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