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Using Reclaimed Barn Wood to build Harvest Tables…

October 31, 2011

When I begin constructing a table, I feel like I am working on a three-dimensional puzzle.  The thing is that I am in command of the puzzle all of the way from the selection of the materials, to making/cutting each individual piece, to putting the puzzle together.

a small 'davemade' table constructed from 1864 Aldrich Barn Wood

An individual could start with reclaimed wood and machine it until each piece is true, square, and identical.  The wood would then be easier to work with but it would lose much or all of the character it had developed.  I opt for a “lighter” touch and like to preserve as many saw (and other character) marks as possible.

My hope is that this blog post will provide you with an insight and an appreciation for what it takes to build furniture from reclaimed wood.  Perhaps it might even inspire a few of you to build something with reclaimed wood… the more that we all build, the more wood that we can reclaim.

If you have been following my blog, you know that some of my favorite wood is old growth red fir, that came from the 1864 Aldrich Barn in south-eastern Washington. When I’m working with it, I can imagine the men that cut, handled and nailed it over 145 years ago.  (I am however having some difficulty visualizing how they would get a plank that is over 15 inches wide and 22 feet long, up onto the roof of the barn.)

Project Design

The first Harvest Table design consideration is the overall size of the table.  Another design consideration is scale of the piece.  For example, bigger or more “burley”  legs (as customer Creagh called them) are more appropriate with a larger table.

I have several barn wood options (and prices) and they range from quite flat 12 inch wide boards, to thick boards, to wider boards with more defects.  Some customers prefer a more rustic look with boards that have a live edge (with bark on it).  Others prefer a cleaner almost Arts &  Crafts/Mission look with straight lines and edges.

Wood Selection

Design considerations influence which of my boards I select to build a table.  I begin selecting wood for each new piece of furniture based upon my interpretation of the client’s design preferences.

Conservation of materials is also one of my major considerations.  For example I won’t cut a 10 foot long board down for a six-foot long table.  Further I would rather not rip wide boards down to a narrower width.

When I cut and store my rough stock, I mark each board.  Then I have the option to match planks cut from the same board.  Matching planks for consistent size, color and texture results in a more coherent appearance.

For example, a recent table top required three boards to reach the desired width.  Because I had marked my boards, I was able to select two planks that were cut from the same board.  Having consistent color and texture on the outside two boards gave the table top a coherent appearance.

I’ve often found that the boards with big blemishes or defects will have the most character when they are finished.  Therefore I don’t immediately discard a blemished plank from consideration for a project.

rough reclaimed barn wood selected for use in building a table - note the cracks, knot holes and nails

Working With Reclaimed Wood

Once I have selected the table wood, I give both sides of each board a quick rough sanding with 60 to 80 grit sand paper.  I often use a portable belt sander but I used a random orbital sander on a recent table.  I think that I actually prefer the random orbital sander because it felt like I had more control.  This step is just to knock off some of the dirt and clean the board enough that I can see what I am dealing with.

The next step is to stabilize the boards by repairing any defects in the wood.  First I clean the dirt out of the cracks that I intend to glue.  I use either a tooth-brush sized wire brush, a thin springy steel pallet knife (such as one used for oil/acrylic painting) and/or a high-powered shop vacuum.

Next I glue the major cracks and/or splits in each board.  I have had good luck using a high quality two-part epoxy for this purpose.  I use duct tape to cover each crack on the face of the board.  This step prevents the epoxy from flowing right through the board.  Then I turn the board over and fill each crack with epoxy from what will be the bottom of the tabletop.

Once the first application of epoxy hardens in the crack, it takes a second application to fill the cracks.  I have never had good luck trying to fill a crack in one application – the epoxy bulges, pushes out the duct tape, and then  leaks right through.  It is necessary to use wood clamps to either keep the boards flat and/or to pull the cracks together during this gluing process.

A 15" wide board during gluing and clamping (to repair cracks) - the blue tape marks the places to glue. This is the exact same wood pictured above.

Many boards also have some minor cracks or splits in them.  Weldwood Liquid Hide Glue works well for gluing these cracks and any glue that squeezes out (and is not totally removed) does not affect the final finish.

Barn Wood Harvest Table Construction

There are many different joint designs and construction techniques that can be used in working with Barn Wood.  I am not going to detail these designs.  I will say that I first build the entire bottom of the table.  This includes the legs, structural rails and decorative skirts.

It is very difficult to cut entirely accurate joints in Reclaimed wood, due to the nature of old used wood.  Each board is often not exactly the same dimensions and they are often warped or twisted.  Therefore care must be taken not to glue, clamp and screw warps and twists into the table leg frame.  Racks and/or Twists will not pull out of the leg frame and later you will still have a warped frame – so be careful not to over-clamp twists into your leg frame.

