The Nearly Lost Art Of Barrel Making

Barrel making has been around for 2,000 years. But chances are, you’ve never met a cooper.

So let’s take care of that now. We’d like to introduce you to Nate, the cooper at Rolling Thunder Barrel Works in Newport, Oregon.

Nate charring barrels at Rolling Thunder Barrel Works.

Nate is one of the few true remaining practitioners of the barrel making arts. These days, most oak barrels in the United States are made in factories. But coopers like Nate, who can make a whole barrel from start to finish? They number in the dozens.

In the next few weeks, we’re going to show you how Nate makes barrels. We’ll do this a few steps at a time because barrel making isn’t simple.

Making The Staves

Staves are numbered so that if a cooper has to take a barrel apart, he knows how to put it back together.

Staves are funny shaped pieces of wood. Curved on the inside, rounded on the outside, beveled on the edges, wider in the middle than on the ends. No two are exactly the same. Put them all together and you get the outsides of a barrel.

How does a straight piece of wood become a stave? It isn’t easy.

Left: A planer. Right: A radial arm saw.

The wood is cut four ways. Planers hollow out the insides and round the outsides. Jointers bevel the edges and give the wood a wedge like shape. This equipment is extremely rare, dating back to pre-WWII France. You can’t get replacement parts for them at Home Depot.

The third piece of gear is a radial arm saw that cuts all the staves to the same length. It’s not rare, but it’s still important.

Assembling The Staves

Like working a jigsaw puzzle, Nate assembles the staves to form the outside of the barrel.

Nate clamps the completed staves to a hoop and begins arranging them in a circle. As we mentioned earlier, no two staves are exactly alike. So no two Rolling Thunder Barrels are alike either. When he’s got the puzzle figured out, Nate numbers the staves so he knows how to reassemble the barrel later — just in case. This is a trick dating back to the Roman Empire era.

Looking down into a ring of staves, the beginning of a barrel.

He pounds two hoops over one end of the barrel. The other side is open and flares out like a skirt. So guess what we call it?

This stage of barrel making is called raising the skirt.

What Nate put together so far sorta, kinda looks like a barrel. But he’s just getting started.

We’ll show you the next few steps in a future story. But here’s a hint of what’s coming.


More About Rolling Thunder
Barrel Making And Playing With Fire
Two Heads Are Better Than None
The Bunghole

At Rogue Spirits and Rolling Thunder Barrel Works, we’re dedicated to the old fashioned art of cooperage, making barrels by hand, one at a time. Lot of folks will tell you we’re crazy. They say it’s a lot cheaper to buy barrels like everyone else. But this is the only way we know how to make sure each barrel is custom built, toasted and charred to match the spirit we’ll age inside of it.

Call us crazy, but doing it ourselves is a lot more fun!

Categories: Rolling Thunder Barrel Works

Originally published at on October 12, 2015.

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