Rob Gorrell - Folk Artist

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Tillers International

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.

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.