Thursday, December 4, 2014

Rock Ridge Cooperage

To recap the idea behind the Rock Ridge series, not everyone is going to be able to go back to living off of the land after a major catastrophe. There will be those who are not suited to raising their own food, but will have other skills that they can use to make a living. I am using the fictional town of Rock Ridge (ca. 1870) as an example of the skills and services that may be in demand after TSHTF. It doesn't have to be “Mad Max in Thunderdome”; people lived comfortably in small towns and villages for centuries before the invention of electric lighting and automobiles.

The town cooper is who you would go visit to get a new barrel or bucket made. Working with wood and iron, a cooper provided a convenient way to transport and store things. The trade is still taught, mainly for wine and whiskey manufacturers, through an apprenticeship that can last up to 7 years. Here's a good explanation of the job, and here is a quick video of the birth of a wine barrel.

When moving by wagon or coach across open prairie, families would often pack anything not needed for the journey (like glassware and china) in boxes or barrels, with barrels being preferred for the heavier objects. Barrels are handy to move, since they can be laid on their side and rolled, instead of having to be picked up like a box. When rolling a barrel up (or down) a ramp, two ropes can be looped around it to provide both mechanical advantage and better control of the path of the barrel, something you just can't do with a box or crate. Commercial shippers used barrels to ship and store just about everything they moved that wasn't packed in crates or boxes.

Photo is my own work
Packing houses shipped meat packed in layers of salt in barrels. The term "pork barrel politics" refers to the practice of placing a barrel of preserved pork (a rare delicacy for slaves and share-croppers) at the far end of a field being harvested. The workers would work faster and finish the harvest quickly in order to get their reward of meat and take it home before it was claimed by the other workers.

Nails, chain, and other small pieces of iron-work were also shipped in barrels made of cheap wood, because they worked well for keeping things together and they stacked and stored well. Gunpowder (black powder) was also shipped and stored in smaller wooden kegs. Even though the wood would allow some moisture though, wood doesn't create sparks.

Parts of the Barrel
Wooden barrels are an interesting mix of art and science. How do you take straight, flat pieces of wood and fit them together to make a round, watertight barrel? I'll go through the parts of a barrel, then the assembly.
Staves are the vertical pieces of wood that make up the body of the barrel. For water-tight barrels they are usually made of a hard wood like oak, but for lighter use just about any type of wood can be used. Starting as thin, flat strips of wood, the staves are cut with a bevel or angle on the sides, and if the barrel is smaller at the ends than in the middle, they will be tapered at the ends.

A Bung is a round, tapered plug of wood used to close the holes in the side and/or heads of the barrel. They allow the controlled filling and draining of the barrel without the need to remove the heads and are normally only used on liquid storage barrels. Bungs are also where a spigot can be "tapped" into a barrel (hence the term to "tap a keg"). Usually a wooden spigot is held in place and given a hard smack with a mallet to drive the bung into the barrel and firmly lodge the spigot into the hole.

Hoops are made of flat or round iron or mild steel stock, welded or riveted into a circle. Making the hoops is a job for a blacksmith (see: Rock Ridge Blacksmith), or at least someone who is familiar with a forge and iron, since they have to be made to fit precisely. Temporary hoops are thicker than the final hoops, since they are used during the assembly process and are reused. Being thicker also gives more contact area for the hammer and chisel used to pound them into place.

The top and the bottom of the barrel are known as the Heads. The heads are usually made of tongue-and-groove pieces fitted together to form a water-tight piece. The edge is beveled to allow them to be inserted into a groove in the body of the barrel.

Tools for shaping the staves may include saws, planes, sanders, and a drawknife depending on the skill and training of the cooper.
  • Making the hoops will require metal working tools like a forge, hot chisels, rivets, punches or a drill, and a anvil with a horn or a blacksmith's cone (to make sure they are round).
  • Tools for assembling the barrel are hammers, offset chisels (Z-shaped pieces of iron), temporary hoops for compressing the staves, a soaking tub and fire box (for bending thicker staves), and wood chisels or a special plane for cutting the grooves that the heads fit into.

