Old Ways

Coopers Were Crucial Craftsmen, but Why?

Coopers were a skilled breed of craftsmen. The ancient craft of coopering is centered on the creation of wooden casks and other similar vessels, like pails and churns.

This intricate process involves using a variety of hand tools with exceptional skill to shape wooden ‘staves’ – these are the long, thin, curved pieces that make up the body of the cask.

These staves are then expertly fastened together using metal hoops, resulting in casks of different sizes. Coopering, a trade that has been practiced for thousands of years and still exists. The artisans who craft these casks are known as ‘Coopers’.

Learning about this craft offers an insightful glimpse into the origins of many favorite beverages. For instance, when enjoying a Guinness at the pub, one can appreciate the specialised craft that contributed to its making.


Coopering is categorised into three primary types: white, dry, and wet coopering. White coopering is the making of everyday household items like pails, butter churns, and tubs. Dry coopering focuses on constructing casks for storing dry goods, such as flour, tobacco, or vegetables.

Costrel also known as a harvest barrel. Part of a farm labourers wage was paid in beer or cider. Image Credit: RuralHistoria Collection
Costrel also known as a harvest barrel. Part of a farm labourers wage was paid in beer or cider. Image Credit: RuralHistoria Collection

Wet coopering, deemed the most skill-intensive, is about making casks for liquids. It is this type of coopering that was traditionally practiced at the Guinness cooperage, underscoring the intricate and skilled nature of this ancient craft.

Roman Coopers

The art of cooperage, or barrel making, is believed to have begun with the development of early civilisations. Evidence suggests that as early as 5000 BC, people in the Middle East were using barrels made from palm wood to transport goods via the Euphrates River. These early barrels were rudimentary, bound with palm ropes and sealed with pitch.

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Romans were renowned for their expertise in woodworking and metallurgy, skills that were crucial to refining barrel construction. The introduction of iron hoops by the Romans marked a pivotal innovation in barrel making.

Coopers, c.1889. Image Credit: Scottish Fisheries Museum
Coopers, c.1889. Image Credit: Scottish Fisheries Museum

These metal bands replaced the earlier used wooden or rope bindings, substantially enhancing the structural integrity and durability of the barrels. This innovation allowed barrels to better withstand the rigors of transport and storage, particularly for liquids like wine and olive oil, which were central to Roman trade and daily life.

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The role of Roman coopers, known as ‘cuparii’, extended beyond mere construction. They were instrumental in the burgeoning wine industry, crafting barrels that were not just for storage but also for the aging process of wine, a tradition that continues in the modern wine industry.

The barrel’s ability to influence the flavor and quality of wine was recognised, making the cooper’s craft an essential part of viniculture.

Roman Advancements

Furthermore, the Romans’ extensive trade networks necessitated reliable and efficient means of transporting goods across the empire.

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The barrel’s sturdy construction and unique shape, which facilitated easy rolling and stacking, made it an ideal container for shipping a variety of goods over long distances, whether by land or sea.

In the Middle Ages, barrels were used as standard units of measure for various goods.
In the Middle Ages, barrels were used as standard units of measure for various goods.

The standardisation of barrels during this period was another significant contribution of the Romans. Standardised sizes and capacities facilitated easier trade and commerce, a testament to the Roman emphasis on order and efficiency.

This standardisation also meant that the dimensions and construction techniques of barrels became more uniform, making the cooper’s craft more specialised and professional.

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The Roman era was a transformative period in the history of cooperage. The advancements made in barrel construction not only improved the efficiency of storage and transportation but also had a lasting impact on industries like wine-making.

Roman coopers set a standard for quality and craftsmanship in barrel making that would influence the trade for centuries to come. Their contribution to the field is a prime example of how Roman innovation and engineering prowess left an indelible mark on the world.

Medieval Coopers

During this era, the demand for barrels surged, driven by the increasing trade of goods like wine, beer, spirits, and other commodities that necessitated reliable storage and transportation solutions. The unique geographical and economic landscape of medieval Europe, characterised by burgeoning towns and long-distance trade routes, created an ideal environment for the growth of the cooper’s craft.

The tools of the trade

As trade routes expanded over land and sea, the barrel emerged as the preferred container for merchants. Its robust design made it ideal for the rough conditions of long journeys, and its round shape allowed for ease of handling and efficient use of space in ships and caravans.

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Barrels were able to protect goods from spoilage and damage, a critical factor in an age where preservation methods were limited. This utility made the cooper an indispensable figure in medieval towns and trade centers.

The growing popularity of beverages like wine and beer further elevated the importance of barrels. Monasteries, which were centers of brewing and wine-making, relied heavily on barrels for storing and aging their products.

This relationship between coopers and monasteries not only supported the monastic economies but also fostered the development of superior barrel-making techniques, as the quality of the barrel directly affected the quality of the beverage.

Status of Coopers

Moreover, the cooper’s role in society was not limited to crafting barrels. They often played a significant part in the local economy, involving themselves in trade regulation and standardisation of measures.

