What you need
There are a few essential tools for this project. The first is an angle grinder. It doesn’t have to be expensive. The one we’re using is from Harbor Freight Tools and cost only $30. The second essential tool is a knot cup brush attachment for the grinder ($8 to $24). Make sure the arbor diameter of the cup brush matches the arbor on your grinder. In addition, you’ll need an awl, a utility knife and a claw hammer for further distressing.
Watch this video for a quick overview of how to make your own perfectly imperfect barn wood:
Grinding throws a lot of dust and even an occasional wood chip, so wear safety glasses and a dust mask. You’ll also need a roller to apply the first coat of stain, and cotton rags for the remaining two coats. We used Varathane Summer Oak for the first coat, Varathane Kona for the splotchy dark layer, and Varathane Weathered Gray for the final coat. You don’t have to be too picky about choosing knotty pine boards. As long as they’re reasonably straight, they’ll work fine.
Since clamps would get in the way of the grinding process, tack the board to sawhorses with 6d finish nails. Then follow the steps below to distress the surface of the wood. If both sides of the boards will be visible, flip the board over and repeat the steps.
Grind the edges and ends
With the grinder spinning in the direction shown here, make random gouges on the edges of the board. While you’re at it, round over the sharp factory edges. Then grind the ends of the boards to look weathered as shown here.
Erode the surface
Remove some of the soft wood from between the growth rings (darker wood grain) by running the cup brush along the board. Follow the grain pattern. The growth rings are harder and will remain, while the brush will wear away the softer wood between them.
Make realistic wormholes
Punch groups of “wormholes” in a random pattern with the awl. Elongate some of the holes by tipping the awl down after punching. Space groups of holes 6 to 12 in. apart.
You can make dents with almost any blunt tool, metal pipe, or even a chain. A hammer claw is handy and works well. Group dents in random patterns along the board.
Carve out splits
Carve out the soft wood along the grain to simulate a crack. Make fake cracks on the ends of boards, or along the edges. You can also simply enlarge an existing crack.
Make saw blade marks
Sweep the grinder across the board in a series of arcs to create the look of old, “rough-sawn” lumber. Add this pattern to a few of your boards for variety.
Apply the finish
When you’ve completed the distressing steps for all of the boards, follow the staining process shown in the photos below. Don’t worry if the finish looks a little different from one board to the next. Variation will add to the authentic look. When you’re done with the stain rags, hang them over the edge of a bucket or garbage can to dry before disposing of them. Wadded-up, stain-soaked rags can spontaneously combust. Your boards will look most authentic without a clear coating, but if you need a more durable finish, let the stained boards dry overnight before brushing on a coat or two of polyurethane. Choose a flat or matte sheen to retain the weathered look.
Start with a base coat
Roll on the first coat of stain. Cover the board entirely. Then wipe off the excess with a cotton rag. Let this coat dry about five minutes before moving on to the next layer of stain.
Dab on dark stain
Dip a wadded cotton rag into the dark stain and apply it to the board in random patches. Spread out the patches with the rag to create an uneven layer of dark stain.
Finish with gray stain
With a separate cotton rag, wipe on a coat of gray stain. This coat can be more consistent than the dark coat. Wipe off excess stain with a dry cotton rag until you achieve the aged look you desire. If you want the additional protection of a clear finish over the stain, let the stain dry overnight before brushing on a coat or two of flat polyurethane.
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