Renovating Barns, Sheds & Outbuildings

Nick Engler

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Barns, sheds, garages, and storage buildings all age as houses do. And, like houses, they will eventually need renovation to save them from disrepair and to restore them to their former glory. And they can even be converted into spaces that are once again useful to their owners, including a storage area, a studio, or a home office.

Readers will learn to save money, history, and architecture simply by renovating and restoring rather than by replacing their old outbuildings. From the foundation up, from the walls in, and from the roof down, craftsman Nick Engler, author of dozens of books and hundreds of magazine articles on woodworking, construction, and home how-to, takes readers through the process of renovating existing outbuildings.

Engler gives seasoned advice on how to square and strengthen the structure, repair or replace the roofing and siding, enlarge and modify the building, install new doors and windows, and add electricity and plumbing. He also includes practical information on how to evaluate an old structure in light of current building codes and how to then preserve the original charm of any outbuilding while making it usable again.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Why renovate?

Every time I start out to renovate a barn or an outbuilding, someone asks me, "Why don't you just tear it down and start over?" It's a good question. In many cases, it's easier to start from scratch. The building techniques and materials available nowadays enable you to put up a building quicker and more easily than you can do a full-fledged renovation, in many cases. But quicker and easier aren't the only considerations.

When you renovate a building, you can save three things: money, history, and architecture. The money you save, the historical value of the building, and the building's unique architecture often make a renovation much more attractive than building from scratch. So before you call in the wrecking crew, give some thought to what you might gain by letting the structure stand.

Saving history

Whether or not your farm or your home is on the Historic Register, there may be some history to your outbuildings. I've rebuilt log cabins and covered bridges that oozed history from every board. I've also helped to save structures with family and personal history. Memories - whether they belong to the general public or just you alone - are precious things.

Your barn or outbuilding may be listed on the National Register of Historic Places - or it may be worthy of listing. To determine its historical value, browse the local history section of your library. There are usually publications related to your area and its buildings. You may find early photos, deeds, and sometimes even original drawings of your structure.

I once found an early volunteer fire department book containing layout drawings of every building in my town that existed when the book was made. This proved invaluable in tracing the various additions and renovations done to my property, and it helped me determine when the outbuildings were built and whether they had historical value. Your decision to save the history of your structure may be based purely on self-interest if the building is part of a family history. Near where I live, there is a collection of cabins and outbuildings belonging to a family who helped settle the area. They have so much pride in their heritage that they buy dilapidated buildings that have played some part in their personal pioneer history, move them to a single location, and restore them. They have a wonderful place to hold their family reunions. And they share this treasure with the general public by holding historical festivals and similar events - it's like stepping back in time to a pioneer village.

Even if your family never owned a particular structure, you may be related to the craftsman who constructed it. My three-times-great grandfather was part of a construction crew that roamed southern Ohio in the early part of the 19th century putting up public works. I've often wondered if some of the covered bridges that I've helped restore in that area weren't built by him and his friends.

Saving architecture

Many outbuildings have a unique architecture that is worth saving. In my neck of the woods, there are several round and octagonal barns. Other outbuildings work with the other homestead buildings like a matched set of salt and pepper shakers. Behind my Queen Anne Victorian home, for example, is a carriage barn that I am rebuilding. I wouldn't think of tearing it down and putting a modern garage in its place. Victorian homes and carriage barns just go together.

Your barn may represent a unique building technique or style. Many barns that I have worked on have contained a level of craftsmanship and style that is inspiring, and this is worth saving not just for you, but for the future. Also consider the character of the barn, as defined by its architecture. Could it be copied for a reasonable cost in a new structure? Could you match the details on your old building in a new one? Chances are that you can't, or that doing so will be prohibitively expensive.

Saving money

The most common reason for restoring an outbuilding is that it just costs so much to put up a new one. More to the point, if you tear down the old building and put up a new one, you have to absorb the demolition and construction expenses all at once. Even if restoring an older building costs you as much (or more) than building a new one, you can perform the restoration a little at a time, stretching the cost out over a longer period. Often, this prevents you from having to borrow money and saves the interest you would have paid on the loan.

Saving and restoring an existing building might cost you more in labor than building new, but it will save you big time in material costs. As long as the structure isn't too dilapidated, a restoration will require only a fraction of the materials that would be necessary to create a new building. And if you are providing most of the labor as "sweat equity," the cash outlay for a restored building will be far less than that for a new one. Of course, some barns really aren't worth saving, and sometimes the reason isn't immediately apparent. I was once called out to evaluate a big three-end barn. Once there, I discovered that it was an early 20th-century feeder barn, all framed in rough, green oak and nailed together. The former owner had covered the roof in asphalt shingles - a bad choice for barns because they blow off so easily. As he lost shingles, he hadn't kept up with roofing repairs, so the weather had begun to rot the wooden frame. Much of the barn was sound, but two corner posts and much of the top plate needed to be replaced.

