Using Reclaimed Barn Wood to build Harvest Tables…
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.
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.)
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.