When my wife and I designed the main barn on our farm, one of our priorities was to create a functional overhead loft instead of utilizing regular rafters. But what do you do with the unusable areas along the sides? As a small homesteading farm, I decided that no space should be wasted and set out to create a drying system for my wife’s budding herb business. Using the rafters as main supports or sidewalls, I devised a low-cost system of drying screens that slide between rafters and utilize this valuable “dead space.” Although your barn may be shaped differently, you can create a similar system using the guidelines below.
- 2x4s (Untreated)
- rolls of screen (36-inch preferred)
- L-shaped braces wood screws (3-inch preferred)
- 1/4-inch staples
- tape measure
- square and level
- power screwdriver
- staple gun
- table saw
- chop saw
- utility knife
- extension ladder
Step 1: Plan Your Space
Door and window screen is a cost-effective material for building a drying system. Your drying screens will be based off the length of the roll, so be sure to measure so you don’t hit the underside of the roof with your finished screens. Using a pre-determined roll length saves time cutting and provides nice clean edges. When selecting screen material, keep in mind that plastic can give under the weight of the herbs, so longer-lasting metal is the better choice. You’ll need to determine how many screens you want to install, and calculate your specific material needs based on that.
Step 2: Create Support Rails
Start by installing the side rails your screen will slide on. Starting at a few inches off the floor to minimize dust, mark a level line every 12 inches or so to establish where to fasten your support rails. This distance allows enough space for the screen, installation of stoppers and adequate air flow.
Fitting on the rails is by far the most time consuming and tricky part of the project. I screwed in one end from the loft and used an extension ladder to fasten the ends extending out over the rafters. For the rails and screen frames you can purchase precut 2x2s, but they’re usually warped. Ripping a standard 2×4 is a better, more cost-effective option.
Step 3: Build the Frames
Once your support rails have been installed, you can measure the distance between the rafters to cut the front and back sides of the frame. Subtract about 1/2 inch from each side to allow some wiggle room. You’ll want enough space to allow your screen to slide without binding. You can buy fancy hardware like drawer pulls or wheels, but wood sliding on wood was effective enough for our needs and much cheaper. This measurement for the front and back pieces should work for all your frames between those particular rafters.
Next cut two side pieces to complete the frame. Your measurement should factor in the width of the front and back pieces, the length of the roll of screen and the amount of give that the screen has when stretched. Optimally, when finished, you want the factory edges of the screen to end in the middle of the frame pieces. This measurement for the sides can be duplicated for all of your individual screens throughout the project.
Lay out the four frame pieces, squaring them up as you screw the pieces together with a single screw in each corner. I usually use 2½- or 3-inch deck screws because its what I have laying around the farm, but any wood screw will suffice. The frames may twist with pressure, but keep them flat and square until the screen is fastened. Once you’ve made a single frame, an assembly line approach can help speed the process by building all the frames that will go between a single set of rafters.
Step 4: Attach the Screen
The next step is to attach the screen that will hold your herbs to its frame. Roll out your screen atop the frame with the factory edges along the front and back of the frame. Stretch and staple the screen, starting from the center of each edge and moving toward the corners. Stretching the factory edges should be completed first, followed by the cut edge along the side. With three sides stapled, cut your roll of screen with a utility knife and complete the final side. I’ve found over the years that manual staplers tend to wear out quickly, so an electric option may be the faster way to go.
Before moving, complete your screen construction by screwing L-shaped braces into all four corners of the frame. Adding the braces will further lock the screen into place and will prevent your frames from twisting.
Step 5: Add Final Touches
Now that your screens are complete and inserted onto the rails in your rafters, getting optimal function of your drying system is a must. Screw spacers onto the rafter above the front of each screen. This will allow you to extend the screen out over the loft and work on three sides without having to hold up or prop the screen. This one trick makes for a more efficient and easy harvest. Now, with proper air flow and some heat, the real work begins!
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