How to Restore an Old Steamer Trunk – Part 1

A very long time ago I posted about the antique steamer trunk that belonged to my Granna. It’s been sitting in my basement patiently waiting for some TLC, and that time has finally arrived!

Since trunks were used as a method of shipping goods for so long, there are many different kinds of trunks. My trunk is a Flat Top style Steamer Trunk, a silhouette popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Steamer trunks can be covered in wood, leather, metal, or canvas. My trunk is covered in a brown canvas with wood strapping (for added structural strength), decorative metal pieces (mine is a single-lock), and leather handles. The original canvas was coated in a shellac to make the trunk waterproof.

Fortunately, my canvas is in relatively good condition. It’s certainly dirty, but shows no signs of rotting and only a few small spots of being worn through. All the better for me – because I have no desire to remove the canvas. I like the look, and I don’t want to strip it down to the bare wood. (There are many other posts online if you are interested in stripping off the canvas.)

 


Label Removal

The trunk was also covered with a lot of old labels, and label residue. (It was, after all, a method for transporting her belongings!) There were two labels that I wanted to keep, one was an address label my Granna filled out when she sent her belongings to college. The other was a neat looking shipping label.

Restore a Steamer Trunk - DesignLively

To protect them both during the cleaning process, I used a thin coat of quick-drying polyurethane, applied with a small foam brush. (Always remember, you should never shake the poly, or you will end up with bubbles drying in the poly that end up feel like sandpaper.)

Originally, I had tried to remove the labels with a razor blade, but was unsuccessful to due the delicate paper. The thin coat of poly held the label together together enough that I was able to remove the shipping label from the trunk altogether, and will glue them back on at a later time.

Restore a Steamer Trunk - DesignLively

For the rest of the label residue, I use a sharp razor blade.

To start, use a sharp razor at the lowest angle possible to remove debris. Change blades regularly, even if the blade still looks sharp, you’ll be surprised how quickly the edge dulls. Remove as much residue as possible without scraping the canvas.

On areas where there was still residue from the labels, I wet the area and attempted to remove the rest with the razor.

Cleaning the Trunk

Next I cut off the leather handles. (Mine were both broken.) I kept them so hopefully I can match the new ones to something similar.

Restore a Steamer Trunk - DesignLively

Then I gave it a good thorough cleaning. It’s important to search how to treat your specific type of trunk cleaning method, as they all have different coverings and treatments. My trunk is covered in canvas, which was the popular thing to do in the early 1900s.

I took a pair of old sweatpants and cut them into squares. I dipped a corner into a dish of water and started gently cleaning the trunk. It’s important not to use too much excess water because I didn’t want the canvas to shrink further while drying.

Restore a Steamer Trunk - DesignLively

On the wood strappings I used Pledge wood cleaner spray.

Removing the Liner

The inside of my trunk smelled to the high heavens. The lining definitely needed to go. Fortunately, my peeled right off. Some trunks are lined with wallpaper, mine was lined with fabric. The adhesive is so old it gave way at the slightest tug.

Restore a Steamer Trunk - DesignLively

Underneath the bottom and top was a thin piece of cardboard. I removed as much as a could with a paint scraper.

Restore a Steamer Trunk - DesignLively

Removing the liner definitely helped with the smell, but not completely. I’ve taken a few smell-removal methods. First, I used trusty old baking soda, well known as an odor absorbing material. I sprinkled it inside the trunk, shut it and left it for a few days. I came back, and the smell was not gone, but certainly diminished. I used a vacuum to get out the baking soda.

Restore a Steamer Trunk - DesignLively

My next tactic against the smell was a simple one – fresh air! On nice days (with no chance of rain) I take the trunk out in the sun and let it sit outside with the top open all day. We’ve only had a few of those so far, but the smell is almost gone! I am hoping after another few days of sunshine I can move forward.

If that doesn’t work, I may try kitty litter, or freshly ground coffee beans like I did with the baking soda. Both are supposedly odor-removals as well.

That’s as far as I’ve gotten so far, but now I am definitely motivated to keep working on it. Next I’ll be sanding down the wood strappings on the outside of the trunk, and restoring those. There are some spots that are chewed up, so it will take some very careful elbow grease!

If you have any steamer trunk restoration tips, please leave them in the comments. I am still trying to figure this whole process out. The average cost for a basic trunk restoration is over $500, and so far I haven’t spent a penny. We will see how this turns out!

Have you restored a steamer trunk before? Any tips for a newbie like me?

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28 comments

  1. Lisa B says:

    The one sure fire way to remove unappealing lingering odors, or any other stinky for that matter is Ozium! It’s original intent was automotive, and may still be but I swear by it 110%! Use the original scent, spray the interior of the trunk, close the lid for the night and by morning you should have a pleasantly stinky free trunk. 🙂

    • designlivelyblog@gmail.com says:

      thank you Lisa!! I will try that! I’ve been coming up short on scent-squelching solutions and you’ve inspired me to tackle it again soon.

