Unsegmented felloes in Estonia and Latviawere always bent from ash wood. In Russia too, ash was occasionally used, although oak and elm were preferred. The Assikvere wheelright used ash also for the hub and the spokes.
Here we will describe the process of unsegmented felloes as it was practiced until recently in Assikvere. Young ash trees had to be used for bending, the thinner ones yielding four boards and the thicker up to 12 boards. In order to make sure the suitability of a tree for felly making, a notch was cut into the trunk with an axe. If the piece of wood came out whole, the tree was no good for wheel making. When cutting wood for the front wheel, the length of the trunk had to be 8-1/2′ (2.5 m) and for the rear wheel 10-1/2′ (3.1 m). The boards were cut with an axe and wedge and then trimmed and smoothed. The width of the board before bending was about 2-1/4″ inches and it was 1-3/4″ – 2″ thick (5.7 cm x 4.4-5 cm).
The green boards thus chosen were steamed or heated for about two hours. Bending on the wheel bench was done while the boards were still hot. A large wooden circular mold was used for the front wheels and a somewhat smaller one for the rear wheels. This circular block of wood was attached to a cross-like base (Figs. 175, 176) to which the end of the board was secured beforestarting. Bending was carried out by three persons (Fig. 177); they were described humorously, according to their functions as the “pushing boy, wedging boy and pulling boy.” The pushing instrument, or the bow, is a pole between 6-1/2′-9- 1/2′ (2-3 m), where it is mounted on a metal pushing pin. The latter is held in position by a strong wedge. In working the bow (or the pole), the pushing boy forces the board round the bending block with the aid of the wedge. The operation has to be performed evenly, without moving thepole up or down. The wedging boy moves the wedge as the board is bent, and inserts it into the appropriate hole in the cross-like base of the bending block. Sometimes an additional wedge is driven in for firmness. The pulling boy goes infront and guides the board, making sure of the board’s direction round the block. When the circle is completed, the pulling boy and the wedging boy join the ends with two pieces of birch. An additional board is now used to join the ends of the bent felly from the inside, it having been previously steamed or heated together with the board for the felly proper. It is a job of the wedging boy to hold the ends tightly while the pulling boy attaches the inside joining board. Only then may the pushing boy release the pressure. During the bending the ash board may often “crack with the inner ring,” i.e. , along the inside of the annual circle. If the crack is thin and the wood remains sufficiently thick it is still fit for use.
Before proceeding with processing the curved unsegmented felly (Fig. 178), it has to dry in a room for at least one week. After it has dried the ends are sawn off, so that a space of about 1/2″ (1.2 cm) is left between them. They are later pulled together by the smith with an iron band.
Until the beginning of the century, spoons and ladles for home use were generally produced by the peasants themselves. The preferred timber was that of birch, hard pieces of birch root and sometimes juniper. To prevent these articles from cracking, they were frequently boiled in hot water (they were also known to have been dried in the bread oven).4 The bowl parts of the Estonian spoons (as well as the Latvian and Finnish ones), are of elongated shape, differing in this respect from the Russian round-bowled spoons.5
Often the spoons were covered with carved designs (Fig. 73). The Russian spoon with the round bowl, often pointed, became known in Estonia in the course of the 19th century mainly through being introduced by men returning from military service from Russia. Only toward the end of the century did the Russian spoon appear in the shops, or they were bought from by hawkers. The following is from Räpina: “Later, about 40 years ago [= ca. 1900] then no longer country spoons were made for eating. The Seto people started to bring and sell wooden spoons. The Seto exchanged spoons against grain and rags. There was a factory in Pihkva (Pskov) that made them. It was better to eat with factory spoons than with spoons made by ourselves. There was thick paint on them and there was no need to wash them so thoroughly and the color stuck well. Country spoons remained only for making of butter and cooking. Old people, who had not been accustomed to eat with the other spoons, ate a long time with self-made spoons.”6 In the first decades of the 20th century metal spoons put a full stop both to country spoons as well as the Russian wooden spoons as tableware. Wooden spoons remained in use only in cooking.