The last step in my Harvest Table construction is to attach the top boards.  Once the top boards are attached, I start flattening the table top.  Each top is different but I often start with a hand plane.  Then I use a portable hand belt sander and finally I use a random orbital sander to obtain a final smooth finish.  Apply a finish of your preference.

The character and the beauty of a finished tabletop - this is the exact same wood shown in the two photographs above. Note that I retained as many of the original saw marks as possible.

Final Thoughts

I hope that these ideas give you a sense of the nature of working with reclaimed wood.  It takes more work to use reclaimed wood than “new” wood and more work than is readily apparent.  Your final product is, however, a one-of-a-kind piece that you can take pride in building and/or owning.

NOTE:  Blair & Creagh, yes, the bottom three photos are of your table during construction.

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60 Comments leave one →
  1. JACK ELLIS permalink
    October 31, 2011 8:53 pm

    Dave; It seems to me that you have a good article here for one of the “Woodworking” magazines. A bit of editing to make it magazine like would be all that is needed. Then sell it to a good magazine publisher – hah.

    But whatever you do with is it really is a great article.

    JACK

  2. Doug Ball permalink
    December 14, 2011 9:01 am

    Dave:
    Wonderful story….nice and personal.
    I showed it to my wife and the finished product is exactly what she’s looking to get for our dining room.
    I live in Ontario, Canada, and have a friend who has offered me wood from his old barn. Can’t wait to get started on it.
    Thank you for the inspiration !!!!
    Regards
    Doug

  3. December 14, 2011 10:36 am

    Doug,
    Thanks for the kind comments. I’m happy to hear that some more barn wood will be put to good use… Dave

  4. Brian Fenwick permalink
    January 18, 2012 9:51 pm

    Dave, What did you use to join these particular boards for the top?? I have used glue and dowels on my previous project but it didn’t turn out the way I wanted. I’m thinking about using a pocket-hole jig for my kitchen table but if I screw it up, my wife will kill me. Any ideas??
    ~Brian
    P.S. Great article!

    • January 19, 2012 9:07 pm

      Brian,
      I actually don’t edge join my barn wood table top boards together. I just cut as straight of an edge as possible on each board. Then I butt them together and screw them to the table. I build “new” 2 x 2′s into the table frame work so that I have some thing to screw through. I screw up through the table frame into the bottom of the top boards. (I have seen other tables where the screw heads are visible and the tops are screwed to the base.) I drill oversize holes through the 2 x 2′s so that the table top boards can expand and contract through the seasons. I also varnish both the top and bottom of the table top boards to minimize the moisture movement in the wood. I hope that this helps. Dave

  5. Jon-Marc permalink
    January 27, 2012 10:35 pm

    Thanks for the article. I’ve wanted to do a project like this for some time. Do you think you could tell me what kind of finish you put on the table. Is it just a matte varnish? Thanks again. J-M

    • January 28, 2012 10:16 am

      When I first started building building furniture from reclaimed wood, I used a semi-gloss finish. Now I prefer to use a matte or satin sheen. I have used varnish, spar varnish (for outside pieces – even if they are not directly in the weather) and polyurethane…

  6. February 10, 2012 12:18 pm

    Hi Dave ! You have done a great job. I think I just found my next project. Thanks for sharing this.

    • February 10, 2012 1:45 pm

      Frank,
      Thanks for the nice comment – my hope is that many tables will be built and therefore the old wood will be preserved and used. Check in on my blog from time-to-time… I’ve got a couple of furniture projects in mind – Dave

  7. Cliff permalink
    February 21, 2012 7:30 am

    Hi Dave, great article. I just purchased some 120 year old barn wood (Southern Ontario), mostly Pine and what I think is hemlock floor boards, which I plan to use as the table top. They are about 2″ thick, 15 – 18″ wide and 20′ long. I plan on making a 9 foot trestle table, using 2 10×10 beams as pedestal legs. I cut my table top pieces yesterday and would like to maintain the ‘rustic look’ as much as possible. I’ve seen reclaimed tables that are completely smooth on top (boardroom style) and that’s not what i want. The boards for the most part are in good shape, there’s cracks of course, but nothing too bad. My first question is, do you think I still need to fill all the blemishes and cracks with epoxy and/or glue? Secondly, as Brian mentioned above, I was thinking of attaching them with glue and dowels, just to have a more clean connection between boards on the top, what are you thoughts on this? Do you not connect the boards on top because of expansion and contraction?
    Thanks Dave.

