From decay, rebirth: Building furniture from old barns


My harvest tables are built from reclaimed wood, which in this case means barn wood. Throughout the years I have acquired wood from at least six barns. Most of this wood was from barns that were deconstructed and no longer exist.

My favorite wood came from a barn that was restored by my friend Doug Saturno. The barn was built in 1864 by the Aldrich brothers near the present town of Dixie in what was then the Washington Territory. The Aldriches lived in small cabin that was no bigger than a living room. Their barn was huge by comparison.

During the barn restoration, Doug could not use the barn roof sheathing boards because they were full of nails (as the roof was shingled two or three times). The Aldriches originally cut this wood to cover the roof of their barn so that they would have something to attach their shingles to. The sheathing boards were a full inch thick, 12 to 18 inches wide and up to 22 feet long. It should go without saying, but you can’t get wood that size any more.

One of the great things is that I was able to acquire this wood. The second great thing is that Doug also restored the barn in a historically sensitive manner. I realize that not everyone is able to restore these old barns. It is sad to see them crumble to the ground or be torn down.

The Aldrich Barn was built out of old-growth red fir. One day I counted the growth rings on the end of one of the extremely wide boards. It appears that the fir trees were growing at the time of the Revolutionary War.

Curved circular saw marks are clearly visible on the surface of the boards. I measured these marks with a yard stick and determined that they were cut by a 6-foot-diameter saw blade. While steam-powered saws may have been available in the East in 1864, it seems certain that these boards were cut with a water-driven sawmill. Further adding to this assumption is the fact that Dry Creek flows not 100 yards from the barn’s location.

Over time, this wood has taken on a wonderful amber orange red hue. The shingle nails rusted and a black ring formed around each nail hole. When I finish this wood, I sand it smooth but endeavor to leave as many saw marks and as much character as is possible. I do not use any stain. I just varnish the wood, which enhances the qualities that the wood has taken on over time.

I can’t even begin to imagine what life was like when the Aldrich barn was built in 1864, 150 years ago, in the western United States. Walla Walla was officially established in 1862; it was the largest city in the Washington Territory, bigger than Seattle, Tacoma and Spokane; and the American Civil War would rage on another year.

Telegraph communication with Portland would not be established until 1870. I think that it is safe to say that it was difficult time and place to care for and raise a family!

I feel honored to be able to give a second life to this Aldrich Barn wood. I’m sure that they could never imagine that one day these boards would be made into tables and benches.

Using this wood for furniture conserves the energy that Mother Nature expended in “growing” it and that the Aldriches expended harvesting it and cutting it for their use. How green!

Dave Emigh is the owner of Shady Lawn Antiques and is a fifth generation ‘Walla Wallan’. He writes about antiques and life in the ‘Valley of the Two Wallas’ on his blog:


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