Fixing up a steamer trunk, we hope

We’re jonesing to have our rec room back, readers.  A few weeks ago Dan and I took a little trip to our favourite antique and consignment shop in Cambridge, Next Time Around.  I follow them on facebook to see all the latest and greatest finds they’re bringing in to the store, and every few months, I am successful in dragging Dan there in person to look around.  On our most recent trip, we came across this steamer trunk and made an impulse purchase:

The trunkIt cost us $170, which is SO CHEAP compared to the price we’ve seen for other similar items.  My favourite part about it is shipping labels on the outside of it.  This puppy has been places!  We’d like to keep as much of its original charm as possible, so I have no plans to just paint the whole thing like you will often see on Pinterest.

It’s not a solid wood trunk, so stripping away the covering and nicely refinishing is not an option.  The outer layer appears to be some kind of vinyl-y coated dense cardboard (??) with metal hinges and locks.  The handles are made of leather, but the strips that run across the top of it aren’t leather, and are probably made of the same cardboard stuff as the rest of it.

Our plan is to use this trunk as a coffee table and blanket storage in the rec room, so I need some kind of protective coating over the whole thing to protect the labels from spills and further damage.  I’ve been doing research on what kind of shellac/varnish would be appropriate, so it doesn’t turn the labels yellow or cause some kind of horrific chemical reaction that will ruin the labels.  The metal pieces are reasonably rusty, but that can be solved with some steel wool, a little elbow grease, and a coat of rust paint.

The inside of the trunk is a different story.

Trunk insides
It smells exactly like you think it does.  Musty, rusty metal, and like it came from an antique store.  According to the internet, step one is to remove all the old paper lining the inside, which should cut down on the smell.

A lot of it was already peeling off:

Peeling paper
There were two kinds of paper inside the trunk, and you can see glimpses of wood in all the corners.  I wasn’t sure what I would find under the paper, but I was hoping for at least some kind of wood so I could sand it down and remove the stink layer.

Everything I read said to use a white vinegar and water solution to lightly wet the paper, and then peel it off.  So I settled in for a morning of peeling, with my grubby clothes on and a pair of rubber gloves.

Progress!It was not wood underneath the paper, readers.  It was more of that densely layered cardboard stuff, so in the end, my best paper-removing option was just to peel off the top layer or two of the cardboard along with the paper.  Soaking it in vinegar water to loosen it up would only soak into the cardboard underneath, and I was worried it would warp it.  But once I decided to just peel the cardboard, it went a lot faster.

Old paper pileSince removing 85% of paper, I’ve left the trunk to air itself out in the basement.  Next step is to finished picking off the last of the paper, and then start doing something with the rusted metal.  I bought steel wool the other day, and I’ll think about what kind of finish I want to have on the metal before buying my rust paint.

For some of the rougher patches on top of the trunk, like a gouge/tear, for now I’m just going to glue the flappy part back down with plain old white glue until I decide on an overall finish for the whole trunk.  If you have any suggestions for the varnish part, or things I should definitely avoid, please be a kind person and share with me.


About joeyandjanice

Two crazy kids trying to make sense of the jumble surrounding making the jump from renting to owning our first home. Join us here as we stumble towards the biggest purchase of our lives.
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5 Responses to Fixing up a steamer trunk, we hope

  1. Emily says:

    I’ve always loved those old trunks. My mother had one, but my sister nabbed it years ago

  2. I think you could use a water based matte polyurethane. It would protect, not be shiny and won’t yellow, but I wonder after all it’s been through, what could you possibly do to ruin it? Maybe leaving it alone is the best answer?

  3. What about a piece of glass on top?

    • That’s been suggested to me, and I’m still consider my options. I have lots of little things to do with the trunk before I have to commit to anything. Thanks for the ideas!

  4. Tina says:

    I would love to see what the finished product looks like!

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