New Life for an Old Barn
by April Shafer, Plymouth, IN
Old barns, we love them. Every time we visit a farm we take the opportunity to admire the construction and design of the barn. No two barns are alike, they’re almost like people, each with their own personality. When we see an old barn that has fallen into ruin or that has been torn down to put up a new pole barn or other building, it just about breaks our hearts. So when we started talking about what kind of buildings we wanted on our twenty-three acres (there were none) my husband, Brian, and I decided we wanted to try to find an old post and beam barn to dismantle and rebuild instead of a pricey, new-fangled pole barn which we couldn’t afford.
There were three criteria that we wanted to go by when we started looking:
- the barn had to be fairly close to our place
- it had to be in good shape
- we didn’t want to have to haul everything away (foundation, shingles, etc.)
We were confident that the first two could be met because there are plenty of good, unused, old barns in our part of northern Indiana, but the third might be hard because most people would probably want everything removed. We thought we could give in on this a little.
Our main source of search centered on local papers. We had occasionally seen ads for “barns to be torn down” in the past so we were praying we would find one easily. If this source didn’t pan out we were going to place a “wanted” ad for one, as well as physically looking for a barn in our area. Fortune smiled on us. Two weeks after our search began, at the beginning of June 1993, we saw an ad in our local bargain paper for an old barn to be torn down. We called and found out the barn was about twenty-five miles from us, so we went and looked at it. The barn was a 28’x54′ gambrel style, that consisted of four bays or five bents (walls) with a drive-thru alley that allowed hay loading into the loft directly from the alley. It seemed sound. The roof was still intact so we knew the roof beams wouldn’t be rotten. The sill beams were rotten but we felt we could work around this because all the uprights were pretty sound. I guess I should interject at this time to tell you that Brian is a carpenter with twenty-five years experience in commercial as well as residential carpentry. He has built three log cabins from scratch and torn down other old barns with his brother. We pretty much knew what we were getting into, so I caution anyone before they take on this big of a project to please attempt this only if you have experience or find an experienced person to help you.
We really liked the barn and felt it was big enough for just about anything we would want to do with it. We talked with Bruce (the owner) about what he expected from us and told him what we could do. Luckily it was okay with him if we left the shingle roofing and scrap wood there, as long as we cleaned everything up and put it into the foundation when we were through. We explained that we would be bringing our small tractor to aid us in loading the beams on our trailer and we would use that to push all the trash into the foundation when we were done as well as picking up after working each day. The hayloft was full of junk and we didn’t want to have to haul all of this away so Bruce said he would bring in a dumpster and he and his family would clean the loft.
We also told him that we could only work on weekends and that it might take all summer to finish the job and that was okay with him. We then gave him $50 as a good faith gesture (he was giving the barn away) and told him we would start in two weeks.
Our first step was to take pictures from as many different angles as we could get. It is very important to take good pictures through the whole process of dismantling because we found out later, even though we marked beams and drew up blueprints, we relied heavily on the pictures for our reconstruction. The next step was to take off all the siding, trying to save as much as we could. We then helped Bruce and his family to clean the loft. It was easy to do since all the siding was off, to throw it through the wall into the dumpster which was placed at the end of the barn.
Then it was time for Brian to take off the roof. I don’t like heights so we hired a neighbor boy to help. We laid down tarps where we could catch nails and shingles and it was my job to clean up all the pieces that missed. We tried very hard during the whole deconstruction to keep the sight picked up and clean. This did take a lot of extra time but it kept good relations going – respect for the owner’s property can go a long way.
Next to come off was the loft floor boards, then it was time to mark each beam and diagonal of each bent. We labeled each bent with a letter – A, B, C, D, E – and each beam had a number. I made a drawing of each bent with the same numbers on the beams. Here’s a helpful hint: mark your beams with paint. We used a wax carpenter’s pencil and by the time we got around to rebuilding the barn, very few marks were left.
We then brought in a truck crane to help take apart the bents. We rented it from a local equipment rental and Brian’s brother, who has an operator’s license, ran it for us.
Brian used a short, solid 1″ steel rod to pound the pegs, that hold the beams together, out backwards. Then he attached the straps to the upper roof beams and lifted them from the structure. We laid each bent down with the help of the crane and disassembled them.
We took the barn down opposite from the direction we would rebuild it and stacked the pieces of each bent in separate piles at our place. You need to give this step of the process a lot of thought and documentation, with the idea of how you are going to rebuild your barn foremost in your mind – that way if you don’t get to rebuild it right away (like us) the parts won’t get mixed up.
We stacked the different sections of the barn, the roof rafters, siding, etc., on a dry hill on our farm, near to where we planned to rebuild the barn. We put down a layer of tin (old roofing from some other salvage job) then stacked the wood on blocks on top of the tin. In after thought we should have put thin strips of wood between each layer of beams so that air could circulate, for we did have some rot. The posts that were questionable to begin with we ended up having to replace.
The whole deconstruction took from June till September, working only on weekends. We thought we would rebuild the barn the following year but it ended up taking us four years to save up enough money for the foundation and roofing materials. In the meantime I drew up the floor plans for our “new” barn, gleaning information from other horse farmers, looking at their barn layouts and adapting it to our needs. I think I changed the plans at least five times before I came up with my current plans.
We also spent the time to gather replacement beams and siding from other barns that were being torn down in our area.
In Part II of our story I’ll tell you of the design, reconstruction, and remodeling of our barn that started in the Fall of 1997.
Hi SFJ staff,
We just received the latest issue of SFJ today and after putting up another strand of HI-Tensile wire on the pasture we are fencing off, doing chores, feeding our boys, checking their homework, and putting them to bed, I finally was able to sit down to read some of it. It struck me at that moment that we have been subscribing and contributing to this wonderful publication for over ten years! “Time sure flies when you’re having fun” as the saying goes. We started getting your magazine in 1989.
We didn’t have a farm at that time, just a dream… We now have a 23 acre farm, a small flock of chickens, a Guernsey cow (and calves for beef), four Suffolk draft horses, an old barn made new (still working on it, that’s why I haven’t sent in a follow-up to my story New Life For An Old Barn), a producing woodlot that we log with our horses (that I trained using your round pen training method), pastures, and a garden. I try to convince myself that we are farming… and I guess we are, we produce our own beef, milk, eggs, and vegetables (when I can keep up with it). We just enjoy it so much that sometimes it seems that it can’t be farming… that’s drudge-work, isn’t it? (Hear me chuckling?)
I just wanted to thank you for all you have done for us, even though you are not aware of it. The letters, articles, and encouragement have all been used to our benefit. When I look around at our place it amazes me how many things I do and the way I do it were affected by what I read in the SFJ. Just a side note for Lynn and Kristi: We are taking our team of Suffolk mares to the Horse Progress Days. If I get a chance I would love to say hello…
Thanks once again, from the top and bottom of my heart!