Friday, April 30, 2010

Ramona Vogel: Cooper at Colonial Williamsburg

Coopering is a trade that dates back 4,000 years and involves making wooden, rounded containers made of tapered, beveled staves.

Some containers are “bellied”, called casks, while others are straight-tapered, like buckets. All have hoops, made of hardwood saplings or iron, that hold the staves together.

You may have heard the term “barrel-maker”, but a barrel is only one size of cask; it holds 31.5 gallons of wine. Other wine casks are Rundlet (18 gal.), Tierce (2 gal.), Hogshead (63 gal.), Puncheon (84 gal.), Pip (126 gal.), and Tun (252 gal.).

Beer and ale casks, depending on size, include: Firkin, Kilderkin, Barrel, and Hogshead.

In the 18th-century, casks held dry and wet goods, such as flour, grain, and tobacco (especially in Virginia), gunpowder, wine, beer, milk, and butter, and were used to ship all manner of items like food, spices, nails, and clothing.

So, the burning question is: what’s the secret to cutting the bevels on the staves so the pieces fit tightly together to be watertight?

The secret is a careful eye. Coopers use a broad axe with a short handle to rough out the bevel and then use a large jointer, positioned upside-down, to shave the staves to the perfect taper and bevel. All. By. Eye.

That, according to Ramona Vogel, journeyman cooper at Colonial Williamsburg, is the most difficult part of learning the trade.

No glue is used and all the staves are butt-joined. The hoops, which are hammered in place with a driver, cinch the staves together to make them tight.

Ramona makes the task look easy, but then, she’s been doing this for years.

Coopers at Colonial Williamsburg apprentice for 7 years—the traditional period—before becoming journeymen. Or women.

Were there actually female coopers in the 18th-century? Absolutely! Although, for most, if not all, it would not have been their first lifestyle choice. Most women would have wanted to be married and have children.

Ramona, who has done her own research on the subject of female coopers, found that historical documents indicate that orphans, including girls, were taught a trade. It was better to teach them to be productive citizens rather than allow them to become beggars. The youngest apprentice recorded was three years old.

Women became owners of cooperages upon the death of a husband or father, or became apprentices if they were unmarried.

Ramona Vogel, the only female member of the Coopers’ Guild of England, chose the profession.

She and the other coopers at Colonial Williamsburg use traditional tools to make all types of containers for the village. By using straight-grained and riven Atlantic white cedar, white oak, and yellow pine, they shape the outside of the staves with a backing knife (or drawknife) and the inside with a hollowing knife. Well-worn shaving horses, based on 18th-century models, figure prominently in the small shop.

A metal bit attached to the front of the shaving horse head digs into oak staves so that the board doesn’t slip out and injure the cooper. Conversely, white cedar, a much softer wood, requires a small piece of scrap to act as a cushion between the head and workpiece, otherwise, the metal bit and head would mar the wood.

How is the head (top and bottom) of the container made to fit so snugly? Once the container is shaped and the staves are held together with hoops, Ramona uses a compass to determine the diameter of the head, builds it to fit, cuts a croze (groove) in the top and bottom, loosens one end of the container, and slides the head in until it snaps into place. Then, the container is tightened with hoops that are hammered in place with a driver.

“Bellied” casks undergo a heat-treating process, called trussing, where a metal cresset, that is packed with pieces of hardwood, sits inside the walls of the open container (no bottom), and is lit on fire. Experienced coopers feel the outside of the barrel, watch the color of the smoke, and keep an eye on the sheen of the wood to determine when the staves are pliable enough to bend. Halfway through the procedure, the barrel is flipped end-for-end so that it’s heated evenly.

Once the cask is bent to its final shape, it undergoes another heat-treating, called pomping, so that it retains its shape. Various shaves are used to clean up the “gunk” inside.

Coopers’ tools are often heavier than comparable tools from other trades. Axes, for example, have short handles and beefy heads. They are much heavier than a hewing hatchet. In the film, you’ll see Ramona lift the cutting edge only a short distance from the workpiece. She lets the heft of the axe do the work.