The Art of Coopering
Watching the video will give a better idea of the assembly process, but I'll try to explain it in text.
  1. Starting with the bottom temporary hoop on the ground, the staves are stood up and held in position by temporary hoops which are forced into place by using an offset chisel and hammer.
  2. The bottom half of the barrel is roughed into shape and the middle permanent hoops put in place. 
  3. The barrel is then flipped over and a round clamp is used to compress the top into about the right size. 
  4. A temporary hoop is placed on the top and the clamp removed, so the barrel can be flipped over again and the final shaping/sizing done with temporary hoop driven down with hammer and chisel. The top and bottom permanent hoops are left off until after the heads are installed.
  5. After the body is done and the ends squared up, a groove is cut on the inside surface of the staves on both ends. While this can be done with a wood chisel, a specially-built plane that rides along the top of the staves and has a blade set to cut a constant depth does a better job.
  6. Once the body of the barrel is formed, the bottom head is inserted into the groove cut into the staves and the permanent hoop is put on to hold it tightly in place. 
  7. The barrel is flipped over and the top head is installed in the same manner, then the barrel is water tested if necessary. Some leakage is normal, but as long as the barrel is being used for storing water or water-based liquids the wood will absorb some of the moisture and swell up enough to seal the seams. 

Becoming a Cooper
Who would make a good cooper? Someone familiar with wood- and metal-working, with a fair supply of metal and wood available. In order to make good barrels, it would be best if you learned how during an internship or apprenticeship, as this is not a skill that you can learn in a weekend. It is a physically demanding trade requiring a wide variety of skills but a fairly small collection of tools. One of the nice things about learning this skill is the fact that even if you make a barrel that can't hold water, it can still be used for grain or other dry goods. Even your mistakes are marketable; that's a useful thing, especially when resources are scarce.

In a post-crisis situation, there may not be a need for an actual cooper to provide new barrels for people in the area, but there may be a need for someone who knows how to clean and refurbish plastic and metal barrels. Most large cities have a small company in the industrial area of town that recycles barrels; look in the yellow pages or do an online search for their services. They will usually have a variety of barrels in different grades of plastic and steel for sale (and cheaper than buying them new), and they can often recommend one made of the proper material for your use. Knowing what was originally in the barrel is vitally important, as some things just can't be cleaned out of plastic and unlined metal: pesticides, herbicides, industrial solvents, and anything else that is poisonous should be avoided. Pickles, olives, fruit concentrates, and other food ingredients are often shipped in buckets and barrels, and they are fairly easy to clean with hot water (or steam) and baking soda. Look for a tight-fitting head with a rubber or plastic gasket to ensure a good seal.

If you get really lucky, you'll be able to find a "spill recovery" drum. These are over-sized, double walled barrels designed to fit over a damaged/leaking barrel and contain the contents. They will have a large threaded lid and a water-tight seal, and are designed to be used by people working in Haz-Mat suits so everything is simplified and over-sized.

Some helpful terms and definitions to help in your search:
  • Open head: the top of the barrel is removable to allow loading/unloading. There is some sort of locking ring that goes around the top of the barrel that clamps the lid in place. Be aware that the locking ring will probably interfere with the ability to roll the barrel if it is placed on its side.
  • Closed head: the barrel is sealed on both ends and must be loaded/unloaded through the bung-holes. Normally used for liquid storage. Harder to clean than open head barrels. Bung holes are standardized at 3/4 inch and 2 inch (pipe thread) diameters with spigots, pumps, and fittings available at any farm or industrial supply store.
  • DOT/UN specifications: you may see a series of numbers stamped of printed onto the side or top of the barrel. They can be deciphered by using the chart found here.
  • Food grade: the materials and construction meet the requirements for use in storing food products. Food grade does not mean sterile, so use care when storing food in any bucket or barrel to prevent contamination. Steam, hot water, and bleach will kill anything that may be growing on the inside and baking soda will help remove any lingering odors.

No comments:

Post a Comment

The Fine Print

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution- Noncommercial- No Derivative Works 3.0 License.

Creative Commons License

Erin Palette is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to provide a means for sites to earn advertising fees by advertising and linking to