1800's Trunk





Introduction: 1800's Trunk

A family member recently found out I have been restoring trunks and furniture for a hobby, and they remembered that their mother had an old trunk in the basement. As you can see, it had dwindled from a pristine trunk that carried an entire families possessions from Liverpool England to Boston, MA to a weak, fragile coffin-like box. After weeks of considering if it was even worth bringing back to life I decided to take on the task of revival.

Step 1: A Brief History...

This trunk contained belongings of the family of George Abbot James when their family traveled from London to Boston in 1867 on a ship called the "Asia". There was an old envelope attached to the back of the trunk with writing saying so. The "Asia" did many trans-Atlantic passages in the 1800's bringing families seeking a new life in America. You can see this envelope in the photos attached. The envelope has been framed and preserved.

Step 2: Removing Dry, Flaking, Outer Layer of "skin"...

To remove this heavy layer of crusty, dry paper-like material I used paint scrapers, putty knifes, razor blades, Dewalt Orbital sander, and sanding blocks.

Step 3: Salvaging As Much As Possible...

On all projects I take on, preserving the originality of a piece is crucial. Salvage as much original character as possible. Instead of trying to refurbish the outside in a fashion that would suit the time period it was created, I decided to sand it (deWalt orbital Sander, various grit sandpapers) completely and stain the trunk a unique color and top coat the trunk with a MinWax clear satin poly.

Step 4: Salvaging Cont...

Every single original nail was salvaged. Newer more modern nails were used, however, in some places just for strength purposes, and they were distressed to match the look of the older nails. The older nails were polished with Stove Black polish. To anyone who has never used StoveBlack polish I highly recommend it. It works wonders on restoring old metal but leaving that original distressed look. The original metal banding on the front, back and sides of the trunk was unable to be salvaged, which was too bad. It was too rough, sharp, broken, and too much of a hazard. Instead, I cut thin strips of pine to the same dimensions of the metal banding.

Step 5: Mimic the Original Look...

The original pins surrounding the lid of the trunk were very fragile. Unfortunately, once again, I had to go to plan B. I removed all the pinheads and then the pins because they were just so loose. I sanded over the old holes and purchased to newer upholstery pins to match the pre-existing ones.

Step 6: Stove Black!

Once again, Stove Black comes in to save the day. The metal banding on the corners of the trunk was able to be refurbished. Just dip the the corner of a rag into the stove black and start rubbing! Rub it on with a rag and rub it off with a clean cloth. To get into the small crevices I used the small paint brush and a toothbrush.

Step 7: Staining...

I originally chose a a light Walnut Stain. However upon staring at it for a few days, I convinced myself to do a second coat with a darker hue to it. I mixed a few leftover stains I had and BOOM! I got a great Mahogany/Cedar/Walnut custom combination stain. It was applied with a paint brush and then wiped immediately after with a rag. Two coats of clear satin polyeurathane was then applied. The last thing I added were wheels. This trunk is awfully heavy and after it gets filled with belongings it's only going to be heavier.

Step 8: Interior Design...

The interior had some cool newspaper clipping from WWII along with some cracking and peeling paper lining it. The interior was completely sanded yet again with the DeWalt sander and also by hand with sandpaper. This is when things got fun. My friend offered me some "Regal" green fabric and I began making panels to line the inside. Each panel consists of 1/4" Luan plywood sprayed with fabric adhesive and then I laid a piece of fabric of the luan. The fabric was then smoothed out and folded. The inside of the lid was done in the same fashion but with smaller strips. I decided to get funky and alternate between dark and light colors on the top.

Step 9: Revel in Your Success...

After many hours it's finally time to sit back and enjoy the piece of history you have brought life back to. It may not be 100% original, but it is able to be viewed in a different light now perhaps. Instead of rotting and withering away in a dark, wet basement, it is now able to be used practically again for storage. Indeed a lot of storage space as it measures 4' wide by 3' tall by 2' deep. Cheers!

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    I need an Instructable on how to open the locks on these trunks without destroying the lock, when you don't have a key.

    Beautifully done! Good luck in the contest :-)

    Wow, beautiful restoration.

    Did you consider lining the bottom with aromatic cedar all? Certainly would have added that extra special fragrance.

