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Peg and Awl Barn Restoration Project at the Five Acre Wood in Pennsylvania

The first abandoned house I remember exploring was across from the grocery store my mom and I skipped to, arm in arm, when I was in 7th grade. We had seen its decaying Victorian turrets peeking above the abundance of neglected foliage many times before braving its withered threshold. Early one Spring, we ventured into that liminal space and I don't believe I ever completely left. Inside reeked of piss and mildew. Broken bottles and yellowed newspapers made a foul floor for weekend teenagers. But in the center – beneath a makeshift skylight and its funnel of wintry, warm, yellow sun – grew a single white tulip. Discovering this unexpected beauty with my mom so long ago, was surely a heavy pour in the cocktail of experiences from my youth that helped determine who I was to become.⁠

Three years ago, just one year after officially beginning our homeschool adventure with Søren and Silas, we decided to move out of Philadelphia in search of a new home amongst the trees. We quickly stumbled upon the patch of land that we’ve come to call The Five Acre Wood – consisting of a ton of invasive growth, some lawn, woods, ponds, animals, two creeks, our house (built in the late 1700s or early 1800s), a spring house (formerly our studio) and – just across the road – a dilapidated barn. Truly, our timing was perfect.

Peg and Awl Old Barn Before Restoration
Peg and Awl Old Barn Before Restoration
The Old Barn from the road.
We hired Precise Buildings to rebuild the barn!

In the listing Walter had spied a corner of the barn – a cautious partial revealing of this daunting danger for most, we reckoned, and possibly the reason the house had been on the market for so long. But we dreamed of transforming the barn into a studio for art, homeschooling, woodworking, and yoga. Two years after our move, with the sale of our Philadelphia home (previously serving as an Airbnb), we were able to embark on this new adventure.

The project began with the removal of decades – centuries even – of junk that had been accumulating. We briefly considered hauling the stuff to a flea market to help fund the barn restoration, but after moving some of it out (there was so much!) we ordered a dumpster, and set everything curious in rows in the grass for the taking. There were chairs, well-loved ice skates, wooden sleds, tons of old bottles and antique toys – and then came the people – making it a strange theatre. The conversations that arose during the treasure-dispersal resulted in many journal pages of quotidian conversations which reveal people to be anything but the perceived everyday.

Old Things found inside old barn
Old things found inside old barn
Most of these strange treasures found homes... 
The telephone operator thing went to a musician who plans to turn it into something musical. 

After the emptying, came the digging of an incredibly deep well which resulted in the grinding and unexpected excavating of Wissahickon Schist – also known as trash stone – from which our house was built. I collected a salad container full and transformed some of the pre-ground pigment into paint for my Iris Painter’s Palette.

Paint handmade from pigment found in well
Wissahickon Schist found during well digging
Look for Bioplastic Pans of this handmade watercolor paint in our First Of a Kind Collection of the Year!
Wissahickon Schist — also known as Trash Stone — makes a gorgeous ghost green colour.

We then removed the lead-free wood siding, the tin roof, the old doors, the flooring, and some beams, with the intention of re-using as much of this as possible in different places both inside of the barn and out. When the township inspector came and saw the rotted state of the exposed bits that were revealed, we had to embark upon a plan b, which brings to mind The Ship of Theseus.

By the time we finished removing the rotted bits, the trusses, the rafters, the floors, it was hard to say if we were reclaiming an old barn or building a new one in its image. The barn shape– the space within the frame – became one of the few parts I could solidly say remained of the historic place. But over the next few weeks – as I observed the delicate skeleton of the old barn standing strong but precarious in the wind and rain, with day now inside and night inside too – I grew suspicious of this boundaryless thing I wanted to keep. What were we preserving, and more, why?

Removing Wooden Rafters During Barn Restoration
Timber Frame exposed during Barn Restoration
Putting on a new roof before taking it off to remove more of the old.
Delicate skeleton of the old barn.
Interior view of wooden beams
After getting over the long pause whilst figuring out plan b...
A new view!

