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Colonial Barn

Raising a Barn from the Dead

Period Homes magazine, Sept. 2002

This article appeared in the Autumn edition of Period Homes magazine in 2002. For hundreds of years American settlers built impressive timber frame barns that were the focal point of daily life. These barns housed various farm animals and provided storage for winter-feed.

The antique timber frame barns that remain today are indeed precious. Their use is changing as farmers no longer store hay in barns, and the number of small farms has greatly diminished. Currently, there is an especially healthy market for obtaining antique barns for re-location and repair. This can be a great investment as the supply of old barns diminishes and these tangible connections to the past became even more coveted.

The barn project we undertook in Grafton, Massachusetts involved the restoration of circa 1800 English side-hill barn. An experienced barn restoration expert led the project and I was actively involved as the client. During the process, I learned about restoring a barn, the benefits of working with a specialist, and several things I would highlight to others involved with this type of work.


The thought of restoring our barn was daunting. Shortly before my wife and I purchased the property, a large section had either collapsed or was torn down. When we eventually moved in, it was obvious the remaining section of the barn needed immediate attention or it was going to fall down.

The barn was ominous to navigate. The basement posts were leaning in the same direction, away from the stone foundation built into the hill. Amidst the dangerous floor boards, shoddy repairs, rotted posts, and piles of manure were the remnants of extraordinary craftsmanship from long ago. The impressive hand-hewn oak timbers, precision joinery, and ageless design were extraordinary.

It was obvious the repairs had to be done right. Initially, I researched aspects of barn restoration and builders in the area. My search included antique home magazines, the Internet, and word-of-mouth. Of the three builders I considered, all had a different approach for estimates and each had a significant difference with their assessment to save the barn.

One tried to charge one thousand dollars for an elaborate report with a full day on-site analysis, the other did about a half day on-site and gave a detailed proposal costing three hundred dollars, and the last examined the barn thoroughly and then discussed ballpark figures for the various phases of the project. He also had a convincing scrapbook of job photos and newspaper articles.

I went with the latter, Tim Murphy and Colonial Barn Restoration, because he seemed especially trustworthy and flexible. He explained the difficulty of putting an exact price on the project because so much gets revealed once the main parts of the barn are fully exposed. We therefore broke the project into stages with general estimates for each and an understanding that we would further address complex issues as they arose.

The initial phase of the work was focused: "Save the barn." Tim dove right in and led an aggressive push to get the sub structure sound again. It started with a massive cleaning. The stalls were a mess, broken down repairs were everywhere, and several sections needed demolition.

Once we got the debris out and cleaned the basement, we began removing floorboards and siding to loosen the frame back into position. We removed most of the lean by attaching several come-alongs diagonally in the basement. After a week of cranking the winches and jacking diagonally into posts, most of the lean was removed and the major sub-structure issues were ready to be addressed. The stress on the cranks and loud creaking sounds made this greenhorn terrified, but Tim just laughed and always tightened it down several more times as I scurried for the exit.

The hand-hewn oak girders and floor joists were repaired or replaced as necessary. We cleaned the original barn siding for the first layer of flooring to create a beautiful contrast from below with the old barn board and new floor joists. After Tim and I did the sub-structural repairs, more workers were added for the remaining flooring, structural work, window framing, doors, and siding. We also worked on the main house redoing the ceiling and roof on the farmers images porch as well as about seventy percent of the sills.


The most rewarding aspect of the project was to be involved. All clients appreciate being part of the process on at least some level. I was able to quickly learn basic chiseling, which allowed me to work closely with Tim on most aspects of the project. Tim and his crew often also have customers that cannot be on-site. He keeps these clients involved with regular e-mail updates and picture attachments of the specific things they are working on. This type of interaction is hugely appreciated and provides huge value to most people.

It was crucial to have a barn specialist lead the project. This resulted in noticeable efficiencies throughout the process and the experience was assuring at difficult times. Tim also had explanations for why something was most likely done originally. Knowing this was invaluable with the decisions we made and it seemed like we were restoring the barn as the original craftsman would have intended. For example:

The whitewash in the chicken coop was originally used to help increase light and thwart bacteria. After brushing the remaining whitewash on the loft ceiling and joists, this left a beautiful look that will continue to relate the history of the barn well into the future.

• Several windows appeared to have been added later to the original barn, which would have been consistent with a trend at the turn of the century to let more light in and increase ventilation. While we wanted the same thing, our motivation was more for comfort rather that eliminating bacteria.

• English side-hill barns were built into hill banks so that homesteaders could drive wagons into both levels while using the lower level for frost-free manure storage. Because it is no longer a working barn, we instead designed the main floor as an open area while the bottom essentially became a garage. While we did not retain much of the essence of the original design, it nonetheless seems important to understand why it was built this way in the first place.

• The second and third story lofts were originally used to move and store haystacks. These remain in tact and provide an ideal area for future use with something such as game tables, exercise machines, or play areas for children.

