I think there was a bucket on my bucket list. It’s the long list of things I would like to try at least once in a lifetime. So many time skills, so little time to pursue them.
If you know someone with the last name of cooper, or hooper, you have unearthed a barrel maker in their past. Cooperage is the name given to the time-honoured craft of making barrels. Barrels have shown up in ancient art. From Wikipedia, “A cooper is a person trained to make wooden casks, barrels, vats, buckets, tubs, troughs and other similar containers from timber staves that were usually heated or steamed to make them pliable. Journeymen coopers also traditionally made wooden implements, such as rakes and wooden-bladed shovels.” Barrels were sometimes used for military purposes, hence the saying “keep your powder dry”. In Roman times, Julius Caesar used catapults to hurl barrels of burning pitch over the walls of towns under siege in order to start fires within.
Barrels and casks might be the high end of the art. The egg-like shape of a barrel is incredibly strong from an engineering standpoint, based on its curve. More than that, casks were typically made of white oak, a very hard wood which is water-resistant, supple enough to bend, and strong enough to withstand stress without breaking. The long staves which made up barrels were riven - split from a piece of wood so as to preserve the long grain end to end, for maximum strength. If you have ever had to cut paper and fold it into shapes, you may have run into the issue of folding tapered forms together. It is not easy, even with pieces of paper. In the case of a barrel, the tapers have to be exact from a mathematical standpoint so that they form seamlessly together when bound by the iron hoops which hold them in place. The iron hoops - metalworking aspect of this alone, was high art enough that to be a hooper was a complementary profession all on its own.
Especially in the days when all manner of things were transported on ships, barrelmaking was in high demand. There were wet coopers, and dry coopers. Wet coopers specialized in making barrels which could hold liquids. Dry coopers made barrels which were air-tight enough to withstand water from without and keep the contents, like gunpowder, dry. There were also “white” coopers. White coopers made the implements which would hold and store milk and dairy products.
Today we have many things to help us out that the original barrel makers did not have. For example, we can use a computer to model just how many pieces it would take to make up a certain size, and what angle would be required on the edge to seam those pieces together. We don’t have to eyeball the angle, we can use a table saw with the blade tilted to an exact degree. The buckets I decided to make, required a nine degree angle on the edge so that twenty pieces together would make up a three-hundred and sixty degree round. I chose ash, which is a creamy light-coloured wood similar to oak in strength and grain characteristics. It is a nice-looking wood, and I had a small pile of leftover pieces from making drawers.
I chose buckets because it’s like a barrel, cut in two. it only requires you to worry about one half of the problem. While you could simply use straight pieces, tapered ones allow for a smaller end, which in turn allows you to pound the hoops toward the larger end, binding everything together. I was tickled to find out that cooperage is a specialized enough craft that it has its own terminology. For example, the groove you cut on the inside of a barel to hold the top or bottom is called a “croze”. The distance between the bottom and the edge is called the chime, and the widest part of a barrel around the middle is called the bilge. The hole in the middle which allows you to tap the contents, is called the bung hole, and well, we all know about bung holes.
I glued my buckets together for added strength after a dry-fit, and this is where another modern tool comes into play, packing tape. If you lay out the individual staves all in a row, you can tape the edges together so that once you have applied the glue, you can simply roll the whole thing up into a formed unit. Because packing tape is stretchy, you can bind everything up with enough force to bring the joints together well. While there is mathematics you could use to figure out the radius for the bottom, I simply traced the form during my dry fit, onto a piece of wood. I used quarter sawn cedar, the grain configuration least likely to be affected by seasonal changes in humidity. You could use various handles on a bucket. A piece of rope will do. I upscaled mine with bail handles fitted with a wooden grip in the middle. Once glued up, I removed the packing tape, sanded everything, and fitted the hoops. Mine are made from thin iron, fastened together with two rivets on each end.
I was happy with the results although my buckets will never really have to hold water. I am in the end, a mere amateur and a dabbler. Still, the buckets are nice-looking, and will come in handy for something. No doubt my wife will use them to store yarn or some such thing. I am not sure I know anybody who has tried their hand at coopering, but I have at least scratched that one off my list. I guess you could say that the bucket is no longer on the bucket list.
What next? So many things to try out, and so little time.
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