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When buying an antique steamer trunk, inspect it carefully, checking for severe rust or rotting. Trunks with only moderate damage can often be repaired because replacement parts such as corner trim, latches, rivets and leather handles are available through mail-order companies specializing in trunk restoration.
Leather handles, a common problem area on old trunks, are easy to replace. Stain new leather handles with a commercial oil-based stain before installation.
The metal brackets holding the leather handles are often secured with nails that have been bent over inside the trunk. Use a tape measure to locate the nail point on the inside of the trunk lining, then tap it loose with a nail-punch and hammer. As each nail head pops out on the outside of the trunk, grasp it with a pair of pliers and pull it through.
When enough nails have been removed, slide the old leather handle out of the bracket and replace it with the new one. If possible, use the original nails to secure the new handle. Tap the nails in place with a hammer, and bend them over inside to attach them to the wood. If the old nails won’t hold, replace them with new nails or screws.
Lid stays -- the folding brackets inside the trunk that hold the lid in place when the trunk is open -- should be in good shape. To replace a damaged or worn lid stay, measure the location of the existing stay, and use those measurements to position the new one. Use a drill or nail-punch to make pilot holes slightly smaller than the screws to be used to attach the new stay. Install the screws at both ends of the stay, making sure the screws aren’t long enough to penetrate to the outside of the trunk.
Once the fixtures on the trunk have been repaired, the outside may be painted or -- if it’s in reasonably good shape -- left with its aged patina finish. If it’s to be left unpainted, use mineral spirits and a soft cloth to remove dirt and old wax, then wipe the trunk dry with a clean cloth. After the surface has been cleaned, apply a thin coat of paste wax, and as it hardens, buff it to a natural sheen. The paste-wax coating will improve the piece’s appearance and protect the surface from spills.