How to refurbish antique trunks

Updated April 17, 2017

Antique trunks were manufactured in a myriad of sizes and styles. Small canvas covered trunks were staples of stagecoach travel in the mid 1800s. Some, like the Jenny Lind trunk, named after a famous actress of the day, were shaped like large bread loaves. Dome top trunks appeared around 1850 and were popular through the 1920s and steamer trunks were the luggage of choice for people travelling on ocean liners. Today, antique trunks add a rustic touch to any decor

Clean the trunk. Brush the trunk's surface to remove as much loose dirt and dust as possible. Dab off the rest with a damp sponge. Scrape the old paper lining out of the inside. Wipe out glued on pieces with a damp cloth. Scrape away as much of the old glue as possible. Leave up the lid and let the trunk's interior dry completely.

Banish odours. Put an open bag of kitty litter inside the trunk and close the lid. Leave the litter undisturbed for a week.

Pull off the canvas covering. Slip the razor knife blade under a corner of the canvas between it and the wood underneath. In this manner, trace around the perimeter of the trunk top. Slide your thumb under a corner of the loosened canvas and slowly pull it off. Repeat the same process on the sides until you remove all the canvas and expose the wood underneath. Scrape off any hardened glue on the trunk's surface.

Remove rust. Use a wire brush to remove the heaviest rust from the metal or brass hardware, locks and handles. Take off areas of lighter rust with steel wool. Rub in a circular motion and work on one small area at a time. Wipe away loose rust with a clean, dry, cloth or soft-bristled paintbrush.

Sand the trunk. Sand the wooden parts of the trunk using medium-grade sandpaper first. Finish sanding with fine grade. Avoid scratches and gouges by sanding with the grain.

Refinish the wood. Brush on a mixture of tung oil and white spirit or, for a more durable finish, apply water-based polyurethane. Both products can be purchased at any hardware store. Use long, even brush strokes and allow the finish to dry thoroughly before using the trunk.

Replace broken hardware. Purchase replacement parts for broken locks, handles and other brass or metal parts as well as leather handles. Reproduction hardware is available from many online dealers. You may also shop flea markets, garage sales and antique shops to find antique hardware that matches what was used on your trunk.


Place the trunk on a table or work bench to make it easier to work on.


Removing the covering on an antique trunk may reduce its value.

Things You'll Need

  • Brush
  • Sponge
  • Paint scraper
  • Cloth
  • Kitty litter
  • Razor knife
  • Wire brush
  • Steel wool
  • Medium and fine grit sandpaper
  • Paintbrush
  • Tung oil and white spirit mix (optional)
  • Water-based polyurethane (optional)
  • Mask
  • Gloves
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About the Author

Jan Czech has been writing professionally since 1993. Czech has published seven children's books, including “The Coffee Can Kid," which received a starred review from School Library Journal. She is a certified English/language arts teacher and holds a Bachelor of Arts in education from Niagara University.