The art of coopering takes what would be a flat surface and gives it the ability to move and roll. It dates back over 4,000 years, the word coming from a lower Saxon word, “kuper”, signifying one who constructs tubs, barrels and similar items. A cooper back in the colonial days was a highly skilled, busily employed individual, working either as a ship builder hired to keep the water out of a wood vessel, or as a barrel or cask maker, striving to keep the liquids in. When Dan coopers a board, he does so for the design, function, and aesthetic of a piece. The steps for coopering remain the same, regardless of the size of the vessel, barrel, or – in Dan’s case- the door you are trying to shape. His reasons for coopering are largely intuitive, which is fitting, given that no one ever came up with a mathematical formula for shaping the perfect stave.
The first step involves cutting and shaping the flat boards into strips, or staves. Each one must be cut with an angle on the edge to allow the board to curve when fit together. Back in the days of barrel making, the professional cooper would work the stave until he “felt” it was right, and the young man apprenticed to a cooper would spend up to four years learning how to do this until the knowledge became a part of him.
The next step is one Dan finds most challenging: The boards are matched up according to the graining, not the length, glued, and then clamped together. The clamped boards tend to slide up on each other, much like plate-tectonics and the making of a mountain. It requires a balance of pressure and position to get the boards to meet, cooperate, and dry in place. With smaller pieces, he will join up to four boards at a time. With larger doors, such as Kathy’s armoire, the boards were put together two at a time. Once dry, Dan uses a hand plane to carve the exact shape and gain the curvature desired.
Because Dan builds to the boards, once he finished the door, a modification of the base was required. Had he built the stand in the drawing, it would have been too small. Instead, he gave the legs some thickness and a wider stance, flaring out the bottom to give balance to the piece. The drawers were constructed out of the same spalted maple, with hand carved pulls, and lined in velvet.
To determine the armoire’s interior, we worked closely with the client, a potter and his wife who were drawn to Dan’s work and laughed at his jokes during an art show in the St. Louis area. The entire project was conceived as a gift for Kathy, who gave input as to the size, number, and shape of the drawers, without having to worry about the cost, logistics, or installation. When the piece was finished, Dan drove to a halfway point, meeting the kind hearted potter in a parking lot of a Culver’s restaurant. Together they shared a meal of hamburgers and milkshakes and the story of an heirloom piece in the making.
Read about other coopered pieces by AP Woodworking: