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coopering...making wooden buckets

 
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steve folkers wrote:

David, thank you for pictures of a good bucket class. Some of his horses and tools look just like mine! And I covet his bick iron. And thank you especially for the link at the end to a 26 minute video (a 1981 episode of a BBC show on handmaking things) on an Irish cooper making churns in regional styles. (Ireland has at least five styles.) I recognized Ned Gavin right off from an article I have, a chapter out of the book Irish Traditional Crafts. At first I thought the pictures in the article might even be stills from the show, because he's making the same County Mayo type churn, but no, he has his coat off throughout, and instead of white cats, there's a little white dog. A note I put in the margin reminds me of an Irishman I met who grew up in County Clare, who remembered tinkers coming around in the spring and fall to do repairs, including replacing damaged hazel hoops on churns with tin, probably in the 1950s.



Glad you thought it was useful, Steve. Great to see what you're doing through this thread. Glen has a lot of good stuff on the Rundell and Rundell blog. He's doing some interesting greenwood work. I think he's done some greenwood training on the US East Coast.

An interest of mine is what are the costs and benefits of using parts of the technology stack that we've built up as a species since we started using tools and fire instead of the current common practice. I think sometimes new tools/products etc get adopted just because they're new and there's a large advertising budget. But having grown up on a farm I don't think that just because it's what people used to do it's the best solution. Power tools are very useful, for example. I use handsaws a lot but I would be very reluctant to rip logs of any size with a handsaw as per how pit sawyers used to work as against using a sawmill or chainsaw mill. Cutting up significant amounts of firewood without a chainsaw is challenging to say the least. One of the most important sustainability inputs is time.

I wrote up an article on the bucket making course for one of the local sustainability magazines. Here's some of my thoughts about using wooden buckets instead of plastic. Be very interested in what other people have to say about this topic.

"Making a bucket from wood using these traditional techniques raises a number of interesting sustainability aspects. The wooden bucket is a bit heavier than a plastic bucket but a plastic bucket is generally less robust with a shorter life. George says that if cared for a wooden bucket can last 30-40 years. The wooden bucket takes an hour or so of skilled labour in a backyard workshop with tools available. This would make the wooden bucket more expensive than plastic. The plastic bucket requires a dedicated manufacturing plant and a source of hydrocarbons. Wooden buckets, by comparison, can be made almost anywhere with a simple workshop, even from irregular width staves, perhaps scrap wood and pieces of scrap metal ribbon. Plastic can tolerate a wide range of substances, some of which might damage or contaminate wood. But a surprising range and volume of goods used to be shipped in wooden barrels."
 
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Judith Browning wrote:this book/dvd tells how to make wooden buckets in the tradition of those I have pictured in this thread..........no power tools or glue needed....
I think, Jim G. uses a silicone in the joints of the bucket, which of course, isn't traditional, but is one of the down sides, I think, to trying to mass produce an item for the public. The buckets pictured in this thread have been carefully fitted so that when filled with a liquid the wood swells and holds tight without the help of a glue or silicone (although cattail fluff is sometimes used to seal the bucket bottom).....it can be done



Does anyone know how the cattail fluff is used to seal the bucket?
 
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Mike Patterson wrote:Thank you, Steve, for the information. I'd love to come down and visit your workshop sometime this year. We're just up in Northeast Missouri.

Do you also make casks by any chance?

-WY


Mike, I'm sorry i missed this post...Steve has 'retired' from the Folk Center and no longer makes buckets, etc. The center still has a Cooper Shop but no practicing cooper. He had always planned to pass on what he knew to someone but the wear on his back caught up with him these past couple years. No more hauling logs out of the woods, swinging an ax, etc., although he still does much more than many his age and younger
 
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Oaken Sage wrote:

Judith Browning wrote: The buckets pictured in this thread have been carefully fitted so that when filled with a liquid the wood swells and holds tight without the help of a glue or silicone (although cattail fluff is sometimes used to seal the bucket bottom).....it can be done



Does anyone know how the cattail fluff is used to seal the bucket?



