Introduction: Restoring a Vintage Steamer Trunk

Picture of Restoring a Vintage Steamer Trunk

Trunk restoration is a combination of wood working, metal craft and leather work, so it helps to have some experience in all three fields. The hardest part of the entire project is in the preparation of the piece. Removing the old material covering (if it has one), stripping the paper lining and removing all of the old leather accoutrements equals roughly 60% of the work that goes into it, with leather fabrication and sanding taking up the rest.

There are three approaches you can take when performing your restoration;

The first is a complete refurbish with new materials which ends with a fantastic finish, but can seriously diminish the value of your antique.

The second is a 'soft' restoration, where no new hardware is used, and only what was used in the original construction goes back into it's rebuild. This kind of project is best used on pieces of extreme value, where authenticity is important, but can seriously limit the 'curb appeal' of your trunk.

The third is a moderate restoration, where as much of the original hardware is re-used. Whenever possible, parts from the same period (and preferably manufacturer)  are installed and failing that, replaced with new hardware.

I find the third method the most effective since it retains both curb appeal, and attempts to keep the piece as original as possible, however, feel free to use whichever one suits you best.

Step 1: Tools and Supplies You're Going to Need


Utility knife - for removing old canvas cover. (have lots of extra blades since the years worth of dirt in the material act like sandpaper)
Metal Scraper - scraping off old paper, tucking edges of old material under seams
Drill and Wire Wheel - For removing rust from metal parts
Nail puller  and hammer - removing old hardware
Sharp Chisel - to straighten the points on the old nails and tacks before pulling
Pliers - for straightening nails and tacks
Sander - optional but it helps
Dust Mask and Glasses - Safety first
**Saw - if you need to build a new tray otherwise it's not necessary


60, 150, 220, 300 and grit sandpaper - lots of that to be done
7-8oz leather@ 1 1/4" leather belts- For straps, leather patches and leather handles
2X Belt Buckles, rivets, Fiebings leather dye - hardware for leatherwork.
Wood Stain/Finish - I used Minwax Polyshades which blends both stain and polyurethane but you can do them separately if you want.
Masking Tape - to mask of edges for staining
Beeswax Polish - to protect the metal from rusting again

Step 2: Disassembling Your Trunk

Picture of Disassembling Your Trunk

One of the trickiest parts of the project is disassembling the trunk. The first place to start is to remove the lid and leather hardware.  Most of it should be held together by tacks and nails that punch through the wood and have their points bent down on the inside to hold them in place. This is where the sharp chisel comes into play. You want to be as careful as possible, since if you simply use the nail puller, they'll just tear through the wood leaving gaping holes that will require filler. Your best bet is to get under the point, on the inside of the box, as carefully as possible, then use your pliers to straighten the tips as best as you can. Then you can use the nail puller, from the outside, and yank the old tacks out.

If they aren't rotted to badly, they can be taken to a wire wheel to be revived, otherwise they'll need to be replaced. The rest of the hardware, such as, the metal trim and hinges can be removed in the same way, but as you'll see later, it can be better to leave them on.

Step 3: Cleaning Up the Metal

Picture of Cleaning Up the Metal

To keep the trunk as original as possible, I wanted to leave as much of the patina on the metal as I could. The best way I found was using a wire brush on the end of a drill to buff off the layer of rust, but leave the pitting and age behind. Originally I tried a brass brush, which is less abrasive, but found it left marks on the metal work, so I ended up using the steel one and found it worked perfectly. Another advantage of the wire wheel is the ability to get into all of the nooks and crannies around the hardware.

The trick is not to press to hard as you don't want to polish the metal, only remove the outer layer of rust exposing the darkened aged metal underneath. Another thing I learned was that it was better to leave the canvas cover on the trunk as I was removing the rust since it protected the wood, and I would be removing it anyway. I wasn't terribly concerned about the paper edging since I would be sanding it later to remove some of the staining and age, and also clean some of the rivets that pin them in place.

Step 4: Removing the Canvas Cover, Paper Liner and Sanding

Picture of Removing the Canvas Cover, Paper Liner and Sanding

Exposing the bare wood;

The liner should come out pretty easy, and for the most part just peels away from the wood. In the original construction, they used a paste of flour and water as a glue which is water soluble. A few spots were still stuck fast, so I simply soaked them with a damp sponge, and scraped them.

The canvas was a bit trickier to remove. I used the utility knife and cut the cloth as close to the seams as possible, cutting around some of the metal work.  When the bulk of the canvas was removed, I used the scraper to tuck any remainders under the seams and the utility knife to cut off the fibers that straggled behind. For the tight corners, a slotted screwdriver or chisel works just as well.


There's going to be lots of that. The best way is a graduated sanding where you start with 60 grit, to remove some of the larger burrs, then gradually reduce the grit to 300 until the piece is nice and smooth. For the paper edging, start with 220, then 300, unless it is badly damaged, then you can use 150. The paper is set in layers, so if you remove one layer completely, you'll need to keep sanding till you get down to the next one which will make lots of extra work for you. Try not to sand to heavily on the tacks holding the paper in place as you want to keep the same patina as the rest of the metal hardware. You can wet sand with 400 grit, but I found it unnecessary since 300 seemed to do the trick.

