The Wardrobe Trunk Restore

TB and I stumbled across today’s little gem at the Restore in Asbury Park.  Once I laid eyes on this old wardrobe trunk I knew I wanted to bring it home. I had wanted an old truck as a coffee table for years but never could find a cool one and not just a crappy one from Target.  There was some trepidation though because although there was no major damage it still wasn’t exactly in the best shape.  Usually that wouldn’t stop me because with wood I can bring it home, strip it and refinish it but that wouldn’t work here.  After we wandered through the store and came back for a second look we were in.

Here is what it looked like when I got it home.

I knew nothing about old trunks so I took to The Google for some help in where to start.  These trunks were the suitcases of their day and were meant to carry everything you needed on trips.  For the most part they are made of a wood frame with a canvas outside cover, many times painted, with leather and metal trim to protect the edges from wear and tear.  There are many different sizes and shapes depending on their original purpose.  Ours is a wardrobe trunk.  It is meant to stand up on end and be opened like a book.

Here is a shot of the inside and it’s parts.  One side had drawers (the tall one in the middle has a hat stand) while the other side had a bar for hanging clothes.  When you got to your destination you just opened the trunk up and you had your closet all ready to go.

While the purple floral fabric is lovely, we weren’t going to be using the inside for anything so I left it be.  The outside was our concern.  I wanted to keep some of the character while not looking cruddy in my living room but wasn’t sure what to clean the canvas with.  What I found on The Google was this was a trunk sold by RH Macy’s in the 1920-1930s and after making it this long I didn’t want to ruin it.

My first choice for gentle cleaning is glycerin soap (Dover Saddlery has it here).  I used it all my life to clean my horse saddle and its hard to mess up.    The object is to use a damp sponge you have wrung out very well and rub it over the soap bar. If there is any kind of lather you have to much water for leather cleaning although here I used a bit more water since it was canvas.  Once I tested a small spot and saw this wasn’t going to harm anything, I set to work.   A soft toothbrush worked much better than a sponge and you could gently loosen dirt in the fabric.  The bonus is that it also cleans all the leather trim very nicely.  Glycerin soap also kind of moisturized everything and gives a lovely finish with the bonus that it doesn’t need to be rinsed off. Here is a picture of one of the sides half done.

It’s a dramatic difference but it did take awhile!  That big white patch is a sticker a previous owner applied that doesn’t want to come off.  I cleaned it the best I could with this soap and there is still some glue residue.  I could have used a stronger cleaner but I worried it would get damaged so I left it and call it character.   My goal was just to clean it up not restore since I like the worn look.

Here is the after pic. We tried it for awhile as our coffee table but it was so high it was uncomfortable to put your feet up.  It now is the place for our TV.  Opie likes the change since he can now see all the food on the lower table and knows if wants to beg for it or not.  (Like he is choosy!)


We like to pretend that the “C.G.” painted on the side was for “Cary Grant” but the purple floral fabric inside suggests we may be wrong.  But it’s not like our guests are going to see inside so I may just continue telling that story.


  1. Pingback: An Old Wood Steamer Trunk | The Ridiculous Redhead

  2. The Ol' Maestro

    Some great advice here on trunk restoration, thanks! I bought a wardrobe trunk to be used as (get this!) a wardrobe trunk on a month-long road trip, where I’ll only be spending a few nights in a given place. Off to find glycerin soap, a leather handle, and those darn wooden hangers. Thanks again!

    1. The Ridiculous Redhead (Post author)

      Thanks for stopping in! Look for farm supply or “tack” stores for the glycerin soap. It’s my go to stuff around here.

  3. Kate

    how did you get the metal on the edges so clean? Thanks, Kate

    1. The Ridiculous Redhead (Post author)

      This trunk came that way so I was lucky. On another I am working on rght now, the metal is pretty rusty so I am using steel wood to get through that and smooth everything out. I am leaving some tarnish for characture. You can also use a wire brush or a dremel wire brush attachment but be careful you don’t go right through thin metal. After you are finished put a coat of wax or tung oil on to prevent future rusting. Thanks! Kelly

  4. Mary

    Thank You! Thank You! Thank You! Finally, I can start refinishing my 1917 Seward Ward Robe Trunk.

  5. Mrs Prestridge

    We got lucky and found one of these for a teeny price ! The outside looks great. It’s the inside canvas and paperboard drawers that I’d like to spruce up. We are thinking of using it for linens. Where can I find tips on cleaning the inside? I don’t want to wet the paper at all, but I’d like to get some stain and smell out.

  6. Dij

    Holy cow, I just got this exact trunk, but the interior is blue and more somber… and the exterior has a Lieutenant’s name on it in the same glaring red. The lady who I got it from, who was working in her other warehouse, didn’t realize it was a steamer trunk (I took a picture and showed it to her, and made an offer) and gave me an incredible price on it. The only thing I’m concerned about is in two places there were stickers, and when they were pulled off (not by me), they tore off the top layer covering. Not sure how to go about fixing this. I will probably have to paint it. But it still has the leather strap, hangers, and everything. Any ideas on how to go about fixing the tears? Thank you!


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