The Body Grows into the Work

“Coopering is a harsh mistress,” my master would always say. If you step away from the trade for any length of time, it takes a while to “get your hand back into it.” Coopering exacts a physical toll on its practitioners as well. A 19th-century London sociologist wrote, “Coopers become prematurely old, suffering greatly from pains in the chest, and across the back, attributable to their bending over their hot work. A cooper at large work is an old man, sir, at forty…his physical energies then are nearly exhausted.” But at the same time, Mr. Pettengell often compares the act of coopering to an elegant dance. Producing stout oak casks requires brute strength, but also a dancer’s grace, efficient movements, and exacting tolerances to produce a liquid-tight vessel.

As with any apprenticeship of a skilled trade, over years of practice the body grows into the work and the use of the specific tools of the job. The fatigue of the apprentice’s arm in the first year eventually wanes as muscle, ligament, and tendon strengthen. More efficient positions and leverage points are learned through practice, and by watching those more skilled in the trade. 

– Marshall Scheetz, excerpt from “Coopering: A Harsh Mistress” in Issue Five, available here.


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