The same thing goes for the metal driver and hammer that are used to tap the hoops in place. Both are very heavy and short-handled.

Making the hoops is also the job of the cooper. They purchase large coils of wrought iron (low carbon steel today) and cold-rivet them together. All hoops are flared to match the shape of the container.

Final touches to the containers include using a topping, or sun, plane to flatten the tops of the staves. When completing a cask, an adze is used to cut an inner bevel, called rounding off, along the top edge of the staves. The staves are made flush with one another on the outside of the container with a shave called a Buzz, so that the hoops create even pressure all around the circumference.

If you’d like to know more about Coopers and Ramona Vogel, visit the Colonial Williamsburg site. Or, better yet,visit Ramona at the Cooper’s shop. She’ll be happy to answer all your questions.

Ramona Vogel: Journeyman Cooper at Colonial Williamsburg from Kari Hultman on Vimeo.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Joiners and Cabinetmakers at Colonial Williamsburg

The joiners' shop at Colonial Williamsburg is a relatively new, and most definitely welcome, addition.

Joiners in 18th-century Williamsburg were responsible for building everything from shipping boxes to houses, as evidenced by the newly-constructed Charleton Coffeehouse, built by the joiners using period tools.

They were the jack-of-all-trades of the day—an indispensable part of the village—combining carpentry and joinery into one business.

Corky Howlett was building a sailor's box made of heart pine when we visited. The workbenches were also made of the same species—a dense, heavy, stable wood that is well-suited for utilitarian pieces.

He explained that all tradesmen must work through a 7-year apprenticeship before becoming a journeyman. It doesn't matter what you already know about the trade when you come to work at Williamsburg; you start at the beginning, just like the 14 year old apprentices in the 1700s.

The shop is a hand tool lover's dream with rows of bench planes, moulding planes, complex moulders, handsaws, bowsaws, squares, and more. It's the kind of space that makes you want to take up a mallet and chisel and start chopping dovetails.

Two streets away is the cabinetmakers' shop, run by Master Mack Headley.

Ahhh. To visit the shop is to enter woodworking nirvana. The first things that greet you are exquisite reproductions made by the cabinetmakers, using only handtools. Many of their pieces complement the historic buildings in Colonial Williamsburg.

Mack told me that most of the furniture is made with black walnut or mahogany, and southern pine or tulip poplar are used as secondary woods.

They had sandpaper in the colonies in 1765, he explained, but they also used equisetum (horsetails) for its abrasive qualities.

To achieve a glossy finish, they use unrefined shellac—a 1.5 pound cut to 1 gallon of (presumably denatured) alcohol. They apply 4-5 coats a day until they reach 16-18 coats. Next, they rub with sandpaper, then pumice and rottenstone, and finish with wax.

For pieces that will receive gold leaf, they mix rabbit-skin glue and chalk to form a gesso as the base.

Brian Weldy, the other cabinetmaker on sight that day, offered other tidbits. In the 1700s, a saw would cost you a week and half's wages. A chisel would cost a day's wage.

The original workshop in Williamsburg was a 5-man shop, and each person would work 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week. Each journeyman owned his own set of tools, and apprentices would build their own toolbox at the end of their apprenticeship.

Speaking of toolboxes—they have an incredible reproduction of the 213 year old Benjamin Seaton tool chest for visitors to admire. Just...out...of...drool... range.

The veneer for the tool chest was cut with a wide-blade frame saw to 3/32". Brian remarked that a wide blade tracks a straighter kerf than a thinner blade, which is ideal for cutting veneer.

Brian is in his third year of the apprenticeship program. But you can tell he's in for the long haul. He's got that "I'm in heaven" look in his eye.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Most Wonderful Time of the Year

No, not Christmas. Not New Year's Eve. Not Prince Jonah Kuhio Kalaniana'ole Day.

It's the annual Woodworking In America Conference!

This year it's billed as "The Ultimate Skill Building Weekend" and is being held at the Northern Kentucky Convention Center—in the greater Cincinnati, Ohio area—on October 1-3. Registration opens in May.

