Rancid Smell in Plywood Cabinets

Bacteria or a catalyzing problem could be the culprit. March 3, 2010

Here's a first for me. I did a hutch - paint and glaze using SW. The same thing I've done dozens of times before, but this time the cabinets have a sour smell that won't go away months later. We installed the cabinets during the summer. The house was supposed to be climate controlled, but was left wide open most of the time. I want to wipe them out with something. Any suggestions?

Forum Responses
(Finishing Forum)
From contributor R:
Without some serious air movement, the smell will hang around for quite awhile. You might be able to mask the odor. If you have access to a planer, run some cedar wood, put the shavings in a nylon stocking, and place one sock in each of the drawers, on each of the shelves, and in each cabinet box and it just may help.

From the original questioner:
Thanks - I'm going to try it.

From contributor S:
A sour smell months later sounds like a problem. Masking the odor may work as long as the cedar overpowers the smell, but as soon as the cedar is removed, is the smell still there, out-gassing? Air movement is the long term answer if all it is doing is out-gassing. But you might consider trying to absorb it, perhaps with charcoal or one of the many other readily available absorbents.

From contributor J:
What type wood or plywood was used in the construction? A lot of the okume/meranti stuff has bacteria that gives off a pungent odor after exposure to high humidity or water. There is no removal as far as I know. Might check the archives as this has come up here before.

From the original questioner:
Well, those are good responses. I know what off-gases are and this is different, but still a possibility. The charcoal is a good idea. The plywood we use is domestic formaldehyde-free. The other cabinets, although different in color, are painted with the same products. We'll try everything.

From contributor L:
Is this project finished in a CV? If so, did you over-catalyze the material? It sounds to me the odor is consistent with this issue.

From Professor Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
All it takes is one piece of bacterially infected wood to give this foul odor; the bacteria are dead now, but in their life in the living tree, they made some basic fatty acids that will eventually turn rancid (close to the smell of vomit). The rancid odor will last for many years and cannot be removed or covered. If the infected piece (imported plywood is often the culprit) is removed, then there is no longer a problem. The bacteria are long dead and so the odor does not spread to other pieces of wood. The odor is more noticed when the humidity is high.