Most of the structure is new now, but within it is a tapestry of old materials. Walter transformed the old extinct-ish American Chestnut tree trunk beams into two glorious sets of double doors. An old second floor door, which led to an unsurvivable drop, is now part of the bathroom. The old floorboards were flipped and trimmed and woven with old floorsboards from other barns, and together have been sanded and oiled. The crooked skeleton of hand-hewn wood with its mortise and tenon joints, trunnels, and roman numeral marriage marks, lingers charmingly in the middle of the new open space. The white-washed wall, that once held tobaggons, hockey sticks, and fishing poles still divides the two main spaces. The stone-walled basement, where the barn’s last farm animal – a calf – lived in the 1960s, will soon be a woodshop and ceramic studio. We put windows and skylights throughout the building, replacing the vertical cracks that let only slivers of light in for the past 200 or so years.

The shape within the frame remains, but the air that flowed through it like water through a river, has surely been fully turned over. Already, the newly brightened space has illuminated a life unimagined by the original builders, including family yoga, the beginning of a writing and drawing workshop, the penciling of portraits, the playing of boardgames, the making of maps, a happy Pearl and a sleepy Pearl, and the curiosity of two families embarking on new adventures. The barn is made of pieces that were and are and will be. Are we so different?

tree nail from original barn house structure
roman numeral marriage marks in timber frame
A Trunnel – one of many Tree Nails securing the original structure.
Roman Numeral Marriage Marks to help builders determine what went where!
Exterior Barn door before restoration
Reclaimed Barn Door used for Bathroom
An exterior door that led to the unsurvivable drop, (that looks rather survivable from here...) now our bathroom door!
the floor sanders
The Floor Sanders – Søren, Silas, and I — unintentionally recreating The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte.
The Floor Scrapers by Gustave Caillebotte
Barn floor before and after sanding
finishing the barn floor
A satisfying before and after! We first rented this Drum Floor Sander and used 60 grit sandpaper, then used this Orbital Sander with 80 and 100 grit.
Finishing the new floor with Citrus Solvent and Tung Oil from The Real Milk Paint Company. We use this natural finish on Peg and Awl treasures too!
barn floor finished with furnishings and puppy
painting the barn floor white
Pearl enjoying the new space from her favourite rug – a flea market find!
We painted the floor white! Søren tries out the new staircase that he helped install,
reclaimed original wall from abandoned barn
alaskan saw mill for american chestnut tree trunks
Original wall that divides the two parts of the barn. Pearl and Søren, my loves. 
Walter used the saw mill to make doors out of the American Chestnut trunks!
chestnut beams from the 1700s barn
double doors made from american chestnut beams
American Chestnut Tree beams born in the 1700s leave their lowly position of being walked upon + now usher in light, people, and animals!
Walter’s gorgeous first go at door building!


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what a work of love! it is stunning
When I was in high school my parents restored a century home on 11 acres with a barn, outhouse, and chicken coop. I loved that house. Such a wonderful porch too. Walking those acres with the dogs fostered my love for nature and the simple life

So worth it to document the barn’s journey – the technical stuff is fascinating, the photos are beautifully observed (the Floor Scrapers is the only art postcard I bought after seeing the original in The Museé d’Orsay in Paris) and it feels a privilege to see a family’s vision come to fruition. Thank you.

Such an inspiring project executed so organically and thoughtfully with the whole family involved. I can imagine it will be a treasured space for years to come. Wishing you all many years of creative play and exploration in your old/new magical barn.

What a beautiful story, told with such thoughtful words, this was a delightful read! The Barn turned out amazing! Congratulations!

Thank you for sharing this inspiring journey. What a wonderful model of reuse; true to your mission and ethos.

Truly a labor of love! Magnificent accomplishment! Oh happy day!

So nice to read the story of the barn! Such a beautiful space. And I loved the Floor Sanders vs. Floor Scrapers!

So wonderful to hear the full story! I love this place.

What a great space! An artist dream. With the work you and your family put in, the satisfaction and enjoyment will last for many years to come. Enjoy.

What a massive but worthy project! My husband and I are weeks from finalizing the sale and move to a property in the Wisconsin woods that includes a little rickety barn with stone foundation. So many similar features noted between the two! We are hoping to give it some love and restoration to last another 100 years. Your studio makeover is an artists dream!!….and well done. So heart warming to see the evidence of hard work from the whole family and the satisfaction of completion. It will surely serve as a creative powerhouse for many years to come for all of you! Congratulations!

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