Thursday, August 17, 2017  

A Cask of Characters


Fragrant oak shavings fall softly to the floor with each stroke of the cooper’s broad axe. Cutting and shaping a rough-cut board into a cask stave is no easy task but Apprentice Bonnie Roane makes it look effortless. In fact, cutting and shaping a flat board into a stave requires years to perfect. The thickness, shape, and curve are determined visually, by sound, and by feel. To provide dozens of staves that are uniform and consistent requires skills that some never master.
Consisting of staves, hoops, and heads, cask-making looks simple in theory but is difficult in practice. The cooper’s skill relies on visualizing angles, curves, tapers, and grooves. There are no templates; the forming of staves and heads are all done by eye. It’s an abstract notion that has caused many apprentices to throw down their tools in frustration.
The conundrum lies in the cask’s shape—a bulging middle with sides that taper inward on both ends. To begin with a straight length of wood and form consistently uniform staves takes concentration and a natural inclination. To cut, shape, bend, heat, and hammer requires great physical strength as well.
Ramona Vogel, Colonial Williamsburg’s first and only female journeyman cooper, recalls her first few weeks on the job as a new apprentice. “By the end of each day I felt like I had gorilla arms, figuratively dragging the ground. I ached in muscles I didn’t even know I had!”
If you were to step back in time to the 18thc and inquire about purchasing a barrel, you would likely be met with a volley of questions. How many gallons? What are you shipping? Do you desire a rundlet, tierce, puncheon, pipe, or tun? Perhaps you are in the market for a hogshead? Or maybe you do want a barrel, which holds thirty-six gallons. The word “barrel” is no longer synonymous for a round wooden container.
Before the advent of cardboard boxes and plastic mailers, the cooper’s skills were in great demand, manufacturing casks in various sizes to ship commodities all over the world. Dry goods, liquids, nails, lead shot, books, shoes, tobacco, and leeches all had their designated containers. Cask sizes were legislated and were not interchangeable. With tons of raw materials and finished goods flowing to and from England and her American colonies, coopers were kept busy.
The cooper’s trade can be traced back to at least Roman times, and the word cooper comes from kuper, a lower Saxon word meaning “tub”. The art of cask making has changed little in the past two thousand years. Most coopers had a specialty. Slack coopers manufactured casks for shipping all manner of bulk goods, raw materials, and commodities. White coopers produced everyday household items. Tight coopers, the most highly skilled, created casks that was liquid-tight to hold beer, wine, and spirits.
Colonial coopers, quite often slaves, worked on plantations creating hogsheads needed to ship tobacco and various casks for shipping rice, grain, turpentine, and other exports. The origin of the name “hogshead” is unclear, and is most likely a bastardized Germanic term of liquid measure. There are no records of casks being used to ship hogs’ heads.
 Little is known about the coopers whose businesses lay within the capitol. Colonial records mention Adam Waterford, a free black cooper, who owned a business producing white cooperage—straight, tapered containers ( as opposed to bellied) such as buckets, pails, butter churns, tubs, and dippers, which would have been daily necessities in Williamsburg.
In order to preserve a craft, one must practice it. With this in mind, Colonial Williamsburg’s present-day coopers, although trained as tight coopers, produce all manner of cooperage. Journeymen Ramona Vogel and Jonathan Hallman co-manage the cooperage, overseeing the work and training of Apprentice Bonnie Roane and Intern Harry Taylor III. Presently tucked away on quiet Nicholson Street, the four continue an art that is visually and physically demanding.
Ramona came to Colonial Williamsburg after college, where she majored in psychology. She knew little about the foundation at the time and went to work in the retail shop of the Golden Ball and later in School and Groups as an interpreter. Back then, the way to work your way into a trade was to start as an interpreter in a trade shop.
From the beginning, trades work, specifically woodworking, caught her eye. Ramona began when a trade interpreter position opened up in the Cabinet Shop. While waiting for an apprenticeship position with the cabinet maker, she applied for an opening in the cooper’s shop, thinking how different could it be?
