How to clean an old trunk or suitcase

Brave the cobwebs and dust in your Granny’s atic and it’s quite likely that you’ll find something similar to the below. An antique trunk.

This antique trunk belonged to my paternal Grandfather, Euan. He was packed off to boarding school at the teeny age of 6 with a trunk similar to this. This was his in later life. Alas he died less than a year before I was born but we did grow up very close to my Granny, Enid. She lived just around the corner from us in Harborne, Birmingham and every Saturday my sister and I would ride our bikes round to her house, raid her pantry which was always stuffed full of treats and clean her Renault 5 for some extra pocket money. Granny would supervise puffing away on a pack of Silk Cut. Happy memories!

antique trunk

Trunks and old suitcases are easy to come by at house clearance shops, charity shops, vintage markets and flea markets. Invariably they are in need of some TLC. The purpose for which they were designed will mean they have suffered a bit of battering which is fine as long as they don’t smell. I recommend leaving them outside on a clear day with the lid open if there’s a musty odor lurking.

antique trunk clean

These old gems are usually made from natural materials which degenerate over time like wood and canvass but if you use the right cleaning materials, you should be able to prolong their life.  Here’s how I cleaned mine.

How to clean an old trunk

  1. Look at the different types of material your trunk is made from so you know what kind of cleaning materials to use. This is really important as anything too abrasive will leave a mark or worse still destroy it. Mine is canvass, wood, leather & metal on the outside and paper and fabric on the inside.
  2. Gently vacuum the dust from both the outside and inside with a brush vacuum extension – most cleaners come with one of these. This lifts dust which will have inevitably worked it’s way into the fabric or under buckles, straps etc. Be extra gentle so that you don’t suck any loose bits off!
  3. You are ready to clean now so grab some gloves (really important if you are using any solvent based cleaning products). Check my guide to what products to use below. You are not striving for perfection here so the objective is not to remove everything which gives your trunk character so don’t work on a particular stain or mark too hard because you’ll either make it worse, leave a residue or worse.
  4. Loosen inside any rusty clasps which have seen better days with WD40. Do this a few times but don’t let the fluid run onto the canvass. Use the red straw to direct the lubricant right into the mechanism.
  5. Leave the trunk to properly dry or air outside if it’s a nice day. To combat any residual musty odors, leave a small box of baking soda inside overnight.
  6. Finish by protecting the canvass with a fabric protector for many happy long years of use.
  7. Proudly display your trunk! You could use as a coffee table (make sure you use coasters or a put a glass top on), a blanket box, for crafty bits … the list is endless. We plan to use ours as a toy box for the arrival of our first wee one in August.

antique trunk restore

Cleaning products to use

Here is a brief guide on which cleaning products to use. Note you may need more than one depending on how many types of material your trunk is made from. Use solvent-free mixtures if possible.


Wood – Choose lemon oil or a quality furniture polish. For another solvent-free option mix 3 parts olive oil, one part lemon juice or vinegar. Use with a soft cloth. You’ll need to finish it with a wood wax to keep it protected.
Metal – Mix one part vinegar to one part water or a mixture of one part baking soda to one part water.
Leather – Buy a specific leather cleaner or saddle soap. Alternatively try a cheap light olive oil.
Canvass – A damp cloth or for tough stains use a tiny amount of washing powder on a damp cloth. Alternatively buy a specific canvass cleaning product.
Paper – A just damp, definitely not wet, cloth only!

Saddle Soap