Steamer Trunk Coffee Table – upcycle project

Upcycling / repurposing is a great way of creating one-off pieces on a budget and totally bespoke to your interiors, where you get to decide on colour, finishes and purpose of use.

A few reasons why you might consider this DIY project:

  • It looks great! Eclectic, an original and quirky piece with a story behind it that will add interest to any interior.
  • It is practical, as it gives you extra storage. Whether you need somewhere to keep your spare pillows and blankets, board games, kid’s toys, DVD collection etc. – a trunk / chest coffee table will give you plenty of extra storage in the room.
  • The sturdy build of old steamer trunks mean that you will have a good quality piece that will last a lifetime.
  • A low budget addition to your interior (check out my tips below for low budget DIY projects and read on to see how to get a trunk / furniture for free!)
  • It’s a bespoke piece with design /colour to match your interiors made by you!

Where to get your steamer trunk?

If you are not already a happy owner of an old chest / steamer trunk check out here how to get furniture for free.

Otherwise you can find some pretty good bargains on ebay, car boot sales, flea markets and my favourite – charity shops and house clearance stores.


Most of the steamer trunks are made of wood, often covered with some kind of canvas or fabric and with metal fittings on the edges and corners. You might also find that some trunks will have wooden ribs going around them. Other chests might be made out of metal and some might be even covered with leather.

Bare metal trunks are best cleaned off and polished using baby oil to get out the colour and natural patina. Otherwise chalk paint will cover the metal if you prefer to change the colour.

Leather covered chests can also be painted with chalk paint or just cleaned off with leather wax.

For the wooden and canvas / fabric covered trunks, chalk paint will do a great job providing easy and good cover.

For my steamer trunk makeover I chose Rust-Oleum Chalk Paint (at half the price of most popular Annie Sloan chalk paint and it works just as well).

You can use masking tape to protect all the metal fittings but I found it easier just to go slowly around them with a small, firm brush.

One coat of chalk paint will give you a sufficient cover. Once the paint is dry, don’t forget to apply the wax for a lasting finish. Clear or white wax won’t work well on the dark colours – I learned this the hard way. A few years ago this steamer trunk was my fist DIY project using chalk paint (pictures taken in my previous house). Clear wax left white residue in every wrinkle and groove of the canvas-covered wood, which looked like it was covered in tooth paste. I wasn’t able to just buff out or polish off the wax. Luckily chalk paint covers anything easily so after applying another layer of chalk paint (to cover the clear / white wax) the finish looked good. Eventually dark wax sealed the chalk paint adding more depth to the grey.

If you decide on white colour paint for a shabby chic look, clear / white wax will seal the chalk paint for crisper look.

To add some old patina use dark wax with your light coloured paint.

Low budget alternative to chalk paint

Emulsion wall paint is another option for your choice of paint for your trunk makeover. This will work particularly well if it is a wooden chest covered with canvas. Where with chalk paint one layer gives you a good cover, with emulsion wall paint you might need two layers of paint for a good finish. However the advantage is that emulsion is a low budget alternative and to keep your cost even lower you can use leftovers from your room paint. By doing so you can use your feature wall colour to create a more cohesive colour scheme.

If an accent colour is your thing, sample paint pots will be ideal. The colour range of wall paint is so vast that you can be sure to find the ideal impact colour. The practicality of it is also that you can buy a small volume of the accent colour paint at around £1 per pot. (4 sample paint pots will cover a large chest like mine).

When using emulsion wall paint as an alternative to chalk paint you will also need to seal your finish by using furniture wax on top. When using strong / bright colours try making a little sample patch to check if clear / white or dark wax will work well – the under-side of your chest will be ideal to test this.

The fist steamer trunk that I’ve ever upcycled using wall emulsion paint was 18 years ago and it still looks great despite being heavily used throughout my high school times. I used a stencil to decorate it with a rose motif and gold spray paint to accent the wooden ribs and metal fittings.

Swivel castor wheels screwed underneath the trunk will make it easily movable even if it is heavy and full of belongings. Always go for rubber wheels to protect your floors. A set of 4 heavy duty castor wheels will set you back around £5 from ebay.

What is inside your trunk?

Whatever the condition of the steamer trunk is, I will always opt for a little inside refresher job. Usually the interior of the chest is covered in a fabric or paper.

Fabric interior  – wall emulsion paint works great as a cover for the fabric as it soaks in and gives you a really fresh and clean look.

Paper interior – here again I’ve been using just a wall emulsion paint – usually just white that’s left over from a house DIY project. But if you wish to introduce more of a vavavoom look with a surprise factor you might want to go for a more flamboyant colour from the sample paint range. Pink fuchsia or a lemon yellow will definitely do just that when you open your grey trunk.

When painting the paper interior it is good to be careful not to soak the paper too much, as you can when working on the fabric lining of the trunk. Wet paper inside will behave just like a painted wallpaper, so don’t be alarmed by any bubbles as they will disappear as the paint dries. If the paper lining starts coming off on the edges, just use wallpaper or PVA glue to fix it.

Bare interior – if the interior of your trunk doesn’t look too good – it’s bare, stained or the fabric / paper is quite damaged / dirty and you decided to rip them out, decoupage will do just the job. Alternatively you can paint the sides and wallpaper the bottom.

Once the interior of your steamer trunk has had a makeover it is good to let it air for a day to ensure that all the paint / glue is completely dry.

I totally adore my steamer trunk coffee table which I use to hide my DVD collection from my toddler (thankfully the lid is too heavy for him to open) and it works great as a comfortable coffee table.

Hope you found my tips useful and that this article inspired you to tackle your own upcycle project x

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