Much of a modern cooper's work is in barrel making. To make a good solid barrel as well as a cooper takes years of hands-on training, absorbing a skill-set that's as much art as it is technique. This doesn't mean you can't enjoy making your own barrels now. It's a big challenge to make a barrel that's strong and leak-free, but with the proper tools and technique you can be well on your way to success.
Locate the wood for your barrel. You'll need rough wood oak planks from trees that were at least 100 years old and contain a very tight grain. The planks must have been air-dried for three years prior to beginning work on them for the barrel.
Prepare the wood to serve as staves for your barrel. Cut the wood to the length of your barrel height. Taper the ends so that they will give your barrel a curved shape. Carve out the inner portion of the staves.
Place the staves together in the iron hoop known as an assembly jig. Fill the hoop with the stave ends completely encircled. The staves are held in place through the tension of the hoop upon the tapered ends.
Place a second hoop slightly larger than the first onto the barrel, moving it slightly down the side to about 1/4 of the barrel length. Hammer the hoop firmly into place, beginning the barrel shape. Once the hoop is in place, hammer the stave ends to make sure that the ends are level with one another.
Remove the assembly jig. Use a sponge to wet the surface of the staves with water and heat the barrel over a fire for 30 minutes in an upright position in order to seal the barrel.
Use the winch to create an arch in the staves, making the curved shape of the barrel by bending the heated wet staves. When the staves have been arched to the desired barrel shape, place them into the bottom iron hoop. The staves will be difficult to secure into the hoop, so use the mallet to pound them into place.
Place the remaining two middle hoops onto the barrel to reinforce the shape, using the mallet to secure them into place.
Trim the ends of the staves so that they are even. Place grooves into the flat ends of the staves to place the barrel lids.
Make the barrel lids using dowels attached to soft, flexible rot-proof river reeds. Custom fit the lids to the grooves in your barrel ends.
Sand any remaining rough pieces off the barrel to create a clean smooth surface.
Test the barrel integrity by filling it with a small amount of hot water, and apply air pressure to search for any leaks.
For wine barrels, build your fire using oak chips so that the wine will take on the flavour as it ages.