Use Farm Antiques for DIY Home Projects

Farm antiques make great DIY home projects such as turning a cream separator into a lamp base, a galvanized wash tub into a planter, and other farm scraps into nifty and useful items.

old iron and new glass make a great diy end table

Repurposing old iron makes room in the budget for beautiful custom glass work.

Photo By Karen Keb

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How often have you heard or said, “They don’t make things the way they used to”? In this day and age of disposable merchandise — from particle-board furniture to plastic electronics — there is still a way to embrace and cherish those well-made items from the past. And that doesn’t mean tucked away on a display shelf somewhere collecting dust. Those antiques and random pieces of rusty gold can be altered in minor ways to create unique and functional items for your farm and home. 

If you have a creative spirit and can’t or won’t part with hundreds of dollars to furnish your place with all the things it needs, you’ll love the notion of repurposing and salvaging items from the past. Look around. What can you do with that roll of rusty chicken wire? How about that vintage screen door hiding up in the barn rafters? With a little time and ingenuity, you’re on your way to some fun, imaginative and useful pieces for your home.

Any time you can reuse or repurpose something old and give it new, meaningful life in your home — thus saving it from the landfill — you’re truly being resourceful rather than purchasing new items that require petroleum to process in addition to traveling thousands of miles to the stores. With that and a low budget in mind, your best sources for salvageable items are rural antique stores; rural because prices are definitely lower than a big-city antique store with its high overhead. Rural antique stores also will have more of the “real deal” finds like milk cans and funnels that were trawled from farm auctions and estate sales in the area. Other sources include flea markets, thrift stores, yard sales, farm auctions and estate sales. Online sources like Craigslist (check daily under the appliances, antiques, furniture and household categories for items to reuse and repurpose), eBay and Etsy are all purveyors of unique items with lots of potential.

My spouse and I love to spend the day hunting for reusable treasures — you never know what you’ll uncover. Some of the following projects of ours require basic knowledge of electrical work and construction; others are for the less-handy and need only standard-issue creativity. There’s a difficulty rating assigned for each project from 1 to 5. If a project rates 1, this is easy and just about anyone could do it. A rating of 5 requires some fairly technical DIY skills.

Cream separator table

Difficulty: 1

Oftentimes when we discover some interesting piece of rusty gold while out antiquing, we’re not quite sure what it is. Am I right? When I spied this cast-iron base to an old mechanical cream separator, it was beyond rusty. My husband immediately knew what it was and admired it for its heft and history. Not quite knowing what we’d do with it, for $10 we brought it home and deposited it on our driveway, where it sat for about a year, enduring the elements. (This type of thing tends to happen quite often.) Then one day I was inspired, and it struck me: I would use the old cream separator base as a table base and make an end table for our living room.

Originally I thought I’d paint the base, so I started by taking a wire brush to the rust. After only 30 minutes or so of brushing, I wiped it down with tack cloth and liked what I saw. There were traces of the machine’s original green paint, which I wanted to preserve, so similarly to a cast-iron skillet, I oiled the base with mineral oil and watched it transform from rust to rich black.

Next, I contacted a few local glass shops and gave them the specs for the top I desired: 19-inch diameter with a 1/2-inch bevel, 3/8-inch-thick glass. After conducting my own (free) “Angie’s List” review by asking a local contractor which shop he preferred, and comparing prices, I ordered the glass and received it a week later, for about $100. I installed a few little silicone dots for the glass to rest on, which also levels it on the base. All in all, the side table was by no means “cheap,” but again, some old iron was saved from the landfill, and a local small business got my money.      

Calendar prints

Difficulty: 2

I know a lot of you can relate to this one. How many times have you sought out that perfect, beautiful calendar to display in your kitchen — knowing that it has to be good because you’ll be looking at it for an entire year? Having obtained a virtually perfect specimen in the year 2009 — a “Farmers’ Market” style calendar displaying vintage prints of heirloom vegetables for each month — I couldn’t bring myself to throw it away once the year ended, entertaining the notion that it still had value. So it was stowed in a box until I decided to turn the old calendar pages into “art” for our kitchen.

