Tonawanda News

February 10, 2014

Coopering the canal is a part of 'Show and Tell' series

Appleton man to demonstrate the lost art of barrel making

By Anne Calos
The Tonawanda News

Tonawanda News — Tim Roberts of Appleton first became interested in the “lost” art of coopering about 15 years ago when he helped build a cooper shop at the Joseph Smith Farm, an historic site in Palmyra.

At the time, Roberts made the shingles for the shop by hand — all 3,000 of them – using no power tools. It took him three months to cut the wood and make the shingles, but it sparked his interest in coopering — the making of staved wooden vessels, bound with hoops and featuring flat ends, such as barrels, buckets and casks.

“I’ve always been interested in historical things, and I’ve always made things with wood, so that’s how I started. I’ve been learning more ever since,” Roberts said.

He will share his knowledge of coopering, while demonstrating the construction of a bucket, at 1:30 p.m. Saturday at the Erie Canal Discovery Center, 24 Church St., Lockport, as part of the “Discovery Show & Tell” series.

Roberts said that coopering used to be a huge business, as all goods had to be shipped in various size barrels, or casks.

“Everything that was shipped on the canal was shipped in barrels. There were cooper shops all over,” Roberts said.

In fact, Roberts has a copy of a sign from the Niagara Cooperage Co. on Van Buren Street in Lockport. There was also a cooper shop right down the road from Roberts’ home.

“Around here, they mostly needed barrels to ship apples. Once the apples got where they were going, they just broke up the barrels, so the shops had to keep making more,” Roberts said.

Even though thousands of barrels were needed, making them wasn’t an easy process. There was a five-year apprenticeship required, and each barrel had to be perfect — completely air- and water-tight.

“The wood had to be completely dry, and then they would have to wet the wood and light a fire under it so the wood would bend,” Roberts explained.

He said that the barrels were made using no nails or glue, so they had to fit together perfectly or else they were useless.

Roberts explained that the need for coopers began to decline in the 1930s, when most things started being shipped in boxes and other mass-produced containers, and by the end of World War II, there were basically no cooper shops left.

“Today, the only barrels made are used for whiskey or wine, and those aren’t made the old-fashioned way,” Roberts said.