“Other than the fact we both work with wood, not so much!” Ramona recalls, laughing. “Very different tools, very different techniques, no drawings or diagrams; it’s all done visually. That is the hardest skill to develop and maintain. If you go away on vacation for several days, you have to reacquaint yourself with the work all over again.”
A cooper for fifteen years and a journeyman for eight, Ramona is a member of one of the oldest guilds in the City of London and became a freeman in the Worshipful Company of Coopers in 2004 while still an apprentice. She is the first practicing female cooper and first American female to have signed the London Cooper’s Company trade book.
Journeyman Jonathan Hallman majored in history at William and Mary and spent a great deal of time in the former Rural Trades site, which included the windmill, the coopers, basket makers, and agricultural programs. When an apprenticeship opened up in the cooperage, he applied and was accepted. That was twenty years ago and within five years he became a journeyman. “Today at the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, to become a master cooper, a journeyman must become a journeyman supervisor before being considered for a master’s position,” Jonathan explains.
Apprentice Bonnie Roane, a native of Chesapeake, has a bachelor degree from the College of William and Mary in history and anthropology, and a master’s degree from Appalachian State University. As an intern with the National Institute of American History and Democracy, she had the opportunity to work in various positions in the restored area and became a cooper’s apprentice in December 2015.
Intern Harry Taylor III has worked for Colonial Williamsburg since 2006. After working in various capacities, he’s had the opportunity to work as an intern at the Cooper Shop this past summer before returning to his home department this winter. He will be sorely missed.
As cardboard boxes eventually replaced wooden casks as shipping containers, demands for coopers’ skills declined. Recently however the growth of micro-breweries, micro-distilleries, and wineries has brought resurgence in the demand for casks and the cooper’s skills.
All casks, regardless of size, are constructed in much the same way. Flat boards of seasoned oak, cedar, chestnut, ash, or yellow pine are cut and shaped into staves, which are then connected together. Grooves are cut into the staves at each end into which the heads will be fitted. The heads of the cask are cut, assembled with pegs, and pounded into the grooves. A series of hoops, either iron or wooden, are fitted over the staves and tightened snugly. A bung hole is drilled and fitted with plugs or spigots, depending on the intended cargo. It sounds simple, but in practice it’s anything but.
Much of the work forming staves is done on a draw bench, an ergonomically designed vise, work bench and seat, all in one. Using a variety of axes, drawknives, and a jointer to shape and taper each stave, once enough staves are cut and placed side-by-side, they form a circle.
With the listing and joining complete, the staves are placed one after another inside a metal hoop called a raise hoop. This task requires great dexterity to keep all the staves upright and in position. Once all the staves are properly positioned, a series of graduated hoops are used to truss the staves into the traditional barrel shape.
To achieve the characteristic bulging or barrel shape, the staves must be malleable, and this is done by softening the wood with heat. The finished cask is topped off with two heads at either end to form the finished product, ready to be filled and shipped. Since most casks were product-specific they were rarely recycled, winding up as so much firewood in the end.
A cooper’s workday varies, driven by available daylight. “Since we judge everything by eye, we need bright, consistent light,” Jonathan explains. “When it’s cloudy, our work day is limited, and naturally we have more working hours in summer versus winter. Coopers in the 18thc typically worked six days a week with Sundays off. There’s a certain amount of schedule flexibility depending on the number of contracts you have. In winter, you may work longer hours to fulfill your obligations.”
Today, Colonial Williamsburg’s coopers supply casks for use in the restored area, the Jamestown-Yorktown Foundation, and to other museums as well. As time permits, they produce products that are available for sale in the Prentis Store on Duke of Gloucester Street.
As carriages roll past and fragrant wood smoke fills the air, the sounds of the ax and the joiner, and the scrape of knives blend harmoniously to form a fleeting glimpse into a world that was once made entirely by hand. For these coopers, the unremarkable cask has provided the means of preserving a technology that would otherwise be lost forever..