How can I restore this trunk without destroying it?
July 22, 2012 10:10 AM   Subscribe

Metafilter! Help me clean up this vintage trunk about which I know very little.

I just brought a trunk home from an antique market with the intention of using it as a coffee table/storage space in my very small house (photo with bonus puppysaur). I am interested in cleaning it up to the point where it is usable, but I don't need it to look brand new.

The guy I bought it from wasn't even sure what it's made from, and I can't find much information about the brand on the internet (it has this label on the bottom right corner of the lid). What I did find suggests it's from the late 1940s or early 1950s. I am guessing it is stained wood and brass, and it seems to be leather around the edges, and the handles are thick strips of leather as well.

I have wiped it down with a damp cloth to get off some of the grime before bringing it inside, and the dirt came off just fine on the sides but it seemed like the paint/polish was coming off when i tried to wipe down the top of it. It got sort of tacky, and the sponge was black. So I stopped and it dried and is no longer tacky, but I would like to be able to clean it if I am going to use it for a coffee table, and I would like to avoid putting glass on it if possible.

Here are some more photos:

The top
The lock
A closer look inside

I've got some Brasso to clean the metal bits... what else should I pick up to give it a good cleaning? Is there some way to seal/clean the top so that the black stuff doesn't come off? Most of the information about restoring trunks on the internet seems to be geared toward trunks that are just natural wood.

Also, any advice on how to get that paper (and the musty smell) out of the inside would be most welcome. It is airing out in the garage as we speak.
posted by torisaur to Home & Garden (9 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
On the label where it says "four-ply," this means plywood. You have a plywood footlocker. Plywood is glued wood, so it does not do well with lots of water. Lightly sanding and then painting the plywood parts might be a good idea. Here is how one person recommends painting it.

If it were me, I'd blast the inside paper with a hair dryer set on the hottest setting, and see if that helps release the glue.
posted by Houstonian at 10:48 AM on July 22, 2012

(I should have been clearer. "Four-ply" means four layers, but in this case your footlocker is made with four-ply plywood.)
posted by Houstonian at 10:57 AM on July 22, 2012

I would like to suggest that the black surface is not paint or stain but some sort of thin vinyl application over the plywood, which I have seen before on older cases. I can't tell from the photo. But perhaps some armor-all spray, tested on an inconspicuous corner, would have the sealant properties you seek for this surface.
posted by Rube R. Nekker at 11:06 AM on July 22, 2012

As a person who buys a lot of suitcases and such for storage, I'll recommend a few things for musty smells. They're often from molds and mildews, so wiping everything inside down (even though it's paper) with a barely damp rag that's been soaked in bleachy, soapy water is a first step (and get in crevices with a paintbrush that's been dipped and squeezed almost dry.) And maybe another round of sponging it with a damp rag soaked in Nature's Miracle, because I put that sh*t on everything. Then, let it air out with the #1 thing: SUNLIGHT. Let it air on as many nice days as you can for the next while in full sunny sunlight. Sunlight is a miracle worker for these things. Then, use odor-absorbing kitty litter. And baking soda. And newspaper. Put lots in (load a pillow case with it, like a big sachet), and change it out frequently until the odor is gone.

For the outside, what it seems you are experiencing is old, blackened varnish or shellac. The black is actually (grossly) old dirt that's worked right into it. To test it, find a hidden spot, and saturate a small piece of paper with alcohol and let it sit for a few minutes. If it's shellac, it will soften and stick to the paper; if it's varnish, the alcohol will have no effect. If it's shellac, here is an article with some tips. Here are tips for varnish.

I'd advise a glass top or trays for the top of it anyway for these reasons: It's a surface you can write or work on instead of a bumpy one; if you spill something it doesn't go in the crevices or ruin what's in the trunk; and it's quicker to clean and dust; it's one thing to take off to get into what you're storing in there, instead of moving a collection of things. Says the person who tried stacks of luggage as end tables/instead of a dresser for a while.
posted by peagood at 11:43 AM on July 22, 2012

I wouldn't put too much money into the trunk. If you like the look, but not the expense of getting it in better shape, you can buy a new one for under $200.
posted by Houstonian at 11:51 AM on July 22, 2012

I had the same type of chest as a toy box when I was young.

Yes, it's covered in vinyl. I know because picked it all off & drew my approximation of the Millennium Falcon's cockpit, on the plywood underneath.
posted by Packed Lunch at 12:01 PM on July 22, 2012 [1 favorite]

That looks exactly like a trunk my mom had when I was younger. If it's the same, I would avoid too much water or the thing will disintegrate. I'd listen to peagood's advice and air it out as much as possible for the smell. I also hate glass tops for tables, but peagood has some good points about using one.
posted by patheral at 12:42 PM on July 22, 2012

I am pretty sure I had exactly the same footlocker until I moved last year. Had it for 10 years. The paper inside was the same, the hardware, etc - seems like an exact match.

The plywood top and sides are sheathed in a thin metal which is enamelled or painted black - if that helps any of you who thought it wasn't metal. It is. There are footlockers made later that are vinyl-covered, but mine was not.

Here's a similar trunk which someone fixed up.

I agree with Houstonian that it's not worth a lot of work. These were a mass market item and are very common at flea markets and antiques shops, and if it's really compromised, chances are you could find another for less than the time and money it will cost you to repaint and reline this one. Also, the top tray is missing.

But if you have taken a shine to it, have fun. Mine never lost the musty smell, but I didn't really care. I kept board games inside it, and used it for a coffee table at some times and a bay window seat at other times. Brasso on the hardware works fine, and I wiped the rest of it down with your basic Pledge, and all was good. The leather was pretty desiccated and after a time I just pried the leather handles out.
posted by Miko at 8:07 PM on July 22, 2012

I've rescued/repurposed a few of these so based on the ones I've encountered I imagine the trunk this way: an outer shell > pretty paper glued to fibreboard > pretty paper covered wood frame > edges of the box are rolled over the wood holding everything in place with tension along with all the hardware tacked on.

Often the papered fibreboard bottom and top were the only thing that reinforced those sides so, if you intend on getting rid of the paper it could make it flimsier depending on the material.

Who knows what the outer shell is from? If it is a 1940's to 50's era trunk then cheap materials could've been used because of the war effort and, thinking on it, might mean you have a trunk constructed out of pressed fibreboard that was painted, or varnished.

Sadly those brass metal latches probably aren't really brass and Brasso could eat the finish clear off.

And the musty smell imho comes from the paper and wood. I ripped out the paper liner from one of mine over 15 years ago, used liberal amounts of white vinegar then let it sit out in the sun for ages. Almost perfect but every so often I get a whiff-o-mould though I never find any. Nothing a fragrant satchel can't take care of.
posted by squeak at 7:59 AM on July 23, 2012 [1 favorite]

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