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Ramona, who has done her own research on the subject of female coopers, found that historical documents indicate that orphans, including girls, were taught a trade.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.