An Old Wood Steamer Trunk

While at a garage sale (my friend / wedding officiant was having, of all places) I found this very sad little steamer trunk.  Time had not been kind to it and I wasn’t sure if I could do anything to help.  Since I knew the guy and he gave me a nice price I figured I would give it a shot.

Here is what I started with.

My previous trunk fixing experience involved repairing and cleaning the canvas covering over the wood with saddle soap.  Here the protective coating wasn’t salvageable.  It seemed to be paper like but could have been severely dry rotted canvas.  Over this was a coat of black paint which also covered the hardware.  The exposed wood cross pieces were just dry and beaten up.

The inside was, well disgusting.  It had a layer of think paper covering everything inside.  It was half coming off.  And oh, it smelled.  Awful.

Since I was going to remove all the grossness I wanted to know the right way to refinish the wood underneath.  There are companies that restore trunks back to there original condition that also give a lot of great advice.  The first helpful (but sad and yucky) thing I learned was the glue used to adhere the canvas/paper was made from dead horse parts as glue was back then.  This means a) it was water soluble and b) it smelled awful when you got it wet.  So with a spray bottle full of water and a scraper I went to work.

Next we had a smell to worry about.  It was an awful combo of mold and dead horse glue.   So it went outside in full sun after being doused with water and vinegar and scrubbed down.  After a few days  the smell was gone and it was ready to be finished.

Through my research I learned that traditionally trunk makers would use Tung Oil to protect and finish the wood.  The oil soaks into the wood and then hardens to protect the wood from water. In it’s pure form it totally non-toxic.  The stuff at the home improvement stores usually have some kind of toxic drying agent in them which in theory will evaporate and leave a non-toxic finish.  But since I am going to be there breathing in the air as it dries I opted for the pure stuff.  I bought mine here at The Real Milk Paint Co.

Character here is a matter of taste on a piece.  This thing looked so cool that I wanted to leave the black marks on the wood from the hardware.   This wasn’t a strict restore job but more of a beautifying treatment.

So here you are,  the steamer trunk all finished.

And the inside.


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  1. Revi
    August 16, 2012 10:30 pm/ Reply

    Just amazing – and thanks for the tips, too!
    It’s beautiful now, and I know it took hours and hours and lots of elbow grease to get here. :)

    • The Ridiculous Redhead
      August 16, 2012 10:54 pm/ Reply

      Thank you! This was one I got excited about and then hated over and over. But it was all good in the end.

  2. Korrie@RedHenHome
    August 16, 2012 11:22 pm/ Reply

    It’s gorgeous!

  3. crystal
    August 17, 2012 12:00 am/ Reply

    Gorgeous piece. Mine is sitting in the middle of our living room (well, a cedar chest) & I have the supplies, just haven’t had a decent day to do it. I can only hope mine turns out as fantastic as yours! :)

    • The Ridiculous Redhead
      August 17, 2012 12:02 am/ Reply

      That is so sweet of you to say. Good luck. I really liked working with the tung oil and will definitely use it again.

  4. Cynthia
    August 17, 2012 7:47 am/ Reply

    You did a lovely job restoring this. It hardly looks like the same trunk!

  5. Anita
    August 17, 2012 7:56 am/ Reply

    What a makeover!!!! I have one of my grandmother׳s which is green at this point. I never thought it could look like that. Gorgeous!!

  6. Brenda Thompson
    August 17, 2012 11:00 am/ Reply

    I’ve been looking for a steamer trunk but everytime I find one it’s way out of my price range. Love what you did with this one. It’s beautiful.

    • The Ridiculous Redhead
      August 17, 2012 11:07 am/ Reply

      Brenda – Thanks so much! If you find one at a garage sale or goodwill give it a try. You would be amazed what you can do with a little elbow grease.

  7. Bev Lloyd
    August 17, 2012 8:10 pm/ Reply

    Ohhhh, I have 2 of these that I got at an auction, by accident (no one else bid) for .50 each. Never could decide what to do with them. Now I know…Great job.

  8. May
    August 17, 2012 11:04 pm/ Reply

    Now that is a real treasure…chest!

  9. gail
    August 18, 2012 9:58 pm/ Reply

    super makeover on your trunk! ewww about the smell.


  10. Deanna
    August 23, 2012 8:13 pm/ Reply

    WOW. I found an exact steamer to yours about a year ago (disgusting paper inside and all) and I ended up painting mine but I gotta say, I’m in LOVE with yours. I’m actually thinking maybe I might want to do the same on mine. Thanks for the info. Off to pin this so I don’t lose it. Here’s a link to mine when I found it and what it looks like now at the foot of my bed
    Love your work –

    • The Ridiculous Redhead
      August 24, 2012 2:12 pm/ Reply

      Deanna – Thanks so much!! I love what you did with your trunk! I think the colors look great and I’m jealous yours has more of the original parts! Thanks for sharing.

  11. Mary
    August 25, 2012 3:06 am/ Reply

    Great job! I have three or four that need work and I have not ventured into yet. Just brought one into the basement to use as a “coffee table”. May be a little tall for that. I think two of mine are in better shape than that one, so you gave me tremendous hope. Thanks for sharing!

  12. Toqua's Crafts
    August 30, 2012 1:26 am/ Reply

    I have a trunk that was my grandmother’s that I re-did when I was about 16 years old. At the time I also lined it with a thin cedar board I believe intended for lining closets. I love how yours turned out! You did an awesome job. I love how you researched and discovered how the original trunks were put together and built.

  13. cassie
    September 13, 2012 9:24 pm/ Reply

    gorgeous! so rustic- i love the new finish!

  14. Sarah
    October 2, 2014 9:31 pm/ Reply

    This summer I refinished an old trunk that I inherited from my Great-Grandmother. The interior was lined with thick paper like this one, and it took me ages to scrape it all out, but eventually the interior was clean and paper-free! I sanded the wood and finished the interior wood with tung oil, and it looks fantastic now. The only problem is that the tung oil smell is STILL very strong. I left it to air out for several days, and also tried filling the trunk with ground coffee and leaving a container of vinegar in the trunk to absorb the smell. So far no luck!

    Do you have any suggestions for getting rid of the smell of tung oil? I want to use this trunk to store blankets and pillows and I don’t want them to pick up bad odours from the trunk.

    Any suggestions would be much appreciated!!

    • The Ridiculous Redhead
      October 5, 2014 10:50 am/ Reply

      What kind of tung oil did you use? I’m curious if it had drying agents added which would cause the smell. I have only tried the pure tung oil from Real Milk Paint Co and it didn’t have too much if a smell. I also used their orange solvent to cut it for the first coat or two. They now sell a mix of the solvent (which smells like oranges) and the oil which might stop the smell if you add that as another coat. Let me know how it goes!

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