Compared to past conferences, this one will have some power tool sessions (in a different location than hand tools), more classes, more vendors, and fun add-on events that are on a first-come, first-served basis.

The class descriptions are diverse and include many things upon which woodworkers would like to improve. Topics include: using different types of hand tools, how to use and sharpen them, and how to cut particular joints and details with both hand and power tools.

There are some new speakers on the list, like Marc Adams and Michael Fortune, as well as familiar ones, like Roy Underhill, Frank Klausz, Bob Lang, Glen Huey, and Chris Schwarz.

I'll give you one bit of inside information. Although I was not able to attend any of his classes, I was told by many people that Ron Herman was the hidden jewel at the conference in Valley Forge last year. I'm going to do my best to sit in on at least one of his presentations this year.

Hope to see you there!

Monday, April 19, 2010

Scenes from Colonial Williamsburg

There are three things in life that are impossible to do: sneeze with your eyes open, slam a revolving door shut, and take a bad photo at Colonial Williamsburg.

Everywhere you look are lovely 18th-century vignettes of reproduction buildings, and men and women in full period regalia.

Thanks to the vision of Dr. W.A.R. Goodwin and the generosity of John D. Rockefeller, Jr., a ghost of a town with deep roots in our nation's history was brought back to life for our edification and entertainment.

Here, you can tour restored buildings that are filled with reproduction furniture and other essentials made by tradesmen who are currently working in Colonial Williamsburg, visit shops that sell the same wares, take carriage rides, eat in taverns, and learn about the people who lived in what was the capitol of Virginia 250 years ago.

During that time, white or gray hair was all the rage, and the wigmaker was cranking out animal-hair pompadours as quickly as possible.

Wigs were so highly prized, they were put into wills and passed from one generation to the next. Small wonder, since some of the best would cost you anywhere from several days' pay to a full year of your salary.

No money for a wig? No problem. Just sneak up behind some young lady with bountiful tresses, snip off a handful using whatever cutting device you have, and run away like a guy who just stole some lady's hair. It happened.

And so did a lot of other things. Like cabinetmaking, coopering, gunsmithing, silversmithing, basket making, brick making, and weaving.

The town was abundant with busy hands while laws were being made that would fashion a new nation. And the same things are being reenacted here today through employees, actors, and volunteers.

To visit Colonial Williamsburg is to step back into 1765. Except with public restrooms and indoor plumbing. Huzzah.

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Apprentice Day

I'd lay odds that most of us have a desire to share our woodworking knowledge with others and would welcome the opportunity to spark an interest in a young person.

With that in mind, I asked our friends if they'd like to bring their son, Eli, to my shop so that he and I could build something. They took me up on the offer and brought their three kids—Eli (five), Jillian (two), and Joel (5 months)—for an introduction to woodworking on Sunday.

I spent all day Saturday cutting the pieces, dadoes, grooves, and rabbets, for what would become Eli's first tool box. I also drilled a bunch of various-sized holes in some boards and chopped up a pile of pegs for Jillian's amusement. Joel, I figured I'd set up to work at the lathe. (joking)

It suddenly hit me, as I was designing the toolbox and working on the cut list, that being the one to introduce woodworking to a child was a huge responsibility. And I don't mean the safety factor.

Eli's first experience with woodworking could possibly make or break the enthusiasm for a potential newbie woodworker. What if the project wasn't fun and Eli ended up hating woodworking all because of me? Oh man. Pressure was on.

Well, you can see from the photos that both Eli and Jillian were captivated by woodworking. Both kids immediately snatched up the wooden mallets and started banging pegs into place. And Joel? He didn't cry or fuss and genuinely seemed interested in the unfamiliar noises.

One heartstopping moment came as Eli and I were deeply focused on building the toolbox. The adults were chatting, Joel was observing, and Jillian? Unbeknownst to any of us, Jillian had snuck behind me, entranced by the bright green "start" button on my table saw. The temptation was too great. She pushed it. And the rest of us took a collective leap out of our skins.