It is worth mentioning that although the Estonian and Russian wooden spoons were quite different, the word “lusikas” (south Estonian “luhits, luits”) is actually an old Russian loanword (Old Russian “льжька,” Russian “лoжка”), as a result of which it has been believed that Russian spoons were spread already quite early as an article of trade among Baltic-Finnic people, and because of it the original old names have been forgotton.7 One of such old names could be “koost,” which denotes a wooden spoon on the western shore of Saaremaa and Hiiumaa (Karuse and Varbla). That Russian spoons were actually found in the Baltic counties at an early time is confirmed by a find of typical Russian spoons in Riga, in all likelihood from the 13th to the 15th centuries.8 To a certain extent the previous position is in a certain contradiction with what people have stored in their memories – which, as we have seen, link the appearance of Russian spoons at a rather late date. It is also interesting that the word “lusikas” (spoon) has in its turn spread into the speech of Russians on the other side of Lake Peipsi as “лузик”9 (it may be to distinguish it from the different spoon with a longish bowl which Avinurme home industry people could have sold on their commercial travels in the 19th century on the other side of Lake Peipsi).
The words used for ladle, “kulp” or “kula” (the latter is a west Estonian term used to describe a ladle with the bowl at an angle, used to scoop milk from the urn), are probably of Baltic–Finnicorigin.10 On the other hand the south Estonian term “kopp” originates from the Lower German “koppe.”11 The same word is applied in other parts of Estonia to mean a wooden bowl with a handle. In the Võru dialect and in other eastern parts of the country the wooden bowl with a handle, especially the one for use in the bath, is known as “korets, karits” (Russian “korets”).
Bowls (Fig. 74) were usually made of softwood – linden, aspen, alder, sometimes also from birch. Usually they were made from a stem cut in two, crosswise, although lengthwise was sometimes preferred. The latter were not as durable and had a tendency to crack. Tools used in the manufacture of homemade bowls were the scooping axe, the chisel and the draw knife. However, in the 19th century most bowls were already being produced by turnery, and the bowl ceased to be a homemade article (see the chapter on Turning). There are only a few such bowls in museum collections, as by far the greater number of bowls have been turned. This shows that in the 19th century making of bowls was mostly the duty of turners, and no longer belonged to the circle of the peasant’s home carpentry.
4 e.g. KT 101, 9, Räpina.
5 Such spoons with an oval bowl occur in the Slavonic area in Central Europe (Opole) since the 10th to the 12th centuries.(Hołubowicz, Fig. 122:1 p. 277). Wooden spoons used in the 15th to the 16th century are relatively similar in their shape to Russian spoons of the 19th century. (Рабинович. Из иcтoрии быта, Fig. 10:7. p. 51).
6 KT 101.9–10 (Joosep Hermann, b. 1866), cf. also EA 15, 116 Avinurme; KV 78, 124 Jõhvi.
7 Mikkola, p. 45, 66; Kalima, Slaavil, san., p. 120.
MATERIAL USED. In Europe bent-board containers were made of various types of timber. The flexible and easily cut aspen was popular in Estonia, and was also widely used for that purpose in Russia, Finland and northern Sweden.35 In southern Estonia linden was also used. The sides of the sieve, sifter and “külimit” were all made of aspen. In the case of chests and hampers, birch and ash were often used (especially in the islands), as well as bird cherry. In western Saaremaa chests were mostly made of oak. Oak served as raw material for chests in southern Sweden and southwestern Finland.36 In some countries coniferous wood, pine or spruce, were used for the bent sides of the container, but this was not the case in Estonia. On the other hand, the base of many of these containers was often made of pine or spruce.
CUTTING. The boards were always brought in when still green. This was done so as to prevent them from cracking during the bending process. Furthermore, the board had to be split with an axe, not cut with a saw. The sawn board would easily crack or chip, whereas the chopped board retained the tree rings in good condition and facilitated the bending process. For chests, sieves and sifters, boards 5/16″–1/2″ (7-12 mm) thick were used: for hampers 3/4″- 1-1/2″ (2-4 cm). In western Saaremaa very thin (around 1/8″ or 2-4 mm) boards of oak were sometimes used for chests.
There were two ways of cutting boards for the bent container. The primitive method, used throughout the country, was to make use of the smooth surface of the barked tree for the surface of the container, cutting the log accordingly. This process required preliminary cutting of the log to the right size, i.e., into two or four sections. After that the inside surface was hewn out with an axe and a trough axe, until a curved board of the desired thickness was achieved. The inside surface was finally smoothed with a draw knife. Such a board is easily bent. This method was also common in Russia and Finland.37
The author had the chance to follow the second method closely in Avinurme in the summer of 1947. Apart from Avinurme, this way of cutting is used also in the Nõva and Hiiumaa home industries. Here, again, the log was first cut into half and each half was further divided into thirds or halves, depending on the original thickness.
FIG. 128. Splitting sifter board, employing wedges. Avinurme, Ulvi village, Photograph by author, 1947. Photo library 1089:100.
FIG. 129. Splitting boards for sowing tray. Avinurme, Ulvi village. Photograph by author, 1947. Photo library 1089:102.
