The coopers’s cask is one of mankind’s strongest constructions, and the ubiquitous container for shipping items wet and dry. Meet cooper Ramona Vogel to learn more about the trade.
Harmony Hunter: Hi, welcome to the podcast. I'm Harmony Hunter. Colonial Williamsburg's Historic Area is alive with working tradesmen and women who practice 18th-century trades every day. Among them is Ramona Vogel, who is a cooper. A barrel might seem like a simple enough object, but she's worked for years to master the trade. Ramona, thank you for being here.
Ramona Vogel: Thank you for having me.
Harmony: You're a cooper in Colonial Williamsburg today. Tell me a little bit about the cooper's trade.
Ramona: The cooper's trade is such an important trade in our past and history that's really pretty much been forgotten unless you're in anything still dealing with spirits, wine and that industry. But it was so much a part of everyday life as well as the economy, mercantile system overall. Because a cooper is the one who's going to be making all the barrels for shipping all of your different goods. Not just beer and wine and spirits like we tend to think of it today, but all of your food products.
So here in Virginia in the 18th century, of course all of the grains that we're producing here and shipping back to England, some of that wheat being ground into flour, of course tobacco, we all talk about tobacco here quite a bit. All those are being put into casks that are made by a cooper and shipped back. Then all the stuff we're importing: china, shoes and hats and glassware. All of that stuff would be coming in different sized barrels.
Harmony: You mentioned a whole lot of things that are shipped in barrels, from wet to dry. Why barrels? Why not crates or glass bottles for some of the liquids? What is it about a barrel that really makes it the first choice?
Ramona: Well a barrel, and of course, we don't know who first invented it and whether it was a graduation of people that really refined it, but it is even today still considered the strongest wooden structure made by man. They've even tested it, there's been television shows on it where they've had them falling off buildings, and every time they would loosen up the hoops to see where finally that breaking point is. So it is really such a strong structure, much stronger than a box.
You have that continual compound arch and the pressure so you kind of think of each individual piece is a keystone. If you're familiar with architectural language at all and how strong that structure is. And of course, the conveniences of rolling it. You don't think about it with a box, because everything we think of today, when we're going to have to move a bunch of stuff, you pack up your house, you put it in a box, and then it goes now into a big truck or a forklift because we have forklifts today.
But back then, you don't, so you were rolling these barrels. You're going to be unloading the ship at high tide, using gravity. Loading a ship at low tide, using pulleys, as they've been around for a long time. But you've still got to get the item on to the pulley mechanism. So rolling it and being able to steer it because of that belly and being able to push on one side to another. So very versatile moveable container.
Harmony: Let's talk about some of these, I guess they're properly called "casks."
Ramona: "Casks" is a very general term. "Barrel" is not. We tend to think about that a lot today as people come in to the shop and say, "Look at all the barrels here." And it's pretty rare that we actually have a barrel in the shop. We have a variety of different casks.
What we tend to look at today in a modern viewpoint is when we look at a container, we think of a barrel as anything that has that widest area being a belly, tapering to either end. A barrel is a size. It's not a shape. A cask is a general term, cooperage would be a general term for all these goods. But a barrel is a size, and that barrel will change.
You get into, we'll say just beer size measurements. You have four standard beer measures in the 18th century, and it does vary as we move along through time. But the smallest common shipping size would be a firkin. That would ship nine gallons of beer. A kilderkin would ship 18 gallons. So it doubles. Then a beer barrel would ship 36 gallons, and a beer hogshead would ship 72 gallons.
So you do see a change where a hogshead of beer would ship 54 gallons, but it's a set size. So you can see how you can't call a firkin a barrel, because it's a total different size measure. So it would really mess with economic systems and what you're getting as a consumer or as the actual merchant.
Harmony: Let's talk about how you make a cask. Where does it start?
Ramona: The apprenticeship still is an average of six to seven years here at Colonial Williamsburg to learn the trade similar to how it was back then. The big thing you're going to learn in that apprenticeship is learning to see all those correct shapes and angles, tapers, all of that by eye. And that's a really hard concept for us to think of, because everything's so mechanized for us in the modern era. You plug in a few numbers, and it calculates it for you. So we don't really think about doing things visually anymore.
It's very hard for people to understand and justify that that's really what we're doing. But the convenience of it, if you can do that, and accomplish that skill, it's so much faster to make that container. Because I'll ask you. How long do you think it would take a skilled cooper to make a bucket?
Harmony: A bucket . . . a week?
Ramona: One hour. I mean, that's how much more efficient it is. The week is a very common answer we'll get from people. That's not surprising to me at all. But the convenience of being able to learn how to cut all those pieces, not continually having to put a different jig on a particular tool, sharpening that tool, to fit that jig and changing all of that, getting rid of all of that time and just being able to maneuver your hand and visualize what you need to cut that particular piece of wood to fit into that particular diameter of hoop. Being able to visualize that cuts down that time dramatically.
