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

Thursday, September 20, 2012

An Interesting Trunk Project for Columbia SHP

     Followers of my blog know that I've had a long association with Columbia State Historic Park, here in Northern California. Earlier this year, I was approached with an interesting project by Amber Cantisano, one of the interpreters in the Park. Before I get into explaining the project, a little background is in order. Next to the iconic Wells Fargo building in Columbia, stands a deep, open building that has served a variety of businesses over its long history. For about the last 50 years its been a Stage Depot display for luggage and baggage, supposedly reflective of the Park's interpretive period of 1850-1870. For all those decades, dozens of original 19th century trunks and chests have sat in a state of neglect and continual ruin until many have been reduced to relics.

Columbia's Wells Fargo Building with
Stage Depot to the Right

Older Image Courtesy www.malakoff.com

     Earlier this year, Park staff began removing the original trunks to better storage, while curator Thonni Morikawa and Amber continued the planning of an updated interpretive display to replace them. This new display would be more in keeping with the Park's mission to better teach California history and would include appropriate text panels and graphics. My part in all this would be to build four replica trunks, based on originals salvaged from the old display. Three of the four picked by Thonni were good examples of mid-19th century styles and one was definitely early 19th century. My replicas would become key elements in the new display, eliminating the angst caused by the loss of original artifacts. What made this project a curious depature from my normal work was that the trunks would only be used as props and never be opened. In other words, non-funtional but pretty cool to look at.

Jenny Lind Trunk Form (upper right) Covered in Leather
Two Lower Trunk Forms in Unpainted Canvas
Hair on Hide Covered Trunk (upper left) Near Completion

Photos Lindy Miller 2012

     After gathering the data from the original trunks, I began by building the hollow forms for each trunk from one inch, number two pine. A careful layout on paper allowed me to project where thicknesses in the pine planks needed to be, in order to sculpt the profiles of the original trunks. A lot of planing and rasping brought out the curves and angles that lead to solid but graceful forms. Two of the mid-century trunks were similar and would eventually be covered in painted canvas. The Jenny Lind style trunk would get a covering of tooled, vegetable tanned leather and the fourth, earlier cylinder trunk, was destined to wear unborn calf hide, or as they call it, "slunk".

Progress on Coverings and Hardware
Hair on Hide Trunk Completed
     Although these replicas were only props, I was intent on sweating the details that characterize period trunks. In most surviving examples, the straps and protective flaps are missing and we are left with only remnant clues as to their original design. With a little detective work and research, I gleened enough information to confidently craft my facsimiles.

Hidden Details on Canvas Covered Example
Awaiting the Final Brass Tacks

      Finding all of the appropriate materials is always a challenge but I was pretty lucky to find close matches from online vendors. A good source for solid brass tacks is Crazy Crow Trading Post and they have a selection of sizes. The Jenny Lind style of tack is less common but I found two sources for two varietys. Van Dykes Restorers offers a large cast iron Jenny Lind style tack, that comes from India and the Furniture Restoration Center of Oregon has a smaller version but still a good style. For iron roller buckles, I used Blockade Runner Sutlery of Tennessee. All of the leather came from an online auction.

All Four Trunks Completed and
Ready for Delivery

     All of the locking mechanisms were crafted from scratch, using brass and steel and although based on the original versions, they didn't need to be functional. Some of the original trunk's leather handles and straps had hand stitched detail which I copied in my replicas as faithful as possible. Embossing the leather was an interesting exercise. I ended up making a tooling wheel - roller thingy , using a strip of embossed brass wrapped around a wooden cylinder. That, plus an embossing plate made from some of the same brass strip, gave me the tools neccessary to stamp the veg.- tanned covering for the Jenny Lind trunk with decorative panel designs.

Closer views of the Hide Covered Versions

     To allow for display options, I made sure that the trunks were complete and authentically styled from all sides, including the bottoms. All in all an interesting project with its own challenges but well worth it and I got to help improve the interpretation of our local history.

The Trunks in Their New Home
But Not the Final Display


  1. Beautiful stuff. It seems we both like the same things.

  2. Again, may hat's off to you for your diverse craftsmanship ! I often visit sites of old luggage , and have learned a great deal ,so far. Cursory, mind you, but a ton more ,than I knew before.

    Keep up the fascinating projects

  3. Those trunks look amazing. What an cool project.