  2. J Pluto says:

    I am cleaning my first steamer trunk, a Carson, Pririe, Scott curb find.
    It appears that my trunk is bound in leather not canvas.
    It also seems that the outside covering, wood strips, & hardware were all coated with shellac. My tip for removing blackened and bubbled shellac is to use 100% denatured alcohol. Do NOT use rubbing alcohol because it contains a percentage (10, 30, or 50) of water. Shellac is made with lac bug resin dissolved in alcohol. I use cotton terry rags and plastic kitchen scrub pads soaked in the alcohol to loosen and remove the old shellac. Then I use saddle soap without water to clean and restore the leather on the trunk. Saddle soap contains lanolin. One can find saddle soap in a tin where shoe polish is sold. My process is more cleaning than refinishing. This helps maintain the trunk in nearly original condition–an important feature for some antique collectors. I cannot guarantee that the alcohol will work for every job. It would be wise to test it on a small spot on the bottom of a trunk to see if it yields the desired results. Do not drink the alcohol. It is poisonous and flammable.

  3. melanie says:

    Was this project finished? We just got an old steamer trunk and took it for a restoration quote – what the proposed was outrageous (Over $2000~ the trunk is not even WORTH that much). I am looking into to doing it on my own and would lvoe to hear the rest of this! Thanks!

    • designlivelyblog@gmail.com says:

      Hi Melanie! I am ashamed to say I’ve stalled on this project. It’s sitting in my basement waiting for more attention. I sanded it down and then started to stain the wooden strips, and I didn’t like the stain. At the time I was too busy to sand them down again, so I am hoping this winter this project will resurface. $2k is a lot to invest into a trunk – I agree! What is your trunk like?

  4. Colleen says:

    I am about to start working on restoring an old trunk found in an old family barn. I think I will have to paint the canvas. Any suggestions for that aspect? I’m thinking a light coat of paint and then finish with a poly.

  5. Norma says:

    My parents left me an old trunk they had partially re-done with wallpaper on the outside. The inside has a musty odor. I believe someone told me that charcoal bricks like you put in a bar-b q grill will eliminate moisture and possibly also the odor associated with it. We used to put a few bricks in our closets in S. Florida to keep leather shoes from getting moldy. As for the leather handles, my parents took the old handles to a shoe repair shop and had new leather handles made just like the old ones. I am in the process of trying to decide how to fix up the old trunk again after 17 yrs in a damp garage. Sherwin-Williams has faux finishing product for walls, but the paint can also be applied to furniture, so I may try it. The crackle finish looks like aged leather, just what I’m looking for.

  6. Teresa says:

    The only way to get the smell out of the interior wood is to shellac the interior with Zinsser Shellac. Nothing else will work. I learned this when refinishing an old chest of drawers. It may take 2 coats but it will work. When brushing it on work in a well ventilated area or you will get high as a kite LOL.

    • designlivelyblog@gmail.com says:

      Thanks Teresa for the tip! I must admit that my numerous failed attempts at de-stinking this trunk have caused it to be stuck at the bottom of my to-do pile! I think your method may be best. I plan to re-line the interior with fabric lining anyways, so it makes no difference to me if it’s the raw wood or painted underneath that anyways. I’ll let you know how it goes. Thanks!

      • Eileen says:

        I am working on a trunk now and had read that what keeps the trunk smelling musty is the lining and the GLUE that was used for the lining. You must remove both. Recommended was spraying with water with white vinegar added – the vinegar also helps with the de-stinking. I just dumped some vinegar into a spray bottle and filled with water. I sprayed it on the paper and cardboard lining, let it soak in and used a putty knife to scrape it off. It came off pretty easily. When the paper was off I sprayed again and scraped the wood surface to get any leftover glue, and am now in the process of sanding. I have had the trunk sitting in a screen porch where it gets hit with sunshine in the morning and this has helped the process. The musty smell is gone.

    • Sheral Hads says:

      I worked for an antique dealer for several years & he used a very simple method to remove mold & odors. Set a small bowl of apple cider vinegar in wardrobe/trunk, close door/lid & leave for 48 hrs. Remove & discard vinegar leaving piece open to air. Smelled fresh & clean every time.

  7. amanda kennedy says:

    I have the same exact trunk thats shown in this picture. Im trying to figure out more about it. How old it is? Name? Do u have any information about it?

    • designlivelyblog@gmail.com says:

      Hello! All I know is my Grandmother used it when she went to college, which would have been in the late 1930s. Mine doesn’t have any type of identifying information on it unfortunately. Sorry!

