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Restoring an Old Trunk: Take Two

The very first project we ever took on was an old trunk that we stumbled upon at my uncle’s house. Looking back, it was somewhat of a turning point for us. Prior to this, we had wandered through antique shops and admired old charm from afar. This was the point in time when we stopped simply admiring and started bringing old charm back to life ourselves.

This kick-started the year of projects, which quickly escalated from refinishing an old trunk to refinishing an old house.

Having our own house meant having more space to store old finds and future projects. And we now have a good stock pile of furniture that’s on the list to refinish. We’ve always looked at these as side projects to work on when we wanted a break from larger renovations (refinishing floors, woodwork, drywall, etc.). And as we continue to make this old house our home, we decided to return back to where it all started. One of these old finds was a second trunk that we stumbled upon at an estate sale along the way.


This one was a bit more beat up than the first, and now that we have a little more experience under our belts, we thought it’d be a fun challenge to take on.

Step One: My (least) favorite step
Similar to the first trunk, the inside of this one was lined with wallpaper and paint. There was also somewhat of a cardboard insert along the bottom of the trunk. Because we like the look of bare wood for the inside, the extras had to go.
What we learned from the first trunk is that dry scraping is not very effective. It took way too much time (and frustration) scraping the paint and wallpaper off the inside of the trunk the first go-round. And while paint stripper still didn’t work on this second trunk, we quickly came up with a new solution – leaving a soaking wet towel on the wood overnight. By the morning, the paint and wallpaper scraped off almost instantly. We rotated the trunk and continued to do this until the inside was down to bare wood.
Additional prep work was needed to remove the canvas from the outside of the trunk as well. While this was likely a cool feature when the trunk was new, time has taken its toll and the canvas was ripped in multiple places. Rather than replacing, we decided to expose the wood that was hiding underneath and use that as our starting point.

Step Two: Smooth sanding
It was now time to smooth out any imperfections that were still ingrained in the wood. As I mentioned before, this trunk was a bit more beat up than the first, and there were plenty of areas where the imperfections still shined through. We like to think that this just adds to the character of the trunk itself.

After sanding. What a difference already.

Step Three: Bring it back to life
Now that the trunk was smooth as a button, we had another blank canvas to bring back to life. This meant adding stain to the wood, and black paint to the metal accents.

Just like we did for the first trunk, we first applied wood conditioner to the wood, which will help the stain to absorb evenly throughout. We also went with MinWax Honey as the stain again. This is that light-to-medium toned stain that gives the trunk a more natural look (and is undoubtedly my favorite). You can tell that different woods were used for the base of the trunk compared to the slats and accents (cedar for the base, oak for the slats), and this really shines through when the stain is applied, giving the trunk tone and dimension.

Once the trunk was stained, we painted the metal accent pieces black, which really helps them to stand out against the trunk.It’s worth noting that when we first started this trunk, there was actually a missing metal piece that Dan was able to find a nearly perfect match for. The new piece now blends in perfectly with the old.

Step Four: Shine that sucker up
We learned from the first time around that the best way to apply poly was in three stages – the lid, the inside, and the outside. We took the same approach for this trunk, applying three layers of semi-gloss to each. Given the 9 rounds of poly, and 12-24 hour dry-time needed, this process took about a week, but went smoothly throughout.

The finishing touch on this trunk was adding the leather straps back onto the sides. They had been worn and unsturdy on the original, so adding new straps not only finished the look, but added functionality back to the trunk.

And now that Dan and I have “his and hers” trunks, we no longer have to fight over the original. =)






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