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In many European towns, coopers formed guilds that regulated the quality, pricing, and production techniques of barrels. These guilds, which emerged as powerful entities, often held considerable influence in local trade and politics.

Despite the advent of metal and plastic containers, wooden barrels remained irreplaceable in certain industries for their unique flavors and aging properties.

The medieval period also saw innovations in cooperage techniques and tools, as coopers sought to improve the efficiency and quality of their barrels. The introduction of new tools and methods allowed for greater precision in shaping staves and fitting hoops, leading to more durable and reliable barrels.

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The Middle Ages were a period of growth and importance for the cooperage trade. The expansion of trade across Europe necessitated the widespread use of barrels, elevating the status of coopers in society.

Their craft not only facilitated the transport and storage of goods but also played a crucial role in the development of industries like brewing and wine-making.

The Cooper’s Craft

Central to this craft is the selection and preparation of wood, with oak being the preferred choice due to its strength, durability, and its ability to impart desirable qualities to stored liquids. The process begins with the careful shaping of wooden staves, which must be precisely cut, planed, and tapered to ensure a perfect fit when assembled.

Shaping barrel staves

The shaping of staves is a delicate balance of art and science. Each stave varies slightly in width and angle, demanding meticulous attention from the cooper. Once shaped, the staves are then arranged in a circular pattern and temporarily held together by a cooper’s hoop. This initial formation is critical as it forms the base structure of the barrel.

The art of cooperage further involves the use of heat and moisture. Coopers traditionally use steam or fire to soften the wood, making it pliable enough to bend into the barrel’s final shape.

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This process, known as ‘raising the barrel,’ requires the cooper to skillfully manipulate the staves into a tighter cylindrical form, ensuring the barrel is watertight. The ends of the barrel are then sealed with heads, also made of wood, which are precisely cut to fit the barrel’s interior.

The final stage involves securing the barrel with permanent hoops. These hoops, traditionally made of iron, are hammered into place, tightly binding the staves together. The number and spacing of the hoops play a crucial role in the barrel’s structural integrity.

Timeless Art

Throughout history, the tools of the cooper have remained relatively simple but effective – hammers, chisels, planes, and crozes, a specialised tool for cutting the groove where the barrel’s head is inserted. The mastery of these tools, along with an intimate knowledge of wood and its properties, sets the cooper apart as a skilled artisan.

Barrel parts

The cooper’s craft is not just about constructing a functional container; it’s about creating a vessel that can preserve and enhance the quality of its contents, whether it be wine, beer, spirits, or other goods.

The subtle interplay between the wood and the stored product is a crucial aspect of the barrel’s role, particularly in the aging of spirits and wines, where the barrel imparts complex flavors and aromas.

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In essence, the cooper’s craft is a blend of tradition, skill, and an understanding of natural materials. It is a profession that has adapted and endured through the ages, reflecting the changing needs of society while maintaining the fundamental techniques and principles that define this timeless art.

Coopers on Whaling Ships

During the era of sailing ships, coopers found substantial employment in the maritime industry. They were responsible for crafting water and provision casks essential for sustaining crew and passengers on extended sea voyages.

Coopering of casks on a dock for a whaler
Coopering of casks on a dock for a whaler

Additionally, they made barrels for storing high-value commodities like wine and sugar. The skillful stowage of these casks on ships was a critical aspect of stevedoring, as the casks had to be carefully arranged to conform to the hull’s sloping walls and optimise the limited space available.

It was crucial that the casks were tightly packed to prevent any movement during the journey, which could jeopardise the safety of the ship, its crew, and the contents of the casks.

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Particularly on whaling ships, which embarked on long voyages with large crews, the demand for casks was even higher. These ships required numerous casks for salted meat, other provisions, water, and storing the harvested whale oil.

Drink Known as Grog

Sperm whale oil, known for its highly viscous nature, presented a unique challenge in containment, making oil coopers some of the most skilled practitioners in the field of pre-industrial cooperage. It was common for whaling ships to have a cooper onboard, who was responsible for assembling shooks (disassembled barrels) and maintaining the casks throughout the voyage.

Roman coopers, or ‘cuparii’, advanced the craft by introducing iron hoops, replacing earlier wooden or rope bindings. Image Credit: RuralHistoria Collection

In the 19th century, the role of coopers who specialised in crafting barrels aboard ships evolved. These individuals were often referred to as groggers or jolly jack tars. Their nickname stemmed from a practice where, after a rum barrel was emptied, they would refill it with boiling water and roll it around.

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This process created a drink known as grog, a popular beverage among sailors of that time. This practice highlights the versatility and importance of coopers in maritime life, where their skills extended beyond mere barrel making to encompass a broader role in the daily lives of seafaring communities.

Coopers Influence on Society and Economy

In a time when storage and transportation of goods were crucial to trade and daily life, the cooper’s role in creating durable and reliable barrels was indispensable.

Barrel making was a highly skilled trade passed down through generations. Image Credit: simondsfamily.me.uk
Barrel making was a highly skilled trade passed down through generations. Image Credit: simondsfamily.me.uk

These barrels were not just containers; they were pivotal in the preservation and transportation of a myriad of goods, from foodstuffs like flour and salted meats to commodities like wine, beer, and whale oil.

