Craft of Coopering

The Craft of Coopering: Barrel Making in Medieval Times

During the Middle Ages, the job of a medieval cooper was an important one. As the primary makers of barrels, coopers played a vital role in society, providing storage vessels for everything from food to wine.

Barrel making was a highly specialized craft that required skill and precision. Coopers were experts in woodworking, using traditional tools and techniques to create barrels that were both functional and aesthetically pleasing.

In this article, we will explore the art of barrel making during medieval times, uncovering the secrets of this ancient craft and tracing its evolution over time.

Key Takeaways:

  • Medieval coopers were responsible for making barrels, an important storage vessel during this time period.
  • The craft of barrel making required skill and precision in woodworking.
  • In this article, we will explore the art of barrel making during medieval times and trace its evolution over time.

Overview of Medieval Trades

The Middle Ages were a time of great craftsmanship, where tradespeople honed their skills and created beautiful works of art. From blacksmiths to weavers, medieval tradesmen played a crucial role in society.

During this period, skilled workers were highly valued, and their work was often seen as a reflection of their expertise and dedication. The art of craftsmanship was passed down from generation to generation, ensuring that each new artisan was equipped with the knowledge and skills required to excel in their chosen trade.

Whether it was creating exquisite tapestries, forging intricate metalwork, or crafting wooden barrels, medieval tradespeople were dedicated to their craft, often spending years perfecting their skills.

In this article, we will explore the role of one such trade, that of the medieval cooper. We will delve into the art of barrel making and the skills required to excel in this craft. But first, let us take a closer look at the wider world of medieval trades and the importance of craftsmanship during this period.

The Role of a Medieval Cooper

The job of a medieval cooper was highly specialized and valued. A cooper was responsible for the construction, maintenance, and repair of wooden barrels and other storage vessels. This was an essential trade in medieval times as barrels were used for a variety of purposes, such as storing food, transporting goods, and even holding water in some cases.

Coopering was a skilled job that required an understanding of woodwork and the ability to use a variety of hand tools. A cooper had to be able to select the right type of wood for each barrel, based on the intended purpose and the environment in which it would be used. They also needed to be proficient in the techniques used for shaping and assembling the pieces of the barrel, such as bending the staves and fitting the hoops.

The role of a cooper in medieval society extended beyond the production of barrels, as they also played a key part in the trade and commerce of the time. They worked closely with merchants and traders to produce barrels that were tailored to specific goods, such as wine or salted fish. Coopers also provided repair services, ensuring that barrels were able to be used and reused for many years.

Skills and Responsibilities

Coopering was a labor-intensive job that required a range of specific skills and abilities. A cooper had to be physically strong and dexterous, able to handle heavy wooden components and work with accuracy and precision.

They also had to be knowledgeable about the different types of wood available, including oak, ash, and chestnut. Each wood had its unique properties, and coopers had to select the right type of wood for each barrel, based on factors such as durability, flexibility, and resistance to moisture.

The process of making a barrel required a high level of expertise. Coopers had to split, shave and shape the wood to produce the correct curvature for each piece, as well as selecting the right size and shape to ensure that the final product was functional and efficient. The hoops and other metal fittings had to be crafted to the correct size and shape, and the barrel had to be assembled with precision to ensure that it was leak-free and able to withstand the rigors of use.

Importance in Medieval Trades

The role of the cooper was crucial to the functioning of medieval society, as barrels were used extensively in a wide range of trades. Coopers worked with merchants and traders in the production of barrels for storage and transportation of goods, such as wine, salted meat, and grains. This helped to facilitate the trade of goods across the region and beyond.

Coopers also worked closely with brewers, distillers, and vintners, providing them with the barrels they needed to produce and store their products, such as beer, whiskey, and wine. This helped to ensure that these products were of a high quality and able to be transported and stored effectively.

The role of the cooper was not just important to the trade of goods, but also to the preservation of food and drink. Barrels were used extensively for the storage of foodstuffs, such as salted fish and meat, and helped to keep these goods fresh for long periods.


The role of the medieval cooper was highly valued and essential to the functioning of society. Their skills in woodwork, their knowledge of different types of wood, and their ability to craft leak-free barrels were critical to the storage and transportation of goods, as well as the preservation of food and drink. The role of the cooper has evolved over time, but the legacy of their craftsmanship and expertise lives on.

The Tools and Techniques of a Medieval Cooper

Barrel making in the Middle Ages required a high level of skill and precision. Medieval coopers were artisans who crafted barrels using traditional hand tools and techniques that had been passed down from generation to generation. These craftsmen had to be knowledgeable about woodwork and have a deep understanding of the materials they were working with.

