How To Restore An Antique Trunk

Antique Trunk Restoration Information

Below you find our guide on how to restore an antique trunk for you Do It Yourself (DIY) folks out there.

This is “how to restore an antique trunk guide”, it is written to be user friendly and is a bare bones basic trunk restoration . You may want to view some of our before and after pictures of our work to give you an idea of how great your trunk could look when finished.

How to Restore an Antique Trunk

1) Remove all of the old paper from the inside of the trunk, you will need a good quality scrapper to do this. Lightly spray water or use a sponge to dampen the paper on the inside of the trunk. The glue that was used (wheat paste) is water soluble and will soften when the water is applied. Do not soak the inside of the trunk, as it will cause serious warping issues. After the water has been absorbed into the old paper use the scrapper to scrape it out. You may have to repeat this step. Make sure that you remove all of the paper from the inside. You may also want to detach the lid of your trunk to make it easier to work with.  Watch our video covering how to Remove Paper From Inside Your Trunk.


2) After the inside of the trunk is dry you want to sand the inside with 100 grit sandpaper. Be very careful that nothing sharp such as nails or tacks are sticking out, they will cut you severely! I know from experience! If you want to leave the inside wood then sand again with 150 grit sandpaper and then smaller grits in succession if you want the inside to be very smooth (up to 220 grit). If you are interested in lining the inside in fabrice then check out this video tutorial. If the inside of your trunk still smells of musty then we recommend placing the trunk outdoors, exposing the inside to natural sunlight for several days. Sunlight can work miracles on odor causing bacteria. Do not waste your money on sprays and want not.


3) Remove the old leather handles and end caps (when pulling the nails out make sure you use caution as not to damage the wood.) Watch a detailed video about How To Replace Leather Trunk Handles.


4) Next you want to wire brush all of the metal, pay close attention to rust as you will want to remove all of it. Use a wire brush attachment on a power drill, a hand brush and steel wool to clean the metal and hardware pieces very well. Wet sanding the metal is also helpful when removing rust is is probably the most effective way for getting down to solid metal.


5) If there is any canvas, cloth or paper covering the outside you want to remove this by carefully using a razor knife to cut this away from  around all of the wooden slats and metal areas.

6) Next you want to wash the wood portions of the outside of your trunk with mild soap and water (I recommend Dawn brand dish liquid) . Please remember not to soak the trunk, it will ruin it. Carefully brush and wash away the dirt and grime from the outside, a tooth brush can be helpful in tight areas. Allow to dry thoroughly.


7) Sand the exposed wood and slats thoroughly, start with 150 grit sandpaper and work your way to 220 grit. If the wood is extremely rough you may want to start with 100 grit sandpaper.


8) If you want to paint the metal on the outside of your antique trunk you need to mask off all of the wood. Once the wood is masked use a quality primer, paint and clear coat. We recommend Rust-Oleum Rusty Metal Primer, Rust-Oleum Painters Touch Ultra Cover Flat black and Rust-Oleum Painters Touch Ultra Cover Flat Clear Coat. (Update 2/8/15 – I have switched to using Mar-hyde self etching primer. It is an amazing primer and is compatible with Rustoleum paints)

We also recommend one coat of primer and then at least 48 hours of drying time. One coat of flat black, then another coat 30 minutes after the first coat. Allow this to dry for 72 hours in a warm place. Next you will want to apply two coats of clear coat back to back. Allow it to dry 48 hours before handling.

Drying times are very critical and should never be shortened, only extended. Read the instructions on the can!  Your paint will take up to 60 days to fully cure but produces an exceptional finish that is very durable. Many people have issues with spray paint but if you practice and allow plenty of drying time you should have no problems. Always clean your spray tips after use and only paint when temperatures are 70 to 85 degrees and low humidity. You may want to also read our in depth guide on antique trunk painting.

9) Next you will want to remove the masking and finish the exposed wood. You can also stain the wood if you choose to. We recommend using General Finishes stain. After staining you may use a  Polyurethane finish but we highly recommend using a product called Waterlox Original Sealer/Finisher . It is an amazing finish that is beautiful and very protective. You may want to check out our in depth how to guide on applying Waterlox.

How to restore an antique trunk tool.
Sad Iron

10) Attach new leather handles and the end caps, you must use old fashioned nails commonly called clench nails, they are soft and will bend over easily. When you are taping your nail through the wood place a block of steel (nailing heel) on the inside of the trunk to bend the nail over. Old fashioned sad irons work well for this.

If you are interested in lining your trunk with fabric then please check out our video guide about lining antique trunks.


More Trunk Restoration Information

Recommended Restoration Tools – Wonderful tools that can make a restoration much easier

How To Line The Inside Of A Trunk – A good video about lining the interior

Pictures of Restored Trunk – See some of the work we have done

Trunk Restoration Tips – Useful tips tp help refinish your trunk

How To Replace Trunk Handles (Video) – Easy to follow video about handle replacement

How to Clean Out The Inside Of A Trunk (Video) – How to remove paper and refinish the inside of your trunk

65 thoughts to “How To Restore An Antique Trunk”

  1. How can you preserve and protect pictures pasted on the inside top?
    I’ve read that some have used clear oil based varnish. But there is not much information how to do this.
    Anyone have any advice for me?
    Thank You,

    1. I’m interested in this as well! Id like to finish my trunk WITHOUT removing the paper but no where online says how to do this. I’ve read not to use polyeurethane on old trunks…so I’m not sure what could be used to preserve the paper.

  2. I have an antique steamer trunk that has a lot of embossed metal on it. The background of the metal is a gold color and it has a lot of vines and leaves that are raised and black in color. The only place I can see the original color is where the closed lid has overlapped. The rest of the background color is quite tarnished, and I would like to know what I can use on the metal to restore the original finish.

  3. I watched all your videos on YouTube and loved them! I looked for part 3 but could not find it. I wondered if u have more step by step videos for replacing front hardware and for doing the outside of the trunk. I do best by seeing it done.

    Your videos are excellent! Just found you today and sent the YouTube link to a relative that also has a trunk. The trunks belonged to my grandparents & great-grand parents so we don’t want to mess them up. Thank you so much.

  4. Hi! I have trunk with some kind hide covering it in places (mohair?) it’s a little sparse, but enough that it needs to be restored… any tips? It’s dry and slightly brittle. Thank you for any help!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *