A modest, but eye-catching sign stands in the front yard. Sticker letters plastered to a laminated styrofoam board spell out his inventory.
“Barnwood Creations: Tables, Food Pantries, Coffee Tables, Bookcases, Picture Frames,” it reads, although you might have to pull into the driveway for a closer look to understand the full scope of what Dale Wayne Etheridge can do.
Dale specializes in exactly the type of art the sign describes so succinctly. He tears down old barns and homes on people’s property and makes furniture out of the salvageable leftovers.
His home, shop, and showroom are all located on a stretch of prime real estate in rural Hickman County, Tennessee.
He lives on Highway 100, a 158-mile stretch of asphalt that was once the main route west to and from Nashville before Interstate 70 was constructed in 1956.
Although traffic density is far lower than what it was in the past, Dale is still at an advantage; he can catch the eyes of drivers on their way home from work or taking the backroads on vacation towards the Natchez Trace.
His woodworking business started informally when he was just a child.
“My sister and I lived out in the country,” he said. “We didn’t have a lot to do.”
They came up with the idea to build a treehouse, but there was only one problem. They didn’t have any lumber.
“So we would go to our neighbors up and down the road and talk them into letting us take down an old chicken house or outhouse or whatever we could get,” he explained.
This “work-with-what-you-have” mentality is relevant once again, as lumber prices have increased 280 percent at the time of this writing and the cost of new construction is at least $30,000 more than it was at the beginning of the year.
For Dale however, finding the usefulness in material that most would consider useless is a matter of philosophy more than a budget-trimming measure.
“My motto is there’s no such thing as a bad piece of wood,” Dale said.
And he means it.
When a man from the nearby town of Nunnelly heard about Dale’s motto, he approached him with a challenge. The man handed him a 2x4 that was about a foot-long and nearly rotted to its core.
“It had seen, most would say, its best days,” Dale recalled. “I took it and started playing it up, brushing it down, cutting it, cleaning it, sanding it, and I made a beautiful business card holder.”
The man came back and Dale placed the business card holder in his hands. Dale said that at first the man didn’t believe it was the same piece of wood he had handed him just days before.
“The bad was on the outside,” Dale told the man. “What’s on the inside was good.”
Dale tore down his first barn and began fashioning furniture out of its wood in 2015. Six years later, he had just finished his 2,343rd piece—a 3D Cross plastered to worn-out barn pieces—before our conversation in his showroom on a balmy April afternoon.
A fusion of “Little House on the Prairie” and kitschy coffee shop decor, Dale’s creations maintain the aesthetic of the barnwood he sources from abandoned structures. They transcend artistic trends to serve as truly timeless additions to homes. His works have found families in New York, South Carolina, Alabama, Georgia, and of course, Tennessee.
Christopher Coyne, Tennessee resident and president of the leadership consultancy Modeof8, found one of Dale’s tables in his “favorite little shop in historic Franklin.” Christopher later wrote the foreword to Barnwood Speaks, a book Dale wrote to document the stories behind each of his pieces.
Across 10 chapters, Dale—an admitted bibliophobe who claims to have never read a book—traces the history of 10 pieces of his hand-crafted furniture. From their start as seedlings, to their glory days as a home for humans or animals, to their abandonment and finally to restoration as works of art.
“What he does is anything but simple,” Christopher wrote in Barnwood Speaks. “Why he does it is nothing short of a small miracle. Dale and his craft, a God-given talent if ever I’ve seen one, reminds us of a time when people weren’t so quick to just use things up and throw them away.”
In a time where everyone seems concerned about sustainability, artisans like Dale show that there really are better options than mass production and composite materials.
We can give another life to dilapidated structures which are often regarded as junk by their owners. Such a person might cherish what that junk can become when a little bit of creativity and care is applied.
Dale is still using wood from the barn he tore down when he started his business in 2015.
And since then he has created thousands of pieces, each one numbered inside the miscellaneous hanging cabinet in his shop. Some include scribbles next to the number with unique identifiers, such as the name of the person who ordered it or the type of wood used to build it, depending on the level of his satisfaction with the end result.
“I don’t throw away no wood,” Dale says as he points to the scrap pile in his shop. Even the little pieces serve a purpose—usually as legs for tables.
His work table had another life as an air hockey table prior to being the centerpiece of his workshop.
Still, certain scraps are more desirable than others. Poplar is a soft wood, making it one of Dale’s favorites.
“It doesn’t splinter,” he explained. “It’s really easy to work with.”
Cypress is a rare wood to find; it’s more abundant in west Tennessee. But he cut one down in Fairview and says anything he makes from the wood is light as feathers.
Those who don’t know Dale may wonder what his fascination with wood and abandoned buildings is all about. After all, these structures—despite holding a rich history spanning centuries—are typically eyesores to their owners.
Most want the buildings either restored or destroyed. Dale prefers the former, but if an owner chooses the latter, he will tear down the structure carefully to keep the wood intact.
Some might say he’s overly-sentimental or even feverishly impractical. A better phrase to encapsulate Dale’s passion is eternally grateful.
“My uncle and aunt took me in when I was five years old. My dad died when I was two. So my mom left me there while she went to Chicago to work.”
Reflecting on his life in his book, Dale writes:
“I suppose I can look at this old, unwanted barnwood and compare it to my own life. If someone had not taken an interest in me, I have no idea where I would be today. As I look around my house and my workshop and see all the pieces I have created using only my tools and my imagination, I can’t help but wonder where all that unwanted wood would be today if I hadn’t made use of it.”
Luckily, dozens of barns and homes around Hickman County will never have to find out what might have been. Now transformed, they sit in homes across the country helping folks learn, love, and laze for what will hopefully be a lifetime—and then some.