Making Handcrafted Barrel Furniture in the Motor City

The first barrels that owner of Motor City Barrels Robbie Lambert worked on were a labor of love—furniture for his own wedding. Robbie refinished the barrels himself, but after the wedding he wasn’t sure what to do with them. “My Dad is a very handy and creative guy. His job involved a lot of woodworking, so I called him up and asked if he wanted to make something out of a barrel with me,” Robbie said.

The father and son duo ended up making an open barrel cabinet and posted it to social media to show family and friends what they had done. After it received a lot of attention online, they had ten barrel orders ready to fill. “I sat down with my father and said, ‘I think we have something here.’” The design they created out of those barrels was the Half Barrel Hide Away design they still use for their customers to rent or purchase.

That brings us to Motor City Barrels today, where they are proud to say that their company has grown exponentially. Their customers come from all over to get furniture with some history for their loved ones as well as useful conversation pieces for their own homes. A lot of people ask them how their furniture is made, but it’s also important to know the story behind the barrels before they get to Motor City Barrels’ shop.

From the Distillery to the MCB Shop

Whiskey is carefully aged in barrels from American distilleries anywhere from two to ten years, with wine a few years less than that. Once the barrels are no longer needed to hold the whiskey, breweries buy them to age their beer, creating bourbon barrel-aged beer. Some breweries age the beer for three months to a year, and then they use the barrels again for another cycle.

Once the barrels can no longer safely hold liquid, they generally get tossed into the waste-yard. Motor City Barrels get these barrels in bulk from local breweries before that can happen, sometimes even traveling down south to pick up authentic Jack Daniels barrels, and then give them new life by transforming them into something unique. For all of their designs, 90% of the product consists of recycled materials. “Reuse and recycle” is a big part of their brand.

Stages of Handcrafted Barrel Furniture Making

As all makers know, the first step to making furniture out of barrels depends on the piece of furniture you are trying to make.

For any stools, chairs, or tables, the barrel first needs to be taken apart. The wood of the barrel does not contain any nails or glue and is instead only held together by compression. For anyone who has seen Motor City Barrels’ videos on Facebook or Instagram, it is quite fun to see a barrel fall apart!

Once the barrel is broken down to its individual staves (slats of wood that make up the barrel), the charred wood is scraped from the inside portion of the barrel and all the pieces are sanded. Even though there will be a final sanding, this initial sanding is necessary for smoothness and makes the wood easier for the makers to handle.

Sanding of what will be the top of a whole barrel cabinet.

Next is another fan-favorite step to watch in the barrel furniture making process. Motor City Barrels uses miter saws, table saws, drills, and grinders to create the furniture you see online. It’s rewarding for them to make custom pieces that fulfill the needs of their customers. Every piece is one-of-a-kind, and again, in this step, they use as much recycled material as possible. For example, on the cabinet knobs, they have started using steel railroad spikes. It’s their way to reuse authentic materials and it looks pretty neat, too!

Creating the structure of our unique Turtleback bar stools.

For the Half Barrel Hide Aways, constructing the furniture takes a bit longer. There is more measuring that needs to be done to make sure the shelves don’t come out further than the barrel and that they are leveled. The process also includes fastening more bands with the screws and cutting the wood in half with a circular saw. For the shelf backings, reclaimed barn wood is used.

A Half Barrel Hide Away receiving its shelving.

After Motor City Barrels is satisfied with how the furniture has been constructed, they do a final sanding and then apply natural wood oils to bring out the texture and grain of the oak. This helps showcase the beauty of every barrel, giving some extra character to an already standout piece of furniture or home decoration.

At the end of the day, working with curved wood is a challenge, but Motor City Barrels finds themselves having more fun than they ever imagined in this business, creating something that they can be proud of and that others can cherish forever. When you purchase products from Motor City Barrels, you are supporting the patience and passion of a family of workers. It takes intense effort and energy to start a small business.

Every barrel, whether getting turned into a chair or cabinet or something new, is treated with care by someone working 60-80 hours a week to ensure orders are carried out on time and are of the highest quality they know they are capable of producing. Each of their team members have products from Motor City Barrels around their homes, from coffee tables and cabinets to pet feeders and bottle openers. If they don't love what they create, why should you?

Thanks to all of Motor City Barrels’ customers for their support and recognition of custom handcrafted barrel furniture made in the Motor City. The team looks forward to meeting new woodworking and craft lovers and coming up with new designs for everyone to enjoy. Visit them at https://motorcitybarrels.com for more.