A big thing that's important is you don't cut a bunch of staves for 50 buckets. You make one bucket complete, then you make another one. So you're not having those pieces sitting there on the chance that those shapes that you just cut are going to change and you'll have to go back and re-cut them. So that's one thing.
And even then that was the process. You make one complete, then you work on another one. So you're getting it to that tight fit. As a cooper it is visual, as I've mentioned. You're going to see those correct shapes, but it's also tactile: feeling how the wood's cutting with that blade. I think that's a big difference between hand tools and machinery. You're not going to feel that same process. You're still going to feel and hear if a machine if it's not working, but it is different.
You also, when you're working with a piece and you're hammering those hoops on, a big trick of it is getting the ability of hearing the correct sound or pitch that it should be making if everything is fitting as it should and there is not an area that is not snug. You actually hear a different sound to it. So if, by chance, there was something you missed visually, then you should still be able to hear it.
Harmony: Beyond the tools of your eyes and your hands and your ears, what are the other tools that you reach for every day?
Ramona: We have a number of tools that are very specialized to our trade. There are about two dozen tools that we'll use in the process. There are definitely ones that we use more often than others. I would say the most common tools that we're going to be using are going to be the drawknives.
There are three different drawknives that we use. We use a drawknife called a backing knife, and that's used for shaping the back of the stave, cutting that arc shape into it. You have a hollowing knife which is going to cut the concave shape on the interior of the stave. You're also going to use a jointed plane which is going to cut the angle and taper on either side. That is a stationary plane. As far as I know we're the only trade that used a stationary plane in this period of time. It wasn't until later that electric joiners come about, which, a cooper's joiner is kind of the grandfather of. They stay stationary; we move the piece of wood across it. So we're different in that aspect.
The other drawknife I hadn't mentioned is a heading knife that's used for cutting when we're making what we call the heads. But nobody understands that so I'll change that terminology. When you're making the bottoms, or tops, or lids. That is another drawknife that's used. So there is the three.
A cooper's hammer is a little different than a blacksmith hammer. A cooper's hammer is typically going to be a little heavier because the work that we do and the metalwork that we do is cold work. It is not heated. Then it's just also the weight of the hammer we're using for hammering the hoops on so tight. So it is a versatile tool throughout the process. It has a straight peen on it as well, so it's a little different than a blacksmith's hammer.
Then we have something called a driver that actually, the lip of the driver actually rests on the hoop and that's the driver that you actually hammer onto with your cooper's hammer. Then you have, there's a number of tools. Another tool a lot of people hear about is a tool called a croze, and that's c-r-o-z-e. That's used for cutting the groove in the bottom. That's how the bottom fits into place. That's how that's fitting into that groove. So that's a tool very specific to our trade.
A cooper's broadaxe is different than a hewing axe or other broadaxes in other trades. It's off-center and it's at a taper. We'll rough out those staves before we take them to the joiner plane. So there's a number of tools that I've touched on, but those are the ones that we use quite frequently and have to be used through each process.
Harmony: One of my favorite things about historic trades is how it's an economy unto itself. You see George Washington wearing the shoes that were made by the shoemaker, you see Patrick Henry wearing the wig that was made from the wigmakers. Where throughout the town will you see the evidence of the cooper's trade?
Ramona: You will see evidence of the cooper's trade everywhere. Every shop you go into. Sometimes you may not see it, because you're not looking for it, but it's there. You go into the shoemakers, they have tubs that they are putting the leather in to soften when they are making soles and working with all of this and working it to a certain shape.
You go into the kitchens, they've got to wash dishes, they've got slop buckets, they have salt tubs when they are salting meats. You go into the gunpowder magazine, they've got all the gunpowder would have been in barrels. So you've got cooperage all throughout the gunpowder magazine.
You go to any of these buildings in the Historic Area, you go into the cellars of the Governor's Palace, you're going to see barrels that we've made. You go over to Great Hopes, that rural farm site, and you're going to see tobacco hogsheads that we've made, grain barrels that are actually filled with grain over there.
So there's a number of areas, because for these trades to function, accurately to the 18th century which is what we're all about, they need to have cooperage to do it accurately. So we're kind of a neat trade that everybody needs our items to utilize to function accurately to the time period. It's nice to have a sterling silver coffeepot, but not everybody needs it. It's beautiful and it's stunning, but not everyone needs it. Where everyone needs our stuff to function.
Harmony: We hope all of our listeners will make it by the coopers shop to see you and your fellow coopers making all kinds of casks. Ramona, thank you so much for being our guest today.
Ramona: Thank you.