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How to Tell How Old Your Barn is: A Brief History on Barn-building Inventions

An image of an old barn on a post about how to tell how old your barn is. An old barn in good condition that can be sold in Pennsylvania

If you have an old barn on your property, you may be wondering exactly how old it is. Maybe because you're interested in selling your old barn or a barn reclamation company is asking for your barn's age on their "request a free-quote" form. Unfortunately, determining the age of a barn isn’t a straightforward process. For starters, there usually isn’t any kind of documentation for the barn. Back then, barns were looked at much in the same way fences were; a necessary but otherwise unremarkable structure. And if there is a date engraved somewhere in or around the barn, it might not refer to the day the barn was built, but rather the date a modification to the barn was made.

So how can you tell how old a barn is? It turns out the answer lies in three important inventions: The hay carrier, the circular saw, and wire nails.

The Invention of the Hay Carrier

In the early 1800s, agricultural demand was localized, so most Pennsylvania farmers built small barns to meet either the needs of their family or for their local market. This is apparent in the shape and style of old Pennsylvania barns. Most barns during this time period were shorter, with side walls that were about 12-14 feet high. Most also had gable roofs, the ones where two sides meet at the top, creating the familiar triangle shape in the front. To support this kind of roof, the framing of the barn utilized purlins, which are vertical and perpendicular beams that are between the rafters and joists.

This is a hay trolley and track from a barn in Pennsylvania. Credit Antique Building Solutions

But in the mid 1800s, as technology became more prevalent, agricultural demand increased. In 1867, William Louden invented the hay carrier to meet this increased need. The hay carrier was, in essence, a hay fork attached to a track on the roof of a barn. The hay would be placed on the fork and then lifted to the top, typically the second level of the barn.

But the invention didn’t catch on until the mid 1880s because many farmers still had gable roofs, hindering them from stacking hay bales any higher. So, in response, farmers cut off the tenons and other pieces attached to the purlins in order to build a new kind of roof, the gambrel roof. This is the roof most people see when they think of a barn.

If your barn has a gable roof, it was most likely built before 1870. This is the most common type of roof in old Pennsylvanian barns.

But if it has a gambrel roof, it could have been built either before or after the 1870s. You’ll need to check if your barn had cut off tenons or open mortices.

The Invention of the Circular Saw

Prior to the 1860s, Pennsylvania farmers had three ways of acquiring timber, giving you a good indicator of your barn's age.

  • Axe: Early settlers and farmers who lived in deeply rural areas didn't have access to sawmills or tools to convert logs into timber. Instead, they had to rely on their own axe. Axe marks on timber are distinct, leaving long, smooth divots in the wood. Hand hewn barns are either very old, built before the 19th century, or before 1860 in areas where there was little access to resources

  • Pit saw: This is the tool most people see in cartoons that involve someone sawing something. The hand-powered tool was designed to rip timbers in half, and it leaves irregular gouges that run up and down the wood.

  • Gash saw: a water or steam-powered saw with rough teeth that left easily identifiable vertical chipped marks.

Its unclear exactly who the original inventor of the circular saw is, but around 1810, it is said that Tabitha Babbitt created the circular saw by attaching a circular blade to her spinning wheel. By 1860, the circular saw was widespread and ultimately became the standard. Wood cut using the circular saw can be recognized by the curved, circular marks on the wood.

The invention of Wire Nails

These are cut nails from Pennsylvania Barns and Antique Building Solutions
Large Cut Nails

For almost the entirety of the 19th centuries, farmers used cut nails, which were invented in 1791. The nails were cut from sheet metal and can be identified by their rectangular or sometimes triangular head.

Cut nails became widespread and standard across the U.S. by 1800 and replaced hand-forged nails, which were tedious to make. Hand-forged nails can be recognized by their pointed, four-sided shape. A barn with hand-forged nails is very old and can be dated as having been built prior to the 19th century.

Then, around 1880, wire nails were developed and made by a machine that cut pieces of steel wire. It would sharpen a point at one end, and put a flat round head onto the other end. Because they were much cheaper to produce, wire nails became the standard by 1910, and are the same type of nails used today. However, if you find this type of nail in the wood, it may have been a replacement for an older nail. You will need to check the rest of the wood to see if they all have wire nails or if only a few do.


If it feels like too much trouble to figure out the age of your barn, then you're in luck. Most reputable barn salvage companies will be able to help you determine how old your barn is.

If you think you have an old barn and are interested in selling it you can request a free quote from one of the most reputable barn reclamation companies in Pennsylvania here.

And if you haven't decided if you should sell your old barn, check out this post on why you should consider it.


To learn more about selling Antique Building Solutions reclaimed materials or about purchasing our reclaimed products, contact one of our reclaimed specialists today.

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