History of Wooden Barrels

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An ox pulling a wagon loaded with barrel.
Image Source http://www.vroma.org/

Wooden barrels have been used for the transportation and storage of goods for around 2000 years.  Cooperage developed along with the growth and evolution of trade.  Ancient civilizations like the Egyptians had been experimenting with open-ended wood and reed vessels held together with wood bands long before, but it was not until the refinement of iron processing technology that the crafting of barrels could be reliable.  The Celts’ are credited with the development of the barrel around the beginning of the first millennium.  The Celts shipbuilding and iron working skills were critical to the development of the barrel.  Soon after, the Romans capitalized on the invention to store their own goods, and distributed the technology and the goods throughout their vast trade routes.

The timing could not have been better for wooden barrels.  This was a time for rapidly evolving trade and the ceramic vessels of the time were fragile.  Wooden barrels were both durable and easy to handle.  The cylindrical shape with the bulge in the middle made barrels easy to roll and maneuver.  Various internal and external treatments added to the versatility of wooden barrels, and allowing them to be used for a wide variety of goods.  When barrels were used to transport perishable liquids like wine or beer on long journeys, the goods were found to take on the flavor of their vessel.  The development of the flavor is due to the interaction between the contents and the wood as well as woods ability to breath.

1500 years later the Spanish realized the full scope of society’s dependence on cooperage as they prepared for the historic Spanish Armada.  As the tension between the Spanish and English grew on both religious and territorial matters, the Spanish began stockpiling critical battle supplies.  They stocked weaponry, food, and barrels.  Barrels were the vessel of choice for keeping powder products like black powder and flour dry, keeping pickled and preserved foods sealed, as well as water and wine.  When the English had gotten information that the Spanish were planning an attack, they began patrolling the Atlantic coast.  They ran across a variety of Spanish ships with war time supplies. One fleet in particular was carrying cured barrel staves.  The captain estimated that the fleet had enough materials onboard the 10 ships to make 25,000 to 30,000 barrels.  The English captured the ships and burnt the staves on a nearby beach.

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Cross section of Spanish Galleon by Stephen Biesty.
Image Source http://www.stephenbiesty.co.uk/

When the Spanish Armada of 130 ships and over 30,000 men launched a year later it wasn’t long until reports made it back to Spain that the crews were dealing with barrels cracking, food spoiling, water loss, and illness.  Issues that can all be linked to a rushed recovery of the barrels lost.  Issues like these continued for the 2 year long journey of the armada.  Drying and preparing barrel materials is a process that is critical to making quality barrels and cannot be rushed.  Barrels made with wood that has too much moisture will continue to dry even after the barrel is made and cause cracks.  Forcing wood to dry to rapidly will cause drying defects that will also lead to issues with leaking and spoiling.  With roughly a third of the men lost to issues related to poor quality barrels and a third lost in battle, only about 10,000 of the Spanish fleet made it back to Spain.  Garret Mattingly’s book titled “The Defeat of the Spanish Armada” elaborates in greater detail regarding the Armada and touching on the hardships felt related to barrels directly.

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Wooden Oil Barrels.
Image Source http://aoghs.org/

There was little competition for wooden barrels until about 300 years later, during the industrial revolution.  The development of steel and advanced mechanization of paper products changed the way we store and transport goods.  At the same time some were developing new materials to replace barrels, others were focusing on specialized machines to make them faster and cheaper. Equipment manufactures designed machines for stave joining, hooping and bung hole drilling just to name a few. These specialized machines have evolved, but are still used today. Although most applications in which barrels had been used in the past have been replaced by plastics, metals, and paper based materials, wood continues to hold a strong presence in the fermenting and maturing of wines, spirits, and beers.

For another article from Wood + History, See WWII Wood Posters

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4 thoughts on “History of Wooden Barrels

  1. The wooden water tanks that top most New York City buildings are barrel-based structures. The last company to make them here is Rosenwach Tanks. They do all their own millwork, and are still making water tanks for new buildings. They’re lighter, insulate the contents better, and a 10,000-gallon tank can be set up in half a day.

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    • Hey Wilder’s, Thanks for all your comments! Tanks, tubs, buckets, and barrels are all traditional products of the traditional coopers craft. I’m glad there’s people out there keeping it going.

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  2. Is there any sort of documentation on the processes or materials used to seal wooden barrels when the Celts and Romans were first beginning to realize the usefulness of wooden barrels?

    What processes go into making the barrel itself? I would imagine that could be an article of it’s own (if it’s not already…). Is there a particular wood that works best for barrel making? For the bulge in the middle, it has to have some level of ductility. I would imagine this is a product of both processing of and the choice of wood.

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    • Keegan, I don’t have specific documentation of what they would have used in that time period, but if I were to guess it would be a wax, oil, or pine pitch. Coatings typically aren’t used with foods because they take on the flavor of the coating. Lets just say most coatings don’t “enhance” the flavor. Moving forward to the industrial revolution and the oil boom, wooden oil barrels were coated with paint. Paint on the inside as an additional barrier, and paint on the outside to identify the contents of the barrels. And in regards to making the barrels and the woods used, this will be covered on articles to come! Stay tuned. Thanks for your comments!

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