  8. Bob Weaver says:

    I have a trunk similar to the yours except mine is covered with metal with wood strips. What would you use to clean the metal? I’m not “refinishing” it completely as we like the old look. It was in my grandfathers house and is probably 100 years old or more. Incidentally the wall paper looks to be the same pattern as was in your trunk but it was installed with the pattern against the wall and the “brown” side out. I would appreciate any help. Thank you!

  9. Irena McClain says:

    I have an ancient Victor wardrobe trunk that I have finally decided to air out and refinish. Currently it is in the sun airing out. It is lined with thin fabric (muslin?)-seems to be well stuck down but is stained in areas.. Should I leave it, maybe clean with dilute solution of bleach and water?
    It is covered with green canvas (?) and I have a few areas where it has torn. What should I do to the gaps in the covering? Any advice appreciated-thanks!

    • Lisa S says:

      I also have the exact same trunk then I’m refurbishing. You can remove the canvas or maybe take a little piece is a duck canvas or canvas material I’ve also seen needlepoint canvas put it in the spaces that need filling and then I’m going to repaint the dark army green coat in the campus area just an idea

  10. Lancene says:

    Hello I just got a vintage trunk. I was hoping to get feedback on where do i look to find out the trunk type or brand name ? Is it marked in certain areas?
    Thank you for your helpful article! It is great.

    Appreciate your time????

  11. Char says:

    Hello,
    My husband’s Grandfather immigrated to America in 1913. All his belongings came with him inside a trunk very much like the one you have pictured. We have just started to refurbish the trunk without taking away the history behind it.
    Like you, our trunk also had thin paper inside and a terrible stench, so I researched how to solve this problem. I found the source of this stench is that the glue that was at the time was made from dead horses. (Being a horse lover and owner, it took a while to get past the YUCK! factor). I sprayed the inside of the trunk with water and immediately scraped off the paper and removed as much glue as possible. I then sanded the entire inside of the trunk and voila, no odor. Now I just have to decide what to do with the outside.

  12. Reading this article has helped me to understand how wooden steamer trunks are restored. It was cool to learn that restoration services can help to restore a steamer trunk to look like it is brand new. I can imagine how helpful these services can be when it comes to having a unique place to store your things.

  13. Meow Myx says:

    The best way to remove that interior canvas or wallpaper is CHOMP! I used it and it literally melted away the adhesive, fabric all traces of the lining. It requires use of a scraper and some elbow grease.
    Afterwards, I wiped the interior with a mixture
    of HOT water, white vinegar and a bit of Mrs Meyers to eliminate any extra remanants and stale order. Allow to dry.
    Next step: moisturise the wood with Tung Oil– I used one coat.
    And the pièce de résistance? CEDAR OIL!!! I applied it to every nook and cranny and crevice and my trunk no longer smells musty.
    Hopefully this will help many other.
    I wish I could post before and after pics.

  14. Lawrence E. Smith says:

    I restored a steamer trunk that was covered with canvas and green paint. The canvas was in rough shape so I removed it. Razor blades along the edges of strapping, then putty knife to scrape off. I didn’t think of it at the time but realize a mask is a goodles idea, as the old paint most likely is lead based and should be avoided. There is a company in Lewiston , ME that has supplies and tools…Brett unsubscribe village… http://www.brettunsvillage.com/sitemap.html

  15. Aimee T, Bham, AL says:

    (I didn’t read all other comments so someone else and I have suggested this already)
    My mother has use this method to get the musty smell out of vintage clothing, so it might work on a paper or fabric lining of an old trunk. She said it’s been quite effective to drape the vintage clothing over shrubbery outdoors. While you can’t do that with a heavy trunk, you could place potted plants down in the trunk and shut the lid.
    I’m guessing this works because the cause of the musty smell is due to anaerobic bacteria, mold, mildew… And since plants give off oxygen, they are smothering the anaerobic organisms (w/high concentration of oxygen if you close the lid). I haven’t researched this for scientific validity, but that’s my best guess.
    My mother is also a strong believer in such household products as vinegar, baking soda, and charcoal to remove odors.
    Thank you for the article about the use of polyurethane. I have an old truck and was wondering if that would be a good product to use on it.

  16. Lisa says:

    I have that exact same steamer trunk ! I picked it up in upstate New York for 45 bucks many many years ago I just started to refinish it and I’m at the sanding process. I wonder have you ever finished your trunk ??? Mine had the exact paper lining as yours!!!!!

    • Kat Carlson says:

      Hi Lisa! Sadly this trunk is sitting on my front porch still waiting to be finished. I have almost given up hope that I will ever be able to completely get rid of the musty trunk smell and not sure I can justify working on it or keeping it if I can’t put anything inside of it. I have seen them used as nightstands. Good luck to you!

  17. Anita says:

    We’re working on “fixing up” an old trunk, keeping it as original as possible, but redoing parts that need it. Today, we cut up an old belt, curving the ends to make it look more finished, punched holes in each end, stained the pieces to better match the trunk and will attach them tomorrow with the original bolts.

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