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Restore an old steam trunk Answered

This is a quick CALL FOR HELP regarding the restoration of an old steam trunk.
The idea is to convert it into a stylish coffee table and storage space and I could really use your suggestions on how to strengthen it's construction and embellish it's exterior. With your help I'll go forward with the plans and publish my progress here.
The timeline is also important since the trunk occupies considerable space in our little apartment, so ideally I would like to finish all the woodwork within the next couple of weeks (until beginning of May 2012). The exterior and small touches could wait.

I found the trunk next to our dumpster 2 days ago and I just couldn't believe it - Who would throw away such a beautiful thing? - Was I such a good boy that Garbage Santa gave me this gift for Passover/Easter?
I hauled it to our flat - my wife asking me what did the cat drag in this time.. (she just loves it that pack our home/car with stuff I find) she couldn't believe her eyes when she saw it.

Since we live in a flat with almost no storage space it's very difficult to put together all the needed materials for this project, plus, I insist on doing it with recycled wood (what I find lying around) so to minimize costs.

@ The trunk should be sturdy (kids might climb on it at some point, ~20kg on the lid).
@ It will probably hold a big pile of magazines (10 - 40 kg on the bottom), pillows/blankets.
@ I want to add 4 or 6 casters to the bottom so it'll be more mobile.
@ I think there should be additional internal support where the leather handles are so when they're pulled I won't be standing with one side of the trunk in my hand.

- Wood - I currently have a solid pine wood dresser in my car, ready to be disassembled for it's beams (?)
- OSB - there is some around where I work, 10mm thick.
I'll try to find any more materials you'll suggest.

- Drill (and screws)
- Glue gun
- Staple gun
- Carpenter's glue
- Hammer
- Oxalic acid
- Will need to finally buy a Gigsaw....

Trunk internal measurements:
Length - 980mm
Height - Box - 485mm, Lid - 105mm
Depth - 559mm

The trunk's side thickness is about 7-8mm made of ply wood covered with black leather.
I has seen better days, but it's in relatively good condition.

We were thinking of gluing the black surfaces with some sort of bright colored wallpaper (leaving the black leather lining with pins visible) so it would give it some sort of lightness - less bulky.
I was also thinking of maybe gluing some sort of fabric with a cool vintage design, but it seems like a lot of work making it look good, stretched with no wrinkles, excess glue... plus it'll probably gather a lot more dust than a wallpaper (I'm allergic).

There are two issues that concern me:
1. A fear that this current design isn't strong enough for a clumsy family.
2. I want to attach the corner supports and lid OSB without needing to drill the exterior (too much). I thought of using a lot of glue, but I'm not sure it's the best way to go.

What do you think?

I'm also attaching this design in Google SketchUp.


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5 years ago

Long shot here since the last comment was 3 years ago - did you ever find out anything about this trunk? My mother had a very similar trunk, and it's anywhere between 60 and 100 years old (she definitely took it to college back in the early 50s, and I'm almost positive she said she got it from her father who was born in 1911). I really want to restore this, but I'm at a loss as to where to start.


Reply 5 years ago

Hi Matt,

Whaddaya know... I'm still here.
I looked on Ebay and found similar steam trunks that are 70-90 years old. Didn't find any clues regarding mine.

Guess what, my trunk didn't move an inch in the past 3 years. it's used for storage and since we mop around it I'm afraid that water that seep under it have damaged somewhat the trunk's floor.

What do you want to do with your trunk? do you want it to be functional? beautiful? faithful to the original?
I'm at a point where I want it to be functional, and I care less for looks. plus all these rivets give me a headache.. I really don't know how to work with them...
Regarding rust, it's either WD-40 to prevent it from spreading, oxalic acid that might remove it, make it metallic (THOUGH I HAVEN'T TRIED IT YET and it could potentially damage the leather), or paint/spray paint over it.


9 years ago

Use some OSB or Plywood and create a set of dividers to fit snugly inside the trunk. Offering support for the side. Make sure to make it tall enough that it will support the lid as well. You may have to round off the corners of the boards along the front edge so you can open and close the lid. All you have to do is place the dividers into the trunk. No need to screw or glue it into place and ruin what could be a valuable trunk.

The trunk appears to be in great condition. But its clear the 2 latches where added at a later date. To help make it more functional you may want to consider replacing the leather handles on the side. You could always remove the paper liner o the inside and replace it or paint the inside and dividers to match.

Another way to protect it and make it a more appealing furniture piece would be to get a glass top cut for it. Get a glass top that would hang off the edges by about 4 to 6 inches. It would make the inside of the trunk less accessible but give you a larger surface area as a table.


Reply 9 years ago

Thank you mpilchfamily for your reply !

I thought of adding 2 very thin, dynamic dividers - not meant for support but for better space management. I intended to create several slots in the wood so they'd fit easily, plus allowing me to move them and create different sized spaces.
Maybe I'll use a single think divider in the middle of the trunk.

I agree, replacing the leather handles would be very functional and nicer to look at. I thought of replacing them with a black leather belt of the same width, but I'm not sure how I should remove the pins that hold the metal brackets. And after the pins removed, what can I use to replace them? are there screws around with heads that are not notched like pins?

I also need to take care of the rust. I thought of using oxalic acid dipped cotton wool and placing in on the pins/latches. I hope the chemical reaction will finish before it dries out.

The inside will be lined with a nice cloth (maybe unused bed sheets). it's more work than to paint it all, but I think it gives a nicer feeling.

The trunk is very big compared to our tiny living room so there isn't a need to cover it with a glass top.


Reply 9 years ago

I wouldn't use anything harsh to remove the rust. Unless you don't want to old trunk look. If you do want to preserve the look of an old steamer trunk then use some WD-40 on the rust. Let the WD-40 soak into the rust for about 15 to 20 minutes and use a clean rag to wipe it away. This will get rid of the active rust but maintain the the look of aged metal. The WD-40 will also help to prevent any new rust from forming.

I did this with an old Werther's candy tin from the 60'2. It was so rusted up you couldn't make out the painted image on the top. After several treatments and some scrubbing with a soft bristle tooth brush it looked allot better. Didn't want to scrub too hard or it would have damaged the painting. Wish it could of cleaned up better but believe me that is a huge improvement over the totally rust covered top.