Canvas Covering on Antique Trunks
Canvas was used on the outside of probably the majority of flat top trunks and occasionally on other styles (we have one Jenny Lind covered in canvas). The canvas varied in thickness, quality and color. Restore a lot of flat top trunks and you will get to know this canvas quite well, it can be proof there truly is a fine line between love and hate. Most flat top trunks that were covered in canvas end up having the canvas removed and the wood underneath refinished (we usually “refinish” a flat top as opposed to “restoring” it). Most of the time it’s removed because it’s too rotten to keep. Depending on many factors, the canvas can be very easy or extremely difficult to remove.
The canvas served some very good purposes. The “box” of a trunk was built first, then the canvas was added to the outside. On top of this canvas went the staves, trim and hardware. The canvas was then coated with shellac which made the trunk practically waterproof. This combination of canvas and coating protected the outside of trunks from many things other than water. It acted as a sort of cushion when other trunks or objects were smashed against it. It kept out dust and added strength to the trunk by binding it. Most of all, it protected the beautiful pine or other wood underneath (most flat top background wood is pine, sometimes poplar or other wood).
Removing the canvas from a flat top to be refinished is a trade-off between purism and making the trunk look beautiful. We always explain this to customers who bring us their own trunk to refinish. Once in a while we see a flat top that has canvas good enough to leave on but this is very rare. In this case we usually remove the old finish from the staves, sand, maybe stain and then finish the hardwood of the staves. The canvas can then be coated with a modern protective clear coat.
After the canvas is removed on a trunk being refinished there will be a coat of (usually) crystallized glue on the background wood. This has to be removed before the wood can be refinished. The wood is cleaned as well as possible and then sanded before receiving its finish. It’s amazing sometimes the smell of the pine resin that’s still in wood that is a over a hundred years old. The beauty of the pine is also amazing.
Getting back to the love/hate thing. After the canvas is removed from between the staves and hardware on the trunk then you’re usually left with MANY little threads under the edges of the staves and hardware. Removing these can take a lot of time, just another reason we don’t usually recommend your first attempt at trunking be a flat top! The time and effort spent removing the canvas from these trunks is the price we pay for having the background wood protected by the canvas all those years.