Welcome to

Coopers were once numerous and independent craftsmen, whose craft was not only economically vital, but was physically demanding and required skill acquired only through years of practice. Until a century ago, many villages had at least one cooper, with new recruits having to serve a seven-year apprenticeship, and the 1841 Census shows that Witheridge had two coopers.

With wooden barrels have been used for Centuries as containers to store and move food and drink, the Cooper's craft has changed little since Roman Times, still requiring skill, intelligence, and strength to make casks watertight. Working from no precisely drawn plans or any written measurements, the cooper by his own skill, and his sense of shape and form, will produce a barrel or cask perfectly fitted for the task required. The Cooper is one of the most highly skilled craftsmen in wood. Whilst cabinet-makers and joiners can work precisely to written measurements and drawings, the cooper by his skill, his sense of shape and form, will produce an article perfectly suited for the job in hand. 

Sections of oak trunks, from trees ideally aged 100 to 150 years old, are cut or split along the grain into staves, are then bent, and stacked in the open for between 18 to 36 months to enable the wood to dry evenly in the air. Air-drying, either in stacks in the forest or in the cooper's yard, is preferred as it dries the wood more evenly, reduces tannic effects and retains aromatic qualities.

The manufacturing process requires the use of a number of well-seasoned oak staves or sections of wood enclosing a circular head at either end of the cask, and then bound together with steel hoops, and the skill of the cooper lay chiefly in making the staves. Each stave, precisely shaped and bevelled, with edges cut to the exact angle to form the tight-fitting circle of the belly of the cask. The finished product would be a cylindrical wooden container, with a built in bulge, or bilge.

First trimmed into oblong lengths with a double taper, traditionally called 'dressing', then joined on a jointer known as a colombe and given their final shape, the staves are then fitted onto a frame and arranged around an iron 'raising up' hoop. The shaping requires heat, which also modifies the wood's physical and chemical composition. Natural gas, steam or boiling water or flames from burning wood chips, or a combination of any of these can provide the heat. If fire is used then the barrel is assembled over a metal fire-pot called a chaufferette. The cooper hammers home temporary iron hoops whilst dowsing the wood with a damp cloth. Non-fire methods are easier to control, thereby preventing the wood from blistering, and so are therefore preferred.

The heads of the barrels, comprising five or six straight staves pinned together, are shaped (usually circular or oval) to fit into a groove (the croze) cut in the inside ends of the side staves. To finish, the outside is planed smooth and the barrel is filled with steam or water: if it does not leak the bunghole is drilled and the temporary iron hoops are replaced with metal or chestnut ones.

JOINTER: the jointer is a long plane, held fast, which does not move, and with the cutting blade uppermost, and over which the stave moves. It is not flat but slightly curved and enables the cooper to put the correct bevel or 'shot' on the staves to ensure they fit perfectly when bound together in the round. Staves are not the same width throughout their length; they are narrower at the ends because casks bulge in the middle. The amount of 'belly' put into the cask is judged by eye alone, and hence the considerable skill needed to make a cask.

Top of Page

DRAW KNIFE: used for shaping the staves. The cooper had several with differently shaped blades to hollow out the inside and curve the outside of each stave, and to bevel the rim of the wooden 'head' (the flat circular end of a cask). The rim was inserted into a groove cut just below the top of the inside rim at each end of the cask.

AXE: The timber used for making casks was pine imported from the Baltic. The cooper first 'listed' (roughly shaped) each stave with the axe that has its blade off-set from the handle to save the cooper's hand from being chafed by flying fragments.

ADZE: First, the rim or 'chime' of a cask was bevelled to slope inwards, and then finished off with a smaller sharp adze.

COMPASSES: Used to measure the exact size of the heads that formed the ends of the cask, with lengths of wood were being 'trued' on a jointer and fixed together with wooden dowels. The size of the head was then marked out using a pair of compasses and cut out with a bow saw.

INSIDE SHAVE: The cooper had variously shaped shaves for use with one or both hands to make the inside of the cask perfectly smooth. (Some casks lined with brown paper)

BOX CHIV and CROZE: The box 'chiv' is a curved plane used to ensure that the inside of the ends of the cask had the correct curve ready to cut the grooves in which to insert the heads. The 'croze' looks like a curved plane, but it has teeth to cut the groove.

DOWNRIGHT: This is a shave used to scrape down the outside of a cask to avoid splinters.

HAMMER a specially designed hammer has a grooved head used to hammer down the metal hoops that bind the cask together. Iron hoops were used for arsenic casks, but for many years wooden hoops were used for china-clay casks. Coopers made the iron hoops themselves.

BRACE: The brace cleverly designed to enable the cooper to drill holes while using only one hand.

Previous      Go to Top      Home       Text Version      Next Page

Last Edited 03/07/2006    Copyright © 2000-2006 Witheridge

Unless otherwise indicated on the page in question, the photographic images reproduced on this site belong to the Witheridge Archives, and, as such may not be reproduced for commercial purposes without written permission. However, you are welcome to use any of the photographs belonging to the archive for personal and/or non-commercial use. Any material shown as not being owned by the archive may not be reproduced in any form without first receiving written permission from the owner of the material in question.