The Inside;

The inside should be thoroughly washed with bleach and water to kill any mildew, then let to dry before sanding. Sand it very thoroughly since you won't be lining it again with paper (unless you really want to). I found it looked better without, however if you choose to, comparable paper can be found in any art store.

Step 5: Staining and Finishing

Picture of Staining and Finishing

I used combination of walnut stain with polyurethane however if you choose, you can apply them independently. I applied three layers with a soft brush, and made sure to mask off the paper edging. There's no need to stain the inside of the trunk and in fact, the raw wood look made a nice contrast.

Once the stain/finish had dried overnight, I then used the beeswax polish and applied three coats on both the outside and inside of the trunk, wiping off the excess between coats. The polish reconditions the wood and paper edging, as well as protecting all of the metal work from rusting again.

Step 6: Building the Tray

Picture of Building the Tray

If you're fortunate, you will still have the old tray that can be restored in the same way as the rest of the trunk. Unfortunately, the tray in my trunk had completely deteriorated and so I had to build a new one. I used the old tray as a template and cut a piece of 1/8" plywood for the bottom, and some 1x4" pine for the sides. The picture below shows the tray before the beeswax coat, however I used the same three coats as I used on the rest of the trunk to protect it. Finally, I cut a two 3 1/2" x 3/4" pieces of leather to act as handles for the tray then set them into place with 1" brass tacks.

Step 7: Adding the Leather Work

Picture of Adding the Leather Work

Now you have a choice, you can stop here and leave the leather work off, or you can replace it all, or if you're really lucky, the existing leather survived and you can use it again.

If you choose to replace it all, you'll need enough 7-8oz leather to cut your strap holders and handles from, and enough leather to create the straps. The original straps were actually made of several 6 foot belts that were riveted together to make 12 foot lengths. Unfortunately, I couldn't recover any of the original leather so I decided to customize it with my own color and design. I performed a bit of tooling on the strap holders, but it's not necessary if you prefer to keep them plain.

I was also unable to save any of the original tacks and nails, so I replaced them with brass rivets which were long enough to push through the wood, and have the tips bent down like the original hardware. I used one of the original strap holders as a template for the new ones and was able to set the tacks through the existing holes from the old nails for a cleaner look.

Step 8: Finished Trunk and Key Replacement

Picture of Finished Trunk and Key Replacement

The trunk is complete, and as original as was possible to make it with my limited resources. The last thing it needed was a new key for the lock. I found the name "Corbin" etched into the lock, and tracked a few possible replacements at the local Flea market. With a bit of work I managed to fabricate a new one by locating a key with as much metal on it as possible, then dremmeling it down till it spun the lock. It's pretty tricky to do if you don't know what the original looked like, but there are a few tips I can give you;

1. Get more than one key. You WILL mess up at least one, so have a few extras
2. Learn how to pick the lock first. There are tutorials online that will teach you and it'll give you an idea of the shape you need.
3. As the key gets closer to the right shape, it'll slowly turn the lock more and more. Maybe it's a design flaw with these old locks, but the closer a key is to being right, the more movement you'll get out of the lock.
4. Once you get it to turn, stop using power tools and break out the hand files. You only want to work it until it starts turning the lock smoothly.

That's it! Hope you have as much fun with your project as I did.


SkeeterSuz (author)2017-10-25

Beautiful trunk! The same trunk has been passed down through my family and it’s been in my garage rafters for some time. This has inspired me to do some heavy duty work on it, namely stripping several layers of paint off. I have a question about where the straps are attached to the back. The straps and strap tabs were missing when this came in my possession. Judging by the nail holes in the back, it appears the straps that come over the top of the trunk were attached several inches below the lid. Is this where yours are attached? If so, is there a metal clamp that holds the end in place or was it a leather tab? My original thought, until I saw where the hole placements are, was the strap was attached underneath.

sgrobins (author)2017-01-20

Looks great! Why did you remove the canvas? Or if it was damaged, why didn't you replace it, rather than leaving it off? Is there a benefit to removing the canvas, or is it just aesthetics?

antagonizer (author)sgrobins2017-01-21

The canvas was badly rotten and had to be removed. Replacing it would have complicated the project far to much as I would have needed to remove and replace the strips that enclose the trunk as well. That would mean un-clinching hundreds of tacks and there's no guarantee I could rescue the strips. It was far easier to cut the canvas away around them and not disturb their construction. Plus, I like the wood finish.

nnygamer (author)2013-09-01

Looks great! I have a couple of old steamer trunks that could use this treatment. They are larger and stand on the end to open, one side is made to hang stuff and the other is lined with drawers.

Thejesterqueen (author)nnygamer2016-05-13

I just bought one like you are talking about and I am trying to find help in restoring it. It cost me 40. and I had no idea what was inside till I got it home. It has all the original stuff, but the fabric inside is in bad shape.

antique.trunks.9 (author)2014-12-30

There is a bunch of information on this website about antique trunks.

thomas.o.hetherington (author)2014-10-25

thanks for the info and especially your comments...I will let you know how it turns out. Maybe a new hobby? Tom

seamster (author)2013-08-31

Gorgeous work. I'd love to restore one of these, but every time I see one pop up in the thrift shops where I live the price tag is always way too high for me.. even on old ratty ones. Great photos and info, thanks for taking the time to share this. It turned out beautiful!

