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History of the Lumber Industry of America
Chapter VII. Canada—Cooperage Stock Industry


Almost since the beginning of timber and lumber exportations from Canada the manufacture of cooperage stock or material therefor has been one of the leading of the minor forest industries. Easily accessible to waterways, all the way from Quebec to Lake Huron were originally immense quantities of # timber suitable for this purpose. The oaks, and other woods used in the manufacture of cooperage stock, which grew in Canada compared very favorably with those of the United States, and, as intimated above, they were for the most part more accessible, though for scores of years the industry in the United States has been growing to magnificent proportions, feeding upon the resources reached not only by river, but by railroads. The Canadian cooperage stock industry, however, antedated that of the United States and was maintained in large proportions until the cutting away of timber compelled a reduction in its magnitude.

The more recent history of the Canadian industry is indicated to some extent in the figures of production contained in the preceding chapter, but a more reliable measure of its importance and fluctuations is found in the export statistics, out of which the following brief table has been compiled. The maximum of exportations, and presumably of manufacture likewise, was reached about the middle of the last decade, since when there has been an almost uniform decline, until, in 1904, the total exports of staves, heading and stave bolts were valued at only $211,485.

The cooperage stock industry of Canada is not of sufficient importance to demand much space in this work, but a few pages may well be devoted to a review of the industry from historical and technical standpoints, prepared by a man who is one of the leading exporters of this class of material either in Canada or in the United States. His review of this subject1 occupies the remainder of this chapter:

A great many years ago, when the principal exports from Canada to the old country consisted of furs and timber, some enterprising Frenchman (or possibly Scotchman), who had come from the motherland, being employed in the manufacture of barrels and casks, conceived the idea of getting out staves and heading in Canada for export to Great Britain. In those days the forests contained a great deal of fine white oak all the way from Quebec to Windsor, but more especially in the western peninsula, and those trees were cut down, squared up with a broad-ax and shipped to England, the consequence being that only the finest trees were used and only part of them, namely, the part that could be put into square timber.

This square timber was floated down to Montreal, loaded on vessels there for the old country, where it was used for the manufacture of lumber, and, I presume, staves also. This enterprising Frenchman or Scotchman no doubt saw the terrible waste which occurred by only using certain parts of the trees, and also saw the trees which were passed as not fit for square timber, but which would make excellent staves and undoubtedly this was the commencement of the cooperage industry in Canada.

Staves were taken out for the wine casks of France and Spain, and the whisky casks of Great Britain and Ireland, and before long “ Canada butts ” and “ Quebec pipe staves ” became standard grades in Great Britain and on the Continent.

At that time all of the sugar used in England came from the West Indies and was shipped in hogsheads, and the West Indies hogshead staves were also manufactured in Canada, shipped to England, where they were made into shooks and sent over to the West Indies to be filled with sugar, molasses and rum.

As the oak got scarcer in the east, the hewers and stave makers drifted west, until Chatham, Ontario, became one of the great centers of the stave industry.

The old residents here have told the writer that years ago McGregor Creek and Thames River, which converge at Chatham, would have its waters covered for miles every spring with square oak, walnut timber, Canada butts, Quebec pipe staves and West India hogshead staves, and the smaller and shorter pieces of oak, utilized for barrel keg staves and heading. These were loaded on vessels in the Thames River, sent down to Montreal, and in some cases sent direct to England from Chatham. This, of course, was entirely tight barrel stock, as in those days no slack barrel stock was exported from Canada, as being all made by hand it was too expensive to send over to the old country, which at that time was almost entirely supplied with norway fir staves and beech staves made from the timber growing in England, Ireland and Scotland.

Mr. Neil Watson, of Mull, Ontario, now a manufacturer of slack barrel stock, hauled staves from Harwick township to Buckhom Beach for years and sold his pipe staves, 60x5x2, at $25 per thousand, and West India staves, 44x4^xl, at $5 to $8 per 1,200 for shipment to England.

Tight barrel stock in Canada is now almost a thing of the past, the oak having been almost exhausted, and what staves are made here now are used entirely for local consumption, either being made in the old way, which I will describe, or being sawed on a drum saw.

The method of manufacture in the early days, in fact it is still in use, was to cut the trees up into bolt lengths, according to the quality of the tree, whether suitable for long or short staves or heading, then to split these bolts with afrowknife, and in some cases, such as “ Canada butts,” dress them with a draw knife and ship them in the rough, sometimes taking the sap off, but other times shipping them with the sap on. Now most of the oak staves are sawn on a drum saw, which does away with a great deal of waste, on account of the slips on the part of the workman with the frow, and also enables the manufacturers to use tougher oak and timber which would not split freely with a frow, in fact, work up everything very close. The bucker, for bucking staves, never got much of a foothold in Canada, as the timber was practically exhausted here before buck staves were salable on foreign markets.

