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Centuries ago, European farmers would seal the wood on their barns with an oil, often linseed oil -- a tawny-colored oil derived from the seed of the flax plant which is called flax oil (golden, edible) before boiling, and linseed oil (tawny, inedible) after boiling. They would paint their barns with a mixture containing linseed-oil as a binder, and pigmenting solids including chalk, rust, and any other soft easily milled (finely ground) minerals available locally. The minerals add color but primarily block the sunlight that over hardens the alkyd resin making it brittle, crumble and eventually dust. The combination produced a long-lasting paint that dried and hardened quickly, or at least as quickly as mattered. (NB: A preceding edit had confused alkyd resin (boiled linseed oil) with whitewash which is available but now rare and calcamine which hasn't been made since the 1920's. Mixing oil based alkyd resin with tiny amounts of either water based whitewash or calcamine results in distinctive exotic patterns, while adding more results in gummy paint that never dries). Today, linseed oil is sold in most home-improvement stores as a wood sealant although most common wood sealers are synthetic resins dissolved in a solvent (synthetic lacquer). Boiled linseed oil remains the base of all alkyd resin paints, enamels, and varnishes.

Now, where does the red come from?

In historically accurate terms, "barn red" is not the bright, fire-engine red that we often see today, but more of a burnt-orange red. Farmers added ferrous oxide, otherwise known as rust, to the oil mixture. Rust was plentiful on farms. While copper and silver are bacteriostatic and fungicidal, iron is not. While iron sulfate in high concentrations inhibits moss, iron oxide has less effect, which is why moss grows on weathered granite, often as much as 50% iron. Barns were simple commercial structures that required a lot of repair from semi-skilled owners. The paint kept the rain from saturating the wood and accelerating rot. The pigment kept the sun from breaking down the paint so quickly. Rust (orange and brown) was reliably available cheaply wherever blacksmiths were found. Painting the barn with boiled flax oil and rust was way to make the barn cheaper to own, not a fashion statement.

Regardless of how the farmer tinted his paint, having a red barn became a fashionable thing, because it demonstrated the farmers wisdom and thrift. They were a sharp contrast to the traditional white farmhouse. English houses in the late Elizbethan (about to be early American Colonial) era were thatched roofs with long eves, the walls were half oiled timber and half white lime plaster over woven sticks. As European settlers crossed over to America in the 17th century, they brought with them the tradition of red barns. The abundance of wood and scarcity of lime drove the houses toward dark brown clapboard siding with split wood shingle roofs. As the 18th century progressed, chalk and lime became available and the clapboard houses were painted white. In the mid 1800s, as paints were still made with milled mineral pigments, and rust was still the least expensive, red remained in favor. Eventually whitewash became cheaper in some areas, at which point white barns began to spring up. The advent of coal tar derived azo dyes at the end of the 19th century and the wide palette of colors made available didn't change the fundamental need for a mineral pigment to block light, or the cheapest color of paint for a barn. Today, the color of barns can vary, often depending on how the barns are used.

My dad and grandpa have been farmers their entire lives and they used to tease us kids that the barn was red because it was the most noticeable when the snow was falling sideways and you could barely see because of the sleet and hail.

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โˆ™ 2014-05-30 03:34:54
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Q: Why are barns traditionally painted red?
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Originally barns were red because, hundreds of years ago, farmers would seal their barns with linseed oil, milk, lime and ferrous oxide, or rust, which killed fungi and mosses. It turned the mixture red.


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