With a few tools and a pile of timber, a pioneering homeowner can lay claim to the territory out the back door. Building a barn – or, heck, a log-cabin sauna – is the ultimate hands-on project. Get inspired, and get started.
If you have kids around, you may be familiar with the Tractor Mac series of children’s books, which follows the adventures of an antique farm tractor. In real life, Tractor Mac is a 1948 Farmall Cub that’s owned by Billy Steers, the author and illustrator of the series. Steers’s wife, Julie, bought him the tractor at a flea market following the publication of his first book in 1999. Steers restored the old machine, and even painted on eyeball headlights to resemble his main character.
Once the restoration was complete, the now 45-year-old Steers had no place to store Tractor Mac. So, with help from his three sons, ages 10, 13 and 16, he built a downscaled barn from plans he drew himself. Steers’s dad assisted with the electrical work, and his brother, a carpenter, helped out with the roof.
Like most people who plan an outbuilding for their backyard, Steers had a real need for the structure, and a very particular idea of how it should look. Sheds are more than utilitarian – and for many of us, choosing one from the parking lot of a hardware store just doesn’t cut it. Instead, we’d rather sketch up plans at the kitchen table, then head for the stacks of 50 x 100s and plywood to build something truly original. It’s an ideal opportunity to express ourselves and pound nails to our heart’s content – while building something really big, yet manageable.
Tractor Mac’s 4 x 7 m home sits behind Steers’s house on 3,6 hectares of mixed woods and fields in the Connecticut countryside. Like many of the old New England barns in the area, it features a pole-barn frame, pine vertical-board siding, double-wide swinging doors, an overhead storage loft and a gravel floor. For the roof, Steers chose metal panels instead of asphalt or wood shingles. “The metal roof didn’t cost that much more than asphalt shingles,” Steers explains, “and it’ll last longer.” To help create the look of an old barn – and to curb construction costs, which eventually climbed to about R40 000 – Steers salvaged the windows, doors and exterior trim from a local dairy barn. He installed a small door high on the gable end to access the storage loft.
Working on and off, it took Steers about a year to complete the barn, which isn’t unusual for a homeowner-built project of this size. One way that he saved time was by staining all the siding prior to installation. “I applied a semitransparent stain with a paint pad,” Steers says, “which was a lot quicker and neater than brushing.”
But not every decision went as well. “I’m very happy with the way the barn turned out,” Steers says, “but I situated it in a low-lying area that gets soggy after a heavy rainfall. As a result, the lawn gets a bit messed up driving the tractor in and out of the barn.” Fortunately, the water drains right through the gravel floor, so Tractor Mac’s home is always clean and dry.
While holidaying in the Cotswolds region of Great Britain several years ago, retired electrical engineer Tom Schroeder came across the quintessential English Tudor cottage. The centuries- old building had dark, exposed timbers contrasted by bright white plaster panels. The first-floor walls were built of rough-cut rock and mortar. Schroeder admired the building, and snapped a picture of it before returning home to Minnesota.
A few years later, a large oak tree fell in Schroeder’s backyard. He decided then and there that he’d harvest that old tree and build a potting shed based on the cottage he saw in England. Using the photograph as a guide, and a portable sawmill to slice up the oak, Schroeder devoted a year to constructing his 2,2 x 3 m building.
Schroeder fabricated all of the shed’s windows, including a pair of arched casements on the first floor and a second-storey box bay that’s located directly over the front door. “The box bay lets in a lot of natural light,” Schroeder explains, “and it creates a comfortable window seat for my grandkids.” (Schroeder has 11, with another on the way.) He added a traditional Dutch door entryway and painted shutters, and incorporated a pull-down attic staircase for access to the second floor.
The walls of the first floor are built of sandstone-like blocks, which resemble natural stone but are made of concrete. The second storey has a faux-plaster finish made of white painted plywood outlined in dark brown trim.
On the right side of the shed, Schroeder built a modest 1,5 x 2,2 m greenhouse, which he and his wife use for starting plants in preparation for Minnesota’s short growing season. The interior of the shed is outfitted with a wood-burning fireplace and a circa-1920 three-burner gas stove.
Bruce Bradford grew up on a fifth-generation family farm in western Michigan where he helped his father and grandfather tend cattle. “Dad was an excellent mechanic and was in charge of maintaining all of the farm machinery,” Bradford says. His grandfather handled all of the farm’s carpentry and woodworking chores. “To keep me busy, my father would send me over to help my granddad.” As a result, the young Bradford developed skills that would eventually lead to a late-life woodworking career.
In 1997, after 13 years travelling the world as an international product development manager, Bradford hired architect Quinn Pillsworth to design a new workshop on his 8 000 m2 lot in Winston- Salem, North Carolina. “Reflecting on my days growing up on the farm, I wanted the inside of the shop to have the feel of an old dairy barn,” Bradford says. The result is a spacious 7 x 7,5 m post-and-beam building with traditional board-and-batten siding. This kind of structure, with its heavy timbers and intricate joinery, is costlier to build than a conventional stick-built design, but Bradford discovered some unexpected benefits: “Once the timbers were milled, it only took a few days to erect the frame. And the shop was weather-tight within a week, which allowed me to complete the interior at my own pace.” It took him a little over six months to finish the building.
In 2002, Bradford left the corporate world to pursue his dream of making custom furniture. Today, the shop is outfitted with a full complement of woodworking machinery: table saw, shaper, lathe, spindle sander, band saw, thickness planer, drill press and jointer. The shop has a 200-amp electrical service, and each major piece of machinery runs on its own circuit. Bradford builds furniture on commission, specialising in dining tables and chairs.
Plumbing contractor Randy Gerweck says his mom has been gardening for as long as he can remember, and as a toddler, he helped her clean out the flowerbeds. So, one day when she showed him a magazine photo of a garden shed, he decided it was time to put his carpentry skills to work. Ten Saturdays later, her handsome 3 x 3,6 m “puttering shed”, as Gerweck calls it, was finished.
The outbuilding, designed as a secure place for gardening tools and supplies, has plywood siding, rough-sawn cedar trim and architectural asphalt roof shingles. It rests on a skid foundation made of 100 x 150 mm hefty pressure-treated timbers. There are four vinyl windows, a roof-mounted cupola and two metal doors. Gerweck built a ramp outside the rear door, so it’s easy for his mother to wheel garden equipment in and out of the building.
Being a professional contractor, Gerweck often comes across discarded materials, which he rescues from the scrapheap and saves for his own projects. The doors, windows, trim and much of the framing timber were all salvaged. But his best find was several scissor trusses, which he used to frame the shed’s roof.
So, what would he do differently next time? “Not a thing,” Gerweck says. “Mom loves the shed exactly the way it is.”
Big sky sauna
Sheep farmers David Tyler and Becky Weed live on 200 hectares of prime pastureland in southwestern Montana. They own and operate Thirteen Mile Farm, a certified-organic spread that sells a range of products, including wool, clot