I told the folks who had recently acquired the farm that they should raze the barn and build new. They were surprised - the barn wasn't falling down. Why couldn't they simply replace the rotted frame members? The problem, I told them, had more to do with the construction than the rot. As green oak dries, it grips the nails like a vise and makes them almost impossible to remove. If the barn were a post-and-beam structure and all I had to do was knock out a few pegs to remove a rotted member, it would have been feasible to save the structure.

Siding and painting

If you have an older building, you probably have siding problems. The first surface on a barn or other outbuilding to show a little wear is typically the siding. It's constantly exposed to the elements and has nothing but a thin coat of paint to protect it. It shrinks and swells with each change in the weather, causing the nails to loosen. From the moment you spot the first bit of peeling paint or a loose board, it becomes a constant chore to keep the siding in good repair.

Unfortunately, this is a chore that many of us fall behind on. Paint and siding problems seem minor compared to all the other repairs we have to do around a property, and so we put it off. The trouble is, while the siding problems are minor, they will lead to extensive structural damage if neglected for too long. The purpose of siding isn't just to enclose the building. It also covers the frame and protects it from excessive moisture. If the rain blows in through a hole in the siding and soaks frame timbers, they may start to rot. This is especially dangerous if the rain soaks an area where two or more timbers join together. The moisture will collect in the joints, the wood will rot, and the joints will be weakened. Siding also keeps the wind out of a building. Wind can be more destructive than water. If the structure is missing siding boards on the windward side (the side that faces the prevailing winds in your location), the building will "fill with air" on a windy day, raising the air pressure inside. This trapped air presses out, putting stress on all the surfaces of the building, eventually weakening the entire structure. The air pressure may also blow off shingles and additional siding boards from the inside. (See Figure 6-1.) It is not uncommon for a strong wind to take a side or a roof off a building when there is a large hole in the siding. Years ago, I was part of a crew that was replacing the siding on a dairy barn. We stripped most of the old siding off the first day, then went home for the evening. That night, a front with high winds moved through the area. When we arrived at the site the next day, the wind had peeled off the barn roof and laid it back like the lid of a box. Fortunately, fixing a siding problem is relatively simple - much simpler than repairing structural problems. Fixing siding is just a "search and replace" chore: Find the loose, rotted, or missing boards and replace them. Every few years, it becomes a "scrape and paint" chore to forestall the deterioration of the siding. How you replace a siding board will depend on the siding materials and the manner in which the siding is attached to the structure. How you paint or stain it will depend on how it was painted before and how long it's been since the last coat of paint was applied.

Finding and fixing siding problems

As a young man, I once served under several experienced barn builders on a construction crew resurrecting an old Shaker barn. The first step to any barn restoration is identifying the problems, so when it came time to inspect the siding, the crew trooped inside. "What are we looking for?" I asked one taciturn old foreman. "Daylight," he replied.

When properly sided, the wall of a barn or an outbuilding should be relatively weatherproof. Unless you're working in a tobacco barn or a corn crib, which require ventilation, if you can see daylight through the siding, you'll soon have a siding problem. You might have one already.

Inspecting the siding

Actually, inspecting the siding is a little more complicated than looking for daylight. But just a little. Here's what to look for:

Rotting ends - Siding boards with rotten ends is one of the most common problems you will encounter on any board-sided barn. (See Figure 6-14.) The ends of a board act like sponges when moisture is present. Unless painted, the ends of boards will soak up moisture. The moisture creates a fertile environment for decay-causing bacteria, and the wood begins to rot. Look hard at the boards around windows. Where the rotted end of a board meets a sill, chances are the sill is damaged, too. Plan on replacing any rotted wood you find.

Cracks and splits - Cracks and splits in wood siding collect moisture. The cracks will grow and the wood will begin to rot if these are not repaired. (See Figure 6-15.) The simple solution is to caulk any crack and paint it. Where the wood has actually cupped away from the crack, you may have to cut out a section of the board and replace the wood. If a crack near a structural member is left unrepaired, it may lead to interior rot of the member. When cracks and splits are found in rabbet-and-groove siding, you may have to cut out a section of that siding to replace a damaged piece.

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