How to Restore Steamer Trunks

Written by lanh ma
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Whether you have inherited a steamer trunk from a relative or you have picked up a steamer trunk at an estate sale, you may find that it isn't in good shape. A steamer trunk can be a beautiful addition to your home, but first you need to restore it. One way to restore your steamer trunk is to strip off the canvas that lines the exterior to expose the wood underneath.

Skill level:

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Things you need

  • Carpet knife
  • Paint scraper
  • Medium-grit sandpaper
  • Dusk mask
  • Gloves
  • Dust sheet
  • Polyurethane
  • Clean rags
  • Tack cloth

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  1. 1

    Lay down your dust sheet and set your steamer trunk on it. The restoration process can take a few days, so set up in a place that is out of the path of traffic in your home. Ideally, it will be a place like a shed or a garage where you will not fill the air with dust.

  2. 2

    Put on your dust mask and your gloves. There are going to be a lot of particles flying in the air.

  3. 3

    Find the seam where the canvas meets the metal bands or the wooden seam. You may have to look harder on particularly well-made trunks, but they are there.

  4. 4

    Slide the tip of your carpet knife underneath the canvas and start separating the edges of the canvas from the trunk.

  5. 5

    Pull the canvas away from the trunk when you have separated all the edges. Because a water soluble glue was used on steamer trunks during the late 1800s, this process will likely be quite simple unless the trunk has been reinforced since then.

  6. 6

    Repeat steps 4 through 6 until you have removed all the canvas from the trunk.

  7. 7

    Scrape away any traces of glue with your paint scraper. Be gentle, and remember not to gouge. Scrape with the grain of the wood. This can take several hours.

  8. 8

    Sand the entire trunk down with medium-grit sandpaper. Sand with the grain and be patient. The more care that you put into the trunk now, the better it will look.

  9. 9

    Clean the trunk with a piece of tack cloth, picking up all the sawdust and loose particles.

  10. 10

    Apply polyurethane to the wood using a clean rag. Work in a circular motion and take your time.

  11. 11

    Allow the coat of polyurethane to dry completely. This may take a full day.

  12. 12

    Apply as many coats of polyurethane as you feel appropriate by repeating steps 11 and 12. The more polyurethane you put on, the more protected your trunk is going to be.

  13. 13

    Allow your steamer trunk to dry thoroughly before setting it up in your home.

Tips and warnings

  • Stripping the canvas from the trunk will give you the raw wood to work with, but you will find that it will also ruin its historic value. If the canvas is in good condition or if there is only a little bit of damage, you may wish to have the trunk professionally appraised and restored.
  • For a more authentic finish to your trunk, consider treating it with linseed oil and wax instead of polyurethane.
  • While medium-grit sandpaper will do the job, proceeding to a second sanding with fine-grit sandpaper can give you a beautiful finish.
  • Fine steel wool can also be used for a final finish.
  • Do not use steel wool or sandpaper on metal bands or metal corners as this will scratch them beyond repair.

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