Nestled in a barn between the pastures of Onslow Mountain, Steve and Rose Clark are storing pieces of Nova Scotia’s past.

The weather-worn grey siding is from a collapsed barn in Tatamagouche. The beat-up barn door is from a dairy farm that operated in the 1920s, and heavy, hand-hewn beams of a barn raised close to 200 years ago.

Pinterest is full of tutorials on how to make your own barn board by distressing new pine boards, but the Clarks collect, sort, and sell the real thing.

What’s commonly called “barn board” is actually “old-growth lumber.” Century-old trees didn’t get as much sunlight since they grew in thick clusters. Because the trees grew more slowly, their annual rings were tightly spaced and the wood tended to be harder.

“You see so much more character in old-growth lumber—the rings, the grain, the patina,” says Rose. “We’re looking at wood that’s been through a lot—and once it’s gone, it’s gone for good.”

The Maitland couple has made many connections across the Maritimes, so people often reach out to them if they have old wood they’re looking to offload.

“We hear from people who have an old building that’s in disrepair or they can no longer maintain it,” says Rose. “Of course, those are definitely few and far between. Who even owns a barn anymore?”

Usually the calls start trickling in after a big storm. High winds will knock down walls or cave in a roof, and an old building just isn’t stable anymore. There are negotiations to purchase the structure, and a demo crew is sent in to tear it down.

Chunk by chunk, the entire building makes its way to one of the Clarks’ lumber storage facilities. Once it’s trucked in, Steve can start examining the wood and sorting it into categories.

“Grey boards” are the ones from the exterior of a building, weathered grey from decades of sun, wind and rain. “Brown boards” are interior boards or boards that haven’t been weathered grey. Then there are the thicker floorboards and hand-hewn beams, many of which have distinctive marks made by an “adze” tool used to carve its edges.

Some of the barn board—the more manageable pieces—is on display in the Clarks’ downtown Truro shop, Phillips and Chestnut Victorian Salvage & Decor. The rest can be viewed by appointment only at their storage barn.

Rose and Steve purchased the business (formerly called Onslow Historic Lumber) in 2012 from Rose’s brother, who had been selling barn board long before it was “trendy.”

“It was this vision he had. He loves history, and it was in his heart to save these tangile, architectural pieces of our history,” says Rose.

Some of their customers purchase pieces to restore their older homes and maintain their historical accuracy. It’s not like you can buy a 1920s window frame or fireplace mantle at the local home improvement store.

Other customers, especially those with newer homes, purchase barn board for building sliding doors, farmhouse-style dining tables, or rustic wall art.

Pieces-of-the-past3
Rob MacCormack’s creations reveal the authentic beauty of reclaimed barn board.

“We find a lot of our customers are do-it-yourselfers, but others don’t want to go the full gamut, so we started offering pieces that have already been planed,” says Steve.

You might think planing would scrape away the “goodness” of that old wood, but Steve says it can actually bring out the vintage saw marks and highlights the grain.

He also recommends brushing barn board with ToughCoat (a matte-finish water-based polyurethane) to protect the finish and make it easier to clean. Another option is brushing it with hemp oil to deepen the colour, make the wood water resistant and protect it from drying out. Those are just a few of the natural home decor products he and Rose sell at Phillips and Chestnut, like the old-fashioned square-cut nails, made using machinery that’s nearly 200 years old.

While Rose and Steve don’t sell furniture or decor made from barn board, they do refer customers to local carpenters who take custom orders.

One of them is Bible Hill engineer Rob MacCormack, who never imagined he’d be thought of as a carpenter. His barn board journey started less than two years ago when he moved into a new office.

“I didn’t want to sit at a particle-board desk every day, so I thought ‘I’m going to make my own,’” recalls MacCormack. “I liked the beauty and the character of old wood, and one desk turned into project after project.”

While he never planned on making anything to sell, he keeps getting asked to build custom pieces for customers. He’s used barn wood to build coffee tables, dining tables, desks, beds, mantles and even a large bar-top for his gym.

He also uses his engineering background to create intricate mosaics — cutting barn board into dozens of tiny shapes and fitting them together in geometric patterns. Sometimes the barn board has a touch of original colour, and other times MacCormack mixes natural pigments (Miss Mustard Seed’s Milk Paint) with water to tint the barn boards without obscuring their details.

It isn’t always easy, and he says sometimes homeowners are nervous about working with it because of “fear of the unknown.” The wood is thicker, denser, and not usually “even,” like new lumber — and you need to watch out for errant nails and tacks.

Sometimes it takes MacCormack a while to get the wood into a “useable” condition. Some pieces are coated with 200 years’ worth of grime, footprints, and horse manure, and he’ll spend many hours scraping, sanding, and chiselling the wood until he can build with it.

But MacCormack doesn’t have immediate plans to make woodworking his full-time gig. He says he’s “just enjoying the creative outlet” and likes the challenge of coming up with new designs. He goes to the Clarks’ storage barn every few weeks to hunt for new treasures.

“It’s like a gigantic candy store,” says MacCormack. “There’s so much old lumber with potential that I always come home with more than I planned on buying.”

“I like taking something that’s old and discarded and making it beautiful.”

Steve and Rose say interest in barn board has certainly increased over the last four or five years thanks to the farmhouse-style decor popularized in HGTV shows like Fixer Upper. But Rose says it’s also a matter of people longing for authenticity.

“We see people who aren’t looking for what’s the cheapest or fastest way to outfit their home,” says Rose. “They want something real—something quality—and there’s nothing like seeing this wood in person. It’s as real as it gets.”   


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Headboard and footboard made from reclaimed lumber by Rob MacCormack.

20 WAYS TO USE BARN BOARD IN YOUR HOME

  1. Ceiling beams
  2. Headboard
  3. Shelving
  4. Wall art
  5. Coat rack/Mug rack
  6. Farmhouse-style table
  7. Coffee table
  8. Kitchen island
  9. Basement bar
  10. Flooring
  11. Mirror trim
  12. Picture frames
  13. Storage chest/trunk
  14. Sliding doors/Barn doors
  15. Bathroom vanity
  16. Porch bench
  17. Sliding doors on an entertainment centre
  18. Hanging light fixture
  19. Accent wall
  20. Board-and-batten

BARN BOARD 101: UNDERSTAND THE DIFFERENT TYPES

Beams:
Beams more than 100 years old are often hand-hewn with rough curved saw marks. They’re popular for building fireplace mantles.

Grey Board:
Weathered boards from the outside of a barn, sometimes with a touch of green. Typically planks are 6″-18″ wide. The grey layer is thin and can be lost through excessive sanding.

Brown Board:
Similar to grey board but without the weathered finish, often from interior walls.

Barn Flooring:
These 2″ thick planks are popular for shelving and tabletops. These can look great planed to showcase the grain.

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Heather Laura Clarke
Heather Laura Clarke is an award-winning journalist and columnist living in Truro, and in this issue she’s stretching out on area rugs. Never far from a sewing machine, paint brush, or mitre saw, she shares stories about living, working and parenting creatively on her blog, HeathersHandmadeLife.com.