About a Blogger Who Remembered How to Laugh

About a Blogger Who Remembered How to Laugh

Progress on my Chinese Camphor Chest

Back in January I decided to redecorate my entire living room and instead of a new coffee table, I ended up drawn to a WWII-era Chinese Camphor Chest.

I found the chest at Adjective’s Unhinged. If you live in Orlando and don’t know about Adjective’s Marketplace, then you are truly missing out. This place is magical. It’s like an antique mall + every DIY furniture/knickknack makeover from Pinterest EVER. It’s amazing.

Adjective’s Marketplace has finished pieces that have been re-done by professionals. It’s where I got the bedside tables for both my bedroom and guestroom.

Distressed teal bedside tables with gorgeous hardware and lovely fat little french-style feet? Yes please.
Distressed teal bedside tables with gorgeous hardware and lovely fat little french-style feet? GET IN MAH BEDROOM.

Adjective’s Unhinged is where the Adjective’s vendors sell pieces that they haven’t Pinterest-fied yet. As a consumer you can buy a piece and take it home, as-is. Or you can buy a piece and have the vendors re-finish it to your specifications. The Choose Your Own Adventure of antiques shopping.

I saw this trunk and – before doing any research on what the heck it was or putting together any plan of attack for refinishing it – purchased it and had Vince + Kellan pick it up for me.


So it came home and the research began. Not only did I find out that it’s WWII-era, but I learned that these chests are extremely common, range widely in quality, and absolutely NO two are alike though some are very similar to one another.

Each chest is hand-carved and was originally stained and varnished with a high gloss. Mine is middle-of-the-road quality, and originally it probably likely looked like this:

Not a fan of all that dark wood with super light carved panels... not a fan at all.
Not a fan of all that dark wood with super light carved panels… not a fan at all. But seriously aside from the flower designs, this front panel is as close to identical to mine as I will probably ever find.

By the time I got to it, my chest had been stripped of most of the varnish, painted a weird combination of bright blue and yellow, then mostly stripped again and painted over completely in that odd pink…. of course I had no idea of any of this when I bought it. I just knew I HAD to have it.

Like, the urge to own this chest, the love I feel upon looking at it, is so strong that I wonder if it were mine in a past life or something.

There's blue AND yellow paint under there!
There’s blue AND yellow paint under there!

I started working on it by chipping paint off with an exacto knife. And it was NOT hard. The paint was so thick, and the carvings so intricate, that I spent hour upon hour hunched over the trunk in our garage chipping away to reveal detail and relief.

After I got nearly the entire lid chipped away of major paint chunks, we debated for probably two months on what the next step should be. Vince highly recommended media blasting the trunk with a soft media like walnut. But that ish is EXPENSIVE. So we kept putting it on hold.

Finally, Vince was out of town (and thus unable to prevent any rash decisions on my part) and I wanted the trunk done (I’m impatient and figured I either fix it and enjoy it or destroy it and have at least tried) so I decided to take a risk on good ol’ fashioned paint stripper.

I tried to research how Camphor Wood would handle paint stripper – pretty much zero help on the internet. With the help of my friendly Home Depot paint guy, I settled on an ‘eco-friendly’ paint stripper that would hopefully not be too harsh.

I started with a bottom corner of a side panel. Within 5 minutes I ended up doing the entire side.

Top is "before" and bottom is "after."
Top is “before” and bottom is “after.”

The sides were pretty easy because whoever had given this trunk it’s previous treatments didn’t seem to care too much about the side panels. I took the paint off and realized a lot of original varnish was still there, and it was this gorgeous golden color.

So I moved on to the back panel.

Bottom is "After" and top is "Before" this time. I apparently suck at consistently layering photos.
Bottom is “After” and top is “Before” this time. I apparently suck at consistently layering photos.

Holy. Crap. Dat detail doe. The eagle is unflippin’ believable with all that detail. And the flowers! I just kept brushing the paint stripper on and dipping my brush in water to swirl it around and off. And the more I brushed, the more detail was revealed. I ended up taking the hose to the trunk to wash all the stripper off and using Vince’s air compressor to blow dry it.

By the time I got to the top, I had this down to a science. I figured the top would go the easiest since I’d spent the most time digging out chunks of paint from the details, and it did.

Again - Top is "after" and bottom is "before"
Again – Top is “after” and bottom is “before”

At this point I’ve gotten 95% of the paint off of the trunk. There are still remnants of blue and yellow tucked into the crevasses. There is still weird pink on the top and feet.

Next steps are for me to hit it one more time with paint stripper and then a gentle cleaner. After I hose it down and let it dry, I’ve decided to take one of two routes:

  1. Coat it with three thin layers of UV Polyurethane to give it a ‘wet’ look, which is really when the wood shines.
  2. Stain it a golden color all over and then poly it.

I’m still not sure which I want to do just yet but once that’s figured out I’ll get glass cut for the top and it will be officially done!

For now, it’s found the perfect space in my front room between two accent chairs whose flower pattern matches WAY too well for me to believe my subconscious wasn’t involved. While the chest may not be done in its make-over process yet, it’s perfect and loved as is. 🙂

New front room with NOT a coffee table!
New front room with NOT a coffee table!

6 thoughts on “Progress on my Chinese Camphor Chest”

  • This beautiful, my camphor chest is very similar, and I have just discovered a small split in the wood of one corner. I am thinking that I will fill it with camphor oil and hopefully the wood will swell enough to save me having to do any more major work.



  • Thank you Sally!

    Where did you get your camphor chest? Do you blog or have any photos to share? I would love to see how someone else is doing theirs. My blog gets a lot of traffic to this page and I realized it’s because there is such little information out there on restoring these beautiful chests, and even less photos.

    The wood is pretty soft and there have been some “patches” made in the corners of mine long before I found it. I think that may be why someone painted over it so many times… but regardless, it’s beautiful to me! Would love to see yours!

  • Just bought a camphor chest. Didn’t know what I was buying, it just looked really nice and I had to have it. The people who sold it to me “restored” it by painting it with flat black paint. After finding out that their refinishing was a mistake and that they should have left it alone, I am now wanting to restore the chest to what it was meant to look like. Alicia, from everything you have learned from restoring your camphor chest, please give me guidance on how I should start and what I should use. Thanks.

  • Hi Maria! That’s awesome that you got a chest and you didn’t know what it was – I think I did exactly the same thing! I found a very light paint thinner that was a gel-like consistency at Lowes or Home Depot and painted it on with a really thick paint brush. As I painted this gel-like substance on the chest, I kind of swirled the brushes into the detail of the chest. I noticed the brush and gel were turning the color of the pink paint and so I kept swirling… eventually I noticed the color of the original wood underneath. I kept a tin of water nearby and kept wetting the paint brush after the gel did it’s magic, so I was really kind of cleaning the paint off after the gel took effect.

    I would start with a light paint thinner, personally. You can always get more intense if the paint is being stubborn. The key is getting a nice, thick paint brush to put the paint thinner on with. Don’t be afraid of getting the chest wet with water – camphor is an amazing wood and can get wet and will dry nicely. Let me know if you have any other questions! I’d love to see photos of yours as you go!

  • Hi.i am trying to find out what colour stain or oil was used on the chests…mine is a ned dark color with a lightish top…???thanks

  • I have a small chest that is 19 inches long 9 inches wide and 12 inches high. It was very dirty and marked up. I was just going to clean it up with tsp and paint it but changed my mind when I saw how beautiful it was. I left the detailed insets alone & used Circa 1850 furniture stripper on the rest of it using steel wool. I sanded it & am now applying a semi-gloss polyurathane to it. it is beautiful.

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