Last weekend I attended the Coopering Tools class at Tillers International in Scotts Michigan. It was my second class at Tillers and was a very good experience. The goal of the class is to make a croze, inshave, curved draw knife, a set of bands and some gauges. It was a large order for a two-day class.
This class covered a lot of ground in a hurry. The purpose of the class was not to make us expert tool makers. The goal was to have tools to make buckets. Most of the class would be staying two more days after this class to make a piggen using their new tools. I had taken the piggen class before and would not be staying.
The class was taught by Chuck Andrews and Peter Cooper (yep, that's really his last name), assisted by the staff and volunteers at Tillers. Chuck and Peter also teach buckets, butter churns and barrel making at Tillers.
The first morning we started out with an informal meet and greet information session at the guest house. The house has been undergoing a spruce up and is really looking good. Generally, day one was woodworking and day two was metal working. The class started out making the croze. The croze is used to cut the groove in the bottom of the staves to hold the bottom. It is a critical tool to good coopering and it hard to find a good usable antique version. Chuck brought some nice cherry to work with, along with tool steel blanks for the cutters. The woodworking part of the croze was pretty straight forward. Making the saw tooth cutter was another matter. I really struggled with getting the angled teeth filed correctly with hand files. I came home with an extra blank in case the one from class will not cut. I think most everyone else in the class ended up with good cutters. Along with the croze we cut out some gauges that are used to check the angles and curve of different sized staves. Some students also worked on making a set of dividers that are also used for checking the stave angles. I had already made these items at home and skipped over this section.
Late in the day we moved over to the blacksmith shop to get a jump on the metalworking. We were provided with annealed tool steel blanks that were already cut out in the rough shape of the inshave and the hollowing knife (curved drawknife), but were still flat. We used a variety of bench grinders and sanders to get the cutting edge roughed into shape, along with cleaning up the other rough edges. A few of us stayed late to get this step done before morning.
The next morning we jumped back into grinding the edges and getting ready to start forging. This is where it started getting intense. There were 10 of us, 20 tools to make and one gas forge. Once things got really going there were several in-progress tools in the forge at once and two jigs in constant use. People teamed up to get the red-hot metal into the jigs and hammered into shape. It was amazing how quick you had to get the blank into the form, clamps in place and the next bend made before it was too cold and had to be put back into the forge. At this point in the class sweat was flying, stress levels went up and some moderate swearing was heard. But there was also a lot of laughing, so all was well.
Fortunately there were some people in the class with blacksmithing experience. They were able to help Chuck and Peter keep things moving along at a good clip.
After forging the blanks into shape for the inshave and hollowing knife we had a crash course in normalizing, hardening, oil quenching and tempering the cutting edge. As Chuck told us, each of these steps can be studied for years, but he was great at giving us the bare essentials to get the projects finished and I think with a lot of help and encouragement we all came out with decent results. Wooden handles were drilled and fitted to the two tools and expoxied in place. Unfortunately one student's hollowing knife cracked and broke in the final stages of the class. It was a terrible moment. I think the Tillers folks were working something out to make sure she had a tool to take home anyway.
By this time I needed to get on the road back to old West Virginia, so I held off on any of the final grinding and polishing until I got home. The other students were still banging and grinding away as I left.
Tillers is a great organization with an important mission. By taking classes at Tillers one both learns a useful traditional skill, and helps finance the work going on through Tillers International. I have thoroughly enjoyed the two classes that I have attended and hope to take several more in the future. I really encourage anyone who wants to learn about traditional coopering with hand tools to take classes at coopers. They are working very hard to learn, teach and spread the use of these and several other techniques and trades.