    • February 21, 2012 8:11 am

      Cliff,
      I epoxy the top boards when they have great long cracks or problems that compromise the strength of the board. Although I like the 2″ thick boards, I generally use siding or roof sheathing boards that 1″ thick – the roof boards (sheathing) that the shingles were nailed to require the most epoxy repair – but they have great nail holes… your 2″ boards probably require no gluing. I have never edge glued or attached the top boards together – then they can expand and contract – further a “farmer” never would have used any glue – my decision is aesthetic – Dave

    • Sam Tewelde permalink
      March 22, 2012 8:00 pm

      Hi Cliff,

      I also live in southern ontario. i was wondering if you had any tips for where i can find old barn wood. any advice you can give would be great….great article Dave.

      • john a brinkman permalink
        May 13, 2012 5:03 pm

        have lots in havelock old barn wood etc. 705 928 4169

  8. February 26, 2012 8:27 pm

    Love, Love, Love, this! I’m trying to understand how to use old barn wood to make our dining room table, and this has helped a bunch. I will definitely be referring to this site often. Thanks again!

  9. March 12, 2012 9:29 am

    Do you use epoxy to fix long cracks because it is stronger than wood glue? I am just starting a project with old barn wood and some boards have huge cracks I need to fix.

    • March 12, 2012 7:21 pm

      I have found that epoxy is good for filling or bridging gaps in split wood. It also creates a dark line that is an unobtrusive when finish is applied over it.
      Dave

  10. Denise Stokes permalink
    March 30, 2012 4:22 am

    Dave I thoroughly enjoyed this post. What I really want to know is do you sell your furniture.

    • March 30, 2012 9:22 am

      Denise,
      I do sell my furniture through my store, Shady Lawn Antiques, in Walla Walla. I haven’t shipped any pieces.
      Dave

  11. Tyler permalink
    March 31, 2012 6:38 am

    Wow! Great work! The only thing I don’t understand is how you flatten the top. You said you use handplanes and an orbital sander. If you do how keep the markings during the flattening process?

    • March 31, 2012 11:15 am

      Tyler,
      I don’t try to make the table tops ‘dead flat’. I just make the surface level so that plates, etc. don’t rock when you set them on the table top. I actually use a plate with a flat bottom (check the bottom of the plate to make sure it is level by putting the plate on a glass surface) to check the table top.
      Dave

  12. Judith Horsley permalink
    May 3, 2012 12:26 am

    Does anyone need reclaimed wood from two old old barns of weathered wood located in Fenelon Falls, Ontario, Canada. Must take down barns immediately and pay us little. Info@HorsleyStringEnsemble.com

    • greg permalink
      November 15, 2012 1:57 pm

      do you have any of the barn beams and or boards left?

      • November 16, 2012 1:32 pm

        I have enough boards to build more tables. However at this point in time I don’t have enough to sell…
        Dave

      • Greg permalink
        November 16, 2012 4:04 pm

        Ok I will take them for free.

  13. jim marsh permalink
    August 10, 2012 11:00 pm

    Do you put color in your epoxy? I bought a 90 year old barn i used to buck hay in when i was a kid. took me 4 months to clean all the barn wood. My first project is to build a harvest table. It’s mostly fir and some cedar. The rest of the wood will go in my basement for an old western bar look.

    • August 13, 2012 12:31 pm

      I don’t color the epoxy… however when a light source is lower than the table top you can see light through the epoxy. The rest of the time it appears to be dark/black – color the epoxy if you like.
      Dave

  14. Jaime permalink
    August 22, 2012 2:55 pm

    Hello,
    I was wondering what finish you used on your table?

    • August 22, 2012 8:47 pm

      Jaime,
      Thanks for reading the post. I use either a satin varnish or satin varathane. I like the varnish option a lot but it is hard to locate in Walla Walla. Therefore I have used the satin varathane almost exclusively.

      • John A. Brinkman permalink
        August 25, 2012 11:15 am

        we dismantle barns can supply wide bds for tables etc. thanks john

  15. D. Hoppe permalink
    December 3, 2012 6:09 am

    Dave at Shady Lawn Antiques,

    My wife & I absolutely love the tone & finish of your table (with diagonal board on top).

    I acquired some old barn timbers from my brother’s barn after he died of cancer. I recently had planks sawn from these timbers & now want to build a rustic table for our daughter. It will have special meaning to our family because of its sentimental value.

    Bottom line — What shade of stain or varnish, etc. did you use to get below light-brown honey tone?

    Thank you in advance for your help!

