How to Clean or Restore Old Steamer Trunks

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An antique steamer trunk often has far more charm and style than a similar modern piece, but the downside is that the aged piece may also smell aged or have old, worn-out, or missing parts. On the bright side, many odors come out, and old hardware is easily replaced with similar reproduction pieces. Before taking that steamer trunk apart, air it out and gently clean it. This time allows you to take a good look at what needs to be replaced or repaired or to find out if it really just needs a thorough cleaning and a little minor maintenance.


Air It Out and Clean It

Any antique trunk that hasn't been used in a long time probably has some sort of odor within it. Musty smells, in particular, should be removed; otherwise, anything else stored inside will take on that stench too.

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  1. To remove musty odors, first air out the trunk outside on a day with low humidity. Open the lid and any drawers; remove the drawers if possible.
  2. Vacuum the inside and outside of the trunk using a small brush to remove dust from any crevices where it may accumulate, such as in the stitching and where any fabric or leather pieces end.
  3. Follow up with a slightly damp cloth, wiping down every surface inside and out and replacing or rinsing out the cloth once it becomes dirty. If the trunk smells particularly musty, dip the cloth in vinegar instead of water, wring out most of the liquid, and wipe down the trunk.
  4. Allow the trunk to air-dry with all the drawers and lids open and exposed to fresh air. Let the trunk sit out for at least a few hours or even most of the day but bring it in before the weather cools at night.


If the trunk smells and it has an old lining material inside, such as paper, the liner is a likely source of odor.

  1. Remove the liner if it is in poor condition or if you'd rather replace it with a new, nonmusty liner.
  2. Use a spray bottle with vinegar in it to loosen the cloth or paper glued down inside the trunk, scraping at the remaining residue with a putty knife or similar tool.
  3. Vacuum and thoroughly wipe down the inside of the trunk again once the liner is out and then let the trunk air out for a couple more hours at minimum.


Clean or Replace Hardware

Old leather handles add a look of charm to an antique steamer trunk, but once they start to fall apart, they're not useful. Removing them offers the chance to determine their condition and to clean up any ornamental hardware caps at the end of the handles.


  1. Pry the caps off with a screwdriver or even a staple remover, taking care not to harm the pieces if you plan to keep them.
  2. Pull out any nails, tacks, or ornamental embellishments that need to be replaced or cleaned anywhere else on the trunk, but take a picture of the trunk first if you plan on removing many hardware pieces.
  3. If desired, purchase new leather strap handles from an antique restoration shop along with the appropriately sized and styled nails.
  4. Tack the new strap ends in place by hammering them in while holding a small block of sturdy metal inside the trunk behind the handle area.
  5. Tack in the replacement handle covers in a similar fashion.
  6. Use a wire wheel or sandpaper to remove rust from any of the old metal hardware you plan to keep.
  7. Seal the cleaned pieces with a metal clear coating if desired or paint them a shade that pairs nicely with the trunk color.
  8. Tap in any loose hardware using the hammer with the metal block as a brace behind each tack. Do the same with all the nails around the trunk to make it more sturdy, as these may have worked loose over the years.


Add the Finishing Touches

If the trunk is leather, wipe it down with a leather cleaner and conditioner to help restore its moisture and good looks. If desired, replace the liner with your choice of fabric or even wallpaper using an appropriate adhesive for the material. If the outside of the trunk is covered in canvas and some of that is coming off, glue it back down with regular school glue. Canvas in poor shape may be used as a template to cut new canvas pieces to install in their place.



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