Last fall when I asked Tracy what new projects she wanted made for the house she said she wanted a kitchen island first. And not just any kitchen island – she wanted a custom barn wood kitchen island. We even had a slight disagreement about the size. She wanted it quite a bit bigger than I originally envisioned. I knew before I sketched out the design that something that wide wouldn’t fit through the door (knowing I would have to do all the work in the garage, and it would have to be complete before bringing it in). We decided by making one side a bar, the base would fit through the door, but we could get the top surface area we wanted. You can see in the original sketch the towel bar was going to be on the cove shelving side, and the opposite end was potentially going to be open. Also, the top itself was going to be planks that went from left to right. Everything always changes as things are built out (as you’ll see below).
I knew that the 4 posts would be 4×4’s, so I cut those to length first. I got them at the sawmill rough cut (top one), and after sanding you can really see the grain well (bottom one). These are going to look nice stained later on!
Here’s a pic of all 4 posts, 2 sanded and 2 not. I’m pretty sure that this wood is Ash – which is a hardwood, but it’s a lot lighter than what we’ll be using in the rest of the kitchen island (other than the frame).
So this was a first for me. I’ve only been doing woodworking for about a year and I never had to frame anything up before. I just took the plans and braced it up where the top and shelves would go. I had read about pocket holes, and they seemed like the most reliable and inconspicuous way to create a solid foundation. I bought and a Kreg’s pocket hole jig at Lowe’s – and we’re off and running!
Once the outside frame was in place, I added some internal braces so the top and all shelving would be fully supported. All in – I had to drill 72 pocket holes.
I stained the 4 posts a nice ebony color and started to build out the end cove shelving with some red oak, stained a red mahogany color. The piece of barn wood at the top was something I put into place because I couldn’t figure out how to mark and cut a consistent partial oval for the rounded cove part. I end up figuring out how to do this later on…
About a month before this project started I purchased some 200 year old barn wood from a farmer in Blissfield, MI. Part of the barn had fallen down (which he fixed and replaced), but he saved the siding planks. Finding the most suitable pieces for the kitchen island, you can see in this pic one of the original nails was still in the wood (hand cast from lead nearly 2 centuries ago).
After finding the most suitable pieces of barn wood for the front, I cut them to size before clean up.
The next step was to lightly sand the barn wood and then give it a light coat of ebony stain as well. Some of you might cringe at the thought of dark staining 200 year old reclaimed barn wood, but I assure you – it was both necessary and a defining part of making the project aesthetic what I wanted. I think you’ll agree in the end.
Time to frame in the shelves and add some reclaimed barn wood maple siding to cover up the 2×4 braces. Again I used red mahogany stain for the inside boards and ebony stain for the barn wood exterior.
Even with the flash it’s hard to see what’s clamped in this picture. I replaced the earlier piece of barn wood that was placed here once I figured out how to cut a semi-circle in a 1″ thick piece of hardwood. It involves a piece of string, a pencil (homemade compass), and a bunch of cuts on the table saw and scroll saw. You’ll see this better in a later pic.
I told Tracy that I wanted the bar side of the island to have corbels on either end, appearing to hold it up. It took me a long time to find a pattern I liked for this – and at first I was going to cut this entire design from 2 1/2″ thick solid black walnut. Since you’re not even supposed to cut anything bigger than 2″ on my scroll saw, that seemed out of the question. But I had looked at some designs where the inner part of the corbel was sandwiched by a design on either side. Little did I know this entire effort (just of creating the corbels) would be at least 25-30 hours in total. The following images depict that whole journey:
After the glued-on pattern is outside cut to shape, I drilled holes inside all the areas that would need to be cut out on the scrollsaw.
Finished end corbel piece with the pattern paper taken off, before it gets sanded and cleaned up.
Here’s all 4 of them after being cut on the scroll saw. You can see the 2 on the left are still a little wet with mineral spirits (used to remove the pattern paper and glue).
I cut the inner corbel pieces from the scraps of black walnut left over from when I had the top pieces cut. What the image below doesn’t show is how hard it was to cut 2 1/2″ thick black walnut on a standard Craftsman scroll saw (or the half dozen blades I broke doing it). It also doesn’t show work I had to do with a detail sander and dremel to get all the rough parts shaped out properly. In the image below they are sanded, and ready to be stained.
I think staining them lightly in ebony just made them even better.
It was a LOT OF WORK cleaning up the end corbel pieces with a dremel and detail sander. I had to order some special dremel bits on Amazon to get at some of the small inner areas. After sanding, staining was no walk in the park either – having to stain all the inner areas one by one with a q-tip. All-in-all it was worth it. I think they turned out amazing, the stain just gave them a whole new life.
Here I was matching everything up just before adding the glue and clamping them up for a few days. The red mahogany and ebony stain was pretty consistent throughout this project.
Here we have the solid black walnut planks on top for the first time (unfinished). What followed was a really long effort to get all 6 of these to line up properly, before they were secured and sanded. I bought a hand plane and tried to do this old school (which was a miserable failure). Tracy to the rescue – she bought me a jointer at Lowe’s for my birthday (among other things, such as a Dremel, and hand-held belt sander).
This is a pic of everything lined up post jointing.
Before starting standing, I was sure to tape down the bottom half of the island – knowing that I would be sanding for many days.
The true beauty of wood grain really comes out when you start to sand it.
Sanding the top was not a fun job, and very tedious. Sanding in 80 grit, then 120, then 240, and finally 320 (making it smooth as glass). Especially when you’re talking 2-4 hours per grit. This was the better part of a week.
The day you actually get to put the stain on is like the “money shot” day….LOL.
The entire top stained and ready for top clear coats.
Many people would have finished this island with polyurethane. I read an awful lot about finishes before deciding not to do this. One of the reasons is that with poly you have to sand after every coat. Back in the old days of classic wood workers there was no such thing. Everything was finished with shellac. Shellac (like lacquer) is a finish that bonds to itself (coat after coat) so it needs no sanding in between. Also in testing with water, alcohol, and other substances – with 6 coats or more it’s much more durable and long lasting than poly. So 6 coats of shellac it was!
The last item was the custom towel bar. I created two 3×3 blocks with a celtic design, and cut a 1×16 piece of solid black walnut for the bar.
These look pretty darn good stained – sticking with the same ebony and red mahogany colors. I used red oak for both end cap pieces.
I routed keyhole screw slots on the back of each block. Here are some pics of the towel bar mounted on the island:
These are the final pics of our custom barn wood kitchen island – complete with bar stools, custom corbels, and custom hardwood towel bar.
Total time for this project (since a lot of it was a learning process) was about 3 months. But, we will enjoy it for many years!