I'll type in Steve's notes...he said it would be just a couple sentences though

The head (bottom) is fitted by measurement, then trial and error, until it fits snugly all the way around, without holding the staves apart once the hoops are driven up.
Then it's removed (the 'head') and short pieces of roving are twisted up out of the cattail fluff and poked into the bottom of the croze (groove) with a chince ( I used a short standard screwdriver) until a continuous layer lines it. Then the head is set again and hoops driven up. Once when I told a visitor I sealed the bottoms with cattails, a little girl said "Oh, poor kitty!"
Barrels and sometimes buckets were also "flagged" with the leaves of cattail (US) or rush (UK), slit to dimension with the thumbnail, but fluff was common homemade usage. Both are just meant to swell up, until the wood does.

 
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Finished my shave horse today..man I am knocking projects out in this good spring weather!

This is for shaving barrel staves, shaping bows, and any kind of woodworking that uses a drawknife. You pinch the work against the platform by pushing the bar forward with your feet, or hooking it behind your shins. This design is good, because I can change out the heads, and put in a different one by function. Spoon carving mule, bowl or spoon-sinking platform for copper, and my latest inspiration, coopering.
I want to make needful items, like buckets and butterchurns. I like art, but dust collectors are not good in a downturn economy. Needful things always are.
Next project, a Drawknife!

image.jpeg
Shave horse
Shave horse
 
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Are you coopers making a living at this craft?
 
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denise ra wrote:Are you coopers making a living at this craft?

 

I'm not.  (Back gave out.)  But I did for ten years or so, under special circumstances.  There ARE a very few doing so, mostly either as historical re-enactors (subsidized to do so; the product is not what pays) or special use (movie props, etc., at enormous prices).  My buckets ran a good $200, at $7/hour.  (That is, including retail markup, from wholesale production from the trees.)  I therefore finally accumulated an inventory of them, because they mostly did NOT sell.  I made a living demonstrating how to do it, and mostly whittled spoons and bowls for actual sales.


But the history of the economics is fascinating.  This kind of bucket (and churn and tub) coopering came over from the British Isles, where like in most of western Europe, it had developed from an ancient farm craft into a village and town shop profession, called small coopering or white (dairy) coopering, providing household woodenware.  But it came over here at the very time the industrial revolution was putting the bucket coopers over there out of work, mostly stamped metal buckets from the 1820s on.  Yet, reverted to a farm craft, it lingered on here through the 1800s, and in some places like the Ozarks, up past WWII.  Part of this was tradition-- I want a cedar water bucket on my porch like Mom and Dad had, and Grandpa had...  But some was the paradox of poverty, left over from before there were stores full of stuff to buy or jobs paying money to buy them with.  This is one of those things you can't afford to pay someone else to do for you in today's economy).  You do it yourself because you can't afford to buy it, or because you want it and that's the only way to get it, or because you like doing things from absolute scratch.  But it all amounts to being outside the cash economy, out in the Great Economy (Wes Jackson's phrase, popularized by Wendell Berry) of people and trees and reality.  Back in the 1800s, Ozarkers were making cedar buckets because they were mostly subsistence farmers outside the cash economy until the railroads came in, which was later than the rest of the US.


Barrel coopering, on the other hand, has always been economically viable, with the three qualifications that doing it by hand crashed after enough machinery was perfected (about 1875), that the wooden barrel market shrank dramatically after glass, then stainless steel replaced uses not reliant on breathability and oak aging (about 1950), and that it then expanded again with the gourmet micro-winery and micro-distillery boom (around 200).  Here in Arkansas a distillery in Little Rock was the salvation of a cooperage in Hot Springs that uses machinery installed in 1909.  But that's factory economics.

