Medieval coopers were important craftsmen in the Middle Ages. Many different types of goods were kept in barrels, such as alcohol and salted meats. But barrels were not the only things coopers made. A variety of wooden vessels were needed for daily use by the average person as well as many other medieval craft and tradesmen. Buckets were needed to draw and transport water, and pails collected milk from cows, sheep, and goats. Wooden churns helped to preserve that milk by turning it into various types of butter and cheese. Tub like containers would have been used for jobs such as mixing flour into dough, pickling vegetables and fruits, salting meat, or making beer, ale, and cider. Larger tubs would have been used for fulling (processing wool), dying fabric, tanning, washing clothes, bathing, and crushing grapes for winemaking. Serving pitchers might also be made out of wood. Their sides were curved for pouring, just like vessels made out of glass or ceramic would have been. When barrels and large tubs had out-lived their usefulness, they were either taken apart and the wood re-purposed, or they were used to line wells and pits.
Oak, which was strong and durable, was the favored choice for wooden vessels, but beech, pine, and silver fir were also sometimes used. The wood grain needed to be straight. The tools of the trade were simple ones, with coopers using mallets, axes and shaving tools to shape the staves. These could be fit together to make the vessels water tight, though not all barrels were. Some were used for dry storage and water tightness was not required. Surprisingly, metal hoops were not used for large barrels until well after the Middle Ages. They were reserved for use on some buckets and expensive drinking vessels. Barrel hoops were made of wood, primarily willow, ash, hazel, and chestnut. Hoop making was a specialized craft of its own.
I tried to find a video of someone using medieval methods to make wooden vessels, and this is the closest I got. George Smithwick is a 6th generation cooper and has been doing this for over 30 years, so I’d say he’s a great authority on the subject! The video is a bit long, and he does occasionally use modern day power tools, but his methods are rooted in tradition and he goes a bit into the history of his trade, which is very interesting. If you have time, I hope you’ll watch this one, even if you need to fast forward through parts of it. Nothing compares to actually watching how things were made–it gives you a real appreciation for the work involved in making simple, every day objects we take for granted in our post-industrialized world.
Learn more about the daily life in Middle Ages by browsing previous posts in the Medieval Monday Index.