Eighteenth Century French Coopers

This article previously appeared in The Ohio Toolbox, Vol. 2 March, 1975


Eighteenth Century French Coopers

Raymond Townsend
March 14, 1975

Collectors and students of bygone crafts and tools are quite familiar with Dennis Diderot’s Encyclopedia. Fewer, however, are aware of another French encyclopedia, equally informative, Des Arts Et Metiers, edited by J.E. Betrand and printed at Neuchat el in 1777. Several libraries have a number of the volumes but, so far as is known, no complete collection is available; even how many volumes were printed remains a vague conjecture. I have found Descriptions much easier to translate than Diderot. The text is presented in numbered paragraphs, each dealing with a specific subject, in contrast with the continual run of sentences in Diderot.

The article Art Du Tonnelier, Tome VII, contains 300 paragraphs, a Glossary of Terms, a Table of Contents, and plates illustrating the shop, wares, and tools of the cooper. It is very carefully noted that “the author (M. Duhamel) here speaks of the Pa ris coopers, whom he had consulted.” However, he does occasionally speak of the country coopers. He treats his subject in more detail than Diderot, relating the history of coopering, the cooper’s shops and tools, woods suitable and unsuitable for use; a nd the step-by-step method of constructing a cask. Recorded are several interesting operations revealing the highly specialized state to which the craft had developed and similarity to methods still used in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. A few of these are of particular interest.

The greatest quantity of wine casks in France were made close to vineyards, provided a forest of abundant oak trees was available nearby. The shop ordinarily consisted of an open shed of sufficient size for several workers and space to hold the necess ary tools. The cooper obtained oak from the nearby forest and cleft his own stavewood and head pieces.

City shops, such as those in, Paris, were much larger, with space to provide for a number of specialized workers and to store stavewood or prepared staves for thorough drying. As M. Duhamel points out, “the dryer the wood the better it is for the cons truction of a cask. “The Paris cooper purchased his stavewood and head pieces from the lumber merchant already cut and roughly shaped.

The lumber merchant selected part of his felled oak to sell to the coopers for the making of both stavewood and head pieces. He chose straight and wide trunks with straight rays. The longer trunks were for stavewood and the shorter for head pieces.

The best stavewood was ordinarily prepared from cleft wood, so called because it was cleft or split with the froe and maul along the rays of the wood. However, for large tuns and pipes, sawn wood was used, but was more difficult to work as the planks were not “parted” along the fibers of the wood. The length of the stavewood was longer than the stave it was to form. This enabled the cooper to remove any imperfect ends.

The billets chosen for cleft wood were cut to proper length and quartered with an adz, iron wedge and maul. They were then cleft into pieces and, with a hatchet, reduced to the necessary thickness for the staves they were to form. In Orleans, the tow n coopers generally bought their stavewood in assorted thousands, composed of 1400 stavewood and 700 head pieces; a total of 2100. The price depended upon the quality of the wood.

Oak was chosen because of its compressed fibers and resistance to rot. However, other woods were used, such as beech and chestnut. Beech was supposed to improve the wine and impart an agreeable taste. Chestnut was used to make barrels or casks to con tain oil. It was believed that the oil hardened the wood and caused it to resist rotten- ness longer than any of the other woods. However, preferring to use young wood as the oil penetrated the wood from older trees, resulting in the loss of much of the liquid.

In southern regions mulberry was used to form casks and barrels for transporting wine, and especially used for making small barrels, buckets, pails, and other similar objects. It was too soft and spongy to be suitable for oil. In other regions, pine or fir was used to make barrels for transporting provisions, dry merchandise, such as sugar, ironware, etc. Fir barrels were used for oily and dry pitch. Pine and fir could be used for making casks for wine, but did not last as long as oak and were more subject to penetration by the liquid. The Dutch furnished most of the pine and fir stavewood for these barrels as well as supplying pine and fir stavewood at various ports to make casks for shipments.

The town cooper, generally in winter, dressed his stavewood and head pieces into staves and heads ready to be set-up. This accomplished, the greater part of his work was done. It remained only for him during the spring to join the staves or, in the w ords of the cooper, setting-up and binding his casks.

These casks were sold only with a few hoops in place and theirheads held by a chime [chime – the rim of a cask] hoop. Later, when the cask was filled with liquid and ready for transportation, the cooper came and reinforced the heads with a cross bar p laced opposite to the heads and wedged with pegs. He added other hoops and removed the last two hoops at the chime of the cask and replaced them with two “double hoops.” These consisted of four hoops, each tied with osier [osier – willow] in the same ma nner as the other hoops. One was placed over the other and tied together with osier, forming two doubled hoops. These bore on the ground when the cask was rolled and protected it from the severe blows and rubbings it received. It also served to hold th e pegs which secured the cross bar. This differs somewhat from the two narrow hoops on the chime of the cask which Kilby speaks of and calls square and chime hoops.” However, the purpose is the same.

There were very strict ordinances concerning the fabrication and sale of casks. The type of wood demanded much attention. Dry wood must be used for stavewood and head pieces.

Green wood contained too much sap which made the wood soft and easy to soak in the liquid, consequently causing rot. In certain parts of the forest, some oak developed surface veins of different colors, referred to as “streaky” and, if red, as “red wo od.” Such colors were an indication of poor quality. This fault was common in wood which had been felled and left on the ground for some time.

