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Restoring an Antique Steamer Trunk

Do you know what an antique steamer trunk is? I had no idea what a steamer trunk was until a friend gave me his antique trunk to refinish. I knew it was old, but there were a few elements of this antique trunk that I hadn’t seen before. 

It had pressed tin and old stamps on the inside with a paper like finish.  I knew it had history. I would guess this steamer trunk dates back to circa 1880’s. 

restoring an antique steamer trunk

Honestly, this furniture flip was a little intimidating because I didn’t want to destroy the historical elements of this vintage piece.  It took a little trial and error, but I learned a few tips and tricks on restoring an antique steamer trunk. 

Let’s talk about the sad state of this steamer trunk when I received it. Granted, it is over 100 years old, but the bottom was about destroyed. I’m sure over time little mice, or rats or maybe even just lots of elements, ate away at the base of it.

antique steamer trunk
antique steamer trunk
inside of an antique steamer trunk
inside artwork in an Antique Steamer Trunk

Pictured above is the inside top of the steamer trunk. I would love to know the history and story behind this picture. 

What is a steamer trunk?

Wikipedia says a Steamer trunk is

“a trunk named after their location of storage in the cabin of a steam ship.”

It also says these trunks appeared from the 1880’s-1920’s. The stories this vintage piece of furniture could tell!

I stated above that this trunk intimidated me. I love to refinish furniture, but I also like to keep the historic value and charm somewhat intact. This made me a little nervous to even touch it with a paint brush!

Materials used to restore this antique steamer trunk

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How to restore the antique trunk

Before we get into restoring or painting, I needed to clean up the trunk.

The best way for me to clean all the nooks and cranny’s is with a shop vac.

cleaning the Steamer Trunk with a shop vac
sealing the Antique Steamer Trunk

Once the inside was clean of debris, I decided to spray it with a coat of polycrylic to help preserve the old wood and paper finish. 

Once the inside was sealed, I had to decided how to restore the outside of the steamer trunk.

Like I said, I wanted to keep as many of the historic elements the same if I could. One of these elements was the pressed tin.

I could tell from the top of the trunk that the tin used to be a shiny gold color. I knew I wanted to restore it to that color again and I’d heard that using nail polish remover could work!

nail polish to clean the tin

I scrubbed, and scrubbed, and scrubbed for about an hour with no luck. I guess after 100 years of use, the old dirt and grime wouldn’t budge.

I decided that spray paint could again come to my rescue! As much as I didn’t want to add anything to the tin, I knew I was limited with options.

painting an antique steamer trunk

Since I wanted to restore the gold color of the tin, I thought my gold leaf spray paint would work beautifully.

I used painters tape to tape off the wood around the tin. After I finished using the gold spray paint, I took a wet rag and dabbed lightly over the spray paint to make it look “aged.”

antique steamer trunk with gold leaf spray paint
Restoring an antique steamer trunk

You can see the difference the spray paint made.

Restoring an antique steamer trunk

Done with restoring the tin!

Now it was time to cover up the rotted base of the trunk.

I used pre cut wood pieces (poplar 1/4 by 3 by 4) around the base of the trunk to cover up the rotten areas. 

Originally I had the great idea to stain the new wood to match the existing wood. But when I tried to match the stain with no luck, I decided it would be best to paint all the wood black, especially since I needed to caulk around the new wood.

cutting the wood piece to fit around the steamer trunk

I used a jigsaw to cut the pieces to fit perfectly around the trunk. I applied the wood to the steamer trunk with a nail gun.

Restoring an antique steamer trunk
antique steamer trunk with new wood base
caulking the new wood at the base of the trunk

After I was done applying the wood to the base, I caulked around the trunk to make the wood look seamless. 

Restoring an Antique Steamer Trunk

Now it was time to paint! I used a flat black paint. I went with a black color because I thought it would contrast the gold without taking away from the historical elements of the trunk.

Restoring an Antique Steamer Trunk

Next on the list to finish this historical trunk is the metal sides. I thought and thought and thought about how to restore it.  I kept thinking “how could I add a finish that would highlight the handles and brackets without completely “refinishing” it.”

I finally decided to lightly “whitewash” it.

whitewashing the old metal
whitewashing the old metal

Once the sides of the steamer trunk were white washed, it was technically finished!

By the way, make sure to check out another antique steamer trunk makeover where I painted the trunk with a Unicorn Motif.

antique steamer trunk makeover

Antique Steamer trunk restored

restoring an antique steamer trunk
restoring an antique steamer trunk
restoring an antique steamer trunk
restoring an antique steamer trunk
restoring an antique steamer trunk

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restoring an antique steamer trunk

Did you enjoy this post? Maybe you would enjoy a few of my other furniture flips?

Now it’s time for some furniture flipping fun! Ready to see a few more flips by some crazy talented bloggers!

A must read if you refinish furniture. There are so many great futniture refinishing ideas in this post.
  1. How to Create Fabulous Painted Furniture with Cutting Edge Stencils by Just the Woods
  2. How to Refinish a Worn Out Dining Table by Lovely Etc.
  3. How to Fix a Chair with a Broken Seat by Refresh Living
  4. The Coffee Table Flip That Did Not Go As Planned by A Fresh-Squeezed Life
  5. The Best Way to Get Cheap Rustic Furniture by Thirty-Eighth Street
Milk Painted Treasure Chest

If you enjoyed this post you might like to see how I transformed an older cedar trunk with milk paint!

Thanks for stopping by guys! I hope you’ve been inspired.


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  1. Justin Smith says:

    I have one of these trunks with the original lock clips, latch, both handles intact, and the two compartment pull out tray. The only damage is some edges of the lining have detached inside the lid, and the support hinge which holds the lid up has snapped. What do you think it might be worth?

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  5. Mary says:

    This turned out really beautiful Leslie! You did well to restore such a special trunk.

  6. Theresa Huse says:

    Makes me wish I had my grandmas steamer trunk. Your project turned out great. Thanks for sharing at the inspiration spotlight party @DearCreatives sharing see you again soon. Theresa

  7. Fantastic look! Good job on the trunk. #trafficjam

  8. Leslie says:

    I have my grandmother’s steamer trunk, from around 1920 and really enjoyed reading your post. You have restored this old trunk beautifully.

  9. Barb says:

    So glad to have any and all tips on doing this as I have one that looks exactly like it (an old family heirloom) that awaits restoration. Now for hubby to have time to tackle the job and for me to track down a few little missing parts.

  10. Bright says:

    My parents have a couple of these but not quite as nice as yours. I think I will refer back to this if they will give them to me. I liked it before you white washed it. Its a bit modern but I like it-and it saves a bit of work.

  11. Jann Olson says:

    Lindsey, I think you really did the trunk justice. It turned out wonderfully!! Thanks for sharing with SYC.

  12. Sandi Magle says:

    Wow, I had one exactly like that—stolen in Wisconsin YEARS ago. They are fabulous and you did a great job-enhancing and repairing this trunk. Very nice!

  13. Carrie says:

    I’ve never restored a steamer trunk before. I admit I’m intimidated too! You did a beautiful job!

  14. Lou says:

    Enjoy watching you show how to do the trunk. You did a great job. I love how it turn out.

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