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Restoration of an 80 year old Trunk

Restoration of an 80 year old Trunk

80 year old steamer trunk restorationI have been working on restoring an 80-year-old trunk. I don’t usually do restoration projects, as I’m not fully set up to deal with the chemical strippers to remove the old finish, and sanding off old finishes can be a bit of a drag. However, I have worked for this client before, and I didn’t feel right telling her no.  It is one of those things to keep your relationship with a client current.  As they may have more work for you in the future or refer a friend.  Referrals are often what keep a business like mine going.
This trunk has a special meaning to my client; her father built it in his 8th-grade shop class. These are classes that most of our kids will never experience due to so-called budget cuts and a lack of interest in blue-collar work.  As for the trunk, I found it interesting to see how he constructed it, gleaming a look into the past and what the shop class curriculum was like. I have to say that for an 8th grader, the craftsmanship was fantastic.

Woodworking courses taught by master craftsman Brain Benham

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 beaten up and stained with a dark red stain so that 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 expensive wood. However, today, African Mahogany is pretty affordable, and at the time, Genuine Mahogany could have been just affordable, 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, its story may be 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 an 80 year old trunkI found the construction of the trunk to be well thought out; most of the joinery used to construct the truck was half laps and dados. To dress up the lid, he installed a molding strip around the edge to frame it. 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.
The molding profile was created with a combination of coves and round 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.

Custom Furniture Design and Fabrication by Brian Benham

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, he apparently filed off all the nails after installing 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 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 typical surface mount leaf hinges used on many trunks of this style. However, I noticed that there were different hinge mortises cut into the back of the case. This made me wonder if the hinges that are on it now are original or have been replaced at some point.  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 if another kid bullied him out of the hinge, forcing him to choose a different hinge. This could have also been a teachable moment, and the shop teacher suggested a different hinge to use that would be stronger for such a large lid; whatever the case, only history knows.
Genuine Mahogany Steamer TrunkAs for refinishing the trunk, it turned out great. The wood, indeed, is mahogany and has 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, Oregon, 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.


I’m the owner of Benham Design Concepts, a mixed media art studio where I design and build custom furniture and other works of art using wood, glass, stone, and various metals.
In this blog, I talk about the art I create, my journey, and the things I learn along the way.