Saturday, December 1, 2012

Boats and Barrels - Japanese Coopering

In 1996, after studying with the last builder of the strangely wonderful taraibune or tub boats of Sado Island, I published my first book on that initial research.  Entitled The Tub Boats of Sado Island; A Japanese Craftsman's Methods, I often thought how it could have been entitled The Accidental Cooper.  As the name implies, tub boats are basically barrels, and building them encompasses all the techniques of traditional Japanese coopering.   




Luckily I would go on to study with other boatbuilders, building "normal" boats, but I did remain interested in coopering.  There are far fewer coopers left in Japan than even boatbuilders, and this past September I paid my second visit to what is now the last shop still building wooden sake barrels.  Located outside of Osaka in the city of Saki, I had visited once before.  The owner is an enthusiastic historian of barrel-making.

I've been wanting to find a magazine that would accept an article about this man and his craft, so on my most recent visit I spent several hours interviewing him.  If I ever do publish anything I will be sure to blog out it here.....


Three of the workers were putting new braided bamboo hoops on a typical sake barrel.  These are eight feet tall.  The barrels themselves last up to fifty years, but the hoops need replacing every five to ten years.

The man on the left is 86 years old and has been with the company since he was 16.

 Classic patterns used by barrel makers (and tub boat builders).  If you hold the notch of the pattern against the staves, it gives you the curvature of the outside of the stave and the proper bevel for the edge.  The outer edge of the pattern is cut to the curvature of the inner face of the stave.

 Braided bamboo hoops.  This is the most difficult part of barrel making.  The material has to be properly chosen, harvested, split, shaped then braided into hoops.  They have to be sized exactly to fit the barrel.  All this is described in my book, by the way.
I thought this was a nice portrait of the owner of the firm.
The heart side of the wood faces the liquid.  In the case of tub boats the heart side faces out.  Same rule; the liquid is just on the outside of the container.
One of the workmen braiding a hoop.  He starts with four strips of bamboo about 50-feet long.


The firm's owner has been saving old barrel parts.  These are sections of the bottoms of barrels, with writing on their edges.  He's found all kinds of information recorded on plank edges, including date and location of construction, price, owner and even wages.