After selecting which prints I wanted to frame, I measured the “artwork” and went to the nearest framing store. I bought “barnwood” style frames with glass and pre-cut matting to frame each print. I painted and lightly sanded the outer frames to achieve an antiqued, or distressed, look. If you want to add a more meaningful touch to this project, you could build your own frames from your own barnwood, but this was not a skill I possessed, and my husband’s “honey-do” list was already too long, so I opted for the quick fix. 

Wash basin planters

Difficulty: 1

Living on an old Midwestern farm, one tends to be surround with lots of galvanized-metal objects. I’m not sure how it happens, but these things just tend to surface around the place, or we collect them from local antique shops and farm auctions. When I stumbled upon this old galvanized wash basin on its original rusty legs (for $30), I immediately thought to put it to use as a planter for culinary herbs just outside the front door. As a former washtub, it already had a small drain hole in the center, so I didn’t even need to procure the electric drill.

The only thing difficult about this project is finding a washtub on legs. More often you find just the tubs. If that’s the case, you can always weld up some legs — an insanely easy task for anyone knowledgeable about welding. Most towns — small and large alike — have independent welders and shops that you could hire to make stands for all your galvanized tubs. This is a win-win situation because you’ve not only saved something from the landfill, but you’ve also given work to someone in your community who may very well need it.  

Funnel light

Difficulty: 4

Near the end of our recent kitchen remodel odyssey, we were left with an exposed electrical box in the ceiling where a circa-1980s ceiling fan once hung. Having recently acquired an antique milk can funnel for $4, I decided its shape was similar to a lampshade, plus I loved its rustic appearance. Consulting with my spouse, he agreed — the vintage milk can funnel is shaped quite perfectly to serve as a rustic shade for a ceiling light, and its tin-plated mild-steel is easy to modify as needed. 

He started out by choosing a gray powder-coated, adjustable lamp head for the bulb base. This base has a 1/2-inch NPT standard tapered pipe thread at the end opposite the bulb socket, and we used the supplied locknut to support a large galvanized fender washer we found in our parts box. The washer keeps the funnel in place and helps keep its soft perforated steel from deforming under the funnel’s weight.

Next he threaded the end of the lamp head directly into a 1/2-inch galvanized pipe coupling. Tightening up the coupling holds the funnel securely in place. To the other end of the coupling, he attached a 12-inch-long piece of 1/2-inch galvanized pipe, threaded on both ends. The end opposite of the funnel threads into the lamp base that goes with the lamp head he used inside the funnel. That base is screwed to the ceiling box. We then installed a pull-chain switch inside the lamp base and covered the works with a store-bought canopy. If you prefer a more polished look, you could always spray paint the funnel the color of your choice. 

Coatrack

Difficulty: 2

One day, while investigating the loft of our old hay barn, we came across sections of an old decaying door molding (technically crosshead molding). We liked that the pieces had a history inside our 100-year-old farmhouse, and we wanted to make use of them. That spring we attended a “rural lifestyle” type festival in Missouri, where we watched a blacksmith craft lovely items for sale. We especially admired a particularly hefty coat hook and wanted to take some home for our newly built mudroom. The blacksmith only had one hook on display, but he told us he could make more and mail them to us, within the week. So we paid him $50 for five hooks, and as promised, they arrived a week later.

As you can probably guess, we decided to combine the hooks with the old crosshead molding to make a coat rack. I simply sanded the old wood piece and cut off an end to match the angle of one already-cut-off end. Then I applied one coat of walnut-hued stain. I liked the appearance of it at that point so decided to quit while I was ahead. We screwed in the hooks, and by gosh, the lower screw holes overhung the molding, but we decided one screw was sturdy enough and didn’t worry about it — a testament to the nature of “salvaged” items — they aren’t perfect, but they do have character and stories to compensate for that.  

Canning jar light 

Difficulty: 3

When remodeling our kitchen recently, we wanted to replace a 1970s-era light fixture above our sink with something a little less … ugly. After seeing the beautiful canning-jar light fixtures being crafted by artisans on Etsy, I selected a favorite jar from my stash and asked my handy husband to make it so. Here’s where that DIY acumen starts to come into play.

