The Arte & Misterie of Coopering: Making a Mary Rose tankard, Part One

Imagine that you possess a monopoly on the secret for creating the only fit container available to move almost all the world’s goods.

The Worshipful Company of Coopers had that monopoly. 36th in the great order of precedence for livery companies, the Coopers were nonetheless one of the few solvent enough to rebuild after their guildhall was destroyed in the Great Fire of London in 1666.

There’s money in packaging.

Barrels, of course, were the only fit container for moving wine, spirits, ale, and beer. But barrels kept moisture out as well as it kept it in, and they were also used to move goods that needed to be protected from moisture (or rodents) especially at sea. As shipping between England and points far across the sea picked up, barrels were in much in demand to move wheat, barley, tobacco, anything that could be crammed into a nice, dry, barrel-shaped container.

But the “Arte & Misterie” of coopering wasn’t limited to barrels. You have to start somewhere. Apprentice and journeymen coopers cut their teeth making buckets and washtubs and tankards like the one I’m demonstrating here. If it was made from pieced-together staves and meant to be water-tight, odds are, a cooper made it.

And though the internet tells you that coopering has fallen by the wayside, in sooth it has merely been decentralized and mechanized like everything else.  The examples of the cooper’s art shown above took me about five minutes to gather from around the house. And while I wager my wife and I have more buckets and barrels around than the average American household, if you looked around, you could probably find a few examples yourself. Even if only in one of those half-barrels they sell by the gross at the garden stores to use as planters.

It seems like everyone has one. Just follow the scent of petunias.
Outside of the occaisional barrel, modern coopering tends to rely on glue and/or tongue and groove jointing to hold the staves water tight. The bucket for my ice cream maker shown at right is a prime example of this method of joinery.

And truth be told, if I were to use the tablesaw and router, I could have this project done in an afternoon. There’s probably a special place in heaven reserved for craftsmen who are wise enough to use best of the tools given them in their time and place. I can’t help but imagine how frustrated my long-dead ancestors are as they watch me muddle through on half-remembers hand-joinery lessons from my grandpa when there’s a metric ton of unused automation sitting just offstage.

I won’t be allow into that room today. I’ll be outside with Follansbee and Underhill and all the rest, making sawdust under a tree as my grandfather and great grandfather did before me…

Tankard-crafting: Part the First

When last we left our aspiring cooper, we were talking about math. Specifically the angles necessary to turn this drawing into a real-life stave for a Mary Rose tankard.

(Note that we’re using the term “Tankard” loosely here since the Mary Rose piece holds an estimated nine pints. Which makes it a mug-shaped pail in my book, but no one asked me.)

I think that there are as many ways to do this as there authors writing about it. This is how I did it.

I started by hollowing the inside of each stave with a type of specialized drawknife called an inshave. The actual depth of the concavity is deeper than my inshave can easily accomplish, but with several shallow passes, I was able to pull it off.

After several passes, I had reached close to the desired depth for my staves. I left it a bit shallow, intending that there would be a good deal more fiddling about as I bring it all together, using scrapers and scorps to carve them back into a more or less perfect circle.

The next step was curving the outside, which involved a spokeshave and an array of drawknives. The draw knife and the inshave are potentially the two most expensive tools I’ve used on this project, so it’s worth a moment to contemplate how or whether to bother trying to do this on the cheap.

Below are three types of draw knife I own, counting from top down. 
  1. The top one is the cheapest draw knife I could find anywhere that could actually cut wood when I brought it home. I bought it at a home store in Missouri called Menards. It cost about twelve bucks and it’ll do in a pinch.
  2. The blue one is properly known as a spokeshave, but that’s being a mite too charitable. It came from Harbor Freight and cost about eight bucks, which was eight bucks too much. I believe they’ve stopped trying to convince anyone it was worth even that much, and dropped it entirely. If you find one and have some time on your hands, here’s a guy that lays out how to rehab the thing into a usable tool. Too much effort for too little return in my view.
  3. This is a proper drawknife, or what a cooper would call a “backing knife”. It belonged to my great grandfather and that handle’s been missing longer than I’ve been alive. You can buy these new for $55.00 and sky’s the limit for a decent one, but I see these turn up in antique stores for around $20.00 all the time, wanting only some TLC and a sharpening stone.

I bought the prewar Stanley spokeshave you see below yesterday at an antique store for all of twelve dollars. I don’t know where people get these things to sell at their antique stores because no one I know who has one would let you have it for love or money. The blade is sharp as the day it was made.

Anyway, the end result is a big pile of shavings and eight curved staves that are ready to be turned into a tankard, bucket, butter churn, or whatever suits your fancy.
I like the look of piles of wood shavings so much that I’m going to show you another picture of them. Just because I can.

You would not believe how much of this stuff I have to fish out of my trouser cuffs and the pockets of my leather apron.

More to come tomorrow.

~ Scott

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