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In the antique industry, some of the more affordable pieces for a collector to start collecting are barrels, piggins, buckets, firkins, and butter churns. However, if collectors only knew the amount of time that is dedicated to each piece, there would be a greater appreciation to the value of such items. The colonial trade that makes barrels and various casks is known as a cooper. His work was performed in a cooperage. It is a trade that dates back to well over 4000 years. The word "cooper" is derived from "cuparius" of Roman times, makers of cupals or wooden casks in which wine producers of Cisalpine Gaul stored their wares.
Tonnelier (Cooper). Plate 1 of volume 10 of Denis Diderot L'Encyclopédia (1751). The process of jointing and shaping can be seen in the right foreground. Wooden hoops of hazel and another flexible are holding the barrels together.
The art of coopering has basically remained unchanged which allows for the tools of the trade to be handed down from generation to generation. It requires strength, patience, intelligence, and a basic dedication to detail to make barrels, tubs, and pails. Everything was stored in these vessels- flour, corn, grain, wine, molasses, cider, fish, rum, gunpowder, nails and many other commodities. The art of coopering promoted and facilitated exports and imports to distant countries which gave wealth and riches to people in different lands.
Boisselier (White cooper). Plate 1 of volume 2 of Denis Diderot L'Encyclopédia (1751). White coopers made other items not usually associated with a cooper, such as shoes or sabots as pictured in the foreground, military drums, fire bellows, and washtubs
By the time the Mayflower sailed to the new world, the art of coopering was a well old established profession. John Alden was hired at the last minute as cooper of the Mayflower. His job was to repair damage to the water casks on board. He would become the future acting governor of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. During America's trade with the West Indies, demand for the barrels made by coopers grew exponentially. Salt cod was a major export from the New England colonies and played an important role in its development. In the 1650's and 1660's, whaling along Cape Cod's coast made whale oil an essential export. By the 1700's, the whalers had to go to sea to harvest the whales. Whaling in New England accounted for 15 percent of its exports prior to the American Revolution. With a healthy and boisterous profession, a cooper's union was formed in Boston in 1648.
Some of the earliest exports in the colonies were barrel staves and larger pipe staves. The importance of the cooper profession and its exports from Colonial America to other ports can be seen from an account in 1707 when William Clifton, a merchant in Surinam, asked his agent in Salem, Massachusetts to build a sloop with a forty-five foot keel, eighteen and a half feet wide and nine feet deep, On that sloop which was to be named "Johanna or Seaflower" was the following cargo:
"Sixteen large horses of 4 or 5 years old and not aboue it with long Tailes; fifty thousand red Oake Staues, three thousand foot board fitt for heading, five and Twenty barrells with onyons, five and Twenty pound Shalotes, five thousand pound Virginia Bright leafe tobacco, Twelue ferkins of New Butter, Six barrells of beafe, Six Sett of Truss hoops and 300 Truss hoop nails, one frame of a boat of 25 foot keel, 10 foot wide and 3 1/2 foot deep, without any planke . . ."
The cooper's in Surinam would be using the 50,000 red oak staves, the 30,000 boards fit for heading which are the tops and bottoms of the barrels, the truss hoops and nails.
In Colonial America, there were more coopers in the South than any other profession according to historian Carl Bridenbaugh. During the year of 1754, Charleston, South Carolina saw 116,000 barrels pass through its port. Many of the coopers worked on plantations where it was not an uncommon sight to see plantation slaves who learned the cooper trade. Some of the hogsheads were only slack and cylindrical and would have tobacco pressed into them. It required very little workmanship because they didn't have to be watertight. During the winter months in the north and mid-Atlantic sections of the country, the farmers cleared their lands of trees and in the process earn money by supplying the cooper with oak barrel staves. Staves are the boards making up the sides of a cask. For wet barrels, the staves were at least an inch thick. For dry barrels, the wood could be a softer wood and much thinner. A cask is a term to describe any piece of cooperage containing a bouge, bilge, or bulge produced in the middle of a container.
The Jamestown cooper was a busy craftsman. Many barrels, hogsheads, and casks were needed in the colony, and large quantities of barrel staves were made for shipping to England. Painting by Sydney E. King, published in New Discoveries at Jamestown, 1957
Wood was chosen, especially oak because the wood breathes and lets the contents like whiskey and wine mature with age. White oak was the most common wood used for wine barrels. The selection of wood today for the cooper is so important that he works in tandem with the winemaker and considers the location of the forest where the wood is harvested. French oak forests have been carefully tended for over three hundred years, with attention paid to the density of the forests; denser stands tend to yield trees with tighter grain and less porous wood.
In eighteenth century colonial America, there were three kinds of coopers working on plantations and in shops, The "dry" or "slack" cooper made containers that would be used to ship dry goods such as cereals, nails, tobacco, fruits and vegetables. A laborious artisan could turn out ten containers in a day. Slack work required oak, chestnut, and yellow pine. Since the workmanship could be rough, this could be accomplished by less experienced coopers, sometimes female children and women.
Tight coopers were the aristocracy of the trade.The tight cooper made casks designed to keep dry goods in and moisture out for a longer storage period. Gunpowder and flour casks are examples of a tight cooper's work. Tight work required oak wood.
The white cooper was found in towns rather than small villages. He made straight staved containers which did not require shipping of the liquids or bending of the wood such as grain measures, firkins, and sieves, and boxes out of wide strips of bass or poplar shaved thin. These strips he rolled into cylindrical drums and riveted in shape with tacks. Bands of the same material surrounded the ends as hoops. Bottoms for boxes and measures were thin wooden disks tacked into place and lids were similarly made. White coopers were known to make military drums. Though it The white cooper also made small fireplace bellows, shaped thick wooden soles for clogs, produced buckets, washtubs, and butter churns.