    Dave in Midland, Michigan

    • December 3, 2012 10:07 am

      I just use a satin varathane… I don’t use stain – the aged patina of the wood just comes through. I also do a trial sample finish on cut off pieces of the wood that I used to build the table I think that I outlined my finishing technique in a previous comment. The brush-on varathane has a slightly amber tone – the wipe-on variety is clear.
      Dave

  16. katie permalink
    December 4, 2012 10:20 pm

    Beautiful table. We have some barnwood ready to make into a 9 foot dining room table. Do you have any pictures of the base prior to the top being put on? I was also wondering what type of screws you used in this project?
    Katie

    • December 5, 2012 8:56 pm

      Katie,
      I’m sorry that I don’t have any pictures of the base… each one is different depending upon the size and style of the legs that I use. I use slot headed wood screws.
      Dave

  17. Rick Scott permalink
    December 6, 2012 11:57 am

    Dave,
    I removed side boards from our family farm in Tennessee and they have very old and weathered red paint. I was thinking about building some tables for my wife and she really wants to keep the red paint. Not sure but I believe the wood to be oak. Do you have any suggestions?

    Rick

    • December 9, 2012 11:14 pm

      Rick,
      I have “GLUED” (more like sealed) paint onto boards with clear satin varathane. I have both brushed it on and sprayed it on… just depends. The key is to get the wood clean first – scrub with TSP in water, rinse, let dry throughly, lightly sand and then apply the varathane. If the paint is really loose do this before you build the tables, otherwise it is your choice.
      Dave

  18. Ron Smith permalink
    June 2, 2013 4:12 am

    I am using reclaimed barn wood to build my office desk and cabinetry. Just installed the desktop and starting to make the doors. Wanted to see how to stabilize the cracks and did a Google search and found your article. Looks like I won the lottery – greatly appreciate you sharing this information with others.

    Ron

    • June 2, 2013 7:03 pm

      Ron,
      Thanks for the kind comments. I hope that your project turns out well.
      Dave

  19. Katie permalink
    July 22, 2013 7:50 am

    Hi there

    Thanks for this — just wondering how you address the bows and slight warping in the wood when attaching the table top. We have been given a number of barn boards from a 100 year old bison barn, and some are a bit warped. I have read elsewhere to plane them, but I do not want to damage or take away from the rustic look of the boards. Would you suggest attaching them ‘as is’ and embracing the unlevel look?

    Any advice would be wonderful!
    Thanks again

    • August 23, 2013 8:36 pm

      I would try to screw the boards down first and see what happens. Sometimes the warps will pull out. I try to avoid planing the boards.

  20. John Druzina permalink
    October 13, 2013 5:29 pm

    Dave,

    Nice work. What type of stain did you use
    for the table?

    Thanks
    John

    • October 18, 2013 7:26 pm

      John, I don’t use any stain. I just use: true varnish, spar varnish or varathane depending upon where the table will be used and the customer’s preferences. The finishes give the wood a slight amber color, but what you are seeing is the color of a 100 years plus of exposure to the elements. Dave

  21. Bruce permalink
    November 19, 2013 8:59 pm

    How long does it take for epoxy to dry and what kind do you use? I am using some old barn wood I think cedar and it has a good bit of holes.

    • November 30, 2013 4:36 pm

      I use System Three epoxy (out of Seattle). They have three different hardeners with different hardening times. In any case I wait 24 hours for complete hardening before sanding any excess off.

  22. Matt permalink
    December 16, 2013 8:13 pm

    Really enjoyed the article and gettin ready to do the same. Question about your epoxy from three systems, is it the quick cure system or something different?

    • January 30, 2014 8:37 pm

      My workshop is a mile away from my computer. I keep forgetting to look at the epoxy, however it is not the quick cure. I have used some quick cure and it doesn’t sand out the same way that their standard two part system does. I hope this helps. Dave

  23. David permalink
    January 21, 2014 3:37 pm

    I’m making a desk out of reclaimed wood and considering how to finish the top. The boards are 2″ thick and served as flooring for over 150 years. After running them through a friends table top planer (to remove the worst of the wear) I’m left with a textured and character rich board. I’m making a working desk, so I want the surface to be pretty smooth. I’m hearing from many that I should do an epoxy coat on the whole top to attain the desired smooth top which is resistant to wear (from pens, etc.). This will fill in the dents and dings and cracks. The wood itself is red spruce. Is there anything contrary you would recommend, or specific details to keep in mind during the process?

    Thanks in advance!