Look on craigslist

bricabracwizard (author)seamster2013-12-02

You should try going to auctions you'll have better luck.

antagonizer (author)seamster2013-09-01

This one was a write-off that I found in the dump behind a farmers field. He figured that it was in such bad shape, that it wasn't worth keeping, which is the same reason I took it. Dump sites are often littered with old trunks if you're looking. Mostly the blue ones, but sometimes you find one that has a bit of character.

antique.trunks.9 (author)2014-08-17

Your comment is awaiting moderation.

I found this restoration guide also. They have tons of information about trunk and refinishing.

Reichenstein7 (author)2014-03-14

That came a long way. Nice work =)

MrBillG59 (author)2013-09-11

The technique of bending over the points of long nails is called "clinching". So those nails are "clinched".

Dave55555 (author)2013-09-09

Very impressive work!!

This brings back a LOT of memories: one summer in junior high (1968--I'm a 60 yr old grandpa), I restored two rusty trunks for my mother using my trusty all-metal sears craftsman drill from Brookdale/Minneapolis, Minnesota. That poor drill conked out around 1989, but I still have those trunks! I originally found them in the wet basement of the Salvation Army on Nicollet Island/University Ave (since paved over). Thanks for sharing your work.

pmarrazzo1 (author)2013-09-07

I have this same trunk in my garage, I believe, from 1800's? I have always been torn with getting rid of it.... Thanks for sharing this, it now gives me steps when I want to start trying to restore it, (or maybe I can get hubby to help) yours looks beautiful.

SashaConstantine (author)2013-09-03

Do you know if it's possible to get copies of old travel stamps that you would find on old steamer trunks that had travelled around the world? If I can do a restoration I think I would like to add this feature.

gary5x8 (author)SashaConstantine2013-09-05

Search Google Images. Print them, cut them out, and use white glue or spray adhesive. I did this on my old un-restored trunk. Gave it a great look. I may tackle the restoration after reading this. Thanks.

If you look on youtube, there's a vid of Adam Savage from Mythbusters building a trunk for his bladerunner gun prop where he prints and ages his own travel stamps.

doodle961 (author)2013-09-05

absolutely beautiful, you have inspired me to get to the one I have in the shed :)

fazgard (author)2013-09-04

Well done!

Tinker_001 (author)2013-09-04

What a beautiful trunk, now maybe a sea voyage is in the works? As an afterthought you could line the inside with cedar and use it as a moth/bug resistant sweater/blanket box.

antagonizer (author)Tinker_0012013-09-04

I throw cedar shingles in with my clothing. Old habit as I live rural.

TXUN (author)2013-09-04

Very nice work. Do you have photos of the trunk in its original "found" condition?

antagonizer (author)TXUN2013-09-04

Unfortunately no. I only started documenting the build after I started disassembling, but all the original parts are in the pics. The trunk is identical in design to the original tho, excluding the cloth cover.

Veewee111 (author)2013-09-03

Bleach has some nasty side affect to the materials over time. Vinegar will do a better job without the after effects.

antagonizer (author)Veewee1112013-09-04

I'd heard that too, but the inside received a full sanding after so I wasn't too worried about it.

SashaConstantine (author)2013-09-03

I would use a mixture made from tea( old tea bags work ) to stain the new wood and give it an aged look. Rusty water from nails or other bits of iron soaking in a jar can be used with the tea or by itself. I have had great success using this on my own projects. I really like what you have done though. Great job.

Ricardo Furioso (author)2013-09-03

Another way to remove rust is to soak it in lemon juice. It's sold online in powder form as "citric acid." It's nontoxic, no-work, biodegradable, and you can put your hands in it.
It leaves the finish dark, but you can wipe it off with a rag and water. Absolutely does not attack the intact steel.

acasey1223 (author)2013-09-02

Nice job. That turned out really cool. Now to find a trunk.

elljay.q (author)2013-09-01

Nice job! I have one of these too. I would like to restore it also.
Thanks for the tutorial. :) Cheers!

Ekzile (author)2013-09-01

How much would you sell that for?

antagonizer (author)Ekzile2013-09-01

I couldn't sell it. I'd probably never get the value of the materials and labor that I put into it and anyway, there's a lot of sentiment. It was an ongoing project that I filled with my spare time that, honestly, is leaving me a bit lost looking for a new one now that it's done.

makijim (author)2013-09-01

Wow that is beautiful! Remarkable restoration.

explosivemaker (author)2013-08-31

Looks very nice. Well done.

Mr. Noack (author)2013-08-31

Love it! Now I'm thinking about all the trunks I have passed up at yard sales. Great job! It looks awesome!

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Bio: I'm the kind of person who's mind doesn't stop. Literally, I take medication to fix that just so I can sleep at ... More »
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