Vintage Trunk Coffee Table — a Simple, Fun, Inexpensive DIY Project!

A vintage trunk can really evoke a sense of adventure and history. Where has it traveled? Did it come “around the Horn,” as in around Cape Horn, as ships were forced to travel before the Panama Canal? Maybe it made its way to the Far East and back, or weathered a perilous overland journey in a horse-drawn wagon?

For some, the sight of an old trunk may not fire the imagination to wonder about such questions. But there is something of an intimate, adventurous quality about vintage trunks. People used to store their most treasured and important possessions inside them (and some still do…). That single trunk may have held everything the owner could bring along while setting out in pursuit of a new life. The sense of adventure is furthered by the question, might there be another vintage treasure that still remains inside?

cream vintage trunk coffee table with cat
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trunk coffee table vintage cream

trunk coffee table vintage cream


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Repurposing a vintage trunk for use as a coffee table is a natural project. Whether or not you care at all about the story of the trunk before it came to you, there are some compelling reasons for incorporating this adventurous look into your home today.

1. Vintage trunks are inexpensive (sometimes even free!), and they aren’t that hard to find, either.

2. Repurposing a trunk as a coffee table is green / eco-friendly.

3. A trunk is a great starting point for a coffee table project, which makes the project relatively easy.

So let’s look at some specific considerations when it comes to this project.

1. The table surface

The exterior of most old trunks is somewhat irregular. Typically, there are hinges and other features, so the surface isn’t perfectly flat, like a conventional table would be. Depending on your personal aesthetic, that might be just fine. But it can be a little inconvenient for actually placing items on the table.

Fortunately, there are some relatively simple solutions. One idea is to simply place something flat on that top to function as the table surface. For example, you could use glass, or even a mirror. If you have a steady hand, you can cut the glass to size yourself. Or you could hire a professional, the rate should be reasonable. For stability’s sake, it is a good idea to use plastic or rubber mounts for the glass to rest on, like you are used to seeing with typical glass coffee tables.

trunk table glass top vintage brown
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Here is an example of a vintage trunk table that features a glass top. Some of you must be dying to add a stylish white paint finish!

But you don’t have to simply rest the glass on top of the trunk. Interested in taking this project up a level? How about inlaying the glass into the surface of trunk itself?

The basic idea is to make a rectangular cut into the top of the trunk, so that glass will be recessed. It makes for a great look — it is more finished, or polished, than simply placing the glass on top of the trunk itself.

With a lot of vintage trunks, the design is such that it makes sense to go with a split design: two separate panes of glass, separated by the natural contours of the trunk in the middle.

There is a bit of skill involved in making such a cut, so it helps to be handy, or to know someone who is. There are two basic options, depending on the thickness of the trunk.

In one style, you would leave a little bit of wood underneath the glass for support. So you basically have one large rectangular cut, the size of the glass itself, that doesn’t go all the way through. Then you have a slightly smaller rectangle in the middle that is cut all the way through, leaving a border for the glass to rest on.

Another option is to inlay the glass between the top and bottom surface of the trunk’s lid. This is a bit more advanced, and requires a trunk lid that is sufficiently thick to fit and support the glass. This design requires making a slot for the glass to fit into, in between the outside surface and the interior surface of the trunk lid. The key with this style is to make the slot deeper on two sides, in an L shape. The size of the slot will also be bigger (taller) than the thickness of the glass in this area. That will enable you to insert the glass into the slot at an angle. Working from the bottom, you slide the glass into the deeper slots first, and then after clearance, slide the glass back toward the other side until it fits into place. Once you have checked the fit, and are sure you can angle the glass into the cut slots, you can add a little bit of sealant to hold the glass pane in place, and reinsert it.

But these certainly aren’t the only options for making over the surface of the table. Here is an interesting project tutorial that uses scrapbook paper, courtesy of Shaunia Scales:

2. Color

One of the great things about working with an old trunk is that they can be painted. So If you want to go with a classic shabby chic look, you can paint it white, in distressed style.

The shape and lines of a vintage trunk are a natural fit for distressing techniques. So you can adapt to the piece to your color scheme, while still maintaining some of that vintage feel and charm. As you look at the trunk, you will likely see areas where it would be natural for a traveling trunk to show signs of wear and tear from previous excursions and everyday use.

3. Legs

Another option for this project is to add legs to the table. A big advantage of adding legs is that it makes the trunk look like a finished table. There really isn’t any confusion about what the item is once has legs! It used to be a trunk, but now that it has legs, it is clearly a table.

Here is a quick video demonstrating the addition of legs and white paint to a trunk (thanks to Kate Pearson):

We’ll mention one more benefit of using a trunk as a coffee table: storage!

You have probably already noticed that one of the modern trends with coffee tables is to include storage. The funny thing is, creative people have been making “coffee tables with storage” for years and years! They’ve just been going at it from the opposite direction. Instead of starting out by designing a coffee table, and including storage, they’ve been taking an item designed for storage — the trunk — and repurposing it, as a table!

trunk coffee table with legs
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unfinished vintage trunk coffee table with legs
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Storage is a very practical design feature for a coffee table, especially in combination with another common trend: the movement toward living in relatively small spaces, especially in urban areas.

Some have a desire to “downsize” for the sake of simplicity and lower upkeep; for others, it is an economic necessity. Either way, a coffee table project that is stylish, unique, inexpensive, and practical sounds pretty good, don’t you think?