    • January 30, 2014 8:33 pm

      Personally I would sand the table top as smooth and level as I would like it. Then I would varnish the top and entire desk with three coats. Sand lightly between coats with ~150 grit sandpaper. Then I would put a desk blotter/cover, cardboard, or plexiglass on the desk when I use it. In my mind a resin or epoxy finish detracts from the beauty and character of reclaimed wood. Dave

  24. March 25, 2014 5:13 am

    I love using reclaimed barn wood for my DIY projects too

  25. Wade Cranfield permalink
    April 12, 2014 5:47 pm

    I would love to see a photo of your base without the top boards on…… any chance you have any?

    • April 13, 2014 9:03 pm

      Wade,
      Sorry I don’t have any pictures of the table bases without a top. Dave

  26. Wade Cranfield permalink
    April 12, 2014 6:17 pm

    My Dad and I are wanting to build a basic barn board table and maybe some benches for our hand hewn oak beam cabin, we love the character of your boards and the look of your table and the very basic style you have used. My Dad is a staining and varnishing God but we are very basic in the carpentry department but want to give it a try. Any insight would be hugely appreciated…

    • April 13, 2014 9:08 pm

      Wade,
      I’ve written several posts on reclaimed wood/harvest table construction. Please scroll through my posts. My blog is about encouraging the use of reclaimed wood. I would rather write about how to use reclaimed wood than describe how to build a table. My advice is to study two or three how to build a table articles and combine the knowledge together. Dave

  27. Wade Cranfield permalink
    April 15, 2014 3:53 am

    o.k. thank you….

  28. Mark permalink
    May 11, 2014 3:12 pm

    Hey Dave,
    I have been making harvest Tables and benchs as well as Adarondak Chairs and Porch gliders ect… out of Old Barn Wood for many years. I Justb recently aquired a 150 year old barn that I salvaged. It is Solid Oak and True dimentional. I live in Northeast Oklahoma. If any onje needs any old barn wood. I have about 10,500 Linial Board feet. You can reach me at (918) 964-3487. Thanks Dave.
    PS Your advice about working with old reclaimed wood is right on. I agree with all of it and used these techniques my self and thay do work. One can never learn enough about working withn wood
    Thanks again
    Mark

  29. Kris permalink
    June 4, 2014 6:12 am

    Hey Dave,

    Tables look great. Quick question on wood movement, in one of your answers you said you drill oversize holes in the 2×2′s. Can you elaborate. Anything else you do to compensate for wood movement (other than sealing the wood). The reason i ask is because i have built a few nice tables out of barn board and they all shrink and leave gaps. Thanks in advance.

    • June 5, 2014 9:03 pm

      Kris,
      Shrinkage means that the wood was more moist when/where you built your tables than where it was when the wood shrunk. I season my barn-wood by stickering it and leaving it in the summer sun. Before the first fall rain I store it in an unheated building for at least a year. Then I move the wood into my (heated) shop for several weeks before I use it. When I work with the wood, I sand/plane/etc the same amount of wood from the top and the bottom. This exposes the same amount of “fresh” wood to the air on both sides of the wood. During the finishing process all surfaces of the wood get at least two coats of varnish.
      Fix your tables by loosening the screws, enlarge the holes if necessary so that you can pull the boards back together, and then tighten them down. Good luck , Dave

  30. Brenda J permalink
    July 4, 2014 3:39 pm

    hi dave…I live in alberta canda and we are building a kitchen table from reclaimed wood (barn is about early 1900′s)…anyways I want to put a smooth coat of something on the top of it so what do I use???
    Thank you so much for your knowedge and time
    Brenda

    • July 7, 2014 4:50 pm

      Hi Brenda,
      I use satin varnish or polyurethane on my tables. You can apply either over danish oil once it has completed dried. It will maintain a sheen longer than danish oil. Danish oil is fine as long as you build up 3-4 coats. Then it needs another fresh coat when it looks dry – or about once a year. Dave

  31. Brenda J permalink
    July 4, 2014 3:45 pm

    Hi Dave
    another question….how do we cover or make the fresh cuts look like the rest of the table? we stain the pieces with Danish oil but the cut ends are so bright and don’t blend well with the old table???
    thank you again

    • July 7, 2014 4:59 pm

      Brenda, I try to hide the fresh cuts when ever I can… turn the boards so the cuts are not visible. I generally don’t worry about the fresh cuts that can’t be hidden such as on the ends of the table top boards. I have occasionally used a light brown stain on fresh cuts to minimize the difference. I have seen a reference to using a stain made from vinegar and metal such as steel wool or nails to color end grain. You will have to sand the finish off of your ‘fresh cuts’ to use a stain. Perhaps you find the reference on the internet. If you do, please post your results in this comments section. Dave

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