Classic Conversion

Iowa Farmer Converts 65-Year-Old Barn to Workable Farm Shop

Dan Miller
By  Dan Miller , Progressive Farmer Senior Editor
Paul Neher converted a 65-year-old barn to an expanded, workable farm shop. (Progressive Farmer photo by Dan Miller)

Paul Neher's "dairy-barn-to-hog-finisher-to-farm-shop" conversion was a work salvaged from innumerable places -- and an assist from Craigslist.

Neher's 65-year-old shop building shouldn't look this good. But, in fact, there it stands, steel-clad and gleaming white, outside Grundy Center, Iowa. It is a 96-foot-long and 34-foot-wide dairy barn with sweeping, Gothic arches and two storage rooms -- one formerly for milk, and one formerly for feed -- carefully knitted to its side. Even the 16- by 24-foot Powerlift hydraulic door opening to the outside world blends with the classic architecture.

"The sum is greater than the parts," Neher said. "It is all the little ideas, from designed storage areas to a created welding table, workbenches, a sand blaster and press, to the windows, that makes [our] shop an enjoyable place to work."

In the beginning, the building did not live on Neher Acres, the grain and one-time hog farm operated by Neher and his father, Lyle. It was built in 1953 on a neighbor's farm. When it became available in February 1988, the Nehers snapped it up and moved it. "We jacked it up with steel beams, took down fences, and across the field we went," Neher said. They relocated it almost 2 miles.

The dairy barn became a hog-finishing building. Neher got out of the hog business in 2008.

But, he saw a new use for the building. He envisioned a shop. The Neher's existing shop occupied a one-room schoolhouse. It was big enough only to house a 4020 John Deere and a few tools.

STRUCTURAL REVIVAL

The old building was readied for a new face. "With a 16-foot ceiling, we were able to put in a 24-foot-wide door. That allows us to get all our machinery inside except for our bean head when it is on the combine or our 16-row planter when it is unfolded," Neher said.

The 16-foot ceiling did not come easy. For a run of 72 feet down the length of the barn, the Nehers raised the haymow floor eight feet.

The 24- by 34-foot area where the haymow floor was not raised is Paul's and Lyle's woodworking area. The arched storage space directly above is accessible by sliding doors inside and outside of the barn.

Much of the lumber used to raise the floor was reclaimed from old buildings. Salvaged corncribs supplied the shiplap to cover the knee braces.

Salvage is a recurring theme in the Neher shop. Everywhere you turn, there is something useful made from something scrapped.

Corrugated plastic was pulled from farrowing rooms. Cabinets came from a Hallmark card store. The sand-and-concrete-filled barrel serving as a vise stand came from a salad dressing plant. Slats for a shop-built welding table were cut from farrowing crates. The welding table stands on the legs removed from bulk bins. Neher built a sand blaster from stainless steel hog feeders. A furnace blower housed inside a feeder became a portable air filter. Furnace filters on each side clean the air. The stand for an 8-inch Yost vise was cut from a manure wagon.

"We try to use what we have. It's kind of a challenge," Neher said.

A Toyota dealership provided a truck lift. "We found that before we poured the cement for the floor. Usually, it's the other way around," Neher said, smiling.

CHEAP FIND

Natural light fills the shop from south-facing windows. "When we remodeled the barn for hogs, we put vent doors along the south side," Neher explained. "Those were removed and replaced with large windows we found on Craigslist. They don't match, but they were cheap."

LIGHT THEORY

Neher mounted T8 fluorescent lights along the shop's slanted sidewalls. "I learned many years ago that less shadows are cast when the lights are along the side rather than across the top."

The width of the shop poses challenges to workflow. At 34 feet wide, it's pretty narrow. Neher had considered that. He designed the shop to support work in the middle of the floor. Equipment and parts come to it. Much of his equipment -- welders, plasma cutter, welding table, woodworking table, tool chests, fan, sandblaster -- are mounted with wheels. Neher rolls the equipment to the work site. Compressed air is available from drops installed every 20 feet. The concrete floor encases two steel I-beams that serve as floor anchors for pulling and straightening.

Those one-time feed and milk rooms hold bulkier parts and supplies that would otherwise clutter the main work floor. One of the rooms holds a large air compressor. Its walls are covered with mismatched cabinets -- salvaged, of course. Deep drawers store hand tools, hardware and other supplies. The second room holds bulkier items, such as plywood, electrical wire and tires. "Storage is removed from the shop area so we can maximize that working area," Neher said.

In the end, Neher's shop is a story about a piece of agricultural history finding a modern use. "Raising the haymow floor allowed us to create a great space but keep a barn whose story lives on," Neher said, pausing. "And we're kind of cheap, anyway."

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Dan Miller