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Ramona, who has done her own research on the subject of female coopers, found that historical documents indicate that orphans, including girls, were taught a trade.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


Bob Easton said...

Fabulous lesson! While I've read several very brief descriptions of the cooper's craft, you've provided more than I usually find. The video is great. Ramona is clearly a fine docent for this interesting trade.


gchpaco said...

Wow, that kind of shaving she does around the 16 minute mark is not something I'd use a hatchet for.

Sandra said...

Great video! Thanks for sharing it.

Kari Hultman said...

Bob, I had only cursory knowledge of coopering before interviewing her, so it was quite an educational experience. :o)

Gchpaco, I started using axes and hatchets about a year ago and was surprised at how well you can control them and how [relatively] fine a cut you can make.

Thanks, Sandra!

Sean Hellman said...

Fantastic video Kari, thanks for sharing it with us. I was especially interested in the bit about the use of pitch and beer. I make a few kuksas, a bit small for beer but great for wine, spirits and cold drinks, I use raw beeswax for them. Do you know of what kind of pitch is or was used, was it any kind of wood pitch or was something specific used?

Kari Hultman said...

That's a great question, Sean. I don't have an answer, but I'll ask her if she doesn't respond here in the comments section. Does the beeswax harden enough in your kuksas that it doesn't mix with the liquid? How long after finishing with beeswax do you use them?

Anonymous said...

We use a refined brewer's pitch which is from pine. The issue with beeswax is that it has such a low melting point and will wash away rather quickly, particularly with any higher alcohol percentages.

Ramona Vogel
Colonial Williamsburg

Anonymous said...

Thanks so much for this post and the previous one. Colonial Williamsburg is my favorite place on earth. It's my Disney World. Of course I love visiting the Joiners Shop, the Anthony Hay shop and the Coopers shop. Thanks again for running such a great blog!

Jamie Bacon

Darnell said...

Very interesting. Thanks Kari, Ramona.

I enjoyed the bluegrass version of "Landslide", too.

Seanhellman said...

Kari, I use raw beeswax which is melted and then the cup immersed in it for a minute or 2. Any wax on the outside is then melted over a fire or hot air paint stripper or even put it the microwave. Because the wax is hot and the wood gets to the same temperature as the wax, the wax goes deep into the wood.
Romona, the wax does come off the surface but not out of the wood. I have been using neat spirit and wines from this cup for well over a year and I know that the wax is still in the wood because someone tried making a cup of tea in it and all the wax started coming out.
How is the pine pitch refined?

Mitchell said...

There is so many places like this that I would like to visit, but can't. This post, like so many of your previous ones, bring these examples of history to me, instead of the other way around. I can't tell you how much I appreciate the results of your work with these videos and image layouts. They make my day, Kari.



Unknown said...

Wow, what a woman. I think I'm in love.

Tico Vogt said...

If anybody does better posts than you, Kari, I don't know who. Great stuff!

Gye Greene said...


I take it that you did the interviewing, and the video editing. GOOD stuff! :) (You ever do a music video? Or rather: have any interest?) ;)

As always, love your photoboards. Added the shot of R.V. bending the hoop to my folder of "workshop" pics. And that is a **nifty** axe! (There's a guy about a km away that has a "Blacksmith" sign on his fence: wonder if he'll make me one o' them? [Although: I probably wouldn't like the price.]) :)


Gye Greene said...

Also: re: the "I'm in love" comment by hubiedoo517 -- I'll betcha that female [heterosexual] woodworkers, sci-fi enthusiasts, model train collectors, and the like, are not wanting for dates.

Likewise, [het.] males in yoga, cooking classes, cross stitch, etc. ;)


Kari Hultman said...

Thanks, Ramona, for answering Sean's question.

Thanks, Jamie and Darnell!

Sean, what are the benefits of using wax on your kuksas? I was thinking about not using any finish on mine.

