Plying the Cooper’s Craft – One Barrel at a Time
Doug Bratcher has become the Midwest’s best-known barrel maker.
In this day and age if you say the word “cooper” most people are likely to think that you are uttering a not-so- uncommon surname. Many family names passed down through the ages bear a direct relationship to the profession of a long lost ancestor: Smith, Painter, Weaver and so on. Yes, Cooper is a fairly common name, just as common as the profession that it describes – a maker of barrels.
That profession was once much more common that it is today. Hand-made wooden barrels were the state of the art in storage, packing and logistics for hundreds of years up until the mid 20 th century, when cheaper and quicker means were devised and most goods began being shipped on trucks. One person could easily roll a fully loaded barrel, rather than having to lift it with other workers.
So 150 years ago a good supply of wooden barrels was necessary for most commerce. They could hold any number of goods from nails to pickles, sealed against the elements. Barrels traveled in horse-drawn wagons, on trains, on steamboats and could display goods ready for sale in retail stores – think pickles!
These days, wooden barrels are still vital for the wine and spirits industries, but rarely used in everyday life except for decoration and historic displays. And in Liberty, MO, one devoted craftsman, Doug Bratcher, continues to ply the cooperage trade, one barrel at a time. Operating with his wife, Jan, from Bratcher Cooperage and Gifts, Bratcher can be seen going about the cooper’s trade, something that he has done since learning to make barrels and going professional in the late 1970s.
An Ancient Craft
Barrel making is an ancient craft dating back to 4,000 B.C. Wooden barrels were found in the pyramids, Bratcher notes. It’s hard to imagine that something as commonplace as a barrels required the use of at least 30 different hand tools to build and form them, including several knives to create the final shape; not to mention the strength and dexterity required of the cooper himself.
Bratcher experienced a serious hand injury in 1997 and, “I had to relearn how to hold my tools,” Bratcher said. “I would get cuts and scrapes all the time and that didn’t stop me. “Sticking your hand in a table saw stops you.” With some limited mobility in his left hand, Bratcher soon returned to his trade and has been coopering along ever since.
For the last 40 years, Bratcher has worked as the featured cooper at Silver Dollar City in Branson, MO, returning to Liberty for a couple of days off each week. He’s a very popular attraction for the theme park. You might have seen his smiling white-bearded visage on a billboard or two advertising the Silver Dollar City’s annual Fall Festival.
Bratcher’s current line of products, barrels of various sizes, kegs, buckets and churns are sold commercially, and many are used at historic sites and museums around the country. Bratcher made barrels are on display at the National Frontier Trails Museum in Independence, Fort Smith in Arkansas, Fort Scott in Kansas and Fort Macon in Atlantic Beach, NC. He also lent a hand at preserving the barrels found aboard the sunken steamboat Arabia and built barrels for displaying some of the recovered cargo at the Arabia Steamboat Museum.
He also created barrels as props for several motion pictures including Ang Lee’s “Ride With the Devil,” “Far and Away,” “Geronimo” and “Sometimes They Come Back.”
Bratcher got interested in making barrels with a friend, Dale Kirby, his long-time partner at Silver Dollar City. They grew up in Kentucky and would acquire used whiskey barrels from a distillery. They began taking their barrels to a cooperage in Indiana and traded for new ones. Along the way they picked up the skills necessary to make barrels from scratch. All it takes is some good white oak and the know-how.
White Oak Rules
Barrels built to contain liquids such as beer, wine and whiskey often are made of white oak from Missouri. Bratcher explains that the pores of white oak contain tyloses, a membrane-like growth that plugs the hardwood and makes it naturally watertight. It also increases resistance to rot and decay.
“The wood lets air exchange into the barrel, but it doesn’t leak,” adds Bratcher.
In making a barrel, Bratcher obtains wood from a stave mill already dried and cured. He then sets the staves on end and bands them with a steel hoop at the head and foot of the barrel. Bratcher cuts the hoop from a large metal coil, rivets the steel into a ring, and uses a hammer and hoop driver to fasten the hoops into place and compress the wood. He lights a fire with pieces of wood at the bottom of the barrel to soften the staves and make them more pliable before driving the hoops further down. Once the hoops are set, Bratcher puts the barrelhead onto the cylinder.
The walls of Bratcher’s workshop are filled with the tools of his trade – saws and augers and other devices. He uses hand tools such as a howell and croze, types of radial planes that cut grooves into the barrelhead so it fits into place. A champer knife shaves a chamfer, or cut that produces a sloping edge, along the top of the barrel.
Working one barrel at a time Bratcher can vary his routine and switch off to other projects, such as a bucket or ice cream maker. He doesn’t try to compete with the barrel factories that provide wood barrels for industry. Bratcher is just trying to show how it was done during a slower time. You can put a name and a face with his product. A face you just might see on a billboard.
Doug Bratcher’s products and other types of gift items are available at Bratcher Cooperage and Gifts, 109 S. Water St., Liberty, MO. Find more at www.bratchercooperage.com.
Words and Photos LEIGH ELMORE