A Rustic Barn Board Ceiling for the Cottage

After mulling for weeks about how to finish the ceiling on our straw bale cottage, we still couldn’t decide what to do. Should we go with drywall, the (cheap) material of choice for nearly everything built these days? Or tongue and groove wood, which would definitely look amazing, but would cost at least 4-5 times more.

As we wrestled back and forth, an opportunity fell into our lap. While hunting for a bathroom vanity at the Finger Lakes Reuse Center, we noticed that they had reclaimed barn boards for sale at a very reasonable price. Before long, we were driving back to the Dacha with a truckload of miscellaneous planks, most of them oak from 60-80 years ago. The boards were a dull gray on the outside, with a thick layer of dust and the occasional worm hole. They looked dingy, about what you’d expect for a plank that’s been in use inside a barn for the larger part of a century. You could still see deep saw marks from now-antiquated milling equipment.

These planks were rough-cut at a time before standardized lumber, and this presented a challenge not unlike a complicated math problem: How do you arrange 70 boards, with widths ranging from 4 to 12 inches, to fit an area that isn’t perfectly square? We ended up grouping the boards by width, then cutting them into stretches of 9 feet. This way, we could have spans of equal length and variable width, and could put skinny boards next to wide boards with minimal gaps.

Next came the longest part of the project: the refinishing. Using only a belt sander and a little muscle, we spent several full days of work sanding down the equivalent of 144 square feet of wood. As we dug deeper into the reclaimed barn boards, we started to see their true and beautiful character. The tightly knit and warbled grain began to emerge from the depths, like a hidden jewel under a thin layer of rubbish. Once the boards were sanded, we covered them with three thin coats of polyurethane, and got ready to throw them up on the ceiling.

To give our boards something to grip to, we added thin purlins on the underside of our trusses. And finally, after a couple weeks of preparation, we began the final step of settling our reclaimed boards into their new home. Using a pneumatic brad nailer and a little bit of patience, we arranged the boards and tacked them onto our purlins.

As you can see, the result is a warm, glowing ceiling. The rustic stylings of the rough cut boards meld into the smoothed, uneven edges of the plastered walls. The dark ridges of the saw-blade kerfs serve as a reminder that we’re looking at an object with a history. And best of all, we saved a couple trees in the process!