CooperingApprentice cooper Marshall Scheetz discusses the art and science of making barrels.
Lloyd Dobyns: Hi, welcome to Colonial Williamsburg: Past & Present. This stuff is new and you won’t hear it anyplace else. We want to take you Behind the Scenes and let you meet the people who work here. That’s my job. I’m Lloyd Dobyns, and I mostly ask questions. This time I’m asking Marshall Scheetz, an apprentice cooper.
Lloyd: The first thing I have to ask is what is an apprentice cooper?
Marshall Scheetz: Well, Lloyd, an apprentice cooper is basically someone who is learning the trade of “coopering,” of “cooperage,” of being a cooper, from a master cooper – someone who has practiced the trade for years, perhaps his entire life actually. So I’m a student, and I practice each and every day, or five days a week, eight hours a day. I’m learning from the master of the trade how to make barrels, wooden buckets, butter churns, tubs…any kind of round, conical wooden container that’s composed of vertical slats that make up the walls of the container and that are held together by hoops or bands which are hammered down on the container. That’s what an apprentice cooper is.
Lloyd: Okay, now that you know how to do that, tell me how you do it. How do you make a barrel? There are staves, obviously, but how do you keep it from leaking?
Marshall: How do we keep it from leaking? How do we make a barrel? The real key is experience…practice. When I first started off – my first day – I remember clearly. The master didn’t give me a pile of wood and say, here, make a bucket. I started off basically doing very simple skills – carving piece of wood, carving a back of a stave. Really the key is being able to shape a piece of wood, or multiple pieces of wood, that fit so closely together, using a variety of tools – knives, saws, axes, planes, scrapers, routers. Any variety of wooden tools to shape a number of pieces of wood to fit so closely together that when you hammer the hoops down on the wide end of the container the tension will close up the joints close enough, or tight enough, so that the water simply can’t leak out. We don’t rely on any kind of swelling or gaskets or sealants or anything like that because they aren’t really that reliable.
Lloyd: So you just have to “by hand” make it fit?
Marshall: Yes, by hand. It’s actually a very tactile trade, a very visual trade. We’re using a lot of senses. We’re feeling the joints to make sure there’s no imperfections, that there are no ridges, making sure it’s perfectly flat. We’re eyeballing all of the tapers and all of the curvatures, making sure they are the right size to fit into the hoops. It’s really more of an art than a science. We use very few measuring devices, with the exception of our eyes, our own senses. It’s definitely more or an art than a science.
Lloyd: How long have you been at it?
Marshall: I’ve been doing it for three years. That’s a very short amount of time in the life of any average skilled tradesman, of a cooper. The master of the shop has been doing it almost his entire life, since he was a young boy around 10 or 12 – so nearly 30 or 40 years – quite a long time.
Lloyd: Now, you don’t see many ads in the paper for skilled coopers needed. How did you get interested in this?
Marshall: My interest – and with just about anybody who is employed with Colonial Williamsburg, at least in the education department – is in history. That’s what really drew me here first and foremost. I went to college and I received a history degree. During summers I was doing this kind of work at museums, doing “living history.” Dressing up at one point as a French priest, another time as a British solder, another time a French fur trader, another time as an English tobacco planter. My first job at Colonial Williamsburg was a brickmaker. What really drew me to the trade of coopering, more than anything else, was the fact that I was going to be put in the position to learn the trade from somebody who learned from a master cooper, and that master cooper learned it from another master cooper, going back all the way through history…as far the trade has gone. It has been passed down orally, verbally from master to apprentice, for thousands of years. And I’m next in line. That, I believe, is history in its purest form. That’s really what drew me to the trade of coopering as my opportunity to learn history this way.
Lloyd: You must have some sort of wood skills that you were aware of.
Marshall: I had none, actually. (Laughs)
Lloyd: Really? (Laughs)
Marshall: Before working at the cooper shop, I had virtually no woodworking skills. My skill was mostly in oration. That’s what I was trying to hone by working in museums and interpreting to visitors and guests. And of course I was learning brickmaking and I was doing some tobacco planting, so there was a little horticulture there. Really my skill was in research and the interpretation of the history until I came to the cooper shop. And now I’ve learned that I love woodworking, making barrels and buckets and things like that.
Lloyd: Do you talk to visitors?
Marshall: Yeah, all of the time. I consider it 50 percent or more of my job is to interpret our actions – making a barrel, making a bucket – to the visitor. How we’re doing it. Why we’re doing it. How I’ve learned. Not just about the trade of coppering, but I guess history and the town of Williamsburg in the 18th century, as well.
Lloyd: Were there coopers…well, there must have been because there were barrels around. How many coopers’ shops were around in the 18th century?