Two boards were obtained from each of the sections. The sharp edges of the segment were smoothed with an axe (Fig. 127), and a line was marked along which the cutting was to be done. The splitting itself followed with three wedges first driven into the edge: one in the middle, and one at each end. Sometimes only one large wedge was used, placed in the middle. As the split formed, smaller wedges were driven into the wood to “guide the split” (Fig. 128). And thus, by driving the wedges even deeper, a double size board was obtained. It was then further split in two, using the same method (Fig. 129). The process is actually very fast, lasting no more than five to 10 minutes.
FIG. 130. Smoothing outside surface of sifter board with planing knife. Avinurme, Laurisaare village. Photograph by Vittoff, 1921. Photo library 439:163.
FIG. 131. Board for sowing tray being planed with jack plane. Avinurme, Ulvi village. Photograph by author, 1947. Photo library 1089:106.
Both sides of the board are then scraped with the axe, the work being done on the bench. At the same time the bark is removed and the stroke of the axe has to fall along the rings of the wood. Then the curved surface on the outside is cut straight with a planing knife (Fig. 130) and the inside planed with a curved jack plane (Fig. 131). In Avinurme the latter job was done with a draw knife as late as the first decade of the 20th century (Fig. 132).
Splitting with axe and wedges was typical in Sweden and central Europe and was also known in areas where home industry was prevalent (especially for smaller boards). Here they were cut straight, and not along the tree rings, as was the use in Estonia.38 The latter is more closely associated with the first, more primitive method.
35 Филиппов, p. 222; Granlund, p.115-116.
36 Granlund, loc. cit.
37 Филиппов, pp. 224-225 (Simbirsk Gubernia); Tруды XI, p.3158 (Vyatka Gubernia), Granlund, pp. 121-122. Karrakoski, p.144.
Furniture conservator and cabinetmaker Martin O’Brien sent us these intriguing images of low workbenches being used by Spanish woodworkers to build ladderback chairs. And, to add to the multicultural mix, it comes from a book in Japanese.
To me it looks like there are two benches at work here. In the foreground, the guy with the nifty hat is working on spindles. On the bench on the left, the other woodworker is assembling the chair frames.
And it looks like it’s all taking place in a cave.
“One could almost say that it is a cross between a Roman workbench and shave horse. This shop could very well be a cave in Southern Spain. Makes sense that Roman traditions would still have a serious toehold in this region.
“If you need anymore information, I can get the Japanese person who gave me this book to provide some translations. Next time I go to Spain, I’m gonna find these guys.”
I’d love to learn more about these benches. Thanks Martin. It’s fascinating to see these benches in use in southern Europe and northern Europe (Estonia).
You never know what you might find when viewing Fujisan in a Japanese woodblock print. The tool the cooper is using looked very familiar and then I remembered the tools from “Woodworking in Estonia” by Ants Viires. The bigger Japanese tool may be a spear plane but in Estonia it was a grooving knife.
The Estonian tools in use at the time of Ant Viires research in the first half of the 20th century were likely no different from the tools used a century or more earlier. Besides the the size difference in the spear plane and grooving knife I wondered how the Japanese cooper’s tools might compare to those of the Estonian cooper. A quick search turned up the plate below and oddly enough it was in the National Archives of Estonia.
The handwritten title in German translates to “Cooper’s Tools.” No date was provided for this plate but the notations beneath each tool give a clue. The notations provide a scale in the old German measurement, the Fuß* (fuss, or foot). The Fuß was in use until the beginning of 1872 when use of the metric system became compulsory. To find out how long was the Fuß (good luck!) see the bottom of the post for some conversions.
Looking beyond the tools the next question was what were the Japanese and Estonian coopers making and were there any similarities. Going back to “Woodworking in Estonia” I pulled a few photos that date from 1890 to 1939.
As described by Ants Viires coopers made buckets, churns, wash tubs, small baths, beer casks and containers for grain and other food storage. For merchants there were larger barrels for beer, food and many other commodities. For the Japanese cooper it was much the same with the addition of very large barrels for production of fermenting sake and soy sauce.
Many woodblock prints feature domestic scenes with women using buckets and tubs for bathing, washing clothes and for food preparation (I left out the bathing scenes). Much larger tubs and barrels can be seen in making sake.
One of the differences between Japanese and Estonian cooperage is the material used for the hoops. Estonian coopers used small branches, and later, iron for hoops. The Japanese used braided bamboo, then iron and copper. Traditional craftsmen making small pieces and companies using huge barrels for making soy sauce still use braided bamboo for hoops. Overall, there are more similaries than differences in the methods, tools and items made by the Japanese and Estonian coopers.
