As a passionate advocate for spreading knowledge and appreciation of craft, I am quietly proud that the most visited page on my website is “The Cooper’s Tools of the Trade” that links to a blog post I wrote several years ago about master cooper Marshall Scheetz from Williamsburg, Virginia. Since then, thousands of people have landed on this page after searching terms like “cooper’s tools,” or “coopering tools.”
These online searches show there is a growing demand for learning coopering skills. “People are fascinated about making buckets and especially tankards, but they quickly realize that the process is more difficult than they think,” Marshall said when we chatted online one afternoon at the end of April. “I’ve been doing this for over 20 years, and it’s still hard for me!” He joked.
We both tried to guess why so many people were searching about coopering tools on the Internet. I commented that several people had inquired about purchasing these tools. Coopers usually find their own tools by refurbishing old ones or modifying new ones to meet their specific needs, so using other tools that are not their own is unnatural. Marshall elaborated that “these tools are like an extension of myself,” so they always travel with him when he does demonstrations around the country.
In 2019, Marshall taught a “remaking” class at the Haystack Mountain School of Crafts. During the one week course, students learned to re-make a wine cask into a coopered vessel. By including the remaking aspect, Marshall wanted students to have a deeper understanding of how cooperage works. He mentioned that this particular course was one of the most difficult he had taught because he wanted everyone to take away a nice, coopered vessel at the end of the workshop. “I think some people wanted to come for a week and thought that they’d be able to go home and make buckets by themselves,” he said. But general woodworking skills don’t easily translate into coopering, and to be adept at building a simple bucket takes far longer to master than a week.
The new mini-cask that Marshall made for Entoten comes from re-used oak wine barrel staves. When I unboxed the cask, I could still smell the wine that these staves once held.
I asked Marshall whether it is more difficult to fix or re-make a damaged cask. “They are not any more difficult, but it can take as long or longer than making a new one, and refurbishing used staves really blunts the tools,” Marshall said. “So traditionally, coopers had two sets of tools, one for repairs and re-making and another for new cooperage.” He also explained that these mini-casks are known to coopers as “breakers,” as they filled the space between large casks. Casks had to be packed tightly in the hull of a ship during transport because if they moved, they could damage the ship or injure people.
When we met virtually, Marshall was in the middle of editing a video of himself making a cask to present at the annual meeting of the Early American Industries Association. The video is amazing to watch because you will be able to see a cask being made from start to finish using traditional tools. You will also get a glimpse of the rhythmical steps and sounds of Marshall hooping a cask, known as the cooper’s “dance.”
Before we finished our chat, Marshall moaned about the difficulty of creating a cask-making video by himself. “I never understood why shooting a movie takes so many people. It’s all clear to me now,” he exclaimed. I was amused by the contrast of such a complex production to the artistic beauty and simplicity of his cask-making process, all carried out single-handedly.