How to Repair Antique Trunks

Updated April 17, 2017

Antique trunks can add a true air of history and old world charm to any decor. These old trunks often held the only worldly possessions of someone travelling off to a new land in search of a new life. Artist craftsmen created these old trunks not just as a utilitarian container, but also as a portable "home away from home" until the person reached their destination. They built them with care--with warm wood trim, feminine colour linings and lovely decorative metal trim. So in restoring them, it's important to respect the story that each one holds. Restoring an antique trunk back to its glory years can be a satisfying home improvement project. This restoration is for a standard domed wooden trunk with metal trim and leather covering.

Clean the trunk thoroughly and gently with soap and warm water. Dry it with a towel or air dry it with a hair dryer. Work on the exterior of the trunk first.

Glue back down loose leather pieces. Due to their constant usage, trunks often have pieces of fabric or leather that is loose or worn off. Glue leather pieces down using a water-based glue, making sure to add pressure tape or a heavy weight. Allow to dry overnight. If leather is missing, order a replacement from an antique supply house. Use a utility knife to trim leather areas needing replacement. Leave any small areas that are missing leather alone. It is better to leave them than attempt patching, as it will look unnatural and unauthentic to the piece.

Inspect decorative tin end brackets and edging for rust. Clean them with a wire brush or electric drill with a wire wheel attachment followed by sanding with sandpaper and steel wool to finish off. Coat tin with a clear metal varnish to protect the surface. If a tin part is rusted all the way through, purchase a rust extender putty and fill in damaged section. Paint to match other tin parts.

Replace broken or damaged tin strips on the bottom of the trunk by removing, and measuring them. Order replacements from a hardware store. Replace them in the same position as the old part. Punch tin with holes for nails, pound in and secure.

Repair wood slats next. If they have been painted, strip the paint with furniture stripper, sand excess paint gently and stain with a clear wood oil, followed by a protective top coat. Follow manufacturer's instructions for use. Work to restore the wood to its original patina. Use old pieces to match the colour.

Clean and restore the leather next. Apply saddle soap to clean dried-out leather covering followed by a treatment of Neetsfoot oil to restore suppleness and colour to the leather.

Re-nail the trunk where nails have loosened or fallen out. Remove old nails with pliers. Use end nippers to clip nail heads off or to pull nails out. Order and replace any missing or broken hinges and latches. Do not substitute here, it is important to find exact or "as close to possible" matches to keep the trunk as original looking as possible. The "integrity" to the trunk's antique history is what this restoration process is about. Stay focused on this goal. Replace missing parts. Be sure to pound and bend nails over on the inside to secure properly to avoid loosening.

Inspect inside of the trunk. Interiors of old trunks usually have wear such as stains, torn liner paper and small pieces of wood missing. If the original interior is in fairly good shape, leave it. Clean gently with soap and water, being careful not to tear old paper. If the interior is in bad shape, fill wood holes with wood filler and allow to dry. Scrap out old loose paper. Clean the interior with water and ammonia to remove odours. After it's dry, seal with shellac to prevent odour from returning.

Add new lining paper by first matching new papers to fragments of the old material from the original trunk and order the new paper. Patch any holes in the bottom of the trunk by layering with linen fabric over problem areas. Do not use vinyl wallpaper in restoration because it does not work well with lap joints involved in gluing corners. Install paper by measuring end pieces and adding 1/2 inch to overlap at the corners and glue the paper. Finish with front and back papers, followed by the bottom and top. Seal any wood in the interior of the trunk with clear sealant.


Original nails in trunks were bent over (called clinch nails) to keep the trunk solid and secure. When replacing these, be sure to clinch over all replacement nails as well. Add a sachet of potpourri to add fragrance to the interior of the trunk.


Be careful when working with sharp pieces of tin. Use gloves. Work with adequate ventilation when using toxic products such as ammonia, shellac and wood stains. Read and follow manufacturer's warning labels.

Things You'll Need

  • Carpenter's wood glue, 113gr.
  • Utility knife
  • Electric drill with wire wheel
  • Sandpaper
  • Wire brush
  • Steel wool
  • Clear metal varnish, 1 pt.
  • Rust Extender, 1 pt.
  • Putty knife
  • Soft brush, 3 inch
  • Metal paint (to match tin colour), 1 pt.
  • Tin replacement strips
  • Metal punch
  • Nails, Antique if available, 1 1/2 inch
  • Clear wood stain oil, 1 pt.
  • Clear wood sealant, top coat oil, 1 pt.
  • Saddle soap, small can
  • Neetsfoot oil, small can
  • Soft cloth for cleaning leather
  • Wood filler, 1 pt.
  • Pliers, standard
  • Pliers, end nippers
  • Hammer
  • Pail for water
  • Ammonia
  • Shellac, 1 pt.
  • Linen fabric, 1 1/2 inch by 8 feet
  • Lining paper and logo
  • Gloves to protect hands
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About the Author

Robert Gray has been writing full time since 1995. His first photography book took seven years to research and publish. He specializes in writing on photography and the arts. He's written for Photography Magazine, Large Format Camera Magazine and many online art and photography websites and blogs.