Alex Stewart: Cooper Transcription by Thomas Burton 21 October 2013
My name's Alex Stewart. I's born and raised right here on top of Newman's Ridge in Hancock County, and I've been here ever since. And my biggest work I've done is farmin' and cooperin'. I've done really more cooperin' than I have farmin'. So I'm still workin’ at the cooper business. I make churns, tubs, bread trays, piggins, buckets, forks, spoons, salad bowls. Just most anything anyone wants made out of wood, I make it.
But I'm gonna soon have to quit for my age is getting against me and the time's passing off and leaving me. But I've been pretty lucky in it. I raised nine children grown and I've been married sixty years and I've been pretty lucky in that line, so it makes me feel good to think about it. I've worked all the time at the cooper business when I wasn't on the farm work. And could've worked all the time at the cooperin' business if I'd left off the farmin'; but I just liked to farm, and I'd put part of my time in on farmin'.
My grandfather's name was Roy Stewart, and he come from England. Moved in here and he was a cooper. That's all he ever followed. He made churns, wheels, buckets, looms, just everything to be made out of wood in a way of a living. Well, my father, he learned it and took it up from him, and he worked at it for as long as he was able. And when he passed away, I took it up, and so I've followed it now for about fifty years. My father, he worked at it till he was seventy-four years old. And so, I'm eighty-three now, will be in just in a day or two, and I'm going soon have to lay it down. And I'd be glad if someone would come around and take it up, but I can't get no one interested in it, seems like, and so I don't know whether I'll ever get anyone to start the trade up or not.
Now, when my grandfather come in here, he bought him a farm on Newman's Ridge here because it was well timbered. He didn't buy it just for the land, he bought it for the timber in order to get it to make all this stuff out of. And he never did farm it much himself, he just worked his timber all the time. And he made just anything most out of wood that people wanted.
Well, now in gettin' in my timber: the biggest part I get now, it comes from around right here, pretty close to home, not too far away. But now it takes first-class, choice timber to do this. You take knotty timber and you can't do nothin' with it. It's no good. It takes timber that's straight with the grain and no knots in it. Well now, workin' this timber, it's sawed up in blocks just the length that I want my vessel out of. I let it season right smart little bit in the bolt. I call it the bolt. And after it seasoned a while in the bolt, then I take my froe and rive it out in slats, small slats about an inch thick. Well, after I get that done, then I put it on the shaving horse and take my drawing knife and I work it down to about three quarters from the edge, just a stave, just the way I want it. Then I'll dress them down to the right size, and then I'll let it lay and season again. It's got to be well seasoned so it won't never shrink. After I get the vessel made, it'll stay just like I made it. But if it ain't well seasoned, well it'll fall down on you if you ain't careful.
The way I work them stays when I get ready to build it, I've got a jointer that I run it on and a gauge to go by that I joint it. One end of that stave has got to be something like a quarter of an inch narrower than the other 'ne. Well, if you've got to get the right kind of slope on that before you can make a vessel that will hold water. But I put that on that joiner, and I run it down there until it fits my gauge. And after it fits the gauge then, well I can put it together and hit'll hold water. And that's the way I do all my vessels. The bigger the vessel is, the less slope I've got to take on my stave, but the smaller the vessel is, the more slope it requires.
When I'm putting my churn together, I've got a sack that I put it together with. That sounds funny, but that's right. If it wasn't for that sack it would be a job to put that churn together, or tub or barrel or whatever you're makin'. It holds it till you place your staves right where you want them. And you put it in there till you get it plumb around. And the last stave goes in there, it fits tight. Well you just have two hoops on it to put it up with, and the last stave goes in, it fits awful tight. Well when you get it tight, you take your sack out and even up your staves then all the way around it, shape it up in the inside.
And I've got a croze then I cut a ring around inside for the head to go in. It's got to be perfect around. But if my churn or whatever I'm making hain't just exactly right, when I get that head made and put it in—it perfect around—it draws it, and it makes it perfect.
After I get that done, then I've got to go ahead and make me another set of hoops and dress that barrel down or churn down or bucket, whatever it is, dress it down to where that it will fit and be smooth and nice. And then after I get that done, then I go to the inside of it with what's called a round shave, and it smooths it up just as smooth as the outside, if not smoother. And so when I get that done, I've got a very nice vessel.
And then I get that all done, I make the lid then out of . . . make the dasher out of cedar and the stick maybe out of hickory, or maple, and the lid out of cedar. It's all cedar except the stick and the bands. The bands is white oak. I have to make them out of white oak. Cedar won't make bands, it's too brash. Well I get that completed then, why, there's always somebody stand there lookin' for it. I don't have no trouble a-gettin' rid of 'em.
And that's just the same way now I build the buckets and the tubs and butter presses and butter bowls. But my salad bowls now I build, I cut them out-- they're solid. I worked them out all in one piece.
I made my turning lathe out-and-out that I use, and I've been a-using it for over sixty years. I used it quite a lot before ever I married. And I've been married sixty years. And I made every tool that I need to work with it myself in the shop. I made all of my tools except the handsaw, a brace and bit. And I couldn't say just how many different kinds of tools I've got.
So I run my turning lathe by foot power, I run it with my foot. Lots of folks will come and look at it and say, "Well, what is this?" I says, "My turning lathe." Well, they said, "Where's the power at?" I say, "It's in my foot." I can do better turning with it than I can with a regular power. I tried power for a while, but I couldn't do the work with it that I can with my foot. It's over sixty years old and in good shape yet.
Now when it goes to come to my tools to build these churns, buckets, tubs, and one thing another like that, I made them. But my croze that I put the head in, it's a half circle just like you take a compass and lay you off a round circle--you saw that right in two. Well I made me a bit and put it out the edge of it so I could adjust it and cut as deep as I wanted to into the stay and cut it perfectly round. And I could adjust it—I could have cut a groove in it from a pint on up to a fifty-bushel barrel.
And my chisels now, that I work with on that, they're a great big kind of a chisel. I made them; they're broad, about three inches wide. I take them and I smooth up the inside with them, all around with it. And then after I get that done, then I go to puttin' the hoops to it and build it up. And it's a right smart little job to do all that, but I still work at it.
And the tools now that I've made 'em every one except my handsaws, brace and bit--use no nails whatever and no glue or nothing. If I got to use a nail in something or 'nother, I just throw it away.
Well, now makin' all these vessels, I'd get maybe a dozen of them started. Never hardly start one and complete it. Just long as I had hold of it, I'd lay it down and start another one. And then after I got so many tied up that way, I'd go back and I'd pick up one and I'd finish it.
Well, in makin' them bread trays, maybe I'd get one, I dig it out down to just about where I wanted to shape it up, and maybe it'd sit maybe three or four weeks then before I'd finish it. I'd be workin' at somethin' else, and that's just the way now I've got along at the Cooper business. I hardly ever finish a piece when I'd start to make it till for maybe for quite a while. It helps it to do that. If your timber hain't pretty well seasoned on most the stuff, why, it's not so good. But if your timber's well seasoned—I give it a chance to season out and to make real good stuff.
Now in building my churn, after I get my staves out and everything, I can build
one a day. But to start from the go—as the saying goes, to start from the stump—now to buildin' it and gettin' it out, it takes me around two days to build a churn. And I can build a bucket in a day or I can build a piggin in a day or I can make a butter bowl a day, and I can make a butter press in a day, and that's just about all I can do on that line. And it's pretty complicated. If you don't just get it right, you just ain't done no good.
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