Tools of the Trade

Medieval coopers used a variety of tools to craft their barrels. Some of the most essential included:

Tool Description
Axe Used to shape the staves of the barrel
Drawing knife Used to shave the staves to achieve a proper fit
Adze Used to shape the barrel’s head and smooth its surfaces
Compass Used to measure the diameter of the barrel and mark out its symmetry

Coopers also used other tools such as saws, planes, and hammers, depending on the specific task at hand.

Techniques for Barrel Making

The process of barrel making was labor-intensive and required a great deal of skill. To create a barrel, a cooper would start by selecting the wood for the staves. The wood would need to be straight-grained and free of knots to ensure consistency in the finished product.

The staves would then be cut to the required size and shaped using an axe and drawing knife. The cooper would then assemble the staves using iron hoops and a hoop driver. Once the barrel was complete, the cooper would char the inside of the barrel to seal the wood and prevent leaks.

Every stage of the barrel-making process required precision and care to ensure that the finished product was of the highest quality.

The Significance of Coopering Techniques

The techniques used by medieval coopers are still relevant today. While modern coopers use some power tools, the basic skills and techniques used in traditional barrel making are still used in the process today. The use of traditional tools and techniques ensures that the craft of coopering remains alive and well, as it has for centuries.

Overall, barrel making is a fascinating craft that requires a combination of knowledge, skill, and patience. The techniques used by medieval coopers have stood the test of time and continue to be used today. It is a testament to the importance of this ancient craft and the enduring legacy of the medieval cooper’s job.

The Materials Used in Barrel Making During Medieval Times

Barrel making, known as coopering, was an essential trade during the Middle Ages. Coopers used a variety of materials to craft their barrels, including different types of wood, metal hoops, and pitch. A cooper’s choice of materials was crucial in ensuring that the barrels could withstand the rigors of transportation and storage.


The type of wood used by coopers varied depending on the purpose of the barrel. Oak was commonly used in the construction of wine and whiskey barrels, due to its tight grain and resistance to leaks. Chestnut and elm were also popular for wine barrels. Birch and beech were often used for beer barrels because they imparted a milder flavor. The wood had to be carefully selected and aged to ensure the staves would bend without cracking during the barrel making process.

Metal Hoops

Coopers used metal hoops to hold the staves of the barrels together. The hoops were usually made of iron or copper. These materials were strong and corrosion-resistant, ensuring the longevity of the barrels. They were also less likely to break or loosen over time.


Pitch was used to seal the barrels and make them watertight. Coopers applied the pitch to the seams of the barrels while the wood was still hot. This allowed the pitch to penetrate the seams and create a tight seal. Pitch also helped to keep the wood from drying out and becoming brittle.

Importance of Material Choice for Storage

The choice of materials used by a cooper was essential in ensuring that the barrels could be safely used for transportation and storage. The tight construction of the barrels limited exposure to air and light, preventing spoilage and ensuring the quality of the contents inside. The use of high-quality materials also ensured that the barrels could be reused multiple times, making them a cost-effective investment for producers.

The Significance of Barrels in Medieval Society

Barrels played a significant role in medieval society, serving as an essential storage container for goods such as wine, oil, and grain. Coopers were responsible for crafting these indispensable vessels, making them an integral part of medieval trades.

Aside from their practical use in storage and transportation, barrels also held cultural significance. They were often used as a symbol of wealth and status, with the quality and quantity of one’s stored goods being a measure of one’s success.

The use of barrels in medieval society also had a lasting impact on trade and commerce. As trading routes expanded, the need for reliable and durable storage containers became increasingly important. The skillful craftsmanship of coopers ensured that goods could be transported safely over long distances and stored for extended periods of time.

Overall, the role of barrels in medieval society cannot be overstated. From the transportation of goods to the symbol of one’s wealth, coopers played a vital role in the daily lives of medieval people. As we continue to use barrels in modern times, we can trace their significance back to the skilled craftsmen of the Middle Ages.

The Evolution of Coopering Techniques

Coopering, the craft of barrel making, underwent significant changes throughout the medieval period. Early coopers relied on traditional techniques, using hand tools and natural materials to construct their barrels. However, as trade expanded and demand for barrels increased, coopers began to experiment with new methods and tools, leading to a gradual evolution of their craft.

One significant development was the introduction of the jointing plane, which allowed coopers to create smoother, more precise cuts in their woodwork. This tool, which became popular in the 13th century, helped coopers to achieve a more perfect fit between the staves of their barrels, resulting in stronger and more durable storage vessels.

Another key innovation was the use of metal hoops to reinforce barrels. While earlier coopers had relied on wooden hoops, which could loosen or warp over time, metal hoops provided a more stable and long-lasting reinforcement. This development is thought to have occurred in the 14th century, and it revolutionized the cooper’s craft, allowing for greater precision and efficiency in barrel making.