Wood damaged by insects or worm eaten must be rejected. This was a common fault in oak and the holes this created allowed the liquid to seep out. This was sometimes hard to detect but, when discovered by the cooper in a cask he had made, he carefully “plugged” the holes with thorns from a wild allum tree. The cooper was held responsible for any lost liquid from such a cask.

Dry wood swells with humidity and becomes more tight. The cooper dried the stavewood outside by piling it crosswise so that the air had free course between all the pieces. The pile formed a kind of tower with am empty center. The top was loaded with a large block or stone and left in this condition at least all summer. Toward the end of the season, the wood was moved inside under cover.

One common defect in some oak could not be detected “by eye.” It imparted a very disagreeable taste to the wine, making it unfit for drinking. The French referred to it as “barrel taste.” (The English call such a cask today a “stinker.”) Even if on ly one stave of a cask was made of this particular faulty wood, the wine would be ruined.

There appeared to be no solution except to burn the cask. M. Duhamel stated it would be a great service to the public if he could find some distinguishing characteristics of this faulty oak so it could be detected before using. Later on he wrote, “I v ow that I have thus far searched in vain for any marks which can indicate it to me.”

The cooper, by law, was held responsible for such faulty casks, even though he had innocently used the wood. He was required to take back all such casks and refund the price to the purchaser.

Although there were no known means to rid the cask of this disagreeable trait, several methods of doing so were suggested. (1) The cask (before placing the heads) was placed over a fire of wine- branches and left, without burning the cask, until it wa s thoroughly well-perfumed. After placing the heads the cask was washed with boiling water containing mustard grain and fennel. (2) The cask was filled with a half pound of freshly squeezed raisins and left for 15 days. (3) For a 100 gallon wine cask a full “hat” of quicklime was thrown in and then diluted with a sufficient amount of water; after which the bung hole was corked. The lime drew out the rottenness and bad odors from the staves. Later the cask was carefully washed.

The very large wine vats sometimes developed a mold which imparted a disagreeable taste to the wine. Since it could not be removed, it was impossible to subject it to fresh air and the sun; nor could a fire be set inside. There were various means to clear the mold: (1) The cooper entered the vat and washed the “walls” with an old broom to remove the tartar and mold. (2) He could wash it with boiling water. (3) Quick lime or alum was sometimes added to the water. (4) The interior was washed with sp irits of wine or aqua-vitae. (5) He would burn in a container one or the other of these liquids inside the vat.

The first operation of dressing the stavewood into a rough stave was considered the most difficult operation performed by the cooper. In shops where each cooper had a specialized task to perform, the one who dressed the stavewood was considered the mo st important and received a substantial daily wage. According to M. Duhamel, few workers could perform this operation “well and quickly.” The side axe was used to narrow the stave from the middle to the ends on both sides. The cooper cut one side of an end, turned it over and cut the opposite side of the same end; then without letting go of the axe in his right hand, he flipped the stave in the air, catching the cut end in his left hand, and, without losing any motion, proceeded to shape the opposite e nd. It was then finished on the jointer.

The French jointer, as illustrated in Betrand and Diderot, had four legs and was horizontal to the floor. M. Duhamel pointed out that in Germany, the jointer had two legs at the side of the worker and the opposite end rested on the floor. This enabled him to exert a great deal more force in planing down the inclined jointer.

It appears, as in other crafts, that tricks were sometimes played on an apprentice. In the specialized shops, the one who smoothed inside the chime in preparation for cutting the croze would sometimes plane it unevenly and then give the cask to the app rentice to cut the croze which, of course, resulted in a very irregular croze.

Chalk was used to mark the position of a hoop on the cask, which was driven on with the aid of a driver. In some shops the driver might have a handle two to three feet long.

The large vats in wine cellars were bound with iron hoops. Iron hoops were often added to wine casks that were to be transported from one place to another; generally six iron hoops were considered sufficient. There were also iron hoops made especiall y to reinforce wine casks if necessary. These were adjustable and could be tightened around the cask by a screw and wing nut. In some provinces, quite often iron hoops were not available to the cooper. To reinforce the cask he used a rope and tightened it with a stick similar to the method used when applying a tourniquet.

The statutes of the coopers required that the master cooper mark his wine casks so they could be recognized as being made by him. For this purpose, a marking iron was used similar to the timber scribe which cut different figures, such as circles with characters or lines within, semi-circles or other such “signature.”

The cooper would sometimes buy old vats and casks and rework them into various other types of containers. For example, by shortening the staves of a vat and reworking the size, he could make a bath tub. From old tuns he could make puncheons and barre ls and some old casks, when cut in two, could be made into buckets. In some provinces, the cooper used old staves to make tables and fountains to set along walls.

In cities such as Paris, the coopers were responsible to the grocers and wine merchants for placing the wine, cider, oil or brandy casks in their cellars. This required caution and in the large cellars, from two to three apprentices were assigned to t his duty. They used ropes, ramps or pulleys. Two apprentices would roll the cask down while the third would remain in front to control the descent. It was also the responsibility of the master cooper to load and unload casks in or from boats.

The country coopers made their own bungs whereas in cities, where a large number of wine casks were made, the cooper purchased his bungs ready made from the turner.

This is only some of the fascinating information M. Duhamel relates. His encyclopedia is a very useful source of information and more should be extracted from it to add to our knowledge of coopering.