Cooper's Tools Alive in Pennsylvania

The "Schoolhouse Cooper" keeps history alive with collection of cooper's tools

| April 2000

  • Ken March, seated at his shaving horse, works a piece of white oak with a draw knife to produce a barrel stave
    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.
  • Two 19th century cooper's compasses used to measure barrel heads
    Two 19th century cooper's compasses used to measure barrel heads. The large one is hand-forged and made of ash; the smaller one, from France, dates to about 1850.
  • A croze plane (at left) and howel plane, used in construction of small vessels such as this butter churn
    A croze plane (at left) and howel plane, used in construction of small vessels such as this butter churn.
  • Surrounded by cooper's tools, Ken March works at his 1880 Eagle treadle lathe
    Surrounded by cooper's tools, Ken March works at his 1880 Eagle treadle lathe. The lathe is made of cast iron and is driven by a rope.
  • Ken March at his 19th century Altand treadle lathe, sharpening cooper's tools
    Ken March at his 19th century Altand treadle lathe, sharpening cooper's tools. The lathe is driven by a heavy leather belt.
  • The one-room school house in rural southern Pennsylvania where Ken March uses pieces from his extensive collection of cooper's tools to make a variety of wooden containers
    The one-room school house in rural southern Pennsylvania where Ken March uses pieces from his extensive collection of cooper's tools to make a variety of wooden containers.
  • Examples of staved vessels once crafted by coopers for everyday use
    Examples of staved vessels once crafted by coopers for everyday use.
  • A pair of 19th century bung borers from France, used to drill a hole in the top of the barrel for the bung or stopper
    A pair of 19th century bung borers from France, used to drill a hole in the top of the barrel for the bung or stopper. The larger of the two has its own wooden blade protector. The smaller one has a 'new' handle.

  • Ken March, seated at his shaving horse, works a piece of white oak with a draw knife to produce a barrel stave
  • Two 19th century cooper's compasses used to measure barrel heads
  • A croze plane (at left) and howel plane, used in construction of small vessels such as this butter churn
  • Surrounded by cooper's tools, Ken March works at his 1880 Eagle treadle lathe
  • Ken March at his 19th century Altand treadle lathe, sharpening cooper's tools
  • The one-room school house in rural southern Pennsylvania where Ken March uses pieces from his extensive collection of cooper's tools to make a variety of wooden containers
  • Examples of staved vessels once crafted by coopers for everyday use
  • A pair of 19th century bung borers from France, used to drill a hole in the top of the barrel for the bung or stopper

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.