The finish I always think of as the most impervious is the stuff they used on vintage colonial furniture like that made (in Canada) by Vilas and Imperial Loyalist and Roxton - I know similar stuff was being made in the US but can't remember the brand names. I guess that was probably lacquer, and most of it is a coloured wood tone. I've seen it scratched, and worn, but never water damaged.


    Bookmark   June 26, 2010 at 11:15PM
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Karen, they burn off any smell - grandmas perfume, ripe shoe, burnt cooking, etc.

    Bookmark   June 28, 2010 at 9:21AM
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I thought I would update this thread as I have noticed that the smell in my kitchen drawers is finally, mostly, abating. Dishes I take out of them no longer seem to smell.

What I did: I washed them with soap and water a couple of times. I did buy a lampe Berger - who could resist? - and used it, but since the problem is in the solid finish, not in the air, I think it had limited effect (ps, if you do this, buy the unscented fuel; all the scented ones are cloying). I love the lamp though! Then I reasoned that if burning isopropyl alcohol is good, maybe wiping the drawers with it is better, so tried that. Alas, not so much. The smell persisted.

Then I happened to have some unused charcoal filters from a Brita jug, and opened those and put one in each drawer (charcoal absorbs odours). Similarly, a box of baking soda - why not, I thought.

It was also summer, and the kitchen does sometimes get real hot. I didn't actually put the drawers in the attic or the sun to bake - too much work, too busy.

So it's hard to say whether it was time or my odour eaters that did the trick, but we are in bearable range - 4 months later. But as this is the same smell that off-gasses from particle-board kitchen cabs, boy have I ever reinforced my vow to never get those! My mother spent years re-washing every dish she took out of her cupboards after she got new particle board cabinets. Thank heavens I only had a thin coat to deal with.


    Bookmark   October 13, 2010 at 1:17PM
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Sheesh, NOW I find this stuff: Biozapp Paint Odour Eliminator - note Canadian spelling!

I bought a little package when I spotted it at my local paint store this morning, so I haven't tried it. And the package says, also, "eliminates odours caused by WET paint" (emphasis mine) so I don't know if it would have solved my long term odour problem.

Anyway, for anyone planning to fight the same battle... let us know how it works!


Here is a link that might be useful: Paint Odour Eliminator

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 3:38PM
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You already have finished your drawers so what's done is done, but if you have to do any clear finishes again I recomend Hydrocote Resisthane Plus pre-catalyzed lacquer. A major woodworking magazine did a test on about ten waterborn finishes and this one finished a close second behind General Finishes for both brush on and spray. When these two finishes were applied and dried, no one could tell the difference between them an N/C lacquer. I use Hydrocote because it's about three times cheaper than General and works really nice.
As for the smell; put some Kitty Litter in the drawers for two or three days.

    Bookmark   October 19, 2010 at 6:31PM
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Eurothane is a Urethane Varnish consisting of long-oil urethane modified alkyd resin in a white spirits solvent.

    Bookmark   October 30, 2010 at 8:28AM
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