Antique Barn Finish | Popular Woodworking Magazine

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Add centuries of wear to your designs using a proven, simple and safe formula: no open flames!

T.his is the furniture finishing that deceived our local auctioneer, a man with 30 years of experience in selling antique furniture and agricultural equipment.

I had bought a lawn mower from the auctioneer and he was leaving it in my workshop when he noticed one of my furniture that sported what I call a barn finish.

He walked over to the piece and asked me what I had fixed on it. I replied that it was not an antique to fix; instead, I had just finished building it and was about to deliver it to a customer.

He didn’t believe me.

After a few minutes of discussion, I finally turned the piece over to show him a new piece of raw wood that was unfinished.

“In all my years,” he said, “I’ve never seen such an ending.”

New finish that looks old

When you add age to your projects, work especially on the edges of the doors and drawers. These get most of the wear in the real world.

While I don’t think this finish can fool an antique furniture expert, it’s a compelling way to add centuries of patina to your designs so they fit into an older home or other antique furniture.

This finish is my favorite to do. You can’t screw it up. Even if you don’t like the end result, you can just add another coat of lacquer and paint until you get the look you want. Each layer simply adds more texture to the project and enhances the final look.

Unlike many antiqued paintings ends, that’s safe enough for my daughter to do. Other finishing processes involve a phase in which a layer of paint is carbonized with a gas torch or the part is set on fire. I have tried these methods but I don’t like them. And I’m sure my insurance company would agree.

One of the most effective tools for adding years to a project is a small set of keys on the end of a stick. When visitors to my shop see me beat my designs with this tool, they go crazy.

Instead, I use a high temperature heat gun. Look for one that reaches 1,500 ° Fahrenheit – they are available at industrial supply stores. 1,000 ° heat guns will work, but the warmer one is better. Heat guns are a little slower than a flashlight, but they are safer. And I’ll show you how to save some time by skipping a coloring step that makes no difference to the finished look of the piece.

Whenever you use this finish, be sure to practice on a sample board at each stage before moving on to the finished project. This way you will see what the next step will look like. And when you’re done, you’ll have a great swatch to keep.

Start with the abuse

After you’re done aging the project, there’s one last step: smoothing the sharp edges created with the knife and other tools. This step helps to blend the old with the new.

Before adding color, the first step is to mimic 200 years of use and abuse of the piece. I use a utility knife to smooth the edges, a drill bit to make woodworm holes, and an awl to make a dog’s bite marks. To show a lot of wear, use a chisel to mimic a mouse hole. Heat a tin can and place it on the wood to char. At the end, beat it with a group of keys, then sand the edges with an electric sander.

Aging takes some creative thinking to decide which areas of the project would see the most scratchy, but it will be obvious if you look at real antiques first. Focus on the base, knobs, moldings, doors and drawers. Let the children help you – they will require little training.

Don’t start with the stain

After a coat of your base color, a coat of lacquer and a second coat of your base color, use a heat gun to blister the paint.

In the center, this finish starts with a coat of paint, then a coat of lacquer and then another coat of paint. Then blister and scrape off the top layer of paint and repeat the whole process again. Then, in the end, wipe on a glaze to add grime and a layer of matte lacquer to seal the whole thing up.

Some other antique finishes recommend starting by staining the entire piece and then adding the paint. I’ve done this many times myself, and I think you can skip this step. Any raw wood you expose during the aging process will be colored by the glaze in the end. And in all my years of doing this finish, I’ve never had the peel of the finish, so I think a base coat of stain isn’t necessary.

Scrape the bubbles with a common paint scraper. You don’t have to use a lot of downward pressure. Stop scraping when you have removed all the blisters.

Start by brushing a coat of latex paint. (Tip: Let the brush drop to the floor and put some sawdust on it.) Let the paint dry. If some areas of the paint look thin, add a second coat.

Now spray a coat of paint (or brush on a brushed coat of paint) and add another coat or two of the same color paint. Let it dry and grab your heat gun.

Lacquer then varnish; Blister then scrape

After one coat of paint, apply the second paint color with a paintbrush. If the brush has fallen to the ground and picked up some sawdust, so much the better.

Hold the heat gun close to the surface and slowly move it over the piece. After a few minutes the paint will bubble and bubble.

Use your judgment here. The more blisters, the more consistency you will end up with. If you overdo it, simply add more paint and try the process again.

With the paint full of bubbles, use a scraper to remove the bubbles. Get the surface somewhat smooth but don’t get too aggressive. The small uneven edges of paint you leave behind will add texture to the surface.

After another coat of paint and then paint, boil the top color with your heat gun. The more bubbles, the more base color will appear.

Now apply another coat of paint and brush over one or two coats of your second paint color (see “Choosing a color” on page 83 for some color combination ideas).

Then boil the paint with the heat gun and scrape the bubbles away. This will reveal the spots of your first color below.

If you don’t like the look, add more paint and varnish; then blister and scrape it until you are satisfied. Then take some worn sandpaper (the grain is not critical, but not too aggressive) and level the surface with bubbles to smooth out the really rough spots.

Final color and finish

Scrape the top layer of varnish with bubbles until a satisfactory amount of the base color is seen. This is a matter of taste, of course, but there is no wrong way to do it.

The final coloring stage adds true age. I pass a quick-drying brown polish that is compatible with my lacquer. Glazes are available at professional paint shops. Exact color is not critical.

Use a worn piece of sandpaper to smooth out the artificial wear you introduced. This will remove the large pieces of paint, but still leave some texture.

You could use a gel stain or liquid stain instead of a product labeled as nail polish. But liquid stains soak into the paint more than I like and take longer to dry. (All the coloring that takes place between the finishing coats is technically glazing, but a variety of products can be used for the process.)

When the icing is dry, add the final finish. I like a matte lacquer; the gloss wouldn’t be right.

Rag over a brown or black icing. The icing will soften your colors and build up in the texture you created. This is where you will begin to see the ultimate effect of your efforts.

The best part about this finish is that there is no wrong way to do it. If you are not satisfied, put on another coat of paint. Every single layer makes it look better.

What if you do something wrong and the finish starts peeling? No problem. Antique peel finishes. It might even look better in the end. PW

Choose the colors

In general, I like to choose brighter paint colors than you might expect. I like the bright blues and teal greens, especially on the smaller pieces.

The reason I like wild color is that early American pieces were typically painted in bright colors to help liven up dark rooms. Also, once the frosting is added to the surface, the colors become a bit muted.

When you go to pick colors, I think it’s best to go to the home center or paint shop and pick a couple of colors from the shop’s “historic” color palette. Everyone has one these days. How authentic are they? I don’t know, but they look good.

Over the past two decades, here are some of my favorite color combinations:

Black on red

• Black on red is the most popular combination. Red on black also works.

Yellow on red

• My wife, who has an excellent taste in these things, is very fond of yellow over red.

Dirty white on red

• Off-white looks great on brown or brick red. However, it doesn’t work on black.

Teal on red

• Green on black or red are both good choices.

Sage on black

• Sage green on black and dark blue on black are both beautiful combinations.

Blue on black

Green on black

• Perhaps a little wild, teal over red is a lively choice.

Red on black

Before trying a wild combination on a large piece, try it on a small one to see how it looks. I think you will be surprised at how beautiful the bright colors look with this finish.


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