DIY & Inspo

How to care for your decor barrel

Midwest Barrel Co.

Barrel repurposed as table with wine glasses on top and wooden bar stools around

So, you’ve got a barrel that you want to keep looking nice. We’re here for that – and we’re here to help.

While we think all authentic barrels look great in their own way, we understand that appearance and condition are even more important when it comes to decor and furniture barrels. That’s why we’ve put together a page that’s dedicated to tips and resources. You can head on over and give that page a read or continue reading this blog post for a few quick tips and tricks

Either way, we’ve got all your decor/furniture barrel care needs covered. We’ll help you keep it looking good for as long as possible!

Barrel with two wooden lanterns with candles inside sitting outside a home's front door

What does decor/furniture grade mean?

At Midwest Barrel Co., a decor or furniture barrel is an authentic bourbon/whiskey or wine barrel that we’ve determined isn’t quite up to another round of aging spirits, wine or another type of beverage. It’s not that they can’t hold liquid anymore – they could still be used as a rain barrel, after all. It’s that we can’t recommend a brewer or other commercial buyer use them to age beverages.

These barrels are simply retired. They’ve lived a good life of aging bourbon, whiskey or wine. It’s likely that they’ve got a quirk or two that doesn’t affect their appearance, but would probably be a deal breaker for a brewing operation.

To sum it up, these barrels still look great! Of course, they will each be unique and have characteristics or slight imperfections that prove they’re authentic. We like to say these barrels did their jobs and it shows. But that’s what makes them genuine!

What to expect when buying a decor/furniture barrel

When you buy one of our furniture or decor-grade barrels, you’ll receive a genuine, used whiskey or wine barrel – your choice. Both varieties are sold as-is. Our team does not make any alterations after we have received it.

Now, other than what type of beverage they stored, there are a few other notable differences that you should know about.

Furniture-grade whiskey barrels

The most noticeable difference (on the outside, at least) between a barrel that’s aged whiskey and one that’s aged wine is that whiskey barrels tend to have a more rustic appearance and rusted bands. On the inside, you can expect char that, for many decor projects, you may need to clean out. They’re often more distressed-looking, too, as they’ve spent a couple of years or more in a rickhouse – the building where whiskey and bourbon is stored and aged.

That distressed quality is why we have Grade A and Grade B furniture-grade whiskey barrels. Grade As will have distillery markings on the top and their bung hole will be on the side, also known as a belly bung. Grade Bs, on the other hand, won’t have distillery marks and may have a bung hole on the top (head), side (belly) or both. The heads may not be perfectly flat, either.

Furniture-grade wine barrels

Wine barrels are typically cleaner and their rings aren’t as rusty. Ones that aged red wine will have a heavy red stain on the inside. There are different sizes of wine barrels though, we will always send the same size on orders of two or more.

Furniture grade wine barrelFurniture grade whiskey barrel

How to keep your decor/furniture barrel looking great

Whether you have settled on wine or whiskey, there are a few things you will need to know about caring for your decor barrel and keeping its amazing good looks intact.

First up, let’s talk about some standard cleanup jobs that can help with your care plan. Exactly how you go about these basic care tips is really up to you. These are just some general guidelines to help get you started.

Clean the rings (hoops)

Most barrels, especially whiskey, will have rings (also known as hoops or bands) that show a little bit of age. Some folks like this look, as it certainly shows the authenticity and adds to the rustic appearance. Wine barrel rings tend to have a cleaner look, but may still have some rust.

Before attacking the rust, you may need a utility knife to remove any stickers that may have been placed on the rings. If you have rings that need a little cleaning, then you can use a high-grade sandpaper to remove rust and stains by hand. How much sanding you do depends on how rustic you want the finished product to look. You can even polish and buff the rings, if you’d like. 

You’ll also need to check that the rings are secure and tight, but we’ll get to that later.

Sanding a barrel

Like we already mentioned, MWBC doesn’t make any repairs or alterations. You get ‘em looking just the way they did when the distillery or winery shipped them to us. 

With that said, you’ll probably want to use a sander to smooth out rough surfaces and to remove any splintering or debris. Don’t forget the heads! That sander can come in handy if you want to remove markings on the outside or even char on the inside of a whiskey barrel head.

Applying a finish to the barrel

Next, you may want to apply a finish. You’ve got several options for how to tackle this. 

First, some people stain the wood to get their desired color. Others opt to keep the original, natural look. It’s up to you what route you choose to take. 

Barrels that are kept outdoors may start to weather and change color when exposed to the elements over time. A coat or two of polyurethane sealer can help preserve and seal up the staves. Just make sure that you find an exterior polyurethane if it is going to be placed outdoors.

removing rust from barrel rings, sanding barrel with sandpaper, spraying engraved barrel with protective coating

How to keep your barrel from falling apart

Now for the most critical steps you can take when caring for a decor barrel: making sure it doesn’t fall apart. (Obviously, this doesn’t apply if you actually plan to take it apart for your specific DIY project.)

Barrels are held together with pressure. There are no nails, no screws – only the rings holding the staves tight. If left alone, all barrels loosen and fall apart in time. You can avoid that with a few easy steps.

Full barrels may need to be swelled

If you’re going to use the barrel to collect rain, or if you want to make sure it’s as tight as possible before taking other preventative steps, then you’re going to need to swell it. This is a similar process to what a distiller, winemaker or brewer may do to keep it liquid-tight.

You can swell in a number of ways. We recommend filling decor barrels with hot water (at least 180º) and letting them sit. 

Once it’s full, you may start to notice some leaking. That will stop, but patience is key with swelling. The process could take an hour to a few days. It all depends on the dryness of the barrel.

Screw rings into the barrel

If you’re not concerned about keeping the barrel liquid tight, then you can go ahead and skip the swelling. It will still loosen up, though. To keep it tight, simply insert tap screws through the rings into the staves all the way around. 

You don’t have to have a screw for every stave, but it’s probably a good idea to keep the number of screws the same for each ring. You know, for appearance’s sake.

Securing ring to barrel stave with power drill

Need more barrel care tips?

Hopefully these decor and furniture barrel care tips can get you started on some creative DIY projects! You can find even more resources on our decor barrel care page.

We’re here to help answer your questions, though, so don’t be afraid to reach out. We’d also love to see or hear about your decor and furniture projects!

Cheers! 🍻


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