Antique Trunk Restoration Tips to Revamp It Like a Pro

Updated March 2, 2021
antique trunk restoration

Antique trunk restoration is a labor of love, but it's also a simple DIY job. With some basic tools and supplies and little time, you can restore the beauty of your old trunk and bring it back to useful condition. Restoring old trunks involves assessing their condition, solving problems like mildew and rust, and even replacing the artwork that graces many trunk lids. These tips can help you restore an antique trunk like a pro.

Assess the Condition Before Restoring Old Trunks

Before you begin any antique trunk restoration job, you need to assess the trunk's condition. This is the first step of professional trunk restorers, and it should be your first step too. According to Gary Daniel of Shenandoah Trunk Restoration, he always checks the trunk over before planning out the restoration process. "We evaluate it and note damage, prior restorations, rust, and other problems," Daniel says. These are the problem areas you may need to fix as you work on the trunk.

  1. Grab a piece of paper and a pencil and begin making notes about damage to the trunk.
  2. Starting on the outside, go over the trunk carefully, checking its condition. Does it have rust or broken hardware? What about chips or scratches?
  3. Look inside the trunk too. Does it have an odor or obvious mildew and grime? Is the artwork still in good shape?
  4. Note everything on your list and then proceed with your restoration.
Antique trunk detail

Remove Damaged Materials and Fix Problems

After you've noted what's wrong with the antique trunk, it's time to start fixing problems. You need to remove any damaged materials, including rusty hardware, torn or stained paper linings, chipping paint, and other surfaces. Then you begin building it back up. "We completely tear it down," Daniel says. "We do any needed repairs and even replace artwork if necessary." Some of the solutions you may need to try include the following:

  • Use a scraper and water to remove stained and damaged paper inside the trunk. Lightly spray the paper, but don't soak the inside of the trunk.
  • Place the trunk outside in the sun to remove odors. You can also spray it with a weak bleach solution if you suspect mold.
  • Remove rusty parts and use a wire brush or sandpaper to scrape off the rust.
  • Remove rotten leather and other damaged parts.

Try to Bring the Trunk Back to Original Condition

After you've removed any damaged parts and cleaned the antique trunk, the restoration process continues. Your end goal should be to restore the trunk to its original condition. You'll need to purchase replacement parts such as new handles, hardware, and lining paper from retailers like the Furniture Restoration Center of Oregon. "Once the repairs are done, we build the trunk back up with new leather, buffed hardware, and original paint colors," Daniel says. "We line the inside and whatever else it takes to get it back to the original condition."

Understand How Antique Trunk Restoration Affects Value

It's no secret that restoration can affect the value of antiques. However, in the case of trunks, functionality and beauty are sometimes more important than original condition. According to Daniel, the only trunks you should avoid restoring are those that are museum piece or very rare antique trunks. In most cases, restoration can enhance antique trunk values. "If you are going to use the trunk as décor in your home, then it is better to restore it," he says. "It adds value and makes it more useful."

Learn About Your Antique Trunk Before Restoring It

Because there are a few antique trunks you shouldn't try to restore, it's a good idea to learn as much as you can about your trunk before you begin any restoration process. Ask yourself a few questions to find out whether your trunk is valuable and whether it's a good candidate for DIY antique trunk restoration.

How Do You Know if Your Trunk Is Antique?

Trunks were extremely popular during the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and then they went out of style in favor of vintage suitcases. Because of this, if you encounter an old trunk, it's likely to be antique. You can use the antique hardware to date your trunk, since the types of nails, clasps, hinges, and keyholes can offer clues about how old it might be. You can also look for brands that were popular, including Taylor, Clinton, Malloy, Oshkosh, and Swayder Trunk Company.

Trunk illustration

What Type of Antique Trunk Do You Have?

There are a number of different styles of antique trunks you may see. The main differences in these styles is the shape of the trunk:

  • Flat-top trunk - A flat-top trunk has a lid that is level and flat, rather than rounded. Often made of leather, wood, canvas, or metal, these trunks were easy to stack for travel. Flat-top trunk restoration involves ensuring the top is level and attractive, making it useful as a coffee table if you like decorating with vintage items.
  • Dome-top trunk - This type of trunk has a domed lid. Dome-top trunks frequently have decorative tin and wood details. Dome-top trunk restoration involves ensuring the structural integrity of the lid and also replacing any internal storage compartments inside the lid.
  • Jenny Lind trunk - Rarer than flat-topped and dome-topped trunks, Jenny Lind trunks have a distinctive shape similar to a loaf of bread. The top is curved. These trunks are often made of wood.
  • Wall and dresser trunks - Made to sit against a wall, these trunks have a vertical design and sometimes drawers for storage. They are quite rare to find in good condition.

Is Your Antique Trunk Valuable?

According to Daniel, there are certain trunks that are especially valuable. He notes that wall trunks and leather-covered trunks in good condition are often worth the most money, followed by dome-top tin trunks and canvas-covered flat-top trunks. "Other types of desirable trunks are the dresser trunks used by traveling entertainers, antique Louis Vuitton trunks, and very ornate Victorian trunks," he says.

Antique Trunk Restoration Is Approachable

Sometimes, all your trunk may need is a good cleaning. Review some tips for cleaning antique furniture and give that a try. However, if it needs more work, this is a project that is approachable. "Antique trunk restoration can be a very nice do-it-yourself project if you are so inclined," Daniel says.

Antique Trunk Restoration Tips to Revamp It Like a Pro