Buenos Aires, by Noelia Diaco. Photo is not visible, used only for sharing on social networks.

Wine barrel liquor cabinet (or, the never-ending project)

March 12, 2016
We have amazing wineries all around us in northern California, and often pick up bottles in Sonoma, Amador, and Mendocino. We also like to make cocktails. And beer. (Basically we like to drink, in moderation.) We had a habit of buying $30 bottles at wineries, then wanting something cheap for dinner, so we'd keep buying $10 bottles while the expensive collection grew (at one point reaching 23 bottles). On the hard-liquor side, we've built up a nice collection, and have a general budget rule of one new type of liquor per month (and replenishing what runs out).

We needed a good place to store all these bottles.

Since we love wine, and I love woodworking, a wine barrel seemed like the perfect structure. Barrels are big, sturdy, and pretty. I imagined liquor in the bottom half, wine in the top half, and a mixing station on top. I used SketchUp to visualize the concept. (The barrel and bottles came from SketchUp's "3D warehouse" of free models. I also envisioned a door opening on a side hinge, but left that out of the sketch because it was too hard to neatly slice curved wood in 3D space.)
Designing the barrel in SketchUp
First, I needed to procure a barrel. New ones (often imported from France) are very expensive and in high demand in wine country, but they only last a few years (since the "oakiness" that they impart into the wine diminishes with each use), so theoretically there should be a large supply of used barrels. I would ask whenever we visited a winery; they all had wait lists for used barrels and I never heard back. Then one day in July, a few days before we were set to move from SF to Berkeley, Steph happened to look on Craigslist, and someone half a mile away was selling a wine barrel. I called him up immediately and told him I was on my way. It fit nicely into the back of our Subaru hatchback. It was labeled "2007" and had been used for Merlot, with a wonderful Merlot scent coming out of the stopper (technical term "bung") hole.

We hauled the barrel up to our third-floor apartment, and since we were about to move, it sat in the corner for a few days, before we hauled it back down to the moving truck. Then it sat for a while in a corner in our new place while we settled in, waiting for the "new project itch" and a free weekend.

I figured I would need to put the barrel on its side, but didn't want to scratch the wood, so the first step was to build a little scaffold to hold the barrel (as well as allow it to be turned easily).

I needed to: cut out the door; cut and re-attach the metal hoops (attached with square nails) to accommodate the door; sand the outside and (if possible) the inside; polish the rusted metal (galvanized iron) hoops; and apply stain and finish to the outside.

I didn't know anything about how to work with a barrel, and learned a number of lessons the hard way.

To cut a door out of the barrel, I bought a "jab saw" from a Japanese tool shop around the block, and starting from a drilled pilot hole, sawed along a seam.

Shortly into doing this — presumably there was some reason, but I don't remember what it was, and in hindsight this was a bad idea — I decided, rather than saw vertically along the seams, to take the whole barrel apart. Then I could just saw a few staves horizontally to make the door.

Much like arches on buildings, wine barrels are held together simply by the forces of the curved wood pressing against each other. The staves are perfectly shaped and have grooves into which the circular boards at the top and bottom fit. The hoops hold it all together, causing the staves to bend a little, which locks everything into watertight shape. There are no glue or nails, except two short nails on each hoop. Adding glue to the boards when they're not under tension – as I did with the door pieces (and initially with other staves as well) — actually causes them to be distorted from their natural under-tension shape, and the barrel can no longer be reassembled.

On the upside, disassembling the barrel did let me sand the boards very smoothly on both sides. The inside in particular had a very rough texture. Fortunately the Merlot scent survived the sanding.

Polishing the hoops was a huge project in itself. Made of galvanized iron, they rust very easily, and they had a rusty/dirty/corroded appearance that I wanted to clean.

So I started sanding. And sanding... and sanding... A hand sander clearly wasn't going to get the job done, so I used my "mouse" detail sander. (A belt sander might have worked better, but I don't have one.) The metal's appearance was changing, gradually, but wasn't necessarily getting nicer. (And there were 6 hoops to do.) It was grinding through sandpaper sheets at a crazy rate. Metal has all kinds of molecular layers — articles online discuss the "highs and lows" of metal surfaces, basically microscopic hills and valleys in the surface that all have to be smoothed out — and the in-between layers actually looked worse than the original rusty look, so once I had started, I kind of had to finish (Steph helped too).