• The original hay hook is an amazing artifact and epitomizes the grandeur of an old barn. The fork is connected to a pulley running along an iron track beneath the ridge of the barn and could lift large loads of loose hay by horsepower. After tinkering with it, Tim got the crane fully functional again and it has become one the most talked about aspects of the barn.

• There was evidence the original design had pocket doors; however, track doors were added later that hung on the outside of the barn. We therefore built new doors to fit into the old slots restoring this original aspect of the barn.

Learning about these period attributes inherent in the design made the process fun and educational. Restoring with this type of appreciation seemed essential as the new repairs blend beautifully with the original work.

Throughout the process, I found the more information that was provided the better. This included general things on barns as well as things specific to the choices we made. For example, we considered what type of siding to use and looked at Tim's photos of cedar shingle, board and baton, and shiplap before finalizing our decision. Having visual examples for other choices such as windows, siding, doors, stalls, lighting, or copulas helps ensure clients have the best information possible for making these types of decisions. A well-done web site is another great way to deliver this.


There are a few general things that should be considered to help ensure the best chance of success.

Segment the Project

Clients appreciate getting detailed reports with specific information on progress and finances. Clear estimates should be made on cost and length for each stage. This assures things are on track for each phase of the project and allows re-evaluation along the way. Surprises to the client are mitigated and financial issues get nipped before becoming a problem.

The Builder Knows Best

With his experience, Tim had the vision to understand how something would look before we did anything, whereas I was essentially guessing. The best example was for the stain on the farmersimages porch ceiling (see image). He thought whitewash would be ideal while others thought staining the wood was best. Once Tim suggested it would look like a ski lodge with stain, not an old farmhouse, he had me convinced.

Tim's choices made a huge difference on the final result. For example, he suggested the whitewash on the porch would transition beautifully with the barn, adding lots of windows for extra light and ventilation, and removing a non-original hayloft to open the barn more. Tim never wavered that these changes would enhance the barn, and we were fortunate to have this advice.

Investing in Barns

The replacement cost with a barn of similar dimensions using new wood would cost at least a hundred thousand dollars and we spent a little less than a quarter of that. To re-build a comparable antique barn would be significantly higher. Without restoration, however, the barn essentially had no value because the cost of removal essentially equaled the value of the old lumber. Bear in mind, however, Tim mentioned this was one of the more attractive investment opportunities he had encountered, but it nonetheless gives a great example of how much equity a barn can create for a property.

Start with a Barn Specialist

The best way to start this type of project is by talking with a barn expert. They understand all facets of the job and can save money, especially if they are involved early. A barn specialist can often fill the roll of architect and engineer, which was certainly the case for our project. Most of these builders will serve as consultants or general contractors as well.

Finding the Right Match

Matching great builders with attractive projects requires a professional marketing approach. Barn restoration is such a niche industry that finding the best crew for a particular job is very hard to accomplish. For example, if I had to find all the barn experts in New England I wouldnimagest know where to start. Itimagess not like finding a general contractor or even a construction specialist. There simply are not many of them around, and most are not aggressive with marketing.

An impressive web site, an integrated marketing strategy, and an effective advertising budget can go a long way to help builders secure attractive deals and higher rates. Colonial Barn Restoration just launched a new web site that exudes the same "feelimages they install with their work. Itimagess professional, easy to use, and visually stimulating. In addition, all of their marketing materials contain a consistent theme and the company is focused on nurturing long-term relationships with their customers. Doing so successfully turns these same clients into a great "word-of-mouthimages sales force that may return for additional work in the future.

Trust and Experience Takes Care of Price

While everyone is concerned with price on some level, I found it was more important to focus on trust and experience. Usually, these criteria inherently take care of price. A shyster can easily make a low bid and then back door expenses or do shoddy work, which will cost more in the long run just like going to a cheap mechanic. When you are with someone professional who you can trust, however, there is a much higher degree of comfort that your best interests are always at hand.

Speak with Multiple Experts

I suspect that few people actually speak with multiple specialists for this type of project as they are hard to find and even harder to tie down for an estimate. There can be a significant difference, however, between what two qualified builders will charge to restore a particular project.

Plan Ahead

Once the right builder is found, it is essential to schedule the project well in advance as the most have a long waiting list. Itimagess not uncommon for barn builders to be scheduling projects well beyond a year in advance.

A new future of the barn has begun with this restoration. We hope to eventually make the barn as valuable to our lifestyle as it must have been for the original homesteaders that settled here in 1797. This requires the usage of the barn to accommodate a more modern lifestyle. Instead of animals and feed storage, the barn now provides an ideal place for a workshop, an office, entertainment, relaxing, or exercise.

I think itimagess almost inevitable that someone will eventually winterize the barn and make it livable. Whatever the future may bring, it is incredibly rewarding to have had the privilege to restore an antique barn. In most respects the barn is now as solid as it was two hundred years ago, and hopefully it will last that long in the future.

Visit Colonial Barn Restoration to learn more about saving barns.

The author, Andrew Williams, is also the founder of Nectar Marketing, a website design and search engine ranking company.

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