                                                                                          --Steve Folkers
 
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My maiden name is Cooper, and coopering has always intrigued me, but seemed so distant - yet, it's a skill my ancestors brought with them, into the Appalachians & Ozarks. After being dragged away, as a toddler, I've come back to the Ozarks, and (thanks to this op, and her amazing hubby) feel inspired. Maybe, by the time my goats are in milk, next year, I'll have made a wooden bucket, to bring their grains to the stanchion, and keep them busy, while I milk! Orrrrr... Maybe, I'll see if Steve has one I can buy, lol!
 
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Thanks for sharing what you do.  I am aspiring to make some buckets and piggins and have make a croze and hoop driver. Mainly just for fun gifts.  I have successfully made a coopered dipper, and enjoyed that build.

I read a book on Alex Stewart (I suspect you might recognize him from the butter churn chapter n Firefox 3) and he mentioned honey buckets and that there were certain woods appropriate for making them.  No more detail was included.  I am curious, do you know much about these and could you share what kind of woods would be appropriate?  Also what dimensions were these buckets?  Do they look like the lidded bucket shared on your website.  

Thanks for the education work you do.  Oh and your shop is well organized!!

Arron Hendershott
 
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Aj Hendershott wrote:Thanks for sharing what you do.  I am aspiring to make some buckets and piggins and have make a croze and hoop driver. Mainly just for fun gifts.  I have successfully made a coopered dipper, and enjoyed that build.

I read a book on Alex Stewart (I suspect you might recognize him from the butter churn chapter n Firefox 3) and he mentioned honey buckets and that there were certain woods appropriate for making them.  No more detail was included.  I am curious, do you know much about these and could you share what kind of woods would be appropriate?  Also what dimensions were these buckets?  Do they look like the lidded bucket shared on your website.  

Thanks for the education work you do.  Oh and your shop is well organized!!

Arron Hendershott

    Arron-- I learned bucket coopering from Keith Bowman, who was Alex Stewart's last apprentice.  Alex died halfway through, and Keith finished under his son Milton.  By this time the Stewarts had been to Japan demonstrating, and been converted to using dozuki saws, which Keith used.  (I used my father's, grandfather's, and one I suspect was my great-grandfather's Western-style handsaws, out of both respect for the tradition I was demonstrating, and general do-what-you-can-with-what-you-got.)  Keith brought the craft back to north Arkansas, where it had died out, when he took the job at the Ozark Folk Center.  But it was the same Southern Highlands craft, which we knew not only from books, but also from several local pieces from the late 1800s.  We had a churn the same as those Alex made, except for the simpler (but finely done) half lap joints on the hoops, and the wear on the bottom from scooting around on floors for decades.  I met the 96 year old man who had donated it, and he told me where he had accepted it in payment for milk and eggs in the 30s, not far out of town, when the bottom was already worn out.  

I have heard of sap buckets for sugar making, but that was not practiced much here, and I haven't seen any.  Pictures I have seen seem to show all sorts of forms, but not too large (1 gallon), and made to either hang from the spile the sap drips from, or from a nail just underneath.  I presume one would use a soft, neutral-tasting wood like yellow poplar or white pine.  Actual honey is usually put up in canning jars (or temporarily in gallon plastic milk jugs).  You should be aware that "honey bucket" is a euphemism for nightsoil collection.  As in, to paraphrase George Carlin, "I don't want to offend you, Marge, but your breath could knock a buzzard off a honey-bucket wagon."  If that IS what you mean, wood is not appropriate.  May I recommend plastic 5 gallon buckets (the right height to put a toilet seat on, and they come with lids), and a covering of sawdust after each use (which works fine if TP is collected separately).  And a separate pee bucket, primed with a few inches of water to dilute it.

The shop in the pictures was the demonstration shop at the Center, so I was able to arrange it optimally, saws here, axes there, everything within easy reach.  My shop at home is a mess.
 
Aj Hendershott
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Thanks for that information.  I am familiar with the term honey wagon, which was a septic pumper.  I think this may have been a bucket used to tote the honey from a wild hive.  The one pictured in the book on Stewart is not terribly large.  To me it looks about six inches across and tall.  
 
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