Items for sale by Jack Stone or Jack the Cooper, Ephrata who was demonstrating his craft at the Landis Valley Museum, Pennsylvania
During the colonial period, the apprenticeship for new coopers was seven years. The apprentice would learn from the master cooper, sometimes sleeping in the workshop. The apprenticeship at Colonial Williamsburg lasts seven years. Ramona Vogel, journeyman cooper at Colonial Williamsburg and only female member of the Coopers Guild in England use traditional tools for their coopering trade. The tools of the cooper are heavier than tools of other trades. Ramona says that axes have short handles and beefy heads. The metal driver and hammer are short handled and heavy.
Froes and mallets were used for riving the tree trunk. This was the beginning process of creating a cask where flat boards of approximate length would be cut and shaped into staves from the crosscutting section of a tree trunk. The hardest part of the tree trunk which is between the core and the outer layers would be used.
A backing or heading knife was used to shape the outside angles of the staves. An inside or hollowing drawknife shaped the inside angles of the staves. This has always been the hardest part of the profession because it takes a a careful eye and attention to detail to precisely see the proper radii of the cask. The cooper worked on a shingle or shaving horse to cut the necessary transverse arcs. At Colonial Williamsburg, a metal bit is attached to the front of the shaving horse which digs deep into the stave so that the board doesn't slip out. If a softer wood is used, a scrap of wood is used as a cushion.
Jack the Cooper working on a shaving horse using a backing knife
Then both the long edges of the board would be tapered slightly towards the ends. by pulling the stave edges across the blade of a fixed jointer five feet long. It was set sloping and blade up on legs, Jack Stone or Jack the Cooper of Ephrata has his cooper jointer mounted flat with the blade up. The initial angle tapering of the edges using a side or broad axe was called listing. Then the boards would be run through the cooper's jointer until the staves would fight tightly together. A spokeskave could also be used in this process.
Once the staves were shaped, the cooper would stand a set of shaped staves on end inside the raising up hoop one at a time. The cooper would tighten the hoop on the staves with a push down from his hands. Once the cooper was pleased with the fit, the dingee or bottom hoop would be positioned snug on the staves. The dingee hoop was larger than the raising up hoop which would help form the bulging side cask shape.
Jack the Cooper using a hollowing knife on a stave
Making the cask malleable required a heating process called trussing in which a metal cresset filled with pieces of wood is placed in the center of a cask with the bottom head out and lit on fire. A heavy iron truss hoop would be pushed down over the cask with a cooper's adze. This gave a tighter fit than just using the hands. The cooper used a windlass with hemp rope to pull the staves together so that a truss hoop could be forced down over the ends. The cask was then flipped and heated evenly. An experienced cooper could tell from the color of the smoke and the sheen of the wood when the staves were ready to bend. Another heating treating process called pomping was used to help the cask retain its shape. Once the cask was dry and set, it was called a gun.
The chiming process then began on finishing the ends of the cask. The cooper would begin chopping of bits of the ends with and adze to form a beveled edge which was angled toward the inside of the cask. A cooper's chives could also be used. The chimes would be finished using a topping or sun plane.
Jack the Cooper explaining his work to children at Landis Valley Museum
Then it was time to cut the croze or grooves into the staves to accept the circular heads. This was accomplished with a croze plane It would cut a "V" channel on the inside of the cask to accommodate the heads. Prior to cutting the heads, the cooper would take measurements with diagonals to achieve the proper capacity of the cask.
The circular heads would then be cut with the help of a compass to determine the size necessary to fit in the croze. If the head needed to be larger than one board, boards would be fastened together using dowel pins on the edges and flagging or rush was inserted between each board to act as sealing material. A double bevel known as a basle would be shaved into the edge of the heads.
Prior to inserting the heads into the croze of the casks, the bunghole was drilled into one of them using a cross handled auger and a pod auger. Later on in the process the bunghole would be used to help position the head into place.
The croze tool used for cutting grooves on the inside of the cask
In order to install the heads the staves would be stood upright held together with the truss hoops. The bottom truss hoop would be loosened slightly. while the head which did not have the bunghole would be placed in the center of the staves close to the croze. It would then be tapped lightly into the bottom croze from inside the cask. Then the top truss hoop would be loosened slightly. The head with the bunghole would also be placed into the center of the staves. Using a heading device tool placed inside the bunghole, the cooper would pull up on the head until it is seated into the croze of the staves. The top truss would then be tightened.
To complete the finishing process, the truss hoops would be removed one by one and a final sanding or planing would be performed. Staves would be shaved with a Buzz to make them flush with one another on the outside of the cask. The permanent hoops would be inserted and hammered into place using a hammer and metal driver. The entire process can take as much as fifteen hours according to Jack the Cooper.
Jack the Cooper explaining the the making of a wood hoop. This process alone can take five hours to accomplish
Coopers also make the hoops that fit around the cask. Prior to 1800, hoops were strips split out of hickory or chestnut. The strips were notched near both ends so they could be interlocked. Jack the Cooper said that this process can take as much as five hours to complete. After 1800, large coils of wrought iron were purchased to use on this process on wet barrels. The hoops could then be riveted together.
If you are interested in learning the cooper trade, there are schools that will provide the training. One of them is John C. Campbell Folk School in North Carolina. White coopering will be taught by Will Hines May 29-June 4 of this year. This class will be for both beginners and advanced students. Jack the Cooper received his training at this school. But of course the art of coopering will take years to become proficient. There is an informative video to watch on The Village Carpenter's blog. Please check them out.
The part of the barrel are identified
Source: Text and Research by Bryan Wright
Jack Stone's Coopered Crafts
John C. Campbell Folk School
The Village Carpenter blog
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