Rob Gorrell - Folk Artist

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Making a bucket at Tillers International.

Traditional woodworkingRob Gorrell1 Comment

A major goal that I have been working toward is learning to create my work using less electricity.  I want to work more with hand tools and drastically reduce the noise and dust in my shop.  Getting out of the power tool production mindset has been a long and jerky process.  But as I learn to slow down, work more efficiently with my hand tools and make things one at a time, I am enjoying my shop time more and am hopefully making better art.

Over the past couple of years I have been wanting to go to Tillers International to take a coopering class and finally made the time to go.  If you are interested in learning traditional trades such as blacksmithing, coopering or working with oxen for farming, Tillers is an organization you should take a look at.

The mission of Tillers is to "preserve, study, and exchange low-capital technologies that increase the sustainability and productivity of people in rural communities..."   One small cog in this mission is teaching coopering with hand tools and traditional techniques.  I think we only used power tools for about 5 minutes the whole weekend.

The class took place in a rustic post and beam barn workshop in the field below the main house. Next door was the blacksmith workshop.  The site is a working farm with several projects in the works and, like any farm, plenty of things that need to be done and too few people.  I especially enjoyed the free ranging chickens, goats, cats, geese, and one donkey.  Several times during the weekend the main mama goat wandered into our class to hang out and eat cedar shavings. Students are free to wander the farm and soak up the spirit of the site.  I spent the first evening at a picnic table surrounded by free range chickens poking around in the grass, which was very relaxing.

I really enjoyed the class, which included four students and two instructors.  We made a one handled bucket, or piggen, that was 10" in diameter at the top, give or take.  The instructor Chuck told us that the wood we used came from large cedar light posts from a stadium. The wood was straight-grained, clear and a joy to work.  It will be a long time before I get to work that quality of cedar again.

This was not a "wine and cheese" woodworking class.  Right off the bat we were out in the 90 degree sun splitting out the staves with a mallet and froe. Blisters popped up in short order.  From there it was off to the shaving horse to rough in the staves and get the right tapers and angles started.  A good bit of time was then spent agonizing over jointer planes with angle gauges trying to learn how to turn 13 pieces of split out cedar into 13 perfectly fitted bucket staves that will eventually hold water (I hope).

The second day was spent getting the buckets into shape with spokeshave and inshave, until they were round and reasonably true. This was followed by adding metal bands and driving them down tight to hold the bucket together.  No glue, no nails.

I left Tillers tired and sore, with a decent looking bucket, not perfect, but a decent first attempt.  It was a fun weekend in the country working with my hands and mind. I think the thing I enjoyed the most was working without the roar of power tools and dust collectors. I look forward to more practice and hopefully more classes on coopering.  Each new technique learned broadens the mind and soul and helps both create better work, and also keep traditional woodworking techniques alive.

I hope to return to Tillers in the future for more classes and time on the farm.  They are a good, friendly and dedicated group of people that make you feel very welcome in there home.