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Here in the barn, one of the most common questions we get hit with, just about every day, has to do with the finish coat.  Folks just want to know how many coats of varnish or polyurethane or pea green house paint they should slap to the wood on the old beast.  They've tackled the rust, replaced parts, spent countless hours scraping old wallpaper out of the innards of that trunk, and they feel like they're on the home stretch.  "Just tell me how many coats to use and I'll never bother you with another question again," they promise.  Never works out that way though.  When they hear our answer a whole new barrage of questions spills forth.  Can't figure what it is that causes such consternation - we just tell them what we use.

Step 1:  Prepare the trunk by removing all rust and sanding the wood

Our theory of finish application is pretty straight forward - nothing you wouldn't expect to hear from any furniture maker or refinisher.  Start with the first step - prepare the trunk.  You probably already know what this means - no rust, and all the wood has been sanded smooth.  This is your last chance to do this, so don't blow it by looking for shortcuts now.  Can just see your shoulders slouching now, mouth pouting.  For the love of Mike, get ahold of yourself.

Step 2:  Review basic trunk construction for some essential clues

Let's revisit basic trunk construction here - pine boards for the box, metal or leather coverings, cast corners, some brass, tacks and nails of steel, zinc, or brass, hardwood slats, more metal parts, and on and on.  Two types of wood, up to six different types of metal.  Each of these will expand and contract with changes in heat and humidity - and here's the important part - they'll each move at their own pace.  Over the years, this trunk has learned to move within itself - sort of like when you adjust your trousers at the dinner table, thus making room for, by golly, one more piece of pie, without having to get up and make a scene.  This trunk is comfortable in its flexibility.  Take that ability to move away from it, and that trunk will reward you by developing new cracks and allowing the nail holes to get bigger and bigger over time, until the entire trunk is as loose as Aunt Marge's chins.  How do you avoid this problem?  Simple - let your trunk breathe.  Don't choke it!

Step 3:  Forget everything you've heard about finishes

Dollars to donuts says there's a partially-full can of polyurethane or varnish out in your garage or barn, and that's what you're planning on dousing on your trunk.  This sickens us.  These types of finish will clog up every open pore on that trunk.  At Brettuns Village, we learned the hard way, starting in 1988, that these finishes do much more harm than good to an old trunk.  Simple test - how many antique trunks have you ever seen that were still in good shape and had been varnished originally?  Not many.  The ones that were made with goopy finishes like that just flat aren't around anymore.  Now, on the other hand - the trunks that are still around and in good shape mostly used a simple finish coat.  Curious?  It's a top secret formula, protected by the offspring of the old trunk makers.  Can't tell you what it is.

Step 4:  Just kidding - here's what to use

The concoction is pretty easy to whip together.  Here's the basic mixture:  one part tung oil, one part mineral spirits.  A couple of notes - 1) we use real tung oil, pure form, uncut.  You can find this through some refinishing supply houses or at some hardware stores.  Most tung oil sold in stores these days has already been cut with mineral spirits - check the label (Homer Formby brand works great and has already been thinned for your convenience, it seems that Minwax has taken over the Formby brand so that's what we use these days).  Pure tung oil is very thick and takes days to dry.  Cutting it in half with mineral spirits can cut the drying time down to just a few hours.  2)  The second half of the mixture - mineral spirits - is exactly what you want to use.  Don't substitute paint thinner.  Buy mineral spirits and use it.  That's that.  Oops, one more note - 3) to this mixture you can add some stain to give the trunk wood the desired hue/tone/color/shade.  A little bit will do it.  We usually add some golden oak stain.  Make sure this is solvent-based stain - not water based - or it'll all end up at the bottom of your mixing can.  OK, one last note - 4) a coffee can magically turns out to be a great size for this - mix up about a quarter can of tung oil, a quarter can of mineral spirits, and a few tablespoons of stain.  About a half a coffee can - always turns out to be about the right amount to do one trunk.  An important note - tung oil dries harder than varinish or polyurethane - it DOES NOT remain oily and anyone who tells you it does needs to stop eating those mushrooms that grow out of the goat poop.  We use tung oil because that's what trunk makers in the 1800s used.  It works.  Jack.

