Old steamer trunks are often beautiful underneath.
Storage trunks were the suitcases of yesteryear. They were so durable that many are still around. If you have an antique storage trunk in your attic, don't neglect it; a trunk can be restored to create something functional and beautiful. One might even become your coffee table. Restoring a trunk requires time and patience, and it might involve purchasing some replacement parts, but the refurbished trunk may last another 100 years and become a family heirloom.
Assess your trunk. Most storage trunks were made of a soft wood such as pine, reinforced with hardwood (usually oak) slats, and covered with either canvas or animal hide. The corners were often reinforced with metal, and there was usually a metal clasp or lock. Trunks often have one or more handles, usually made of a thick strip of leather secured by metal end pieces. Note any damaged or missing pieces and decide if you'll order new replacement parts or try to scavenge some from other trunks. Look for identifying marks on the trunk; several online sources will tell you what the trunk is made of.
Clean or strip the covering material. If the canvas or hide covering is in fair condition, it will be much easier to clean it and possibly patch up any missing spots than to strip the whole trunk. However, stripping down to the wood will often result in a more beautiful trunk. If you decide to go for the wood finish, carefully remove the old canvas or hide by working a sharp blade (such as a utility knife) between the covering and the wood on one small area at a time. Try to loosen the edges of each piece, then slowly peel it off.
Remove old glue from the wood with sandpaper, going with the grain and using a light touch.
Remove any rust from metal pieces using steel wool and a wire brush. Sometimes it's easier to remove the metal component before working on it; pry up the nail head and use an end-cutter to snip it off, then gently tap or pry the nail loose. Work from inside the trunk if you can. A Dremel, a cone-shaped sanding head attached to a power drill, can be useful; other sanding heads attached to drills are likely to be too destructive. When the rust is gone, polish the metal by hand or by using a soft wire wheel on a power drill.
Reattach metal pieces using brass nails at least 6 mm (1/4 inch) longer than the wood width; hammer gently from outside, holding a nail heel inside the trunk to bend the nail point back into the wood. Using wood screws, while quicker, will diminish the antique value of the trunk.
Refinish the interior. Many old storage trunks were lined with paper, which holds mildew and odour. For greatest durability, strip out all paper down to the wood, then sand. Dampen the paper to help dissolve old glue, if necessary. Most experts advise against relining the trunk with paper or fabric, and many feel the interior wood is best left unfinished to allow the wood to expand and contract without warping.
- Wear a dust mask, goggles and protective gloves.
- Use caution when using power tools.
- Work in a well-ventilated space.
- Be gentle in order to minimise wood damage.
- When sanding metal pieces, slip an old number plate or other thin piece of metal between the part and the boot to protect the wood.
- For authenticity, glue a reproduction of an antique lithograph (available online) to the inside of the trunk lid.
- Don't rush. You're restoring an item that's already been around for decades; don't expect to refinish a trunk in an afternoon.
- If your trunk has brass components, use special brass products to refinish them. Brass is softer than other trunk metals.