How Do I Build a Steamer Trunk?

When designing a steamer trunk, there are three main styles to consider.

Trunk Pieces

Each style varies in the way the top is shaped and mounted. An integrated top is built as a sealed box, and the top of the trunk is cut from the bottom. An independent top has a low-profile surface extending beyond the perimeter of the trunk. A radius top is built like an integrated trunk, but its upper surface is arched.

While you can make your steamer trunk from any species of lumber, the softer the species, the easier it will be to form the optional radius top. For a trunk measuring 18 inches wide by 18 inches tall by 28 inches long with 3/8-inch-deep dado joints, cut six planks as follows will provide the needed material: three planks at 18 by 28 inches (these are the front, back and top planks; to accommodate an independent top, one of these must be oversized); two at 17 1/4 by 18-inches (these are the side planks; to accommodate a radius top, the sides must be long enough to cut the radius); and one at 17 1/4 by 27 1/4 inches (this is the bottom plank).

Dados and Joints

It is helpful to remember that any dado cuts will be on the inside surface of the planks. Use a router with a 3/4-inch dado bit or a table saw with dado blades to cut a 3/8-inch deep dado 1/2-inch up from one bottom edge of the front, back and sides. Follow the entire perimeter of the top plank with a similar dado for an integrated top. For an independent top, remember to oversize the top plank, and do not dado the periphery.


To simplify the assembly process, glue one of the side planks to the front and back planks, insert the bottom into the dado, and glue the other side plank in place. For the integrated style, glue the top plank with dadoes down to seal the trunk. If you decide to build the trunk with an independent top, do not glue the top plank down, but leave the box open. Using clamps on all glue joints will ensure a tight seam and is essential for long term durability

For a radius top, cut eight to ten 1 1/2- to 2 1/2-inch mitered planks with 8 to 11 degree miters, and glue each of them in place along a radius dado cut on the inside edge of the side plank’s radius. You will need to adjust the miters to fit the radius.

Shaping and Distressing

For a radius top, use a belt sander to shape the arch. Sanding the entire exterior with an orbital sander to at least a 300 grit smoothness will create a polished finish. If you want to distress or antique your trunk, do so at this point.

For the integrated and radius trunk, once the surface areas are prepped, cut the top from the trunk with a table saw. Setting the saw fence at 15 inches allows for a 3-inch alcove in the top. The blade should be just over 3/4 inch above the table to prevent excessive cutting into adjacent material.

Carefully guide the trunk through the saw with the bottom held firmly against the fence. Your first two cuts are easy. You’ll need to support the top of the trunk while you make the final two cuts to guarantee a clean finished contact between the bottom and the integrated top. Install the hinges now, or wait until after the finish has cured.


Applying a darker stain draws out distressed details and character. Seal in the character by coating the stain with a clear lacquer. Once the lacquer is dry, cutting the belts so the buckles rest midway up the front of the trunk positions them for convenient latching. Secure the belts to the trunk about 6 inches from the edges with antique brass screws to further promote the old-world theme.

About the Author

JL Wilson has worked in the construction industry for nearly 20 years. During that time, he labored as a carpenter, cabinetry door and millwork foreman, installer, designer, and account manager. He has designed, built, and installed projects as simple as a single jewelry box and as complicated as integrated swimming pool/waterfall complexes. Wilson primarily writes for eHow and Answerbag.