Barrels are made by coopers, a word likely derived from the Latin word for cask, "cupa." Coopers have been making barrels for many centuries, and Colonial era coopers made barrels in the same way as modern coopers. However, in Colonial times, barrels were used much more extensively for storing and shipping goods of all types.
In Colonial America, coopering, or barrel-making, was a common occupation. A man who wanted to learn the trade began as a journeyman, progressed to the position of apprentice and finally became a master cooper. Highly skilled coopers produced barrels to hold liquids, while less-skilled craftsmen made barrels for dry goods.
Coopers worked where there was a need for containers: on plantations, in cities and towns, and aboard ships. They also produced other types of containers, such as buckets, tubs and casks, for commercial and household use.
Today, coopering is a less-common occupation than in Colonial times because of the use of plastic and metal containers. Many breweries use metal barrels to ship products, and household containers that were once made of wood, such as buckets and wash tubs, are now made of plastic. Wineries continue to use oak barrels because they contribute to the flavor of the wine.
Types of Barrels
Because barrels were used to hold almost everything in the Colonial period, coopers produced barrels according to their intended use, and often specialized in making one type of barrel. A dry cooper, or slack cooper, made barrels to hold dry goods such as nails, tools, apples and lard. His barrels and containers didn't need to be watertight, nor did they require high-grade wood. A wet cooper, or tight cooper, produced barrels that held liquids such as milk, beer and wine. His barrels had to be watertight and were made of the highest quality of wood available.
A barrel is made of wood sections, called staves, that are held together by metal bands, then fitted with wood covers on the top and bottom. A Colonial cooper used knives, axes and planes to shape the staves. He then held them in place with hickory rings and pulled them closer together by using a windlass tool, which is similar to the handled crank that raises and lowers a bucket in a well. After the staves were in place, the cooper placed the metal bands around them. He cut out lips around the insides of the staves on the top and bottom to accept the wooden covers, which was a difficult task. After the covers were in place, the cooper cut a round hole in the top cover and another hole in the side of the barrel, and fashioned tightly fitting plugs for them. The holes allowed people to see the barrel's contents.