Deconstruction Part 1: Why Barn Burnin’s a Bust

“I have dangerous bones in my body.” – Vin Diesel

In case you didn’t already know this, barns are pretty much the best things. I have a big red bumper sticker that reads “I Brake for Barns!”, am a member of the National Barn Alliance, and have been chased down by numerous dogs in rural towns while photographing these beautiful, cobbled together old beasts after illegal U-turns at dusk.

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There she is. It would be great if she could stay there forever, but I’m grateful she’s not being torched.

So, last weekend I spent my time gutting one and began the process of ending its life. An existential crisis? Nope. Usually people unceremoniously knock these old wooden brontosauruses (brontosauri?) down and just set them on fire. To which I say oh heyll no.

My friend Paul Miller grew up in an Ohio farm town and has had the foresight to salvage as much as he can from the barns that all of his neighbors are now knocking down and replacing with metal pole barns. Of course, metal pole barns are easier and cheaper to maintain, but they have about 2% of the charm and are responsible taking down so many of these structures, which continue to enrich their surroundings even when they are crumbling. I think it’s fair to say that nation-wide, these old wooden barns are now officially endangered and nobody is going to build new ones any time soon. And by “any time soon” I mean ever. The least we can do is honor them by reusing the bones that have kept these beautiful behemoths standing for 80 and more years.

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Floor joists so sturdy you could have built a totem pole of elephants on top of them.

Fortuntately Paul, who has a successful furniture business that hinges on reuse of materials, agrees. And why wouldn’t he? Here are the reasons he (very enthusiastically) gave for spending his weekends getting shredded up and bruised while carefully dismantling these structures:

  • These materials are already incredibly beautiful. They don’t require staining and painting. They’ve done all the work themselves and are already as beautiful as they are going to get. Let the materials speak for themselves.
  • It’s an art form to deconstruct a building in the same way as it is to put it up. You can understand the construction and techniques and build a relationship with the materials that makes the work and end result more satisfying.
  • The unique notching and other methods of construction can give some great ideas on how to join furniture together. Instead of screwing and bolting things together, they can be doweled or connected in other ways using just the wood itself.
  • Live edges on wood, spalting, and other features that naturally show up in the wood tell the history of the tree like a map. New wood that is grown so quickly nowadays for building doesn’t have any of these lines or any character at all, really.
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The patina on this siding is the stuff of dreams.

Yeah, that’s all pretty compelling stuff. And not only does this kind of deconstruction keep from wasting incredible materials, it also produces products that will be admired and cared for, which will keep those items out of the landfills as well. People like to own things with a history. And who cares if places like Ikea produce products using “sustainable” practices. Let’s be clear, folks, consumption is what got us into this environmental mess. If the products fall apart and are too crappy to be reused,  they become trash, and then more furniture or merchandise must be manufactured to replace it that is also crap.

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Behold the Craftsman 12″ Single Bevel Sliding Compound Miter Saw and its makeshift table. Transporting some of this wood would be impossible if we couldn’t cut it down on site.

Before the trip, we picked up a sliding miter saw to cut down some of these massive slabs and beams on site so they could be transported and given another life as a dining room table or bench or shelving or whatever the next project will be for 7m Woodworking. The ability to slide the blade back and forth allows for longer and cleaner cuts, which was helpful as some of the lumber was way too long to fit in a truck. The joists we took down (the miter saw is sitting on them) were simply enormous. I used every bit of muscle in my legs, back, and possibly teeth moving some of them to the ground from a lofted area. Er, the struggle was slightly less for Paul but he has like 8 inches on me, so whatever. The rest of the work was primarily done with pry bars and hammers—simple and hands-on and slightly perilous work=the best work, right? Afterwards, Paul’s mom made us a feast that could feed a village and we threw our shoes in the washing machine, sat under blankets on recliners and dozed to football. I mean, what else do you want? So much better than picking up pressboard at the local big box.

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Stupidly pretty coffee table from reclaimed wood by 7m Woodworking.

For more on Paul’s work, check out the 7m Woodworking website HERE.

I’ll be posting more on the merits of deconstruction soon, so stay tuned. This blog post was originally about 3 billion words long. Restraint ain’t easy.

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