Cooper's Tools Alive in Pennsylvania
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"Most of the European cooper's tools were brought here by the coopers when they came to America," he says. "Once the earliest immigrants were here, they would send back to other immigrants coming over a list of tools and supplies they would need, items that couldn't be bought here. In the early 19th century, tools were becoming available from suppliers such as D.R. Barton and L. White, who were New York toolmakers."
The schoolhouse sets the tone for Ken's tools and their continued use. The school was built in 1838, and remained in use for almost 120 years. Its wooden floor still bears the marks of students' desks and chairs. The original blackboards are now covered with chalk diagrams of barrel-making techniques. There's even an old potbellied stove in the center of the room.
The floor and the walls are display and storage areas for a variety of tools, from planes to bung borers, from adzes to compasses. Compasses? Staved vessels are round and the measurement of the top and bottom must be exact, to ensure the essential perfect fit.
A cooper's chest houses many of the tools Ken takes with him when he attends shows and gives demonstrations at schools and museums.
"It's a seagoing chest from the early 1800s," he says. "Every sailing ship had a cooper or two on board to make containers needed on the ship."
Ken prides himself on using his tools the old fashioned way.
"I'm very much a purist," he says. "I do nothing by electricity. Everything is by hand. I do this because I can feel and smell the wood, and I love it. It does take a lot of physical strength and energy. I grew up in the Tuscarora Mountains in Pennsylvania, and I learned to cut wood from an old man there. He was good with basic tools. You cut a tree and you made what you wanted. My skills are basic skills I can teach anyone. The tools I collect, I use."
Cooper's tools are almost entirely about cutting, shaving, shaping and smoothing wood. That means they have to be kept sharp. One of Ken's tool sharpeners is mounted on a treadle-drive lathe from a blacksmith shop in York County, Perm. It was made by Altland, and dates to between 1820 and 1840. Constructed from cast iron and heavy wooden beams (which Ken thinks are probably chestnut), the mechanism is driven by a heavy, leather belt.
"There's no such thing as a dull blade," he says. "They must all be sharp. I can't control something that's dull. Someone once said that if you drop a tool from the bench, never catch it. It will take your fingers off on the way down."