Rob Gorrell - Folk Artist

Get your lanterns now. It will be dark soon.


Building a new cooper's plane at the Woodwright's School.

Coopering, Traditional woodworkingRob Gorrell2 Comments

I have been wanting a good cooper's plane for a long time to use in my shop.  Finding an antique one that is in usable condition has not worked out.  The few that I have seen are completely worn out. My friend Ed S. loaned me one that he had that I thought I would use as a study piece. Here is Ed's plane.  As you can see, it has had better days.Ed's PlaneIt turned out that Roy Underhill's Woodwright School was going to be having a class over Labor Day weekend where I could make a bench jointer plane using all traditional tools and techniques. I approached Roy and the instructor, Bill Anderson about making a 6' long cooper's jointer instead of the 24" bench jointer that the other students would be making in the class.  After several rounds of emails and searching for materials Bill found a massive block of hard maple and an antique 3.5 inch wide Ward single iron. The iron came from Ed Lebetkin's great antique tool shop located above the school. It turned out that the iron had been in Ed's shop for a long time and it was a perfect fit for the plane we wanted to make.

The class was three days over Labor Day weekend.  They were full days and very physical for me, as he wood blank was hard as a rock and about all I could handle to move around.  Bill was a great instructor and very patient with my low skill level when it came to plane making.  I had no idea how much precision layout would be involved, or how many different angles had to be chopped, chiseled, parred, or filed with floats to make everything fit just right.  It was the hardest class I have ever taken, but one of the most rewarding considering how many new things I learned.

Coopering classroom

I did not take very many pictures during the class as I was hanging on for dear life to finish this beast.  Here is one of my new plane next to the antique plane that Roy and Bill found in an antique shop and purchased prior to our class.  We tried to match the antique as close as we could. I drilled the hole in the toe of the plane after getting home.

OLD and new plane

The plane in use...adjustments.

We discussed several options for the stand for my plane while in class. Most period illustrations that I found showed the plane with some sort of two-legged plane that inserted into the hole in the toe of the plane.  The lower end of the plane was usually shown bumped up against a wall, sill or heavy object to keep it in place.  I knocked together a prototype from scrap lumber to try out.

Plane with first standTwo things became apparent quickly with this type of stand. First, the plane was too low to be used comfortably at my height. I am assuming that the planes were kept low so that the cooper could really lean into the hard oak staves for barrels.  I am working with softer woods that are not hard to run down the plane.  Second, the base will not stay in place on the concrete floor, especially when it gets slick with shavings.  So I went with plan B, which is a more vertical support that clamps to the side of the plane.

Plane with new stand 2

This design is a major improvement over the first attempt.  It seems to stay locked in place well.  Drilling the second hole in the plane was traumatic, but had to be done.  I made it a few inches taller that the first setup and may shorten in later if needed.

The other adjustment that had to be made was to regrind the plane iron to fit the plane body.  The cutting edge was slightly skewed from the sole of the plane.  Once I reground and sharpened the iron all was well.

I am very happy with this plane. Thanks to Bill and the Woodwright's School I have a very nice cooper's jointer plane that should serve several generations of coopers.

Making a small keg.

Coopering, Traditional woodworkingRob GorrellComment

One weekend a while back I got the idea to try to make a small keg for drinks or other liquid storage.  This would be a straight sided, "white cooper" container. I am learning white coopering which covers many straight sided containers such as buckets, piggens, tubs, churns, etc.  Making the curved staved barrels is a whole different skill set, which I do not have.

Making something with two ends in it turned out to be trickier than I thought.  To fit the end into a bucket you leave the top band in place and loosen or remove the bottom band. This loosens the staves so that the bottom will slip into the crozed groove near the bottom. Doing this from above allows the bottom disc to spread the staves enough to snap into the groove (hopefully).  Once the bottom is in place and fits correctly, the bottom band is replaced. But with a vessel with two bottoms I had to insert the second end from the outside, which was as simple, but I finally got it in place.

For the handle I fired up my forge and made a simple iron handle held in place with eye screws.  The whole thing was then painted with red milk paint. 

After taking this photo I added a small wooden tap in one end.



Coopering Tools class at Tillers International.

Coopering, Folk Art, Traditional woodworkingRob GorrellComment

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. Coopering tools made at Tillers International

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.

Makeing a quench tub for my forge.

Coopering, Traditional woodworkingRob GorrellComment

My most recent coopering project was a quench tub for my forge.  Like the other coopering projects I have posted before, this tub is made from western red cedar with a pine bottom.  The process for cutting the staves is the same as for a smaller bucket, there are just a lot more of them to keep track of. And when the bands fall off during raising, the pile of staves on the floor is larger.  I split out the staves for the  tub and after some fitting  and adjusting had the basic shape raised with temporary bands. It is important at this stage to write numbers on the ends of the staves. That way you know what order to put them back in if you have to take a stave out for trimming, or if the whole thing falls apart into a pile on the bench again.  This situation looks like this:

I did not get any photos of cutting the croze or fitting the bottom this time.  This next photo shows the tub during the final shaping of the outsides of the staves and fitting the final bands to the tub and trimming the rim.

I am still learning to get all of the joints tight and there are a few in this tub that are a little wonky.  I am going to a class at Tillers International soon to make some coooper's tools that I hope will help me make better looking projects in the future.  When the tub was finished and tested, it held water pretty good, only minor seepage.  The tub found a home in my shop as a quench tub for my forge.

I tried to make another Piggen.

CooperingRob GorrellComment

Now that I have finished up the washtub and a couple buckets, I wanted to see what else I could make from the pile of odds and ends in the cedar pile.  What is left is pretty scrappy and I ended up throwing about half of it in the woodpile for firewood.  The rest made the piggen described here and will hopefully be enough for a small straight sided cask and a small tub.  The piggen I ended up with is about 8" in diameter and 6 1/2" tall without the handle. The sides raised up pretty good this time. But I ran into problems with the crozing. I think I am cutting the groove too wide. Most of the bottoms I have made so far seem to be a little loose in the groove. You can see it in this image:

Before I start the next project I will change the design of my croze to cut a narrower groove and also try not to get the edges of the bottom tapered to thin.  This piggen looks ok from the outside but is definitely only a dry measure. It might hold syrup on a really cold day.

I also ran into a problem cutting the tops of the staves flat so the top is a bit wonky.  This project was a struggle. The thing fought me all the way and the end result shows the conflict I think.  But I'm still a beginner so I look at it as progress. After we take this piggen to a few events and it gets broken in maybe it will not look so forlorn.  Good thing I am not trying to sell this one.

I am looking forward to spring when I can start using cattail flagging to better seal the bottoms of my coopered buckets, piggens and tubs. 

Also, I just received permission from the publisher to start using a few images from Kenneth Kilby's book The Cooper and His Trade. I am excited to be able to add information and images from this great source to my blog. More about that soon.