Synthetic Amish

Once I came to the realization that two sides of the barn needed new siding, I faced three big questions.

Question 1 – Can I get the lumber?

Answer: Yes, with white pine and Norway spruce cut from our farm and sawn into boards by a portable sawmiller.

Question 2 – Can I get the help?

Answer: Yes, from two strong sons. Worshrag was laid off thanks to the coronavirus, and Seed worked with us evenings and weekends.

Question 3 – Am I too old for this project?

Answer: Almost but not quite.

There actually was a fourth question – with what should I paint, stain, or treat the boards? – but that had already been answered through a chance conversation I had with a man I met at the Rogers auction a couple of years ago.

This man made his living in construction and renovation work. I told him about our dome home’s weathered cedar siding, and asked his opinion about contracting for a well-advertised “ceramic coating” painting process that is expensive but carries a 25-year guarantee.

“Paint is paint. It doesn’t let wood breathe,” he said. “If I were you, I’d use what the Amish use.”

I haven’t tried it on the house yet, but his advice turned out to be just the thing for the barn.

I HAD AGONIZED for years over what to do about the barn siding. For a while I considered applying gray paint or a clear wood preservative.

“Paint it red” was the advice of my brother-in-law, General Doc. “Barns should be red,” he said. I loved the natural weathered gray-brown look of our barn, but there is “weathered,” as in lovely rustic appearance, and “weathered,” as in boards falling off because sun, rain and wind have worn them away. For years I climbed ladders to nail fallen boards back up, but some were so thin and brittle they shattered when they fell. I filled the gaps with whatever lumber I had at hand, like patching an old pair of pants with scraps of cloth.

Our 80-by-40-foot barn was built in 1849 by a man named William Lathem. He built it for the Pugh family and was paid $150 for the job, and what a masterful job it was! After 171 years, the frame of massive hand-hewn oak beams and posts joined with pegs is still strong and true, for the most part. The main floor of thick tongue-and-groove oak, and original thick pine siding on the long north side are in amazingly good shape.

Boards on the west side – the weather side – were replaced, however, probably in mid-century, with common 1-by-12-inch pine sheathing. The original siding on the long south side, and on the east end with its peak 35 feet above the ground, were what needed to be replaced.

If we were going to nail up a couple thousand board feet of beautiful rough-cut boards – and we were – I surely wasn’t going to insult new wood with paint, and especially not red paint, no offense to Doc or Bob Evans.

ALL RIGHT, ALL RIGHT. I know the suspense is killing you.

“What do the Amish use on their barns??? Tell me now!!”

Sheesh. OK.

A 50-50 mixture of used motor oil and diesel fuel makes a practical, inexpensive treatment and waterproofing for barn siding and the beds of trailers and wagons. It is named for the frugal Amish, but plenty of non-Amish have sworn by it for years. You can apply motor oil by itself, but it soaks in better if you cut it with diesel or kerosene. Spray it on, roll it on, paint it on, pour it on. It repels insects, too.

Those of us who still change our own engine oil usually have five-quart jugs of used oil sitting around the garage. Farmers with diesel tractors buy off-road diesel in bulk. Thus, the makings for Amish mix are cheap and ready at hand for such as us.

It ended up taking 15 to 20 gallons of mix for our project. I ran out of used oil but Seed had several jugs. We laid the boards on sawhorses and coated both sides with paint rollers, a messy task that grandsons Rufus and Bob pitched in on. Fifteen gallons of a good linseed oil-based preserver would have cost a thousand dollars.

The new wood was stained a rich golden color, bringing out the natural beauty of our home-cut spruce and pine. I learned that if I went a little heavy on the diesel, the stain picked up a slight rose tint. Off-road fuel is colored with red dye to prevent truckers from using it to avoid highway fuel tax.

I learned also to avoid using really black, dirty oil, which stained the wood dark walnut instead of light oak.

Since son Seed and I both use synthetic oil in our cars, I call our mixture Synthetic Amish. And since Worshrag, Seed and I have now successfully completed our ambitious barn siding project, I guess you can call us Synthetic Amish, too.

Our barn is right alongside Gas Valley Road. Honk when you drive by to admire the new siding. Everybody does.


Today's breaking news and more in your inbox

I'm interested in (please check all that apply)