Steamer trunks are very popular right now. If you were to buy an antique at auction you could spend up to $800. People are using these to store blankets in bedrooms, as coffee tables, and even as dog beds. Here is a step by step guide to creating the same look yourself at home. In Fredericksburg we are lucky enough to be surrounded by shops that sell old steamer trunks at low prices that may need a little work. The advantage to doing the work yourself is that you can choose the colors you will use to match your existing décor. Here is what I have done with my own;

Step 1: The problem

I wanted to see if I could take an old steamer trunk and use it to store extra blankets in my den. My den opens to my kitchen and I’ve wanted to pull the grey green color from the kitchen into the den in a subtle way. You may have the same issue in your home. These are great to use as decretive storage and I’ve even seen steamer trunks set on their ends to create side tables also. The possibilities are endless once you find your trunk.

Step 2: Finding a steamer trunk

There are many shops in The Fredericksburg Area that sell antiques. If you decide to go in this direction expect to spend no less than $200 if you’re lucky. You can get one much cheaper if you know where to look.

You are looking for a trunk that needs some work, missing a handle or scratches in the wood. I wanted to keep this project as inexpensive as possible so I went to Two Times New right off of Rout 3 in the same shopping center as Big Lots. With multiple venders prices vary. Most furniture is in good shape but in need of TLC. This is not an antique shop but will have antiques mixed in for low prices. I found a black steamer trunk with damage to the wood for $25. The trunk had previously been stained but because of neglect much of the wood was chipped or scratched. Between the wood planks was brown leather that was puckered in places. I decided that distressing the damaged wood and cleaning the leather would allow me to pull the grey green color into my den while still allowing the trunk to keep some of its original character.

Steamer Trunk

Step 3: Picking the perfect paint

I headed to Home Depot with the trunk still in my back seat. When you get to the paint desk tell the associate what you’re doing. The finish that you will need will be determined by where the finished trunk will be displayed. Only use a flat finish if no one is going to touch your trunk on a regular basis. Flat finish was not an option for my project because I was placing my trunk in the same room as my wine bar. If you are using the trunk as a coffee table use an eggshell finish. This allows you to wash the painted area. There is also a new stain resistant paint that is great for protecting any painted surfaces just ask the associate at the desk what will be best for your trunk location and use.

I choose a grey green to match my kitchen and an eggshell finish with primer already added to the paint. This allows for easy coverage and costs very little. I only needed a pint because I only planned to distress the wood and leave the black leather in its original condition. Lighter color work better for distressing wood. Think about the color you want your trunk to look like and then pick a boring greyer version of that color. This sounds strange but it will usually work. You will end up with the effect you want even if at the store you don’t think the color is bright enough.

Don’t choose dark paint colors to distress furniture. If you want to paint a base coat in a dark color and distress on top of it with a lighter color you can but know you will lose some of the wood grain. You will also want to choose your colors very carefully, if the colors are too different you end up with a children’s art project.

Get a very small paint brush and a medium paint brush. Get a small sanding hand tool if you don’t already own one or a sanding brick (this looks like a sponge only it’s made of sandpaper). Blue painters tape is always a good idea unless you have a very steady hand; this is to tape off areas you don’t want to paint. If you don’t like the inside of your trunk pick up some wall paper glue.


Step 3: distressing your trunk

Sand the wood portion you plan to paint with sand paper in the same direction as the wood grain. This doesn’t need to be perfect you are just preparing the surfaces for paint. Wash you trunk inside and out with antibacterial soap and warm water. Dry your trunk completely before painting. Start painting on the back so you can get into the groove of the project before you start the most noticeable sides. You want to 1st decide how much wood grain you want to see. How nice does the wood look? Do you like the color? If you want to just see the texture but don’t like the wood’s color or condition don’t add any water to your paint. If you want to see mostly wood with just a little color add about one cup of water to every half pint. Adjust as needed to your personal goal.

I had some pretty banged up wood so I decided not to add any water.

Start by taping off one medium sized section of wood. I did one wood plank at a time. Paint with the wood grain. No need to cover the entire area just most of the section. Take a dry rag and lightly pull it over the painted section while it is drying. What you are hoping for is an uneven look. Look at the section does this look like you hoped? If you aren’t happy with the look try another coat. If this still looks wrong use a wet rag to remove most of the paint before it is fully dry. Dry and try again. You are deciding how you will do the entire trunk with this 1st section, make a plan and stick to it. If you do two coats on the 1st section continue this method throughout. I did one coat over all wood planks.

This is supposed to be fun don’t stress out if it doesn’t look perfect after the 1st 10 minutes of painting. Distressing will look a little like a bad crafts project until you near the end of the painting. The paint will also dry darker than it looks wet.


Step 4: Dealing with the details


You’ve finished painting and you now notice that your trunk looks great from the outside but the inside looks scary. A lot of the time steamer trunks will have an odd water stained fabric that use to be white but know is 3 shades of brown from age. Rip it out! Try to keep the shapes of the fabric intact to use as patterns. Do you have odd wall paper in the house that you aren’t using? If not, do you have a thick wrapping paper around the house? You can use either of these to line the inside of your trunk. Using the old fabric as a patter and cut out the shapes you will need to line your trunk. Use the glue below and on top of the paper, this will allow it to become more solid and washable. Let dry open.

Sometimes after you rip out the fabric you will notice that your particular trunk has too many edges to easily line. You probably have paint left, try painting the inside solid. This will look very different from the distressed pattern on the outside but will still make the trunk feel clean and new.

The inside of the trunk can look anyway you’d like. Don’t be afraid of using brighter colors for the inside, this will create a modern surprise when the trunk is opened.