Antique Trunks Nails

Nails were relied upon almost exclusively to keep most trunks together. As far as we’ve ever seen here at Treasured Chests, (since 1972; and we’ve restored a lot of trunks in that time), we have never seen evidence of either screws or nuts and bolts ever being used originally in Victorian trunks. We’ve seen probably thousands of screws used to repair trunks. Some very few, later wardrobe trunks have a nut and bolt holding the main lock. One way to determine if an antique trunk has been restored to its originality is to look for these tell-tale fasteners. Watch for these also as a safety hazard; not many things are sharper than the end of a wood screw protruding from a dark corner inside a trunk. We once found a very old toy chest with a dozen screw tips exposed inside after someone had replaced the hinges. It’s bad enough for an adult to be injured this way, much less an innocent child! Most of our “finds” are stored awhile before they ever see the work bench but the toy chest went straight to the bench to have the screws replaced properly.
Nearly every nail in a trunk was “started”, or driven part way in and then a piece of iron was held against the back side so that the nail hit the iron, turned and “curled” within the wood. This part of making trunks had far more to do with their sturdiness than anything else (next would come good materials such as hardwood staves, waterproofing with sealed canvas etc.). Nails very rarely ever worked loose as screws and nuts would. This helped in the making of good, long-lasting trunks but the process can become a real hazard in the hands of someone restoring a trunk that doesn’t know how to handle these nails. First of all, nothing should be removed from a trunk that isn’t absolutely necessary. Unfortunately, the first things to “go” on an antique trunk are usually leather handles. Replacing the handles is one of the more demanding parts of a restoration because the very largest nails (and the ones requiring more force to remove) are usually the ones holding the original handles. Too little force and the nail won’t come out; too much force and the whole end of the trunk may split, or the nail comes out with a silver dollar-size chunk of wood attached, thereby leaving a matching hole in the trunk. Very often we’re asked how to remove curled nails safely. The process can only be learned with careful, hands-on instruction from an experienced trunker and nigh on impossible to explain in an email or even on a Web page.
On the other end of the nail scale is the shipping label tack. Baggage smashers used them liberally and didn’t seem to care where. These tacks resemble today’s “carpet tack” and were used to fasten shipping labels to the outside of trunks. A large number of these on a trunk usually indicates that it traveled a lot. Watch for square and rectangular patterns where the tacks remain but the label is long gone.

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