The simple craft of making barn quilts has had a resurgence since the turn of the century, after a long hiatus. Originating hundreds of years ago, barn quilts were originally intended as a simple decoration, on utilitarian buildings (barns) that weren’t normally painted. They came to the United States with the colonists and have continued on, as part of the tradition of the Pennsylvania Dutch. For those early settlers, barn quilts were a way of holding on to their heritage. Even so, they fell largely by the wayside, until 2001.
The modern version of the barn quilt was started by Donna Sue Groves, out of her desire to honor her mother and her Appalachian heritage. The first modern barn quilt was hung on Donna’s barn, in Adams County, Ohio.
Barn quilts now showing up in over 40 of the states, as well as Canada. They are popular enough that people create barn quilt “trails” which are mapped out, showing where barn quilts are located and can be viewed. The old custom of a Sunday afternoon drive can be made more enjoyable by following one of these trails and seeing what people have crafted.
Obviously, barn quilts that are going on real barns need to be quite large. Typically, they are painted on two standard sheets of plywood, creating a eight foot square. But many people make smaller barn quilts for decorating inside and outside their homes. These smaller quilts are usually two feet square.
A typical barn quilt doesn’t show a whole quilt, but rather merely one square of a quilt. Depending on the quilt design and maker, those squares can range anywhere from about four inches square to 12 inches square. Regardless of their size, however, all quilts are made with geometric precision, which is part of their beauty.
Making a Barn Quilt
The physical construction of a barn quilt is simplicity itself. Basically, all it is, is a plywood square. But it’s a good idea to make a frame for that square, in order to maintain its structural integrity and flatness. Just about any type of plywood can be used for making a barn quilt, but you will get the best results out of working with a smooth surfaced plywood, like signboard. If you can’t get signboard, than a sanded plywood or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) will work. One-half inch thick material is ideal. You don’t want to go larger than that, as it can get extremely heavy.
Large Barn Quilts
To make a traditional, full sized, barn quilt, you’ll need two full sheets of plywood. These will need to be connected together by the frame, which is usually made out of 2”x 4” dimensional lumber. As you can see in the drawing below, the frame overlaps the joint, holding the two halves together.
When connecting the two halves together, it is a good idea to caulk the seam between them, so that no water can enter into this seam. Don’t caulk it from the outside, but rather run a bead of caulk down the edge of the plywood, between the pieces, as you are putting them together. Wipe off any excess caulking that squeezes out of the seam. Attach the plywood to the frame with 1-5/8” drywall screws, being sure to drill and countersink the holes in the plywood, so that the screw heads will be below flush. Fill the holes with wood putty and sand smooth and flush with the surface, once the putty dries.
It is also a good idea to caulk the seams between the 2”x 4”s and the plywood and the seams between the 2”x 4”s, so that water cannot get between them. You want your barn square to last and the biggest enemy against this is water.
Small Barn Quilts
If you are making smaller barn quilts, for decorations inside or outside your home, you probably won’t need to connect the pieces of plywood together. You may still want a frame though, to add stability and rigidity to the barn quilt. These frames can be made out of 1”x 2”s, 1”x 3”s or 1”x 4”s.
This frame is also attached to the back side of the barn quilt, so as to leave the finished piece looking unframed; maintaining the original style. As with the larger barn quilts, you’ll want to caulk the joints between the boards and the plywood, to keep water out, if you are planning on using the barn quilt outdoors.
How to Paint Barn Quilts
There are two principle concerns in painting barn quilts. The first is that the paint last. It is difficult enough to paint a barn quilt, that you don’t want to have to repaint it after two or three years. So you’ll want to use several coats of paint on the entire board, both sides, so as to ensure that it doesn’t get damaged by water.
Before painting the barn quilt, I’d like to recommend sealing the edges of the plywood. Plywood, like all engineered wood products, soaks up moisture faster through the end grain, than anywhere else. Sealing the edges will do more to protect it from the rain, than anything else. To do this, use common latex painters caulk on your finger. Simply put a small glob on your finger and wipe it onto the edge, pressing the caulking into the grain.
Prime the back of the project with three coats of primer and two coats on the front side, before applying the color. Unless you suspend the barn quilt on a string, this means that you’ll have to paint one side at a time. Flip the quilt over, between coats, alternating sides, so as to prevent it from warping.
Painting the Design
Now we get to the fun part, painting the design on your barn quilt. Start out by painting the entire front and edges with two coats of the lightest color you are going to use for your quilt. Allow these to dry thoroughly. Since barn quilts are geometric designs, we’re going to need to lay that design out on the painted plywood, using a tape measure, a straight edge and quite likely a protractor. Keep in mind that you can do a lot, just by marking off the midpoints of each side or dividing the sides into 4 equal sections. A chalk like is not recommended, as that could discolor your paint. Lay out the entire design, in pencil, making sure it is dark enough to see.
You will want to use a high-quality masking tape, such as Frog Tape or ScotchBlue to mask the edges of your areas to paint. Work on only one color at a time, masking and painting all the areas that are to be in that color, with a high-quality latex paint. You will need at least two coats of paint to cover fully, allowing the paint to dry between coats and before removing the tape.
Barn Quilt Patterns
You can use literally any quilt square pattern for making a barn quilt. Don’t select pastel colors or colors that are close to each other. They may look great close up, but at a distance, they blend together. Rather, you want colors with a lot of contrast, to make your patter stand out.
These are just a few examples of the patterns you can use for your barn quilt. A quick search online will show you countless more that you can choose from.