DIY steamer trunk before & after

A friend of mine bought an old steamer trunk and sold it to me for a great price. I am a huge book collector and wanted to try something out of the ordinary. I found many projects on Pinterest for steamer trunks, but most of them were for tables, and wine bars. These old trunks can often be found at thrift stores, on Ebay, at antique stores, and at garage sales. You might be able to find one in your own family. I’ve always found old trunks intriguing, the idea of  who they belonged to, where they have been, and what time-period they were from. This particular trunk was estimated to have been from the 1930’s. In ripping out the old floral fabric, we found an old bullet shell casing. I save it along with a swatch of the fabric washed it and preserved them in a shadow box displayed with before pictures above the finished shelf. It is important to me to show the history of the trunk. As I was getting ready to turn the trunk into a bookshelf, I noticed some surface damages to the trunk, which changed my plan on how I wanted to change it.

  Sand, get ready to paint steamer chest

You will need:

  • Sandpaper or an electric sander if you have access to one
  • Rags
  • Kilz spray- 2 cans
  • Putty Knife
  • Brass Cleaner or other metal cleaner (depending on what type of the metal parts of the trunk)
  • Spray Paint in 2 Coordinating Colors or Chalk Paint (but I suggest doing research first on the paint before choosing)
  • Metallic Paint (if the metal on the trunk is unable to be salvaged, as mine wasn’t)
  • Polyurethane Spray
  • Tape Measure
  • Wood Glue
  • Metal  Shelf Support Strip
  • Shelf Support Clips Zinc
  • Legs or Wheels, Depending on Your Style
  • Shelves

paint steamer chest

The metal on the trunk did not seem to be real brass -only parts of it were even metal, and the metal was corroded. I attempted to clean it up to preserve it, but soon decided it would look better if I painted over it.

The first step in revising the trunk was sanding it, and I had to cut out some of the top layer that had been warped and damaged. The second step was adding the legs. We drilled small holes into the metal corners, and found the legs at Home Depot. Painting with primer was next. I used an Ivory Silk spray paint with primer. I painted the entire outside, hardware included. I was going for the distressed and damaged look. After coating a couple of times, I painted the metal with silver oil-based paint. I used a black oil-based paint and a dry sponge to distress the metal parts and the ivory once dry.


Inside, Legs, Distress Trim Steamer Trunk Shelf

Next I painted the bottom, and the legs. Once they dried, we turned it upright again. Next, we cleaned up the inside, stripping the fabric, and spraying with the Kilz. Once thoroughly dry, I painted the inside black. We installed the shelf support strips with wood glue, and braced them  wood scraps until the glue set hardened.

Steamer Trunk Shelf Side Two Finished

I measured the inside of the shelf and took the dimensions to Home Depot, and they cut the shelves for me. I painted them the same ivory color as the outside of the trunk. Once dry, I distressed them with the black paint and sponge. Once I was sure everything was touched up, I sprayed the entire shelf with polyurethane spray.


Finished Book Steamer Chest Book Shelf W Books

 I hope you enjoy my little DIY project! This was my first big project, and I’m pretty proud of the result!

bullet casing from steamer trunk 2

Bullet casing found in trunk.



Trish Eklund

Trish Eklund is a 40-something mom of two, a lover of words, a photographer of the abandoned, and a co-parent with her blended family. She has been a Nebraska transplant for the last 17 years. Learn more about Trish at her blended family website, and her photography website,, and the Huffington Post Divorce Page. Her abandoned photography has been featured on Only in Your State-Nebraska. Trish Eklund has an essay, Happy Endings, in the anthology, Hey, Who’s In My House? Stepkids Speak Out by Erin Mantz.