Toward a More Particularized Understanding of the Trades

Editor’s Note: This is the first in a series of essays by master cooper Marshall Scheetz. We’ve recently been talking with Scheetz about fascinating new research he’s been doing relating to aspects of his trade he’s not yet explored in all his years at the block. We’ve published his writing before and loved it so much that we decided to give him our platform here to share his latest findings.

I never imagined wooden buckets could keep me occupied, or rather, transfixed for so long. The simple purpose of a bucket or barrel belies the complex symmetry of such a mundane object. Coopering is the intuitive act of assembling carved wooden staves into a conical form, bound by hoops driven to a friction fit to make a liquid tight vessel. I describe the process as “intuitive” since the carving is measured mostly by eye. 

My journey as a cooper began 20 years ago. As a child I wasn’t naturally drawn to woodworking. Stories surrounding the wreckage of old furniture factories and railroad lines held greater appeal than carving a stubborn piece of maple. But then again, the practice of hard physical work called to me. The human body yearns for the satisfaction of physical labor. We were designed for it. A day spent bailing hay, swinging an axe, or working the fields is a day well spent.

After college I found myself recruited by living history museums to interact with the public, educating about the history of local regions. Over the years I’ve dressed the part of a Catholic priest, a French fur trader, British soldier, tobacco farmer, brick maker, and finally a cooper. But few things provoke like the act of creation by a talented or experienced craftsperson. Watching the performance of hard, physical labor pulls at us like tidal currents with questions of volition, of ancestry. My desire to learn and practice an ancient trade in a genuine historical environment led me to the Colonial Williamsburg Foundation in Williamsburg, Virginia. I served a traditional apprenticeship as a cooper in the Historic Trades Department using hand tools only. The apprenticeship was a six-year commitment, but my total stint at CWF was 15 years, nearly all of it in the cooper shop. 

I always marveled at the variety of trades at Colonial Williamsburg. My lunch breaks were often spent visiting the other trade shops around town to feed my curiosity of how those skills were mastered. I love the isolation of a trade.  Hyper focusing on the production of a singular object or task allows for incredible mastery over specific processes. I was recently leafing through a 19th century account book of a cooper in Maine. Itemized throughout the account was the production of tubs; washtubs of one standard size over years of practice. Another cooper from the same period and region exclusively produced cider barrels.

Distinct lines between the trades were sometimes blurred, but more often they were not. Many people are surprised to discover how specialized woodworkers have been. Cooper, carver, carpenter, cabinetmaker, turner, wheelwright, shipwright, luthier, harpsichord maker, joiner: all separate wood working trades. In historical terms, second cousins to one another. So dramatic was this specialization that coopers were divided into three distinct branches: tight (water-tight barrels), slack (dry-good barrels), and white (buckets and tubs) coopers. These branches were then subdivided further, making casks to standard size and tolerance for specific industries: gunpowder, whaling, beer, flour, sugar, fish. When the English arrived at Jamestown in the early 17th century, the Virginia Company of London advertised the need for a multitude of tradesmen and specifically “coopers of all sorts.”

Why do I continue to make wooden buckets by hand? I feel a connection to those practitioners before me. I feel a connection to the natural materials. There’s an intimacy with the process. When a bucket is complete, the usable space echoes.  The tight structure rings like a bell.  The first time you fill the vessel there is a sense of magic that never gets old, especially with buckets that are bound with saplings; wood binding wood, ’round, and ’round.

There is a satisfaction in making something, seeing it put to use, and even watching it degrade over time. When visiting museum collections, the first thing I notice are the wear patterns left behind on original pieces, a testament to the ritualistic, everyday use of an object. Most of the cooperage I make goes to museums, and my customers use the vessels in similar ways as they’ve been used for centuries.  Visiting the museums months and years later the buckets and washtubs possess a greasy patina, rope handles frayed, and iron hoops rusted.

Each trade or craft is a repository of some good thought about what the human hand is capable of. If we are to devise an enlightened plan for the preservation of handcraft, we need a more particularized understanding of the trades/crafts themselves – not a more refined mathematical knowledge but a deeper understanding of their nature, as if they were another sort of civilization. Our intimacy with these crafts sometimes lacks historical depth and is still largely innocent of what is obscure and subtle.

“It is not enough just to observe, record, and describe mankind’s works; one must interpret, reconstruct, and re-create the processes of technology, comparing and contrasting speculative conclusions against existing knowledge, and finally predicting or hypothesizing future knowledge yet to be foreseen.” – Lester Ross, Sixteenth-Century Spanish Basque Coopering Technology: A Report of the Staved Containers Found in 1978-79 on the Wreck of the Whaling Galleon San Juan, Sunk in Red Bay, Labrador, AD 1565, 1980.

-Marshall Scheetz


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