“I got this, really. How hard can it be?” – A chapter of My Stubborn Valentine

Last time saw my husband Rob expending considerable time and effort, orchestrating the demolition of an old barn some 50 miles from our home in Alexandria, Indiana – hauling the timbers back here for an undetermined project, and storing them safely in a rented barn down the road. The effort was a success, but it concluded with both of us exhausted, and not too keen on wrestling those big beams around any more. For a while.


The year before, we’d hired a local mason to repair our crumbling chimney. He and his crew did an amazing job. Next on the list was the inside wall around the fireplace. The woodburning insert we adored when we bought it in 1989 was worn out. The surrounding brick was even more hideous since I’d painted it and that was starting to peel. Rob tore into the wall from all angles, making any needed repairs to the 130+ year old structure, and insulating against drafts with a vengeance. At one point during the project, we had to build a makeshift barricade in the living room to keep our little dog Lucy from escaping through the wall while we went to the store for more building materials.

This morphed into an additional project that encompassed the basement area below the fireplace. Where we found this:

A gigantic hornet’s nest that was situated in the floor, directly below the television.

Indiana hornets must be less aggressive than Wikipedia tells us; “Hornets, like many social wasps, can mobilize the entire nest to sting in defense, which is highly dangerous…” , as we had no idea that we had a major apartment complex of them located in our living room floor. Unfazed, Rob removed the nest, notified me for a photo opp, and promptly deposited it in the dumpster.

The bad news is, there's a hornet's nest in the floor. The good news is, they appear to not be home. Another thing we always marvel over whenever we tear into the "bones" of this house, is the sturdiness of the timbers. Wow.
The bad news is: There’s a hornet’s nest in the floor. The good news: They appear to not be home. Another thing we always marvel over whenever we tear into the “bones” of this house, is the sturdiness of the timbers. Wow.

While Rob sorts out structural details, wiring details, buys 49 rolls of insulation and cases of expanding foam, he also recruits me to help choose just the right barn beams to make the mantle and whatever accents are appropriate.

I consult Houzz.com. For hours. And hours. As before, I see dazzling images but can’t seem to formulate a plan for our application. I am majorly envious of folks who can do this. And angry at the HGTV shows for making renovation look fun and easy. My living room is small, and for some unknown reason, the fireplace is NOT in the middle of the wall. For all my expertise in designing appealing catalog layouts on paper, that apparently doesn’t translate to interior design. I am making no progress and feel badly that I’m not doing well with my part of the project.

A stack of beams from the razed West 20 barn. Every where I turned there was a stack like this. All different widths and lengths – with interesting notches and holes on every side. Choosing just the right ones felt impossible.

Finally, out of overwhelm and desperation, we pick a couple likely candidates. Rob plucks them out with a chain on the Toolcat, and totes them home where they can be prepped and finished.

Prepped and finished. That sounds easy enough. In reality, it ended up taking months. Dean at Timeless Barn Company was kind enough to give me a crash course – he told me the protocol that they use at their shop to process not two beams, but entire barns’ worth quickly and efficiently.

Power washing is the best way to clean years of accumulated funk off barn beams. But you have to be careful, or pressure of the water will damage the surface and make it fuzzy. It was a tricky proposition: wash off the poop, but not the patina.

Rob sprayed, and I scrubbed. We experimented on a damaged beam first until we figured out the best way to do it.

This is a closeup of the beam that was to become the mantle. It is 11 feet long x 9″ square.

It was exciting to see how beautiful the grain in the wood was – after all these years serving it’s purpose as part of a barn, now it’s being honored as a focal piece above our hearth. That seems fitting. You can still see the builder’s scribe marks on either side of the peg holes.

This is a smaller beam that will serve as uprights on either side, supporting the mantle.

This smaller beam has interesting grain, too. It still sports some of the tree’s bark on it’s corners. That dark splotchy stain? Cow manure. Dad fed cattle for many years on that farm. This beam was from the run-in shed portion of the barn. The cows were bedded deeply with straw to keep them warm and dry – and the whole works was only cleaned out seasonally, so there was plenty of time for the accumulation to have an affect on the wood it touched. We had great concerns about lingering odor – but fortunately there was none.

When the wood dried after being washed, the lovely grain disappeared again. It was up to me to figure out an appropriate finish to bring that back. The beams took up residence in the middle of HoofPrints’ warehouse floor, where I walked around them and looked at them for months while I packed customers’ orders for the holiday season.

The back of the biggest beam came to resemble a color chart at the home improvement store as I tested dozens of different stain and finish combinations. A handful of which turned out to be miserable failures – after seeming to be likely first choice solutions. I had nightmares about ruining this huge beam with the wrong finish after all the work it took to get it to this point.

Finally, with coaching from the UPS man, I arrive at a solution of Danish Oil. This is noxious smelling stuff, and I could only apply it at the end of the day so I could leave the building for the night while the fumes dissipated. It took multiple coats but by Spring, the beams were finally ready to take their place in the house.

Rob and Jordan load the beam onto the Toolcat forks and bring it as close to the door as possible. At that point there’s no other way to get it any further – except to carry it by hand.

To this point, I’ve not mentioned how insanely heavy this thing is. Every time we’ve moved it, it’s been by machine. See that big slot in the middle? When I was doing the finish work in the warehouse, the only way that I could even roll the beam to the next side was to insert a long crowbar into that slot and pry it over.

Here, my husband and son have hoisted the beam to their shoulders and are preparing to trounce through the kitchen with it.
They seem to be handling it OK, but the faces tell the story.

There are no pictures after this, because I am too busy wringing my hands as I watch them precariously wrestle this massive timber through the house. Had it been even 5 pounds heavier, I am not sure they could have done it. Whew.

And things are going to get worse before they get better:

Two words come to mind: Epic Mess.


Want to see what happens next?

Fun on the Farm Part 1 is here

The Epic Mess of Fixing the Fireplace is here

Tearing Down an Old Barn to Repurpose the Timbers in the house is here

The adventure of utilizing the first few timbers as a Fireplace Mantle is here

Utilizing more timbers in a big room upstairs – Of Trials and Strong Backs is here

No One Will Ever See It – an Adventure In Remodeling is here

We are still not finished, but you can see “The Aftermath” of one barn beam project here

Sometimes you have to look back… at scary pictures here

More looking back… Scary pictures, recycling and repurposing here


  1. God Bless your patience. My sister in England has done many of this type renovations to their very old house. I watched and knew I would not be able to cope with it all. Looking forward to seeing the finished job.


    • Thanks for the encouragement! Coping is a very big challenge. In fact – for quite a while we found it easier to cope with shabby or unfinished stuff – as a better alternative to having everything in even worse disarray.


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