Hello and welcome to my blog. What I'm doing here is documenting my personal expression of "hands-on history" from a craftsman's perspective. I've been on this path for a large part of my life and it's taken me to some interesting and challenging places. I hope to share the processes and the historically inspired objects I've crafted along this journey into our past. This adventure has deepened my appreciation for past craftsmanship and the intelligence of common place things in Early America. Besides, now I have all this cool stuff to play (teach) with.

Jim Miller

Friday, March 25, 2011

A Lesson Learned or How An Old Trunk Helped Me Mark My Progress

The Original Inspiration
Photos Lindy Miller 2011
     For those that read my blog, you might have noticed that I've learned a lesson or two on my journeys to replicate past objects. The most valuable lesson I've discovered is the importance of finding the "patience" to fully enjoy this hobby. My desire to recreate something might be immediate but the time spent towards a successful project, can be longer than anticipated.  I've found that I need to embrace the whole creative process. It's not only about the research or hunting down those obsolete materials but it's about developing my technical skills as a craftsman as well.

Front View
Inside View of Original Trunk
Note the Door in the Lid
      In the back of my mind there is a list of things I would like to make. Some I'll probably never get around to but so far I've whittled the list down pretty good. When I get to the point of starting a project, everything necessary has finally come together either by plan or by chance or both. This post has a little of both. Around 30 years ago, I purchased a fragile relic of a trunk at an antique mall in Southern California. My initial emotion was to save the poor thing and what-the-heck, it was cheap. At the time there was a craze for "fixing up" old trunks and turning them into decor but that's not what I intended. I saw this little wreck of a thing as a prime candidate for replicating someday. There was a lot that crumbling trunk could teach me but for the time being, it was wrapped up and put away. It was probably best, as I wasn't quite ready yet to tackle such a project.

     In 2004, during a shopping trip to Nevada, my wife and I were visiting one of our favorite fabric stores, Mill End Fabrics of Reno, when I noticed that they had a bin of large leather pieces. The prices were fair and I found myself wondering what I could make from such an opportunity. Like a light bulb going on in my head I suddenly thought of that nearly forgotten trunk. I ended up purchasing half a cowhide of upolstery leather because the weight, feel and finish seemed like it might be a match to the covering of that relic trunk. The anticipation of a new project was pretty exciting. Yeah man !

My Replica Trunk
Note the Sewn Leather Handle
     When I dug out the original trunk, I was happy to see the new leather would work but I immediately realized that if I wanted to make a viable replica, I was facing a very involved project. The important thing was, I felt I was ready to tackle it.

Straight on Front View
Note the Straps and Lock Flap
     This style of travel-trunk is pretty interesting in that it has a soft-top design that acts as an additional compartment to store clothing or linens. As you can see in the pictures, there's a trap door on the inside of the lid for access. The core body of the original trunk is made of a soft wood, probably poplar or pine. I already had custom wide pine boards of the right dimension at my workplace in Columbia along with plenty of cut nails from Tremont Nail Co. so that part was covered.

     The hunt for hardware was next and I really lucked out when I discovered an amazing resource online called The Trunk Shoppe in Harrisville, West Virginia. These good people have created a unique offering of early trunk hardware that's unparalleled. Their trunk locks are exact copies of early to mid-19th century originals, so I needed to grab one of those. They even have the original style cast brass domed tacks with a square shank but the cost would have killed me.The original trunk has a zillion tacks. I opted for high dome brass tacks from Crazy Crow Trading Post of Pottsboro Texas. Many of these early trunks have tinned or sheet iron corner protectors and in my case, they were tinned and japanned with asphaltum varnish. When the time came, I used ProCraft Asphaltum Varnish, thinned with Lacquer Thinner( a good drying agent) to a brushable state. Over the bright tin, the varnish's golden brown color is a classic period look that can't be imitated.

Inside View of My Replica
Close-up of  Replica's Lid
Showing Facsimile of Original Label
     The project began by building the wooden box / body and the inner panel for the lid. I then created and installed a pair of sheet iron hinges to match the originals. The next step was to glue and tack the leather panels to the outside of the box. The hand sewn leather handles of the original trunk had to be carefully duplicated and installed with clinch-nails through the box sides. After morticing a pocket on the inside front of the box, I mounted that beautiful replica lock with clinch-nails as was the original. Next came making and glueing in the paper lining. Even though the orignal paper was printed, I think that my stencilled version matches pretty close. Assembling the leather top was a challenge as I first had to line all the pieces with a nice cotton tick before I hand sewed the end's welted seams. Once the major parts were assembled,  I carefully mounted those zillions of tacks and the tin panelled corners.  Lots of other details were added to the inside lid including a facsimile of the original label. It was really starting to look like something now but I had to take it a step further.

     Some of the elements that are usually missing from many original and most replica trunks, are the buckled straps that secured a trunk's lid and the leather flap to protect the lock. I wanted my replica to have all of the flaps, straps and buckles of a new original. I found that by studying mid-19th century trade cuts like those reproduced in Clarence P. Hornung's "Handbook of Early Advertising Art",1956, I could find clues as to how period trunks looked when new. The majority of these  trunks were intended to be used as luggage and more often than not ended up on top of a coach, exposed to the weather. From those originals that I studied, it appears that style and function went hand in hand and I think my replica celebrates that notion. It was a great project and worth the "patience" it took to get to the point to make it happen and now I have somewhere cool to stash my stuff !

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