Four years ago, our modest home in suburban upstate New York was devouring heating oil, killing the family living budget. We bit the proverbial bullet and invested in a $3,000 wood pellet stove, the kind that gets inserted into an existing fireplace. We made back the cost of the stove after three years of heating with pellets during some very harsh northeastern winters. Oh, what a pleasure it was setting up our annual budget payment plan with the oil company after the first year of running the stove: We cut our oil expenditures nearly in half.
So that’s the upside of owning a pellet stove. To be honest, the downsides are few if you ask me. My husband, on the other hand, does the bulk of the undesirables of operating a wood pellet stove. He’s the cleaner, the maintenance man and the guy who must lug 40-pound bags of pellets up from the basement, where he built a very suitable storage rack that keeps the pellets off of the cold concrete floor. I’d heard just about enough of his complaining about bringing the bags upstairs so I told him I’d scour our local flea markets and yard sales for some sort of storage bin—one that would look nice to keep in our living room. Hey, I’m all about our homestead being function- al, but it’s got to look nice, too.
RELATED: Homestead Winemaking
In my travels to markets and surfing the Internet, I found nothing suitable. Either the bins were too expensive, too ugly or they simply wouldn’t fit more than a couple of those 40-pound bags. My husband recommended we restore a metal 55-gallon drum, maybe paint it to look like a country quilt. He thought its “rustiness” would suit my taste. Sorry, honey, not going to happen. He said, “OK, then, we’ll get a 55-gallon drum and I’ll wrap it in nice wood and stain it to match the fireplace mantel.”
“Huh,” I thought, “this guy’s onto something.” That’s when I pictured an old whiskey or wine barrel. Bingo! Off to Craigslist I went, and the next day he high-tailed it to a winery in Millbrook, New York, where he scored an out-of-commission wine barrel for $50.
Steps To The Revival
Our barrel was in need of some major TLC as it had been stored in an old, musty barn for quite some time. Depending on your barrel’s condition, the following steps can (and likely will) be modified.
SAND AWAY: Take down the rough spots using sandpaper, or go the easier route and use an electric sander. We sanded the barrels’ surface with my dad’s old Craftsman 2.4-amp, 1/4-sheet electric sander using medium grit paper. That got most of the crud off. Next, give it a final lick with 300-grit paper. (Note: Sanding should be done in a well-ventilated area using a mask. We worked in our garage for the entire project—doors wide open!) Before putting away the sander, run a shop vacuum over the whole barrel to make sure no spots have been missed.
DRILLING DETAILS: Bust out the electric drill and, using a 1-inch wood bit, drill a hole on top of the barrel. The hole should be centered in the very front/top of the barrel, just ahead of where the lip of the barrel meets the barrel’s top. To clarify, this hole should be perpendicular to the barrel top’s wood slats so that later on you can construct a proper hinge.
SAW TIME: Dip your reciprocating saw’s blade into the hole and cut tightly around the barrel’s lid. Basically, the drill hole allows you a starting (and ending) point for the blade of the saw.
LID PREP: Remove the lid and then separate it into two equal halves. It takes a light amount of jiggling to make the dowels come loose. Now, use scrap wood to cleat together each of the lid halves. Affix the cleats (two for each lid half) equidistant from the far ends using wood screws. Cleats should be perpendicular to the wood slats. This will ensure the lid slats won’t come apart over time.
MAKE A SHELF: The next step is to build a small shelf around the top of the barrel—something that will give the hinged lid a platform to sit on. To figure out where the shelf should be screwed, use one half of the lid as a gauge. Position it where it looks right, so that the saw line and the elevation of the lid properly align. When the lid is closed, you’ll want to have an even surface. Mark the underside of the lid with a carpenter’s chalk pencil. White is easiest to see in a dark barrel.
Next, you’ll need to cut up about 20 small blocks of wood. We used 1.5-by- 1.5-inch blocks of wood that were 3 inches long. This size will allow you to make decent contact with the inside curve of the barrel. Using the white chalk line as your guide, brad nail each block so that the top of the piece of wood is right on the top of the line. We didn’t run our block shelf around the entire circumference because we didn’t want to be banging our knuckles on it when retrieving pellets to feed the stove.
HALF LID HOW-TO: Now, using trim head screws, screw the back half of the lid onto the shelf you just built. Be sure it’s positioned properly by spot-checking it with both lid pieces in place. You’ll put the hinges onto the two lid pieces after you’re done finishing the barrel with stain and polyurethane.
STAIN & SEAL: Now break out the stain. We used a Minwax stain that matched the fireplace mantle my husband made shortly after we installed our wood pellet insert stove. After you’re done staining the outside of the barrel and the lid pieces, you’re ready to polyurethane the pieces. We used a small paint roller. Again, do this in a well-ventilated area. Polyurethane stinks, but it sure gives the repurposed furniture and wood projects a nice, finished look. We applied four good coats, and to make sure there were no bubbles, drips or runs in the finish, after each application we ran a light rag over the polyurethane.
FINISHING TOUCHES: After the barrel is completely dried, you’re ready to attach the second half of the lid using some decorative hinges. We picked up some inexpensive hinges and a matching handle for less than $5. We used some wire instead of chain—because that’s all we had on hand—to act as a chain stopper so that the lid won’t flap all the way to the other side of the barrel and cause any scratches when opening and closing the lid.
Next came the job of filling the barrel with pellets. My husband and I had a friendly wager going as to how many 40-pound bags it would take to fill the barrel. Turns out we both underestimated things—our “rustic” wine barrel maxes out at eight bags!
This article was originally published in the NEW PIONEER ™ Summer 2015 issue. Subscription is available in print and digital editions here.