Oak heading, instead of being split now, is sawed, and while in the old days the head used to be split, finished off with a draw knife, marked off with a compass and sawed out by hand, the bevel also being put on with a draw knife, the heading is now sawed on a swing saw, piled in the yard to dry, put through a kiln when partially seasoned, run through a planer and turned up with a rounding machine, which puts on the bevel and turns the head at the same time. As already stated, the manufacture of tight barrel stock in Canada from oak is now almost a thing of the past, and does not figure very much in the export trade of Canada.

We will now turn to the manufacture of slack barrel stock. Years ago when the manufacturing industries in Canada were in their infancy and the consumption of barrels was a very minor matter, coopers made their staves and heading for flour and other slack barrels in the same manner as they used to make their tight barrel stock, in fact the same as a great many tight barrel staves and heading are still made in the United States.

The cooper would get his bolts in the winter, haul them to his cooper shop, split out his staves with his frow, and in the winter make the staves with a draw knife, jointing them on a planer jointer, in some cases even putting on the joint with his draw knife. At that time slack barrel staves were made almost entirely from red oak and basswood, the cooper making his staves during the winter months in his shop, seasoning them inside his barn or cooper shop, and making up his barrels as required, and after the staves were seasoned selling them from seventy-five cents to $1 each. Coopering at that time was simply a side issue, the cooper being also a farmer, carpenter, or some other tradesman, and making all kinds of barrels and casks from a flour barrel to a water tank.

Years rolled on, the red oak forests of Canada became a thing of the past—what oak was left would bring very much higher prices for lumber or bending purposes, sawn timbers, etc., than it would bring for staves, and the same applied to the States of New York, Ohio and Indiana, which at that time were large stave producers. Some Yankee genius (sad to say, unknown), possibly a man who thought there was a great waste of energy in making staves by hand, got his brains to work and invented the modern stave knife for cutting slack barrel staves from steamed bolts. The machine as at first invented is practically the same as is in use at the present time, the only improvements that have been made being that the machine is made twice as heavy as formerly, so as to be rigid and do away with the cutting of thin staves, and a balance wheel was put on so as to make the strokes more regular, and the speed increased from fifty revolutions per minute, which was the original cut of the machine, to 150 or 160 revolutions per minute, which is the speed at which the modern stave knives are run.

When this machine was first in use the staves were made entirely from red oak and basswood, the bolts being split out with a frow or ax, brought to the mill in this way and cut into staves. Immense elm forests then attracted the attention of some of the stave manufacturers and they experimented with making elm staves. It is not a great many years ago, only since I came to this country, that red oak staves were the principal kind used on the Minneapolis market, now elm is almost entirely used, in fact red oak staves are not liked on account of being so hard to work.

For a great many years nothing but split bolts were used, until some manufacturer, with a sawmill attached, conceived the idea of sawing his bolts, but until fifteen years ago staves made from sawn bolts commanded a lower price than staves from split bolts, as the coopers were of the opinion that staves could not be made straight grained unless the bolts were split, and it took a great many years to remove this erroneous idea. Now there is hardly a mill in the country making staves from anything but sawed bolts, and elm is the principal timber used, in fact is considered always desirable to any timber at the present time, although birch, beech, maple and southern woods are now crowding elm by degrees off the market, on account of the high price of elm stumpage.

We will now turn to the hoop industry. Until about twenty years ago all of the barrels were hooped with what is known as half-round hoops. The cooper cut these hoops in the winter, hauled them to his cooper shop, and spent the long winter months when not making staves in making hoops for his summer trade. Then the racked hoop made from black ash came into vogue, this being the precursor of the modem patent cut elm hoop. For a great many years the hoops were made either racked or split from elm, and finished with a draw knife, until the idea was conceived of cutting the hoops the same as staves from elm plank, and this hoop was found, when it was perfected, to be superior in every way to the racked or bark hoop. It is still the principal hoop on the market, although on account of the scarcity of elm a great many wire hoops are being used to supplement the elm hoops on the barrels. The iron hoop alone does not give sufficient rigidity to a barrel, and if not supplemented with the patent hoop, the barrels when stored on the bulges would collapse without the assistance of the elm hoop.

Heading, which formerly used to be made in the same way as staves, split from bolts, dressed off with a draw knife, in fact the same as tight barrel heading, are now sawed on a swing saw, kiln dried and turned on a turning machine, at the rate of 3,000 sets per day to one machine, whereas formerly it was a very good cooper who would turn out twenty-five heads in a day.

While the tight barrel cooperage industry of Canada has declined, the slack barrel industry has leaped up until it is one of the most important industries in Canada, millions of dollars being invested in stave, hoop and heading mills all over the country from Nova Scotia to Ontario, and barrels being used for almost every conceivable purpose, as they are the handiest, strongest and best package that has yet been invented by man.

There is no doubt but there is timber in parts of Canada which are yet undeveloped to continue this industry for a number of years, and no doubt before the supply is exhausted methods of reforestry will be inaugurated by the Canadian government the same as are in vogue in Norway and Sweden. It is one of the greatest industries we have in Canada and should be fostered so as to continue in perpetuity.


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