First he dug through a box of outdoor electrical junk collected over the years, and he came up with a plan. He knew he needed to purchase a pull switch and small-diameter 40-watt bulb to help it all come together. After rummaging and thinking, he decided to use parts from an old motion-activated outdoor light that was torn off the house. This fixture included a weather-resistant surface-mount box with two light stalks and one motion sensor screwed into its cover. The parts were black so I painted them with heat-resistant paint to more or less match the antique canning jar’s weathered tin lid. Since the old light fixture was hard-wired without a wall switch, he installed a new pull-switch in the unit.

Basically, he relocated one of the light sockets to the cover’s center hole, installed screw-in plugs in the other holes, and drilled a 3/8-inch hole to accommodate the new pull switch. The surface-mount box was plenty large to contain the switch and wiring. Mounting the jar as a globe was as easy as cutting a 1 1/2-inch-diameter hole in the lid and holding it in place with the light socket.

After a bit of wiring (with the power turned off to that circuit), we flipped the breaker, and voila — light! If you had to purchase the parts described, it would cost about $20, including the antique jar. 

Gas station lights

Difficulty: 3

Our farm’s relatively new pole barn is sturdy, functional and efficient — except in winter when the sun goes down at 5 p.m. before the animals have been fed. In other words, our barn did not come with light fixtures installed on its covered porch. In the spirit of reusing and repurposing, we found some old green gas station light fixtures at one of our favorite antique stores in town, and we struck a deal — three mismatched styles for $45. (As a sidenote, these same lights, albeit brand new, sell for about $100 each these days.)

With the barn already wired for electricity, we simply installed switched junction boxes where we planned to install the three lights once they were rewired. Rewiring the fixtures was as easy as removing the old wiring and lamp bases and replacing them with new ones purchased at the local home-improvement store. Next we fitted the lamps’ threaded mounting heads with galvanized pipe nipples and elbows, and attached the works to a pipe flange, which we used to mount the lights to the barn wall. After finishing up the wiring in the junction boxes, we flipped the switch … and then there was light!

Kitchen light frame

Difficulty: 5

This one I saved for last because it is definitely the “scrappiest” of all. Our old kitchen featured one of those typical box-shaped fluorescent light fixtures that wasn’t particularly ugly, but wasn’t necessarily attractive either. After deciding on drop-pendant “schoolhouse” style lights, we were faced with the problem of how to install two of them with just a single electrical box in the ceiling. We didn’t want to tear up the old ceiling tiles to install new electrical boxes.

So again, my handy husband took the old fluorescent fixture’s frame, gutted it except for its mounting bar, and installed a couple of light-mounting electrical boxes inside it to support the new lamps and contain the wiring. Next he wired up the new boxes and connected them to the original ceiling box through plastic conduit, cut some galvanized sheet metal (found in the heating and cooling department of the hardware store and used for duct work) to enclose the works, and then installed it with sheet metal screws. He got creative with the electric sander and created a swirl pattern on the galvanized steel to give it some interest.

The final step was to install the pendant light fixtures using the electrical boxes he mounted to the fluorescent fixture’s frame as their respective bases. The trickiest part of creating the aforementioned sheet metal cover was carefully cutting the holes to expose those boxes. With me holding the fixtures close to the boxes, my spouse took care of the wiring and the final mounting.

As with any electrical work, don’t take on more than you are knowledgeable enough to handle. Simple wiring and lamp installation is easy for the average person if you understand the fundamentals and have excellent resources at hand. Study the appropriate sections in home-improvement books and online to ensure that your work is up to code and most importantly, safe. And if all that is beyond your capabilities, hire an electrician to install lights for you.

Read more: Hank's handmade walnut bench is a beautiful piece of DIY furniture you could have in your home. Get the plans in Building A Rustic Bench: Hand Worked Walnut Looks Lovely.

Karen and her husband, Oscar H. Will III, are the authors of Plowing with Pigs and Other Creative, Low-Budget Homesteading Solutions (February 2013, New Society Publishers).