Cooper's Tools Alive in Pennsylvania
The "Schoolhouse Cooper" keeps history alive with collection of cooper's tools
Ken March, seated at his shaving horse, works a piece of white oak with a draw knife to produce a barrel stave. The horse, which Ken constructed out of seven kinds of wood, is modeled on those used more than 300 years ago.
Ken March's workshop is a 19th century, one-room schoolhouse in rural southern Pennsylvania. This retired tool-and-die maker calls himself the Schoolhouse Cooper, and he's dedicated to the preservation of the tools and skills used in the construction of barrels, casks and a variety of staved wooden vessels. Surrounded by cooperage tools of all description, Ken speaks almost another language as he shows off his collection. Words like "croze," "howel," "scorp," "froe," "basle" and "dingee" are hard to find in the dictionary, but they are part of Ken's daily life.
"I have always had an interest in history, and I read everything I can get hold of," Ken says. "Cooper's tools have always interested me. They're different. They're unique. They're just for making buckets and barrels. Barrel making is one of the earliest crafts. Before that, there were earthen crocks. There was a necessity to transport everything, and what better material to use than wood?"
The construction of a staved vessel is deceptively basic. It consists of shaping equal lengths of wood, or staves, standing them on end and securing them with hoops of wood or iron. The addition of a wooden top and bottom creates a container for almost anything, from whiskey to butter. Sounds simple enough, but as with so many traditional crafts, it is the skill of the craftsman with his tools that is the key to success.
"Coopers made containers of all kinds," Ken says. "The maker of staved vessels made barrels and casks. They made farmers' canteens and wagon casks for when they were out plowing all day. On a hot day, they got thirsty and so did the horses. They had to have water."
Staved vessels in everyday use around the farm included butter churns, feed tubs, kitchen utensils, milking buckets, water buckets and most any other container needed to get the chores done. Because of variation in size of different vessels, the cooper's basic tools come in a variety of sizes and conformations.
Ken's interest in tools of all kinds goes back to his early childhood.
"I bought my first tool at a public sale when I was about 8," he says. "I had a dollar, and I got a small hatchet. I was always picking up tools to see what they did, and finding others to match them. I started making barrels and related items about 10 years ago."
Many of Ken's tools are from Europe, made in the 18th and 19th centuries. In some cases, the imprint of the hands of earlier users can clearly be seen on the wooden handles.
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