A cooper is a person trained to make wooden barrels, vats, buckets, tubs, troughs and other staved containers, from timber that was usually heated or steamed to make it pliable. Journeymen coopers also traditionally made wooden implements, such as rakes and wooden bladed shovels. Other materials, such as iron, were used as well as wood, in the manufacturing process.
Traditionally, a cooper is someone who makes wooden, staved vessels, held together with wooden or metal hoops and possessing flat ends or heads. Examples of a cooper's work include casks, barrels, buckets, tubs, butter churns, hogsheads, firkins, tierces, rundlets, puncheons, pipes, tuns, butts, pins and breakers. Traditionally, a hooper was the man who fitted the wooden or metal hoops around the barrels or buckets that the cooper had made, essentially an assistant to the cooper. The English name Hooper is derived from that profession. With time, many Coopers took on the role of the Hooper themselves.
The word "cooper" is derived from Middle Dutch or Middle Low German kūper 'cooper' from kūpe 'cask', in turn from Latin cupa 'tun, barrel'. Everything a cooper produces is referred to collectively as cooperage. A cask is any piece of cooperage containing a bouge, bilge, or bulge in the middle of the container. A barrel is a type of cask, so the terms "barrel-maker" and "barrel-making" refer to just one aspect of a cooper's work. The facility in which casks are made is also referred to as a cooperage.
There were four divisions in the cooper's craft. The "dry" or "slack" cooper made containers that would be used to ship dry goods such as cereals, nails, tobacco, fruits, and vegetables. The "dry-tight" cooper made casks designed to keep dry goods in and moisture out. Gunpowder and flour casks are examples of a dry-tight cooper's work. The "white" cooper made straight-staved containers like washtubs, buckets, and butter churns, which would hold water and other liquids but did not allow shipping of the liquids. Usually there was no bending of wood involved in white cooperage. The "wet" or "tight" cooper made casks for long-term storage and transportation of liquids that could even be under pressure, as with beer. The "general" cooper worked on ships, on the docks, in breweries, wineries and distilleries, and in warehouses, and was responsible for cargo while in storage or transit.
Prior to the mid-20th century, the cooper's trade flourished in America; a dedicated trade journal was published, the National Cooper's Journal, with advertisements from many different firms that hoped to supply anything from barrel staves to purpose-built machinery. Plastics, stainless steel, pallets, and corrugated cardboard replaced most wooden containers during the last half of the 20th century, and largely made the cooperage trade obsolete.
In the 21st century, coopers mostly operate barrel-making machinery and assemble casks for the wine and spirits industry. There is still demand for high-quality wooden barrels, and it is thought that the highest-quality barrels are those hand-made by professional coopers.
Examples may be seen in the cooperage at Seguin Moreau, a cooperage which was incorporated into the House of Rémy in 1971 for the express purpose of providing casks of oak. Limousin oak is renowned for the rich vanilla-like flavor it imparts to cognac. Rémy Martin will then produce Rémy Martin Grand Cru in these barrels with a retail cost well in excess of USD $1500 per bottle, a single barrel being expected to hold nearly a quarter-million dollars' worth of cognac.
"Cooper" as a name
In much the same way as the trade or vocation of smithing produced the common English surname Smith and the German name Schmidt, the cooper trade is also the origin of the English name Cooper; French name Tonnelier and Tonnellier; Greek name Βαρελάς (Varelas); Danish name Bødker; German names like Binder and Faßbinder (literally cask binder), Böttcher (tub maker), Scheffler and Kübler; Dutch names like Kuiper or Cuypers; the Latvian name Mucenieks; the Hungarian name Kádár, Bodnár; Polish names such as Bednarz, Bednarski or Bednarczyk; the Czech name Bednář; the Romanian names Dogaru and Butnaru; Ukrainian family names such as Bodnar, Bodnaruk and Bodnarchuk as well as Бондаренко (Bondarenko); Russian/Ukrainian family names Бондарев (Bondarev) and Бочаров (Bocharov); the Jewish name Bodner; the Portuguese names Tanoeiro and Toneleiro; Spanish Cubero, Tonelero, and via Greek: Varela; Bulgarian Бъчваров (Bachvarov); Macedonian Бачваровски (Bacvarovski); Croatian Bačvar; and Italian name Bottai (from "botte").
- Obermair, Hannes (1999), "Das Bozner Stadtbuch: Handschrift 140 – das Amts- und Privilegienbuch der Stadt Bozen", in Stadtarchiv Bozen, Bozen: von den Grafen von Tirol bis zu den Habsburgern, Forschungen zur Bozner Stadtgeschichte, 1, Bozen-Bolzano: Verlagsanstalt Athesia, pp. 399–432 (415), ISBN 88-7014-986-2
- Shorter Oxford English Dictionary. 2002. 5th ed. Vol. 1, A–M. Oxford: Oxford University Press, p. 513.
- cognac.com: "404 Not found" Archived 2009-03-04 at the Wayback Machine.
- "England's last master cooper seeks apprentice". The Telegraph. Archived from the original on 22 March 2016. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
- "Are these England's last traditional craftsmen and women?". BBC News. Archived from the original on 8 July 2015. Retrieved 23 March 2016.
- Coyne, Franklin E. (1941). The development of the cooperage industry in the United States, 1620-1940. Chicago.
- Kilby, Kenneth (1971). The cooper and his trade. London.
- Wagner, J.B. (1910). Cooperage; a treatise on modern shop practice and methods; from the tree to the finished article. Yonkers, NY.
- National cooper's journal, vol. 38