Step 5:  Application of the secret soup

We put this mix on our trunks with a good brush.  No spraying allowed.  That's cheating.  A brush works best and it helps to be sure you got the finish in all the out-of-the-way places that trunks seem to be laden with.  Use a clean cotton rag to wipe off any excess, then put the trunk in a dust-free (as if) area until dry.  This next statement may floor you - this finish can be brushed on the wood, metal, leather, paper, or any other material found on your trunk.  Again, wipe off any excess to avoid drip marks.  The secret soup will make the trunk look great, but allows all the parts to continue in their daily motions - they can still expand and contract without placing undue stress on the integrity of the mother ship.

Painting Your Trunk

First things first.  It looks like your trunk was painted at one time, so what harm can it do to shake up some spray paint and freshen things up a bit?  Well, that's probably a baked on finish that you see on your old trunk, likely based on linseed oil.  Not the same as modern paint.  At Brettuns Village we follow our own philosophy of refinishing - we work to protect the trunk so that it'll last another hundred years (at least).  We don't try to make them look brand new by slathering gold paint on the hardware or rubbing that antique gold paste onto the corners.  If you want to see how that crud looks go take a hike around eBay - you'll find plenty of trunks for sale there that have been painted all kinds of colors.  So, while we don't recommend painting, the bottom line is that it's your trunk so do what you want with it.  If you can't fight the urge to paint your trunk please be sure to remove all rust first, then you may want to consider using a primer on the metal parts before applying the final color.  As you might have gathered, we don't do much painting of trunks or parts here, so we don't have much more experience/advice on this matter.  It's your trunk, so finish it the way you want it.  Paint it to match the couch or the cat; it's up to you.  Invite your friends over and have a spray paint party.

What kind of paint to use on antique trunks
With careful planning, paint can really change the look of your masterpiece, Leonardo.

Over the last few years we've received some interesting e-mails and phone calls about our 'please don't paint your trunk' philosophy, and these have come from some very experienced trunk refinishers, many of whom could easily be considered experts in the field.  We respect their opinions and have admired their work.  There's no rule, law, ordinance, nor even a guideline that stipulates that painting a trunk is bad - it all comes down to taste.  Some refinishers appear to have the goal of trying to make the trunk look brand new again, as if you just purchased it over at the SuperCenter this past weekend.  At Brettuns Village we respect the age of the trunks in our shop,  and our goal is to enhance their natural charm while allowing them to look their age.  If you want yours to look brand new, why not save yourself all the work and go buy a brand new footlocker?  Just a thought - only thinking of your free time, Chamo.


If you have to paint your trunk then be sure to remove rust and dirt - a good scrubbing and rinsing with TSP might be a good idea if the trunk seems very dirty or has oil stains on it.  Prep the surface by hammering down rough edges, hit everything with some steel wool to roughen the surface just a  bit, and use masking tape to cover anything you don't want to paint.  Spray paint or brush paint, that choice is up to you.  Next, suspend the trunk in mid-air from your handy backhoe and start spraying:

Painting an antique trunk or steamer trunk
Sent in by a customer who shall remain nameless

The eBay Paint Job: Take a look at trunks being sold on eBay and you'll find that many of the sellers/refinishers insist on painting all trunk hardware pieces a nice, bright gold.  We answer e-mails every so often from disgruntled buyers who have received the trunk they purchased from someone on eBay and are disappointed to find that the hardware wasn't actually solid brass (or solid gold).  We think the gold paint probably looks OK in photos viewed on your computer monitor, but for some reason when you see it in person it looks exactly like gold paint.  This is a personal decision that you need to make for yourself.  Here at Brettuns Village we don't paint our trunks.  We just don't like the way it looks.  If you like the idea of having trunk hardware that's all covered in gold paint then your course is clear.  Slather it on, brother.