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Coopering as a trade in Colonial North America.

COOPER – A Centuries Old Trade

As skill trades go, coopering dates back hundreds of years.  And even though this has been called an ancient trade,   much of the same skills used over the years have remained unchanged.  Coopering requires skill, intelligence and strength.  An apprenticeship would last four to five years and the tools used to perform the trade were often handed down from generation to generation.  The word cooper derives from the Middle Dutch word kūpe meaning basket, wood, or tub.  Or from the Latin word cupa or vat.  However, the English trade of cooperage gave the name as cooper.  It was the English who brought the trade to the New World early in the 1600’s.

Coopers were much more than barrel makers.  Up until the early 1900’s, almost everything was stored and shipped in barrels.  Barrels were easy to move and were strong and could be used for liquid or dry goods.  Barrels could be stacked in ships or storage buildings quite easily.

Many of the tools were short handled to enable accurate one handed use, the other hand being free to support the cask.  However, one of the more important tools, the draw knife, required both hands.  All of the tools were very sharp and made from hardened steel to retain the edge needed to shape the staves that comprised the barrel.   

There are different levels of Cooper’s skill that are defined as these:

·         Tight Cooper    uses high quality oak to make staves.  These staves are fit together and bound with iron to make casks that hold liquid.

·         Slack Cooper – made containers for flour, nails, fruit or tobacco.

·         Dry-tight Cooper – made containers to keep the wet out and the material inside dry.  Gunpowder is an example.

·         White Cooper – made pails, churns, and tubs often made of cedar or pine.


The draw knife that belonged to John Diamond VanValkenburg and his son,  Adam Francis VanValkenburg.

Owner of originalMark Van Valkenburg
Linked toGreer, James; Lauzau, Charles; Lauzeau, Oliver; Ogg, Narcisse Nelson; Vanvalkenburg, Adam Francis; Vanvalkenburg, Francis H.; Vanvalkenburg, Henry James; Vanvalkenburg, John Diamond; Vanvalkenburg, William Ralph

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