Arts & Culture

Barn Again: A Woodworker Reimagines a Family Heirloom

A new dining set with a meaningful past brings loved ones to the table once more

photo: Trudy Haywood Saunders

The Haywood family's barn; a table made from the salvaged wood.

Evan Mauldin walks around the sides of the dilapidated barn, quietly making a plan, feeling its wood planks with his fingers to check its quality. He can use the boards on the left side of the structure, he says—the rusty tin roof protected that flank of my grandparents’ barn outside of Mount Gilead, North Carolina, from the elements, limiting the damage of time, and the oak boards are solid, a material he can work with.

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“My daddy built the house when I was a baby,” my father, Truett Haywood, tells us, a fact I remember hearing before. “I’m seventy-five-years-old, so the barn is probably close to that, too.” My earliest memories of the barn are of going into it with Daddy to see baby calves. When I was probably ten or so, my cousins and I would play in the building, climbing up into the hayloft and throwing dried corn cobs at each other. Games and hide and seek filled our hours, but we always slightly feared what else could be hiding in there: rats, other critters, snakes in particular.

photo: Trudy Haywood Saunders
The barn’s surviving planks.

My grandmother died in 2009, after moving into a nursing home nearly a decade before, leaving their home and the barn empty. Weather and neglect had taken their toll since, and when a tree fell through the front of it during a storm a year or so ago, the damage was irreparable. I lived less than half a mile away, and it pained me to see the continued decline of the structure each time I drove past, its walls leaning like a house of cards, waiting for the inevitable.

I contacted my Aunt Vivian, who owns the property now, and got permission to remove some boards for a table. With her blessing, Evan, a former student of mine turned master woodworker, met my daddy and me at the barn one January afternoon to see if the project would even be feasible. If the wood was wet or rotting, it wouldn’t be usable. Besides, since the barn was leaning so badly, I didn’t know if it would even be safe to remove the boards.

That’s where Evan came in. He owns a successful business called Mauldin Woodwork in nearby Monroe, creating a range of items from custom cutting boards to front porch swings with the precision of an artist. He began woodworking when he was only six, simple projects like candlestick holders and a small canoe, and studied the craft by reading and watching videos. He received one-on-one, hands-on instruction from a mentor, Mike Morgan, who had amassed a lifetime of building experience over the course of his eighty-plus years. Upon graduating from college, Evan began woodworking full-time. For several years, I had followed his professional Facebook page, marveling at his beautiful custom pieces.

After he and I exchanged a few messages, I knew that Evan would be the perfect craftsman for the project I had in mind: a farm table and benches, possibly barstool tops, too. “Reclaimed wood in particular has the power of a story that should be allowed to live on,” he told me. “That wood was used to build something that housed a lifetime of experiences, and those experiences live on through an oral history. A piece of furniture built from that wood serves as the catalyst for those stories to live on.”

Some of that history: Like many others from the Greatest Generation, those who lived through the Depression and World War II, my grandparents lived off of the land, raising their own chickens, cows, and pigs, as well as fruits and vegetables. Waste wasn’t an option, and neither was buying things at the store that they could provide for themselves. My granddaddy, known as Gang-Gang by his grandchildren, was a WWII veteran and logger, and my grandma was a seamstress at a textile mill. Both had their own cow to milk each morning before work. My grandaddy kept a Holstein in that barn, while Mema preferred a Jersey. From that milk, she made homemade butter in a churn that my mama used to make pound cakes for my birthdays when I was a child.

I remember family meals at their house on Thanksgiving, Christmas, and at dinner every Saturday. The familiar cadence of Grandaddy’s blessing before the meal. The endless pots and pans of garden-fresh vegetables, biscuits, and cornbread lined up on the stove and wood heater. We were allowed to get as much as we wanted, but reminded not to take more than we would eat. 

After Evan and I discussed dimensions and design options, he devised a plan to create a farm-style table, benches, two chairs, and barstool tops. He came one morning and took the side of the barn apart, extracting the boards with a pry bar, hammer, and a sacrificial board, which he loosened at one end to gain leverage and then wrested back to lift out the nail heads down the rest of the board. Using the pry bar on the sacrificial board provided extra leverage that prevented damage to the face of the boards, allowing him to gather a truck load of the slats. 

Due to supply-chain issues (and not a little nostalgia), both professional and hobbyist woodworkers have renewed their focus on reclaimed lumber, but there are often obstacles. Working with new lumber is fairly straightforward—the woodworker mills the lumber square and flat using a jointer, a planer, and finally, a table saw. With reclaimed lumber, the craftsman has to follow these same steps, while maintaining the patina of the wood. Often nails and metal objects remaining in the wood have to be addressed, as do signs of rot or other damage. Finding a balance between keeping the character of the wood and ensuring the lumber is suitable for construction can be a challenge.

For this reason, Evan does not mill the lumber down to a clean surface on all sides as he would for other furniture builds. Instead, he goes over the boards with a hand plane to achieve a flat surface without sacrificing appearance. He then cuts the boards to width with a table saw and glues them together to the desired tabletop size. Once the glue dries, he removes the clamps and again uses the hand plane on the surface, and then wields fine-grit sandpaper to smooth. 

photo: Trudy Haywood Saunders
The author’s father, Truett Haywood, and aunt Vivian Perry sit at the finished table.

During the planing of my boards, Evan discovered that the barn had been constructed with both oak and sycamore, which was somewhat unexpected. He used the oak boards, filling their nail holes with epoxy, to make the tabletop and the sycamore for the bench seats. “I believe there is an innate desire in people to remember the past,” he says, “and tangible items like reclaimed furniture are a practical way to satisfy that need.”

I was excited to show the finished products to Aunt Vivian and Daddy, and I think my grandparents would be proud of the furniture made from their barn. Nothing wasted, just the way they believed things should be done. And my daughter, who never got to meet her great-grandparents, now has that tangible connection to them. 

As she spreads out her schoolwork and art projects on the table, in a way, she is sharing her day with them. And when we sit down there to eat together as a family, not only is the barn my grandaddy built nearly three-quarters of a century ago with us—he and Mema are, too.