Stages of sanding the metal
At one point, I thought maybe sanding wasn't the right method after all, so I went to the hardware store to get ideas, and they suggested a metal shining kit: a buffing disc (attached to my drill, since I don't have a buffing wheel), and polishing compound. This was fairly effective, but in the wrong way: it produced a mirror shine, and I wanted more of a matte. (It also didn't substitute sanding completely, just the last stages.) So I went back to sanding.

My sanding setup was outside on the picnic table, hoop held down by one hand, orbital sander in the other, and vacuum (to suck up the metal dust) turned on with the hose right next to the sander (gripped between my knees or taped down). It was loud (the neighbors must love me when I'm working on these projects), and tedious. I wore noise-canceling headphones and went through many podcasts. Altogether, I probably sanded for 24 hours over numerous weekends. The final result looks great, but (other than maybe using a belt sander) I have no idea how I could have sped up the process.

These dots took longer to grind out than the top rusty layers.
Final result on the right.
With the hoops ready to hold the barrel together again, I could reassemble the barrel. Given how it's designed to all fit together perfectly under tension, this wasn't easy. With Steph's help, bungee cords, a mallet, and trial-and-error, it finally came back together. The missing door pieces made it a little tricky, and their staves' remaining tops and bottoms had to be forced back into place with metal braces.

Then I stained the outside. I tried a few colors on the bottom, where they wouldn't be visible, and picked a dark brown called "Jacobean." I finished it with semi-gloss polyurethane. (This was going to be indoor furniture, so I could use water-based finish, which isn't as toxic-chemically-smelling as oil-based finish.)

At this point, the barrel was basically functional: it looked good, and could hold liquor bottles on the bottom, and a mixer on top. We brought it inside and loaded it up, and it sat that way for a few weeks.

The next step was figuring out how to put wine bottles in the top half. I considered a whole bunch of options. Dowels positioned horizontally, attached somehow to the back of the barrel (or a board abutting the back) would create a minimalist look, but there wasn't a good way to attach the dowels securely. I could build a standalone wine rack of some kind and install it inside, but that would take up a lot of extra space, and attachment would again be tricky.

I liked the idea of the bottles just fitting into holes on a board by their necks. I made a three-bottle proof of concept to measure how large and widely spaced the holes would need to be. I considered two narrow top-to-bottom boards, one vertical row of bottles on each facing opposite each other, but that would have cut into the bottom-half space.

Some of the wine rack designs I considered. Bottom-right is getting to the final design in SketchUp.

What I ended up going with was a single board, for 5x3 bottles, secured in place with another board at the bottom (attached with corner braces) and more corner braces on the sides and top. 15 wine bottles weigh about 40 pounds, and this seemed like a very solid construction.

The barrel was now fully functional and was put into commission.

All that was missing was the door. This turned out to be much harder that I imagined, because the surfaces were all curved. The door weighed around 7 pounds, and with only a single hinge in the middle, the door would torque the hinge, bending it and sagging down when opened. To use two hinges, however, they would have to allow for the surfaces to be abutting when closed but an inch apart when open. Normal hinges can't do that.

I went to several hardware stores half a dozen times trying to get ideas and playing with different hinge types. Nothing worked. A specialty cabinet hardware store in SF recommended an expensive SOSS "invisible hinge" – I was optimistic about that, and spent a while drilling and chiseling out the mortise for it to fit into – but it immediately buckled under the weight.

I tried various cabinet hinges, which allowed for some offset, but they were designed to be at 90° closed and 180° open. I needed 180 closed and 270 open, and no one seemed to sell such a thing.

I considered offset knife hinges, but their installation is really tricky, and with the barrel already re-assembled and in use, it wasn't feasible to set up a router jig to do it right. (I also don't have much experience with router jigs, and didn't want to ruin the whole thing.)

I thought maybe if I could reduce the weight of the door, it wouldn't torque a single hinge too much. Router, sander... the weight dropped to ~4 lbs, but it still didn't quite work.

This sub-project lasted for several months: I'd have an idea, go to the hardware store, test it, fail; put it aside and hope for some new inspiration. Then I'd notice the door still sitting there wanting to be mounted, and repeat.

Eventually, I decided to go back to the original standard hinge, but instead of being positioned flat on the front, having it close into a folded position. This required a little chiseling of the door (over the hole originally cut for the "invisible hinge"). It worked! The door still drops a tiny bit, but it doesn't look bad, the hinge isn't bending or breaking, and it looks really nice when closed.

And that's it! We have a wine barrel liquor & wine cabinet!

- Ben

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