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.
“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.”
Ken also uses a treadle lathe for woodworking. Rope-driven, it was made from cast iron by Eagle in the 1880s. He made his own shaving horse based on models that go back more than 300 years. The shaving horse is used to hold wood strips in place as the cooper shapes them with a drawknife in the first steps of barrel construction.
“I made this horse from seven woods,” he says. “There’s maple, elm, oak, ash, walnut, pine and locust.”
The cooper sits on the shaver bench, with the stave held in place by a pedal-operated jaw that leaves both hands free to manipulate the drawknife. This process establishes the exact curve and thickness of the stave in relation to the proposed barrel or other container. Standard measurements for barrel staves include a firkin, which is 21 inches, and a kilderkin, which is 25 inches. The most common wood used for barrel-making in the eastern U.S. is white oak.
Ken says that finding cooper’s tools from the past is becoming harder as time goes by.
“You must travel and you must advertise,” he says. “I’ve been all over the East Coast and to international tool shows. There’s David Stanley tool auctions on the internet. There’s the Bud Brown international tool auction. Some of the tools in my collection have been bought in England.”
Ken and his wife, Susan, have other interests besides cooper’s tools. They regularly attend gas engine shows and antique auto shows. Susan also has an interest in textiles.
But the man who has spent his life working with tools and who gives cooperage demonstrations at shows, schools and museums, is obviously dedicated to preserving the skills of times past and sharing them with today’s generations. The protection of American heritage is of profound importance to him.
“Without our history, we have no future,” he says. “We must know where we came from.” FC
For more information: Contact Ken March by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Jill Teunis is a freelance writer in Damascus, Md.