Restoration of an 80 year old Trunk

80 year old steamer trunk

80yr old trunk restorationI have been working on restoring an 80-year-old trunk. I don’t normally do restoration projects, as I’m not fully set up to deal with the chemical strippers to remove the old finish. However, I have worked for this client before and I just didn’t feel right, by telling her no.
This trunk has a special meaning to my client, her father built it in his 8th grade shop class. Classes that most of our kids will never experience do to so-called budget cuts, but that topic is for my soapbox blog I should write some day. As for the trunk, I found it interesting to see how he constructed it, gleaming a look into the past and what the curriculum of the shop class was like. I have to say that for an 8th grader the craftsmen ship was fantastic.
When I picked up the trunk, my client and I tried to figure out what kind of wood it was. The grain seemed to look a lot like mahogany but it was beat up and stained with a dark red stain, so I couldn’t tell for sure. My client didn’t think it was mahogany, because this was a shop class and we wondered what they would be doing with such an expensive wood. Who knows, those were different times, mahogany may not have been as expensive as it is today, or shop classes could have had better funding like today’s sports classes. Of course, a local cabinet/furniture shop could have donated the wood. Who knows, that is one of the secrets hidden by time. To find out what kind of wood it is for sure, I will have to start sanding off the old finish.
Joinery on a trunkI found the construction of the trunk to be well thought out; the majority of the joinery used to construct the truck was half laps and dados. To dress up the lid he installed a strip of molding around the edge to frame it in. Most inexperienced woodworkers would have mitered the corners but instead he cut a small rabbit in the end pieces framing the lid. By doing this, he was able to allow the lid of the trunk to expand and contract with the change of humidity, keeping the joints in the corners tight for over 80 years. The joint looks good as his rabbit was deep enough to conceal most of the end grain, all but about a 1/4″ showing, which added some visual interest.
It appears that the molding profile was created with a combination of coves and rounds hand pains. I think that after he installed his trim he ran his plain around the lid, taking a final pass to be sure the profile lined up all the way around.
He also decorated the base of the trunk with a strip of molding. The base molding is nailed on with brad nails that were too long and poked through to the inside of the trunk. To fix this it appears he filed off all the nails after he installed them. I wish I could look back into history to see why he didn’t use a shorter nail. I wonder if he didn’t notice the nails being too long or if he was just making do with the available materials the shop class had to offer.
Another piece of the history puzzle I wish I could look back on is the hinge installation. The hinges he used are a typical surface mount leaf hinge, used on many trunks of this style. However, I noticed that there was a different hinge mortises cut into the back of the case. This made me wonder if the hinges that are on it now are original. A closer inspection of the hinges showed that they are original, because the stain was on the hinges, and the client told me that her father had applied the finish in the shop class and believed it was the original finish. This made me wonder if he had plans to use a different hinge and there was not enough to go around, or another kid bullied him out of the hinge forcing him to choose a different hinge. Maybe the shop teacher suggested a different hinge to use that would be stronger for such a large lid, whatever the case only history knows.
Mahogany trunkAs for refinishing the trunk, it turned out great. The wood indeed is mahogany, and had an extremely beautiful grain. Unfortunately, the natural color and style of the wood did not go with my client’s modern style in her downtown Portland loft. She opted to stain it a silver gray color to go with the metalwork, in her loft and upholstery on her couch. The color turned out great and fit in the room perfectly.

Stained Gray trunk

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