A cooper is a craftsman skilled in the art of making wood barrels. A major character in Taken Aback, Twiggy Strangeway, was a cooper. Lucky for me, the art of Twiggy’s trade has survived the test of time. Though most cooperages today have adopted various degrees of technology, some have preserved the time-honored techniques created centuries ago.
To appreciate the level of skill required to construct a barrel, try it yourself. Take an embroidery hoop (or any ring a couple of inches in diameter) and a handful of popsicle sticks or tongue depressors. Watch the how-to films on the following websites and try to “raise the barrel”. Good luck in building your "rose"!
How Stuff Works is a wonderful series that provides visual answers to common inquiries.
This video by C Gillet Cooperage demonstrates some of the same techniques used in the 17th century combined with modern technology.
In Jordan Wine’s video, Cellar Master Patrick Fallon explains in detail the construction and advantages of oak barrels in the wine industry. Winemakers and distillers toasted barrels to add flavor to the spirits long before they understood the chemistry behind the process. In Taken Aback, Twiggy Stangeway explains the necessity of toasting to his apprentices.
When humans first walked out of Africa they discovered the land did not always provide what they needed. They either had to carry necessities with them, or trade for them along the way. They developed a network of trading posts to close the gaps. Migration and trading both required containers to carry goods, the first of which may have been organic in nature and consequently would not have left enduring evidence. Archeologists have found that the oldest surviving containers were made of clay. The earliest evidence of barrel making came from the Celts in a region in Europe that is now France and Germany. The Romans quickly spread the art across their empire to such an extent that soon, every sizable village had its own cooper.
A 17th century wooden ship was much like a floating barrel and the cooper was one of the most important members of its crew. His job was to make sure the liquid cargo stayed in the barrels and the sea stayed out of the ship. He directed the loading, distribution, and unloading of stores on the decks and in the hull. If you have ever travelled in a rowboat with several other people, you understand the importance of sequence of movement and distribution of weight. Aside from maintaining the barrels and buckets during the voyage, the cooper sometimes served double-duty as the ship’s carpenter responsible for repairing or remaking damaged parts of the ship.
Another main character in Taken Aback, Captain Edward Waller, takes us through the front-side of barrel making. Choosing the right wood, cutting, stacking, and aging the lumber are important steps in making a watertight barrel. Each species of tree has unique properties that affect the permeability of the barrels. What was not understood in Captain’s Waller’s day was the natural history and complex chemistry involved in the processes. Aside from other advantages of being exposed to weather, the drying process allowed bacteria eat away nutrients found in the newest and softest part of a board – what we describe as the grain in the wood. Once consumed of their substances, the grain becomes hollow and absorbs the liquid contents of the barrel. This helps to swell the wood and allows a unique chemical synergy between the wood, the char, and the contents it carries. Connecting those dots was probably made serendipitously over much time. Perhaps a shipment of wine was delayed and when the bung was finally opened, it was discovered that the flavor of the wine was much improved by having spent a longer time in the warehoue.
These exquisite etchings are the works of artist Chinwe Chukwuogo-Roy, M.B.E. These etchings and other art work by Chinwe can be purchased through the Chinwe website.