How to Make Barn Quilts

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, when the resurgence began.

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 are now showing up in over 40 of the states, as well as across 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 other 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 an 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 on the quilts, that these designs are taken from, can range anywhere from about four inches square to 12 inches square. Regardless of their size, however, one of the basic concepts of quilting is that all quilts are made with geometric precision, which is part of their inherent beauty.

Making a Barn Quilt

The physical construction of a barn quilt is simplicity itself. Basically, it is nothing more than a plywood square. Even so, it’s a good idea to make a frame for that square, in order to maintain its structural integrity and flatness. Unsupported plywood can bow and twist somewhat, and plywood fresh from the lumberyard will often be cupped somewhat, a leftover from the way it is manufactured, stacked and shipped.

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 a signboard, then a sanded softwood plywood or MDF (medium-density fiberboard) will work almost as good. Paint it with a couple of coats of sealer, before painting the design on, to keep the paint from soaking in. One-half inch thick material is usually considered to be ideal. You don’t want to go thicker than that, especially with the larger barn quilts, as they can become 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.

barn quilts, sketch
Large barn quilts

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. In addition, coating the end grain on the 2”x 4”s and the edges of the plywood with caulking will help seal them against the weather, adding life to your square. Smooth this caulking in with your finger, so that it isn’t lumpy. Caulking will provide a better weather seal than any paint, because it is thicker, especially when trying to protect the end-grain of boards.

Note how the top member of the frame, in the drawing above, runs the full width of the square. This is intentional, so that there is no end grain facing directly up. Water soaks into the end grain considerably easier, so by capping the end grain, we reduce the chance of water soaking in.

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.

small barn quilts
Small barn quilts

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, the edges of the plywood and the end grain on the frame; all 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. Please note that it is important to paint the back side, so that the drying paint doesn’t put a strain on the plywood, causing it to warp.

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, as I mentioned above. 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; pressing the edges down, so that they will seal well. 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.

High-gloss paints are not normally used for barn quilts, as they will reflect more of the sunlight than a duller sheen will. At the other extreme of the glossiness scale, a flat paint will hold more dirt, dulling the paint. You’re best off using an eggshell or satin paint, which will provide a smooth enough surface to stay clean, without reflecting too much sunlight.

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.

barn quilt, pattern
Barn quilt patterns

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. Literally any quilt pattern can be used to make a barn quilt.

Part of the fun of making a barn quilt is figuring out how to lay out the design geometrically. Some of these designs can be quite challenging to do. Don’t lose your patience. There’s always a way to lay it out, using the simple tools I mentioned earlier. In most cases, the designs are laid out in quarters, eights, and sixteenths of a circle. So drawing lines radiating out from the center at every 20, 30 or 45 degrees will give you a good starting point.

To know how many degrees to put between those lines, count the number of points in the design. The design in the lower-left above, for example, only has eight points, whereas the one in the top row, second from the left has 12 points. Based on this, spread your lines out by:

Number of PointsDegrees Between Lines

Don’t be fooled by a design where it has double points that are parallel to each other, like the design in the upper right corner. While the design has a total of 12 points, they are grouped into four sets of three points. Only the red points are determining direction, with pairs of blue points bracketing each red one. It is easy to tell this, because none of the blue points are pointed directly out from the center.

Another useful tool for laying your design out is a string compass. This is nothing more than a string, with a pencil tied at one end and a nail at the other. The nail is lightly tapped into the center and the pencil is then used to draw a circle around that center. The length of the string can be adjusted to change the size of the circle.

Circles are useful not only where they are obvious in the design, such as the second one from the left in the bottom row, but also to define spacing from the center of the circle. You can measure from the center for each of the points in the second design from the left in the top row, or you can use a string compass to determine where the points should be, creating an intersection between the radial lines and the circle. Of the two methods, it’s faster and easier to make the circle.

You may want to experiment around with drawing the quilting square designs on a piece of paper, before doing it on an actual quilt square. It will be easier, working with a small compass and ruler, than it will be to work with a string compass and a tape rule. That will make laying out your actual quilt square easier and give you a chance to experiment with designs, before laying out your project.

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