Thanks for saying, Mitchell. :o)

Sorry, hubie, she's married! haha

Tico, very kind of you. :o)

Gye, I have more videos on YouTube under "Village Carpenter" if you'd like to do a search. I really like the one with Peter Follansbee. It's a joy to watch him work and seeing him carve in person really cleared up some things for me. Yeah, that axe was pretty cool. I've become a big fan of them in past year or so.

You have a point about women with the same interests as men and vice versa. I've told straight, single friends on occasion that if they'd like to meet some terrific guys to take up woodworking! haha

Unknown said...

Outstanding work as usual Kari! It just gets better and better. An excellent intro to cooppering for the uninitiated, like myself. I'm looking forward to to making the drive down to Williamsburg myself later the is year.

Thanks for letting Kari do this interview Ramona! As you can she does great work both in the woodshop and out!


Eric Wolf said...

Growing up in Ashland, I always took for granted all that Williamsburg had to offer from a educational and historic perspective. Now that I live in Dallas, I grow homesick watching these things sometimes. Incredible craft. Incredible workmanship.

By the way, nice string rendition of "Time After Time" in the background :-)

Shannon said...

Kari I am astounded! This is your best post yet. Your photos are always excellent but your video work and fine editing take my breath away. Colonial Williamsburg owes you a debt for this amazing documentary quality video and post. Excellent work as always but you just raised the bar a little more.

Kari Hultman said...

Thanks, Mark! Be sure to stop by to say hi to Ramona when you get down to Williamsburg. She is a wealth of knowledge.

n5ebw, I think most of us can relate to that. We tend to appreciate things more as adults. The music in the background is performed by the Vitamin String Quartet, if you're interested.

Shannon, wow, thanks! Ramona did all the hard work, though. She very graciously set aside a huge chunk of time for the video and offered oodles of information. I didn't cut very much from the film and I'm grateful that she was willing to meet with me.

naomi said...

Superb, Kari! You asked all the questions your viewers were wondering about (i think). Did i see Nancy off camera reading a book? ;-)

Alexander Hobson said...

What an exceptional video! All the questions I would have asked were answered. Kari, you have to bring your camera where ever you go and do this more often, thanks so much! After seeing this, how could you not want to try coopering? I spent hours watching at our Pioneer Village, in Toronto. I'd love to do a course. You inspire! Thanks again.

Kari Hultman said...

Naomi, I sent it to her a few days ahead of time and brought it with me. She did a great job of answering everything. And yes, Nancy is never without a book. :o)

Alexander, I had help with the questions. I asked friends on facebook and twitter what they'd like for me to ask Ramona and they provided all the questions. You're right about coopering--it looks like fun!

Mike M said...

Is it possible that an early 19th century cooper could have come from a family of carpenters ? And are the trades related ? And would a "master carpenter" from the 18th century have a knowledge of coopering ?



Kari Hultman said...

Mike, that's an interesting question. I'm reading "Tools: Working Wood in Eighteenth-Century Ameria" which addresses this. In England, trades were clearly defined by guilds. But in early America, the markets were not as large and there were not enough people in each village to accommodate the different trades. So, the village carpenter often found himself building things that were traditionally made by coopers, joiners, and cabinetmakers (although probably to a lesser quality).

So, an early 19th-century cooper could have come from a family of carpenters, but I'm guessing that families kept the same trade within the family, passing knowledge and trade secrets to their children.

Mike M said...

Thanks so much for your reply. See my 4th great grandad was Alexander Munro who was born in Scotland some time in the 1760's. I have him on many records recorded as a master carpenter, boat builder, House carpenter and also just as a carpenter.

He had 6 sons born between 1796 and 1812. The eldest, James Munro born 1796 I have found a record to say that he was a boat builder. And the youngest, Mackay Munro I have a records that say he was a "Journeyman wood sawyer". However the second son George Munro who was born in 1799 - I believe that I have found him as a "Cooper".

It is worth noting that the father Alexander, was not only recorded as a carpenter, master carpenter, boat builder and house carpenter but he owned an Inn that served whiskey - and of course that would have been stored in barrels and casks made by a cooper.