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Smaller antique trunk refinishing informationHow to refinish an old trunk

Canvas was used to cover trunks beginning in about 1860, but wasn't widely used until about 1880.  In the early 1900s, canvas became the covering of choice for trunk makers.  The most popular color was green.  Brown and black were also used.  The canvas was stretched over the pine board box and held in place with glue.  The glue was typically the kind made from old horses (poor old Nellie) and was water-soluble, which is helpful at times when working on a trunk.

Often your old canvas-covered trunk has a few spots on it where the canvas has torn or become threadbare.  If you can repair it, we urge you to do so - that's true restoration - restoring the original covering.  The best way to do this is by cleaning the canvas as much as possible - usually by dry brushing it as much as possible, then by gently dabbing at it with a damp sponge.  Get as much dirt off as possible.  Once you've sanded the slats and removed rust from the metal parts, you can apply a finish coat to the canvas to preserve it.

If you decide the canvas can't be saved, or you'd prefer to see the wood beneath, then here's how to get rid of the canvas...

First, you need to organize your tools.  Don't need much; just a razor knife, paint scraper, and medium grit sandpaper.  A dust mask is a great idea, too.  Second, find some way to get the trunk up to a good working height, where you can see the whole thing without bending down.  We usually recommend that you buy two trunks and use the second one as a table to hold the first one.  Sell more trunks that way.  Before you start, get some bandages and gauze and go ahead and bandage up your fingers ahead of time.  If you're going to be working alone, dial 911 right up front, so the meat wagon is handy when you slip with the knife.  Seriously, though, please be very careful.

Take your carpet (or razor) knife and very carefully follow the edges of the canvas, where it meets metal or wood.  Slide the tip of the blade up under the edge of metal strapping or wood slats if you can.  Work on one small area at a time, such as a section of the lid between two oak slats.  Once you've traced all the way around, lift one corner of the canvas and peel it away.  This is where a dust mask comes in handy.  Lots of dust flies off when you start peeling.  Remove all the canvas, pick out remaining threads by hand, and then take a break.  Drink a bottle of our home brewed raspberry porter, with raspberries right out of the garden.  Remove your dust mask first.  When finished, belch loudly, then prepare to continue.  And you thought this would be all work.

Your trunk now has exposed pine boards, but the wood is likely covered with the remains of your great-great-grandpa's horse, meaning glue, that seems to detract from the beauty of the whole project.  This is where the paint scraper comes in.  Taking great care to be gentle and not gouge anything, including yourself, scrape away the excess glue, scraping with the grain of the wood at all times.  Don't go across the grain, not even once, or we'll find out about it.  The trunk's starting to look a little better now.

Sandpaper is next.  We usually use a medium grit for the first pass, then fine grit to finish the job.  Please be very careful not to sand metal pieces or the oak slats - you'll leave marks that will stay put.  If you'd like, you can use a fine steel wool on the wood as a final step before applying your choice of finish (which should be our recommended magic trunk goop mixture).  Steel wool works very well on the oak slats, by the way.

So now it should like so:
Refinishing service for antique trunksRefinished antique travel trunk

Except yours won't have all those nice pumpkins stored behind it, probably.
So now you're ready to stain or finish the outside of your trunk, unless you have rust to deal with first.

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