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The widespread use of barrels facilitated not only local trade but also long-distance commerce, which was essential to the economic growth of towns and cities.

In many societies, particularly in medieval Europe, coopers were held in high esteem due to their specialised skills. Their ability to craft barrels that met the specific needs of various industries made them invaluable.

Coopers and the Local Economies

For instance, in the wine and brewing industries, the quality of a barrel could significantly affect the taste and preservation of the product, making the cooper’s expertise crucial to the success of these enterprises.

Moreover, coopers often played a significant role in local economies beyond their workshops. In many towns, coopers formed guilds that regulated the standards and practices of barrel making.

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These guilds ensured quality control, set prices, and often had the authority to train apprentices, thus controlling the entry into the profession. The economic power held by these guilds could extend into political influence, making coopers important figures in their communities.

The cooperage trade also influenced the standardisation of measures and trade practices. Barrels were used as standard units of measure for various goods, and the dimensions and capacities of barrels often became standardised over time.

This standardisation was vital for trade, as it provided a reliable and consistent measure for buying and selling goods.

The Industrial Revolution and Beyond

As the world entered an era of industrialisation, the demand for barrels continued, but the methods and materials used in their production began to evolve.

One of the most notable changes was the introduction of mechanisation in the manufacturing process. The mass production techniques of the Industrial Revolution allowed for faster and more efficient production of barrels.

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Machines started to perform tasks that had been done manually by coopers for centuries, such as shaping staves and fitting hoops. This shift not only increased production rates but also altered the skill set required by coopers, blending traditional craftsmanship with the operation and maintenance of machinery.

The Industrial Revolution also saw the emergence of new materials that competed with traditional wooden barrels. The development of metal and, later, plastic containers began to reduce the demand for wooden barrels in certain industries.

For instance, the oil industry, which initially relied on wooden barrels, gradually shifted to metal drums that were more suitable for storing and transporting petroleum products. Similarly, the food and beverage industries began exploring alternative containers that were cheaper and easier to produce on a large scale.

Despite these changes, wooden barrels remained irreplaceable in certain sectors. In the wine, beer, and spirits industries, the unique interaction between the wood and the product continued to be highly valued.

Expansion of Railway

The aging process in wooden barrels imparts flavors and characteristics to these beverages that cannot be replicated with other materials. As a result, the cooperage trade continued to thrive in these niche markets, where the quality of the barrel was as important as the quality of the product itself.

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Furthermore, the Industrial Revolution led to significant changes in global trade and transportation networks. The expansion of railways and steamships facilitated the rapid movement of goods, including barrels, across longer distances. This development opened new markets for coopers and allowed their trade to reach a wider audience.

In the post-Industrial Revolution era, particularly in the 20th and 21st centuries, the cooperage trade has continued to adapt.

The rise of artisanal and craft movements in sectors like brewing and distilling has led to a renewed interest in traditional cooperage techniques. This resurgence has highlighted the on-going value of the cooper’s art, blending historical craftsmanship with modern demands.

Modern Cooperage

Today, the craft of cooperage continues, particularly in regions famous for wine and spirits production. Modern coopers combine traditional skills with new technologies to produce barrels that meet contemporary standards while retaining the artisanal qualities that make wooden barrels unique.

Seven wine casks, each of a different size
Seven wine casks, each of a different size

The measurement and standardisation of capacities for brewery casks were historically based on a specific set of English units. Initially, this system revolved around the ale gallon, which was defined as 282 cubic inches (equivalent to 4.62 liters or 1.22 US gallons).

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With the adoption of the imperial system in 1824 by the United Kingdom and its colonies, these units underwent a recalibration to align with the slightly smaller imperial gallon, which is approximately 1.2 US gallons or 4.5 liters. However, the United States continued to use the older measurement units.

In historical context, the terms ‘beer’ and ‘ale’ were used to denote different types of brews. This distinction was reflected in the capacity of casks in Britain from the mid-15th century until 1803.

During this period, the volume of “ale” casks differed from that of “beer” casks, each type being defined to hold a specific number of gallons according to the brew they contained.

Cooper as a Surname

The surname Cooper has its origins linked to specific occupations and locations.

In England, the name Cooper is an occupational surname, stemming from the trade of crafting and repairing wooden barrels, casks, vats, and similar containers. The term for this profession, cooper, evolved from the Middle English words ‘couper’ or ‘cowper’. These, in turn, are derived from the Middle Dutch ‘kūper’, with ‘kūp’ meaning a “tub container”.

In Scotland, however, the derivation of the name Cooper is geographically oriented, originating from the town of Cupar in Fife.

The name Cupar itself is believed to come from ‘Cu-pyre’, meaning the ‘enclosed’ or ‘high fire’. By the late 19th century, the distribution of the Cooper surname was widespread across England, but it was predominantly found in three main areas: the northern midlands; Sussex and Hampshire; and Suffolk.