How do I Clean an Old Steamer Trunk?

Updated February 21, 2017

Antique steamer trunks refer to the type of trunk most commonly used on long steamship voyages and stowed under the owner's cabin bed. Original steamer trunks are made of wood; they have flat tops and are shorter in height than other trunks. The exterior surface is covered with thick canvas or tin metal. The interior of steamer trunks are lined with paper or cloth. The antique steamer trunks bought and restored today are often used in interior home design as a focal piece or coffee table. With some simple cleaning and care, antique steamer trunks can easily come back to life.

Raise the steamer trunk lid and remove all curled or peeling lining paper. Use a plastic paint scraper to remove any stuck-on lining pieces, working in gentle motions so the underlying wood is not scratched.

Fill a gallon-sized bucket with warm water. Pour half a cup of gentle dish soap and half a cup of bleach into the gallon bucket. Use a cup to dip a little bit of soap mixture out of the bucket. Carefully pour the cup's contents into a clean, empty spray bottle. Turn the spray nozzle on the finest setting. Mist a small area, and use a sponge to scrub the trunk's interior. Repeat this process until the entire interior of the trunk has no traces of mildew or mould. Place the steamer trunk outdoors to dry in the sun.

Select decorative self-adhesive drawer, shelf or wallpaper for the interior trunk lining. Measure and cut the paper to fit all sections of the steamer trunk interior. Apply each piece of self-adhesive paper to the corresponding section within the trunk's interior.

Reattach loose exterior canvas with strong fabric adhesive. For badly damaged exterior canvas, you will need to remove the old canvas. Place the tattered or damaged old canvas on top of the replacement canvas sheet, and cut the outline with scissors. Spray fabric adhesive onto the steamer trunk's bare wood exterior and place the new canvas on the trunk. Use a paintbrush to apply a coat of water-based polyurethane on the canvas.

Scrub any rusted exterior hardware with a rust remover and a cotton rag. An effective homemade rust remover is vinegar. Spray the rusted hardware with white vinegar, and scrub with a washrag. Spray the piece again with white vinegar and let sit for 30 minutes. Wipe the rust away with another washrag. Hardware pieces that remain rusted despite heavy scrubbing will need replacing. Pop nails out of broken locks and hinges with a nail punch and mallet. Remove all broken hardware pieces, and replace with pieces of the same size. Replacement steamer trunk hardware may be purchased at an antique trunk restoration company, such as Legacy Trunks, or locally at flea markets.

Repair any broken or cracked exterior wood slats. Use wood glue to adhere any loose slats back into place. You may need to enlist the help of a woodworker to replace whole pieces of wood slats. Take a broken piece of wood slat to a local woodworker and ask him to replicate all the old wood pieces with new wood.

Things You'll Need

  • Plastic paint scraper
  • Dish soap
  • Rags
  • Cup
  • Gallon bucket
  • White vinegar
  • Spray bottle
  • Fabric adhesive
  • Canvas sheet
  • Scissors
  • Sponge
  • Bleach
  • Decorative lining paper
  • Rust remover
  • Mallet
  • Nail punch
  • Wood glue
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About the Author

Rachel Turner has been writing professionally since 2000, focusing on gardening and home improvement topics. Her articles have appeared online at SlowTravel and in publications such as the "Arkansas Gardeners," "One Step Ahead" and "Writers Now." Turner holds a Bachelor of Arts in English from Arkansas State University.