With so many similarities the next question is about the roots of cooperage in each country. Open wood buckets made using the methods of a cooper have been dated in Egypt to 2690 BC and fully closed Iron Age barrels have been found in Europe from 800-900 BC. By the 1st century BC barrels were in wide use for beer, wine, oil and water. Celtic tribes in Europe can be credited with making and using barrels for beer and wine. Next, here come the Romans because they always seem to be part of adapting, refining, inventing or spreading new technologies.
The Romans, like the Greeks and many early Mediterranean civilizations, used clay containers for storing and transporting wine and oil. Roman rule over the Celtic tribes of Gaul began in the 2nd and 1st c. BC and continued until 486 AD, and it was in Gaul they encountered the barrel. They found wooden barrels a vast improvement over clay amphorae for transporting wine and the added benefit of an improved taste to their wine, especially when the barrels were made of oak.
Did the early Estonian peoples learn cooperage from the Romans? Although Roman coins have been found in Estonian we don’t know if there was a direct connection.
Baltic tribes had trade contact with the Romans via the Amber Road. The Amber Road (actually a network of routes) extended from the North Sea and Baltic Sea to the Mediterranean.
Highly prized, amber from the Baltic has been found in Egypt from 16th c. BC. Like the East-West Silk Road, the Amber Road was a conduit for trading commodities and technology.
For five centuries the Romans controlled Gaul and that extended presence did exert an influence on Germanic tribes not under Roman control. If the Baltic tribes in the area of Estonia did not aquire knowledge of cooperage prior to the end of Roman control the technology may have arrived via trade or war contact with Germanic tribes, or during later invasions by others.
When did Japanese coopers learn their craft? In yesterday’s news (what timing) there was a report that Roman coins had been found in the ruins of a 12th century castle in Okinawa. What next, Vikings? The archeologist overseeing the site said there was no evidence of Western contact with the ancient Okinawan kingdom, but the Chinese did have extensive trade contact with the West from the 14th through the 19th centuries. The coins were probably traded between the Chinese and the Okinawans.
For millenia Japan had extensive trade and cultural contact with its neighbors, in particular China and Korea. During the Nara period (710-794) Japan turned more inward and concentrated on cultivating its native crafts, especially woodworking, ceramics and textiles. As for cooperage, we known that sake has a history extending back 1700 years. In the 8th century sake was favored by, and became regulated by, the Imperial Court. The Imperial regulations covered all portions of the production of sake and included the barrels used.
Soy sauce production dates back about 1500 years and one of the key ingredients of the fermenting process is using kioke, barrels made of cedar. After World War II soy sauce companies were urged to use stainless steel vats instead of the cedar kioke.
On the island of Shodoshima the soy sauce makers did not agree and continued to use kioke. In 2012 Yamamoto Yasuo the owner of Yamaroku Shoyu traveled with two carpenters from his company to learn the traditional method of making kioke from preparing the cedar slats, making the bamboo pins and selecting and braiding the bamboo hoops. They worked with Ueshiba Takeshi of Fujii Wood Work in Osaka Prefecture. They now make there own kioke and other producers are following their lead to revive and continue the traditional craft of making the huge barrels. A short (7 minute) video on making a kioke and the braided bamboo hoop is here (it is really cool).
One of the themes Ants Viires highlighted in “Woodworking in Estonia” was the decline of traditional crafts and the use of plastic items to replace wood. This lament is also heard in Japan and more efforts are underway to work with elderly craftsmen to learn and document traditional craft. In Kyoto this movement is particularly strong.
Nakagawa Shuji, an oke maker (oke are the wooden tubs) in Kyoto was interviewed by Kyoto Journal. Nakagawa talks about his apprenticeship and efforts to keep his traditional craft alive. The oke he makes are refined and copper is used for hoops. In the middle photo below he holds the sen, the two handled plane, that dates back to medieval times (1185-1600 in Japan). You can read the interview with him here.
Conclusions: although the Romans seemed to have left their coins everywhere they did not originate nor spread cooperage around the world. Good ideas and sucessful technology don’t have to have a single point of origin. With some variations in tools and techniques, when humans need to make something to improve their lives they often travel the same path.
*There was no standardized measurement for the old German Fuß as it changed through time and it also depended on where you were living in Germany, Austria, Switzerland and parts of France. Here are conversions as recorded in 1830 in three places (chosen to show the range of the Fuß measuremnt and because I either lived or visited these cities as a child): Mainz – 314 mm or 12.36 in, Metz – 406 mm or 15.98 in, Würzburg – 294 mm or 11.57 in.