Vomit-Like Odor of Bacterially Infected Wood

When cabinets or wood smell like vomit, a likely culprit is bacterial infections in the trees the wood was made from. Unfortunately, there is no known fix. April 20, 2008

We have 45 armoires at a job site that have a strong dead animal smell inside the case. They were shipped by container with other goods and none of the other cases have this odor. Is it possible that casein glue or urea formaldehyde glue is the cause?

Forum Responses
(Adhesive Forum)
From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
It is much more likely that the problem is caused by bacterially infected wood.

From contributor H:
Were the other armoires that do not smell made from the same sheets? We once bought some Brazilian plywood for a garage storage unit and did not notice any odor in the shop, but after installation in a small area it was so bad that the client passed out from the smell when he got out of his car in the garage.

From contributor R:
Can you find out what the finish is? If it was a conversion varnish and it was over-catalyzed then it would give off a baby puke smell.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
The anaerobic bacteria are often found in veneer from outside the USA, as oftentimes such veneer logs are ponded for a while before use. They produce fatty acids that then turn rancid. The odor is tremendously unpleasant, smelling somewhat like vomit indeed. Humidity seems to bring it out. There is no coating that can be applied. The infected wood must be replaced. I have worked with this problem quite a few times and wish there was better news.

From contributor C:
We took an offer on a whole semi load of Virola plywood with different thicknesses and got it for approximately half the price of what it should have been. They said it was a little wet. It wasn't wet, just smelly.

All the things Gene said are true. You can't cover it up by coating it, humid weather makes it worse. Fortunately we had a company who liked it for crating because of the solid core. They never noticed the smell from the smell of cutting oils in the factory.

From the original questioner:
Thanks for the great responses. I now have a couple other options to look at for the source, but they all point at the materials or process used by the factory.

From contributor W:
All of the posts ahead of me are right in line with my experience. These cabinets may be a big problem. The few positive items I can throw in are that the smell does eventually minimize and fade away. We tried washing the wood with bleach (which only treated the surface) as a first step then tried sealing over the bleached surface. This was a failure, the cabinets still stunk. Opening the doors to the tightly closed armoire is a real treat I bet. I did get decent results by putting mothballs in the cabinets. The caustic fumes from the mothballs seemed to slowly kill the smell.

Wood that has sat around the shop for a year or more doesn't smell when you pick it up and sniff but if you cut it the smell is still there. This manufacturer knew what he was working with and shipped you something he thought he could get away with. I find it hard to believe that these didn't stink at the factory.

From Gene Wengert, forum technical advisor:
Whenever the humidity increases, the odor will return even with some fairly good finishes. I am not aware of any that can seal the odor, but maybe there is one. The main test is to get the RH high and see what happens.

From contributor C:
If you lived in a low RH zone, would not be that much of a problem, as Gene states. That is what we experienced. On the low humidity days of June, low odor, high humidity of July bad odor. A chemical engineer related to me the story of animal urine on carpet. You clean it and the smell is gone until high humidity days come back. It’s probably the same science happening.

From the original questioner:
I guess it is time to cross our fingers. The site is climate controlled which should be a help and they have already been through the high humidity time of the year. If the smell does increase again it is good to know why.