As the Middle Ages progressed, coopers continued to experiment with new methods and materials. Some began using glue to reinforce their barrels, while others explored the use of different types of wood to achieve specific flavor profiles in wine or beer storage. By the end of the medieval period, coopering had become a highly specialized and sophisticated craft, with a reputation for excellence and craftsmanship that endures to this day.

The Legacy of Medieval Coopering

The craft of coopering was an essential part of medieval society, with coopers responsible for creating the barrels that were used in transportation, storage, and trade. The medieval cooper’s job was one of great craftsmanship, requiring a deep understanding of woodwork and attention to detail.

Barrel making during the Middle Ages involved several stages, each requiring specific skills and techniques. The cooper would begin by selecting the right pieces of wood, taking care to choose the correct type of wood that would provide the necessary strength and durability for the barrel’s intended purpose.

The cooper would then use a variety of tools and techniques to shape and form the wood into the desired shape. This process involved everything from sawing and splitting the wood to planing and sanding it to achieve the perfect finish.

One of the most significant aspects of barrel making during the Middle Ages was the choice of materials. Coopers preferred to use oak wood, as it was strong, durable, and resistant to decay. Oak also had a unique flavor that could enhance the taste of the liquid, making it popular for storing wine, beer, and spirits.

The importance of barrels in medieval society cannot be overstated. They were used to transport goods over long distances, providing a safe and secure storage solution. The medieval cooper’s job was critical to the success of the trading networks that existed at the time.

Over time, the craft of coopering evolved, with coopers developing new tools and techniques to improve their work. The introduction of iron hoops made barrels stronger and more stable, while changes in transportation methods allowed for larger barrels to be produced.

The legacy of medieval coopering lives on today, with many of the techniques and skills developed during this period still in use. Woodworking and barrel making continue to be important crafts, and the work of medieval coopers has played a vital role in shaping these industries.

The medieval cooper’s job was a testament to the importance of craftsmanship, with coopers using their skills and knowledge to create objects of great beauty and utility. Their work was an essential part of medieval society, and their legacy continues to be felt today.

The Cultural Significance of Coopering in Medieval Times

Coopering was a highly respected trade during medieval times, and coopers were valued members of society. They were responsible for crafting barrels for storage and transportation, which played a significant role in the daily life of medieval people.

The craft of barrel making required skill and precision, and coopers were highly regarded for their expertise in woodwork. They used a range of traditional hand tools to shape and manipulate wood, honing their techniques over many years of practice.

Barrels were used for a wide variety of purposes, from storing food and drink to transporting goods across long distances. They were often adorned with intricate carvings or engravings, making them not only practical but also beautiful works of art.

The cooper’s job was highly symbolic in medieval times, representing the importance of craftsmanship and trade. The barrels they created were essential for the preservation of food and drink, which was crucial for survival during the harsh winters of the Middle Ages.

Today, the legacy of medieval coopering lives on in the art of barrel making. The skills and techniques developed by coopers during this time continue to influence modern woodworking practices. The cultural significance of this ancient craft is a testament to the enduring value of skilled trades and the important role they play in society.


In conclusion, the craft of coopering played a significant role in medieval society. From transporting goods to storing wine and beer, barrels were a crucial part of everyday life.

Through the exploration of the medieval cooper’s job and the art of barrel making during the Middle Ages, we have gained a greater appreciation for the craftsmanship and skills required for this trade.

We have also uncovered the materials and tools used by coopers in their craft and examined the cultural significance and legacy of medieval coopering.

Furthermore, we have traced the evolution of coopering techniques throughout the Middle Ages and learned how they continue to influence modern barrel making and woodworking practices.

Rediscovering the Lost Art

As we look back on the medieval period, we recognize the significant achievements of coopers and the cultural importance of their craft. In light of this, there has been a renewed interest in rediscovering the lost art of coopering.

Through the efforts of modern artisans, traditional techniques and skills have been revived and applied to contemporary woodworking, breathing new life into this ancient craft.

With this in mind, we can appreciate the lasting impact and legacy of medieval coopering, and the valuable lessons it has to offer us today.


What was the role of a medieval cooper?

A medieval cooper was responsible for the craft of barrel making. They would skillfully create and repair barrels using various tools and techniques.

What materials were used in barrel making during the Middle Ages?

Coopers in medieval times primarily used wood for barrel making. The choice of wood was crucial for storage and preservation purposes.

How did barrels impact medieval society?

Barrels played a significant role in transportation, storage, and trade during medieval times. They were essential for preserving goods and facilitating economic activities.

How did coopering techniques evolve over the Middle Ages?

Coopering techniques went through various transformations during the Middle Ages. Traditional approaches were refined, and new methods were introduced, shaping the craft over time.

What is the legacy of medieval coopering?

The skills and techniques developed by medieval coopers continue to influence modern barrel making and woodworking practices. Their craftsmanship has left a lasting impact.