How to restore a leather trunk

Updated November 21, 2016

A vintage leather trunk evokes the aura of world travel by the jet set of a bygone era. They are a practical piece of personal history that can be used to create your own memories or to become a keepsake decorative element for your home. Leather trunks can be found in antique shops, yard sales and flea markets at all different price points, but the best finds come with a bit of wear and tear. With some time, dedication and patience, you can restore a leather trunk yourself.

Look at some pictures of restored trunks, both inside and out, to get a sense of what the finished project should look like.

Strip out the lining, unless it is in great condition and the trunk does not have a smell. Use a scraper or putty knife, if necessary. Let the trunk sit open, preferably in the sun, after you remove the lining to air it out and minimise any musty smell.

Remove the nails by snipping them from the inside where they are bent or "clinched." Pull the head out from the top using a tack lifter, then use the pliers to pull the nail outdo not save the nails. Remove all hardware--handles, plates, etc.

Restore the tin or brass plates and end caps by filing or brushing off any rust and then either painting or clear-coating them. If they are embossed, you will need to paint them with flat black and lightly sand the paint off the top of the design before coating it with a clear coat to protect the plate.

Cut new plates out of tin, brass or sheet metal to replace any plate that is rusted through. A professional antique restorer can do this for you and can attempt to duplicate any embossing that is on the plate. He may also be able to find a replacement.

Clean the leather with saddle soap and a soft cloth, then wipe it down with Neetsfoot oil. Glue loose areas with white glue and weight the area down until the glue sets. Think before patching any small areas where the leather is missing, since it will not match and may look better as is.

Renail the trunk, being sure to bend the exposed nails in the inside of the trunk to tightly secure them. Attach all the hardware, handles, etc., and tighten any nails that you have left in.

Reline the trunk and any trays with heavy paper, decorative paper, vinyl-coated wallpaper or fabric. Cut each piece with a 13-mm (half-inch) overlap and glue the lining in place with white glue. Start with the ends first, then the front and back and finally the top and bottom.

Things You'll Need

  • Scraper or putty knife
  • End nipper pliers
  • Tack lifter
  • Regular pliers
  • Wire brush or sandpaper
  • Paint or clear coat
  • Paintbrush
  • Rag
  • Wood filler
  • White glue
  • Saddle soap
  • Neetsfoot oil
  • Replacement nails and parts, as needed
  • Hammer
  • Lining material
  • Scissors
  • Razor knife and ruler
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