Fortunately, I had lowered all the blades and blade guards in the shop, so no one was in any danger. Despite this, Joel was the only one who was fully prepared for that little scare. He was the only one wearing a diaper.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Bow Lathe and Fancy Footwork

Here is a captivating video of a woodturner in Marrakech who uses a bow lathe—a tool that's been around since the ancient Egyptians—a chisel, and his foot (!) to turn some intricate pieces.

Here is the youtube link.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Stopped Dadoes and Drawer Runners

A better title for these sawbuck table progress posts would have been: Why The Pennsylvania Germans Were Smarter Than I.

That's because they chose a straight-grained, soft wood for their original sawbuck table instead of curly cherry, a wood that's prone to tear and splinter; and they nailed the entire drawer together, instead of dovetailing angled corners and cutting angled grooves for the drawer bottom.

Despite this, it's been a fun learning experience and I've done things I've never tried before. What better way to expand your skills?

I decided to cut stopped dadoes in the drawer supports even though there are through dadoes on the original. This poses a problem if you plan to cut them with a plow plane, because the skate requires clearance in front of the cutter. Not a big deal, though, if you cut the last few inches with a mortising chisel before reaching for your plow plane.

Since the drawer sides are angled, but the drawer supports are not, the runners needed to be angled on one side and square on the other. I drew the shape on both ends of the runners, connected the marks along the length, and checked them frequently for accuracy while I planed them to shape.

I made the pegs from cherry by rounding bandsawn sticks with a block plane. There are other ways to make dowels, but this one is my favorite. Even though the runners are glued to the drawer sides, I chose to reinforce the joint with wooden pegs, since the drawer is so heavy. The runners on the original sawbuck were nailed in place.

So now there's only one thing left to make before final sanding and finishing.

You know how, at dinner, some people will eat the yucky stuff, like lima beans, first, and save the best stuff, like prime rib, for last?

I was always an "eat-the-good-stuff-first-and-hope-no one-sees-me-feed-the-gross-stuff-to-the-dog" kind of person.

In woodworking terms, that means I've saved making the drawer pull for last. That's right—I need to turn a lima bean. Yuck.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Patching and Shaping

Sometimes it helps to have a friend who gently reminds you about the long-ignored, incomplete projects in your shop to give you the push you need to kick it into high gear.

As I recall, Shannon's words were something like "Hey, how 'bout finally finishing that sawbuck table that's been sitting in your shop for over a year!"

Since then, I've replaned the boards for the drawer so they're square, cut the grooves for the drawer bottom, glued up the drawer, patched all the gaps from having fixed the drawer, shaped the drawer supports, cut the stopped dadoes in the drawer supports, and glued the runners onto the drawer.

More images to follow in another post. Must....keep....moving.

Thursday, April 1, 2010


A new tool manufacturer is positioning itself as the plane maker for the next generation.

The company is called Rainbow Playnz® and it's gearing up to take on the big guys.

"We're woodworkers who know how to market to young people. And Gen Y is going to looooove our planes" says spokesperson Dylan Cooper.

He's not the only one who thinks so. At least one big name is investing in the fledgling company. Take a look under the hood of the company's #4 1/2 smoother plane (last photo). Yeah. It's what you think it is.

Rainbow Playnz is counting on the fact that young people love bright colors and connecting with friends. So, why not enjoy both while woodworking? The company is planning to offer a full line of planes in every color of the rainbow.

Think Gen Y'ers will go for it? Brandon Richwine, a 20-year-old from the company's focus group thinks so. "OMG—it totally matches my iPod!" he says.

So, how does Rainbow Playnz manage to colorize metal in so many bright hues?

"We don't—they're plastic," says Cooper. The planes are made from material produced through injection molding. They will always retain their shape, the soles do not require lubrication or rust prevention, and they're lighter weight and can be made much less expensively than metal planes.

What about the phone feature—won't it get damaged in use? According to Cooper, it's recessed into the sole, so it never touches your workpiece.

So, is the woodworking world ready for Rainbow Playnz? Somehow, I can't quite picture the 60-somethings in my woodworking club using pink handplanes.

Wait......I'm getting a visual. :D