One of the most common questions I receive is how to remove odors from the inside of an antique steamer trunk. Many of you want to store blankets and other objects in your old trunk but also want a sanitary and odor free environment. There is nothing worse than having your good blankets smell must and dirty.
How to remove odors and smells from inside an antique steamer trunk
Please do not waste your time or money with washes, chemicals, baking soda, ground coffee, vinegar and other methods. I assure you that these methods will not work for you in the long run. There is no magic cure or cleaner for removing odors from your trunk but I do have a process that works 100% of the time all of the time.
The reason that the above mentioned products and treatments will not work is because they are simply treating a symptom (the odor or smell from the trunk) rather than the actual cause of the smell.
Why your old antique steamer trunk smells
The vast majority of trunks were lined in paper and the then glued to the interior of the trunk. During the 19th and early 20th century organic glue called wheat paste was used to adhere the paper into the interior of the trunk.
Wheat paste is primarily made of wheat flour or starch and water. The problem with using wheat paste is that bugs, moths and bacteria are attracted to it and feed off of this glue. Over time the bacterium that feeds off of the wheat paste and the natural decomposition of the organic wheat paste causes odors and smells that are unappealing. The inside of your trunk is also very porous and absorbs odors very easily.
How to remove the odor from a old antique steamer trunk
In order to remove the smell from a trunk you are going to need to remove the old paper from inside the trunk, sand and clean the wood on the inside and then finally seal the wood on the inside.
Tools Needed (View our recommended restoration tools page) :
Spray Water Bottle
Sandpaper (100, 150 and 180 Grit)
Polyurethane or Waterlox Original
Foam Brushes for applying Finish
Step 1) Remove any loose paper from the inside of the trunk and sweep or vacuum out the inside.
Step 2) Next you will want to mix a solution of one part vinegar to three parts water in your spray bottle. Thoroughly spray down the paper on the inside of the antique steamer trunk but do not get it so wet that there are puddles of water in the trunk. Overly wetting a trunk will cause it to warp. Allow this to soak in for about 10 to 15 minutes.
Steps 3) After about 15 minutes have passed lightly spray the interior again and then start scraping out the paper from the inside. Sometimes it comes out very easily and other times it can take a little elbow grease. Scrape out as much of the paper as possible. If some of the paper will not come out in spots or where there may be a double layer of paper just remove what you can and then move on.
Step 4) Clean out any loose paper from the inside of the trunk and then re-spray any paper that was left on the inside. Allow it to soak in for 10 to 15 minutes and then scrape it out again. Make sure that every little bit of paper is removed. Also pay attention to any residual glue that may be left on the wood and scrape it off also. Keep repeating this process until all glue and paper is removed from the interior of your old steamer trunk. Allow trunk to thoroughly dry for 24 hours before moving on to step number 5.
Step 5) After the inside of your steamer trunk is dry it is now time to sand the inside with 100 grit sandpaper and then again with 150 grit sandpaper. By doing this you will remove any glue and tiny bits of paper that may be imbedded into the wood grain or pores.
Note: If you plan to reline the inside of your trunk in fabric or new paper then you do not need to do anything else. If you plan not to reline the trunk then continue with the rest of this guide. Learn about lining a trunk here.
Step 6) Sand the inside of your old trunk again with 220 grit sandpaper. After sanding is complete remove all dust with a vacuum and lint free cloth.
Step 7) Many choices exist for finishing the wood on the interior of your antique trunk. I suggest either using flat polyurethane or Waterlox Original Sealer/Finisher. Using a foam brush apply the finish of your choice. I recommend that you put two coats on and then sand with 320 grit sandpaper. After sanding apply one final coat of finish.
You will find that there is no smell or odor left inside the trunk and that it will remain odor and smell free forever! In addition to smelling clean and new you will have a trunk that is preserved, functional and now very useful.