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Why are barns Falu red?

Driving by a countryside road, a big red barn would be in the distance with some barnyard animals. Have you ever wondered why barns are red? It could have been painted any other colour but it's usually red.

If you were to draw a farm with cows, pigs and a pile of hay you would have drawn a barn with bright tomato red paint. The appearance of a red barn is so synonymous to us that if we were to picture another colour it would seem like a niche colour. Red was always the traditional colour of most barns especially in Europe and the Americas.

The colour had practical use when it was first used. It could have been seen as a flashy colour to show off wealth since the rich only had their homes painted during the 16th century. The earliest period this paint was applied was in the 15th century to protect timber houses from rot. In Sweden, it was used on smaller wooden mansions intended to imitate red bricks. Also found in West Finland on houses too.

Falu red after being mixed and cooked to a paint. Source: Wikipedia
Falu red after being mixed and cooked to a paint.
Source: Wikipedia

But the red paint was one of the first types of sealants to ward off fungal growth and mould on wood. Most barns were built to last with very durable materials like cedar. Oils were applied to the wood to help the structure not to weather and rot too fast. Linseed oil was a common ingredient to the mixture but the colour red was achieved by adding iron oxide iron rust. The more rust added to the mixture the redder the paint became. Other ingredients used with the mixture were milk, rye flour and limestone. The red iron oxide was an active ingredient that kills the mould.

Hex code for Falu Red #801818

The colour called Falu Red is the burnt orange-red colour that re-rusted to a dark brown that bright. The name comes from the mines Falun, Sweden which have an abundance of copper ore. The city in Dalarna County is known for its mine and the Great Pit. During the 17th to 18th century, miners would strike and hit the rocks with sledgehammers and chisels to extract copper ore from the deposits. The quarry rock would be burned to separate the iron and sulphur from the copper creating a cinder of iron oxide or hematite called rödmull (red soil). The extracted clay did not rot or decay. It was initially used for rooftop paint and miscellaneous things when it was first converted into a paint around 1764. Traditionally mixed with linseed oil and rye flour, Falu red became one of the first weather-resistant varnishes around. After its peak period from the 1600s to 1800s and the popularity of copper shifted focus to pyrite and zinc, the mine closed on December 8th, 1992 to be converted to a heritage site.

The copper quarry in Falun.
Source: Flickr – Hardo Müller

The same way how we use varnish paint to coat untreated woods was the same way they applied their paint onto their structures. It protected against sunlight damage and moisture damage to some degree. By painting the barns the iron red, it allowed the wood to breathe letting the moisture to evaporate averting most growth of mould and moss.

Dust from the house would eventually fall off of the barn or house. It would be collected and used to repaint the barn refreshing the colour wall. The traditional paint is not easily made through machinery due it being an artisan paint with the method past down to others and the colour can turn out orange-red or brown-red depending on the burning process.

During 19th century Finland, the expression:

A red house in Jokelan mylly, Finland. Source: Unsplash - Rural Explorer
A red house in Jokelan mylly, Finland. Source: Unsplash – Rural Explorer

Punainen tupa ja perunamaa. (A red house and a potato field.)

Old Finnish saying.

It refers to the ideal family with the picturesque country home. There are still homes that have this paint protecting their houses. Falu red is known as punamulta (red earth).

The tradition travelled overseas as a remedy to treat wooden structures for outdoor use. By the 1700s many farmers were attempting to treat their woods with paint.

“…the art of wood seasoning gave way to the art of artificial preservation…” Virginian farm who was apparently “the first to become paint-conscious.”

In 18th England and colonial America produced the colour by digging it up from the ground and not from mining it because it was cheaper, easier and more effective. It was faster to do so than to wait for lead white or verdigris green paint to cover their barns.

Depending on what was being farmed, the barns didn’t have to be red. If it was a milk farm the barn would have been painted in whitewash paint. And if the barn was painted in black or brown it could have been growing tobacco using the heat that the paint generated to cure the plants inside with some coats possessing creosote which was a repellent to termites. In places that didn’t have any iron deposits, whitewash paint was used instead. Whitewash paint is chalk, lime and water. Limestone was also substituted for iron because of the antimicrobial properties and the look of cleanliness.

For more information about the mine:

https://www.falugruva.se/


Resources:
Dead Star Barn – Edible Geography
Why are barns red? – Today I Found Out
Falu Red, the one and only! – skandium
A lot of houses in Sweden are red – Study in Sweden
Mental Floss – Why are barns usually red?
Banner Credit: Under The Moonlight

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