    1 reply

    I will have to consider that for the next trunk I restore, thanks for the suggestion!

    Beautiful work! I was wondering if I may pick your brain? I have a cedar wardrobe from the late 1800's that was left in storage with no climate control for a year and the shellac? ( I say shellac because I don't know if polyurethane was around in the late 1800's ) kind of bubbled then dried. It looks as if the shellac is crackled. Anyhow I am wanting to re-do/repair this and am unsure how to go about it. It has been suggested to use Formby's on it then apply a thin coat of polyurethane to it. What is your opinion ?

    1 reply

    Check out this video and maybe it will help with your decision. I would say Formbys myself.

    I always cringe when I see anything old sitting around looking disheveled. And I also see the value in restoring something to be exactly like it was. However, that is not always possible. It is a shame about the metal strips, but you did do a beautiful job with what you had on hand.

    I do agree the pine may prove problematic for its softness, but if this happens, you obviously have the skills to take care of the issue.

    Enjoy a job well done and thanks for sharing!

    1 reply

    Dings and dents add character! lol :)

    Lovely :)
    What type of wheels did you use? I would like to see :)

    I was thinking of doing something like this as well with wheels but I've not started the project yet and am curious what type you used.

    "The last thing I added were wheels. This trunk is awfully heavy and after it gets filled with belongings it's only going to be heavier."

    2 replies

    I used very small industrial casters, purchased from a flea market. You can barely see them, but I felt they were necessary for mobility.

    I don't know what the OP used for wheels but a lot of these either had wheels--often small wooden or metal caster types--or they were added later for the same reasons. These should be available from the same places that sell the leathers and other parts.

    I've been dragging around an old chest that I've wanted to refinish. I doubt it's terribly old like your's, but when the leather straps broke, that's when I'm thinking of helping the chest before it truly breaks down! I love how you went step-by-step in keeping as many parts as possible. Great Instructable.

    1 reply

    @jeanniel1---Be aware that there are places that make and sell almost ALL of the hardware and leathers for these chests/trunks---so replacing these are not that hard and also do not really diminish the "value" and actually can UP the value as now the items can be USED vs sitting in an attic or basement. Just search for "antique trunk replacement parts".

    I think this was a great article. The author did a nice job!

    As an antique dealer with over 20 years in the business, I know that most trunks you find at an antique dealer or your local flea market have little to no value....especially those with rust or breakage. A true restoration will cost far more than any piece is worth. Only do true restorations on pieces with sentimental or historic value. As others have said, this is not a true restoration, but that really doesn't matter.

    A reinvigoration like this DOES add value to the broken, rusty, and otherwise worthless trunks that are out there. If you were to attempt to resell the pre-reinvigoration vs. reselling the reinvigorated version, most customers would buy the second. Many customers who buy antiques are largely uninformed about what is and isn't valuable. Many just look for a nice patina on the metals and woods.

    Just make sure you don't do this to military campaign chests or anything older than the early to mid 1800s. Also don't do this to designer pieces like Louis Vuitton. While you will find few (if any) of these available in the open antique market, from time to time a seller may not know what he/she has. Be on the lookout....these will have value, broken or not! Cheers!

    1 reply

    Thank you Ron! This means a lot to me hearing it from an antique dealer. I almost didn't take on the project. The trunk initially was intimidating because of its size. Other trunks I have restored would fit inside of this trunk! I brought the trunk with me to a local flea market the other weekend and it got a lot of good reviews. I appreciate your insight on some of the more valuable trunks as well. Thanks again!

    Can anyone make an instructable on how to make the "barrel-lid" on this chest? I have been searching for that geometry for some time, and it is super rare.

    great job! i have an old metal trunk that i want to restore. thanks for the tip about the stove black.

    1 reply


    You can also use "liquid gun blue", which stains the metal a very dark black. Then you wipe a laquer over it, or car wax, or boiled linseed oil (blo). This is common on guns.

    I your project can take the heat, hit it with a blowtorch, then wipe with olive oil, or 50/50 olive oil and linseed oil (not blo, just use the non-denatured stuff) and it will blacken up quite nicely and take on a black that looks like a cast-iron frying pan. I saw this done on some food-grade pokers at the local blacksmith forge.

    Great job. Beautiful!