Gallons of Garbage

Last year my spouse did something completely insane for my birthday: She bought me something I asked for (but I really should not have).

It was a used bourbon barrel – white oak, banded in steel hoops and charred on on the inside. With a nice big bung hole. My dream was to have one of these barrels as my garbage can at the end of my vise. No more plastic for me. Just a giant gaping black maw of charred oak with some sweet bourbon redolence mixed in.

That was June 2009.

The barrel arrived via truck. No box. Just a label and a barrel. Still, I was excited as Hello Kitty on mini-crayon day. I rolled the barrel back to my shop. But before I wrangled it down the stairs I had a bad thought. What if it wouldn’t fit under my workbench?

A quick check with my tape measure confirmed the drunken obvious: The barrel was actually taller than my bench. So I’d be ramming my handplanes into it. Dejected, I rolled it next to my Karmann-Ghia, where it has sat for 13 months.

After seeing some of the barrels at the Maker’s Mark distillery this May, I became inspired to revisit my personal cask of shame. I decided to cut it down. Give it a flattop. Remove more than 6″ of material and not have the staves fall apart on me.

Here’s what I did. I “borrowed” a silver Crayola from my daughter and used a 1″-thick scrap to mark a line that was 1″ offset below one of the hoops. Then I took a 5/8″ drill and bored a hole adjacent to the wax line. Then it was less than three minutes of work with a jigsaw, cutting around the barrel until the top fell off. Inside were four bungs. Four?

The inside was as black as I’d imagined. I stuck my head in to inhale the sweet smell of aged bourbon.


It smelled like a wet bonfire.

Oh well. I rolled the barrel to my shop. It fit perfectly beneath the bench. I put my plastic garbage can out at the street. Good riddance. And what about the top of the barrel? Don’t know. I rolled it next to the Karmann-Ghia. Maybe next year I’ll deal with it.

— Christopher Schwarz

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Publisher of woodworking books and videos specializing in hand tool techniques.
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12 Responses to Gallons of Garbage

  1. Chuck Beck says:

    I see a perfect herb garden. Fill that baby with soil, basil, thyme, oregano, and maybe a tomato plant.

  2. Grerg Taylor says:

    Planter…I see a planter.

  3. Matt Boutte says:

    I think I’d break it up and use the top for a rather interesting table. Something you could set a nice glass on and think about the wood’s previous life.

  4. J. Watriss says:

    Too funny, I did something similar to one of my workbenches recently to get it to fit a particular spot in my apartment. My old 6 foot, just about big enough bench is now 4.5′ long. The twin screw vise front vise is roughly half of the front of the bench now.

    Now I just need to figure out what to do with an 18" long x 24" wide chunk of maple bench top with a QR Jorgensen on the end.

    : P

  5. John Walkowiak says:

    Tremont Nails, the square nail people, sell a wooden nail keg, although smaller, could also be used in the shop. And the cedar it is made from will smell better.

  6. Casey Gooding says:

    I once worked in a shop where a client wanted us to cut down a bunch of these barrels to make planters and benches. Only, he wanted them cut top to bottom. Well, one of the guys started cutting away. All went well until he hit one of the metal bands. It sparked. There must have been a lot of fumes left in the barrel because he got shot in the face with a nice ball of flames out of the saw kerf. Luckily he was wearing a full face mask at the time.

  7. nathan says:

    I worked in a farm market for a few years where the owners had connections with a Canadian Brewery. They bought these barrels by the truckload (some used once, some used twice) and sold them whole, cut in half for planters, or full of raw cider with a kit to make 50 gallons of your own hard cider. I was the lucky guy that got to cut the barrels in half.

  8. helen says:

    we use the half barrels for planters. have 6 of them in the yard already!

  9. Eric Madsen says:

    Add three 29" legs, fill it full of ice and craft-beer then have me over to inspect the craftsmanship.

  10. Ben Davis says:

    Greg read my mind! It would be a perfect planter. A few holes in the bottom for drainage, and you’ll have one heck of a geranium or impatien planter!

  11. Gregg says:

    "I put my plastic garbage can out at the street". One of life’s mysteries … how do you discard a garbage can? Did you put it inside another garbage can? Did they collect it? What’s the opposite of bread?

  12. Christopher Schwarz says:

    I have had great trouble discarding garbage cans. It’s like trying to burn fire or wash water….

    Finally I cut the thing up until it no longer resembled a garbage can.


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