Traditional coopering in Europe employed quarter-split or riven wood to make the walls and heads of the vessels. In a world where sawing was time-consuming, splitting straight-grained logs into flat bolts of wood was the most expeditious processing method. Riving a knot-free log is a satisfying experience, because it’s surprising how easily it yields to iron wedges, wooden gluts, and a froe.
Quarter-split material is a pleasure to work with hands tools, even after several years of seasoning. Any type of wood that grows with clear grain, quartered from a mature log, is ideal for coopering. Different species historically used for coopering include red and white oak, chestnut, white ash, spruce, fir, yellow pine, white pine, tulip poplar, cypress, and white cedar. Examples never used in industry because of their irregular grain include walnut, elm, maple, hickory, and fruit wood.
Quarter-split white oak is always my preferred wood of choice, but time constraints force me to use quartersawn white oak on many projects. Clear, straight grained, face-sawn cypress and white cedar are what I have available for many smaller bits of cooperage.
The stock should be a consistent thickness throughout. The width of the stave material may vary, but a consistent width does aid in the shaping and fitting process. Thickness of stock may vary depending on the size of the container and product being held. The same species of wood is used throughout a single container to avoid differing expansion and contraction rates.
–Marshall Scheetz, excerpt from “Coopering: A Harsh Mistress,” in Issue Five