The history of coopering in Britain goes back at least to the Roman period, and traditional oak cask are still made in the same way and with the same tools.
It requires skill, intelligence and a physical strength to make casks watertight, and the cooper does not work from written plans or drawings he ‘just knows’ through skill and years of experience.
To make a barrel you first take your oak tree (to paraphrase Mrs Beeton) Ideally a tree 100 – 150 years of age, you then split the wood along the grain into staves and bend it. It is then stacked in the open air for 18 – 36 months to allow the wood to dry evenly and to retain it’s natural aroma.
Barrels come in all sizes depending on what the contents will be, and in 1423 Parliament attempted to standardize sizes. A short sample of this standardization for the Hogshead follows:
Wine (Claret) 46 gallons
Port 57 gallons
Sherry 54 gallons
Madeira 46 gallons
Beer/Ale 54 gallons
Although the barrels traditionally see on the back of a horse drawn dray were 36 gallons.
Barrels or casks have been used for centuries for storing food and liquids of all types, also for preserving, meat in barrels of salt for example, the y were also the simplest way to transport large amounts of produce.
Smaller casks were also used, for example a firkin is a quarter of a barrel, but it is also a measure of weight for butter; 56 lbs.
Small kegs were also used to transport gunpowder and nails.
Coopers also made anything that required coopering, pails, buckets, butts
etc, are all examples of he coopers skill which is why until the period between the world wars every village had at least one cooper.
It did until quite recently look like it could be a dying art, but with the resurgence in the interest of traditional crafts and skills there may still be hope to preserve this craft for generations to come.