May 12, 2016

Barn Wood Walls In a Weekend?

DIY reclaimed wood walls are lining up everywhere, from bistros to bedrooms. Upcycled planks from old barns, school houses, crates and pallets make for a charming focal point or backdrop. Those TV Home Shows make these projects seem like a giant jigsaw puzzle that you can assemble in a weekend... maybe, but a lot more goes into scaling the wall. Armed with some planning basics and know-how, you too can get this look for a fraction of the cost of paying a contractor.

TOOLS AND SUPPLIES:  Quality reclaimed wood, cleaning supplies: borax, dish detergent, watering hose or power washer, insecticide, table saw (optional), measuring tape/ruler, pencil, drill, nails (length dependent on supporting backboard), hammer. Working space to spread out plus some patience!

The days of driving down a country road and happening upon a barn awaiting disassembly are few and far between, but by all means, ask the owner's permission to do some thrifty scrapping if you are lucky enough to find one.  

Often professional pickers recycle these sites quickly for resale. So when shopping for reclaimed wood, ask questions. A reputable reseller should be able to provide you with your wood's humble beginnings vs. a previous life as a chemical stack pallet. Our supply came from a recycler outside of Philadelphia and cost about $100 for what they called a "scrap pack" comprised of long wall and flooring odds and ends. Also be careful when selecting colors: that charming, chippy red paint may contain lead. Portable test kits can swab for lead presence. Your best bet is to select solid unpainted planks with richly aged natural wood tones as you can enhance the colors with paint before or after you install your wood wall.

Skip this step and you can literally trash your project. Those charming knot holes in your wood might be bug condos, so each board needs to be thoroughly cleaned. There are many recommendations online regarding how to go about this, but here's the steps we used: 
1) On a sunny day, lay out all the wood on a hard-scaped location (like a driveway) and hose both sides--if you power wash, just be careful and start on the lowest setting so you don't strip your aged wood's patina. 
2) To remove mold, mildew and general dirt, mix a cup of borax powder (laundry--the 20 mule stuff) and a bit of dish detergent into a full bucket of warm water.  Although we are not experts, borax is supposed to permanently draw out any crawling squatters from the wood, although a professional exterminator laughed at this...but at the very least it will help get it clean. 
3) With a long handled brush, scrub both sides well, hose and allow to dry completely. 

If you're not ready to use the wood immediately, it's important to store it in a dry area.  We didn't, which takes us to the final prep step:  insect removal.  We stacked our wood after cleaning it, but it did get a bit damp before we got to using it. Covered and still looking clean, we skipped spraying for bugs only to frantically rip down our first nailed board as the ants went marching. You are hunting termites and ants at a minimum, so read the insecticide label of your chosen product.  We sprayed each board, both sides, and once again allowed them to completely dry in the sun and kept them outside for a few days. (Ideally, if you purchased reclaimed wood, it's already been kiln dried which removes pests, but we errored on vigilance.) 

Get passed this point, you are on your way to a very stylin' wall!

Safety first:  glasses, masks and gloves. Get some basic wall measurements down on paper to guide the lengths of your board cuts. As you can see in the blank wall photo, our dimensions were pretty consistent. When planning your design, you may choose an irregular, random pattern--great if you want an organic chunky wood wall look, and it doesn't necessarily require a lot of trimming.

If you want a more linear matchy look--we did, as our wood had many irregularities plus broken tongue and groove, then you'll want to square up each piece.  This way all the edges butt up tight against each other on the wall. Examine your wood and be careful to remove any hidden nails embedded in your boards before trimming.  We used a table saw to plane, creating straight horizontal and vertical edges. Also, save some time by planing your project's entire wood supply, as well as sorting your boards into piles of like sizes.

We had a drawing, and knew exactly which boards would go where.  It was even color coded. All that went right out the window after the placement of the first board. The wood decided for us where it would go on the wall, and here's a few things to be mindful of:  

  • Know your frame.  Our wall is hollow, had an existing mantle and fireplace with two studs running up the middle and one on each side, so four studs total.  We measured and used those studs for support and created a 4 hole template out of scrap wood...why? (and they don't tell you this on TV)... aged barn wood is notoriously brittle. By predrilling holes into the wood before hammering them into the wall, you gain the advantage of accurate and secure nail placement without splitting your boards.
  • If you're using a more solid substrate backdrop (such as cinder block) you'll need to align furring strips in order to create grip for your nailed boards. Again, create a template--a simple guide that helps mark hole placement for your boards, which will save time and expletives.  
    Create a template to mark and predrill holes
  • A tip on nails:  To create a rustic look, paint the heads black or bronze. We wanted the look of antique cut nails until we priced them.  So one night, black permanent marker in hand plus a glass or three of wine, I painted the heads of ~600 nails while watching Scandal.  Instant vintage, gladiators!
We then started arranging and nailing the boards on the wall, one row at time, being mindful of electrical or other buried wall lines. Our placement for each board was guided by the random look we wanted which actually needed some thought to accomplish.  We kept the boards horizontal for each row as well as the same height, but didn't worry about lengths, just making sure we had pleasing coverage without short, stubby ends.  For some rows we used one large board next to two stacked boards running horizontal.  No rules here, which led to a great outcome.

You may have some gaps where your background substrate shows through--use some matching paint or, like we did, a marker to fill in those lines. We also decided that the edges would look good painted the same color as the wall, so if you have exposed ends, this is a quick solution to blend it all together.  We then used various shades of watered-down white and beige paint to dry brush some highlights on the darker wood. 

Start to finish, our reclaimed barn wood wall took about 4 full days:  1 to shop, 1 to clean, and 2 or so to install. Hopefully these real life steps will cut down on your time.  Enjoy!

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