Marshall: In colonial Virginia, tradespeople probably composed somewhere around 10 to 15 percent of the population. Among that percentage, coopers were fairly common. Barrels were used for shipping and transporting virtually every kind of good: coffee bean, sugar, salt, beer, wine, ale, rum, paint, nails, gunpowder, oranges, and cranberries. Everything was shipped in barrels. So you had coopers wherever you had anything that was being produced on a commercial scale, on a large scale, so that it could be exported. The cooper was right there at the brewery making beer barrels. The cooper was right there on the tobacco plantation making tobacco hogsheads. He was at the fishery making fish casks. There were coopers everywhere. You don’t see a lot of coopers in Williamsburg, which is a little ironic. We know that there was one cooper in Williamsburg, but he was making buckets and tubs, not many barrels, mainly because Williamsburg was the capital. It was a political town. It wasn’t here for commercial reasons. That’s why coopers weren’t really drawn to it. You saw more coopers in Yorktown, because it was a port town where there were a lot of ships picking up goods and dropping goods off. In Norfolk, or on plantations, out in the countryside – that’s where you saw a lot of coopers in Virginia.
Lloyd: You may not know, but how long do you think it will take you to be a master cooper?
Marshall: Well, I definitely have to get through my apprenticeship first and that’s usually on average between six or seven years to become what they would call a journeyman or a practicing tradesman. A master…in the 18th century it’s kind of a loaded term. When you become a master of a shop, it doesn’t mean that your skills are masterful. You may not even practice the trade of your shop. A master simply pertains to the fact that you own the shop, you run the shop. You’re the businessman or businesswoman. I guess on the other hand, as far as mastering the skill of coopering – my entire life. I think I’ll always be trying to perfect those skills. I think I impose on myself very strict, very high standards. I don’t know when that will ever happen – probably not within the length of my apprenticeship.
Lloyd: Have you ever been asked a question that you couldn’t answer?
Marshall: It happens. To be perfectly honest, I actually enjoy those questions. Most of the questions that we get are the standard questions that you hear every five minutes…every three minutes. What kind of wood is it? How do you make the buckets watertight? One time I was asked the question…and this was probably one of the best questions I ever was asked…what was your most favorite question you’ve ever been asked? That caught me off guard and I was like “Wow, that’s great. I’ll have to think about that.”
Questions that are difficult to answer make you think. If I don’t know the answer, that makes me want to find the answer to make myself a better interpreter, a better historian. I’m trying to think of one particular question, but nothing comes to mind at the moment.
Lloyd: Kids or adults ask more difficult questions?
Marshall: Kids do.
Lloyd: Kids do?
Marshall: Yeah, kids do. Kids don’t seem to be confined by social taboos in their statements.
Lloyd: (Laughs) In other words, they ask you whatever they want to ask.
Marshall: (Laughs) Yeah, they ask you whatever they want to ask. Kids definitely ask the more difficult questions, I find.
Lloyd: Are the tools you’re using 18th-century tools?
Marshall: They are not from the 18th century; they are period-correct tools. They are modeled after tools from the 18th century. The materials we use, like the types of wood –cedar, pine, and oak – are all wood that coopers used in this regions. The techniques are all the same, and the methods are all the same.
Lloyd: So you’re trying to go back 300 years, not necessarily the same thing, but replicating it with tools and wood and the way they did things.
Marshall: Yeah, we’re trying to make it as close as possible. I guess one of the questions that we get a lot is how long does it take to make a bucket or a barrel?
Lloyd: Good question.
Marshall: That’s probably one of the more difficult questions to answer because we could talk probably for an hour discussing that. Usually most people don’t want to hear that long drawn-out answer. They want to hear that it’s three hours to make a barrel, or maybe six hours to make a barrel, or an hour to make a bucket.
When I say those times, I mean it takes an hour to make a bucket for coopers in an environment where they’re working very quickly. They are piece workers. In the 18th century they get paid by the number of items they make in a day. So they are working very quickly with no interruptions and no visitors. It’s a closed shop. It would take a cooper, making just those sizes of containers, just buckets for example – and he’s been making those buckets for months on end – an hour to make a bucket. For us, in our shop today in Colonial Williamsburg, it could take us to make a bucket anywhere up to three hours on a slow day – if there’s no interruptions, say, in January, which is one of our slowest times. It could be three hours to make a bucket. In July or August, when we’re at the peak of our tourist season, it could take us three days to make that same bucket.
Marshall: Our job is to stop and talk and to explain what we’re doing. That’s the nature of our work.Lloyd: That’s Colonial Williamsburg Past and Present this time. Check history.org often. We’ll post more for you to download and hear.