The Profession of Cooper

October 2013

Having tried to make a barrel once, Dmitriy Nepanov, a citizen of Kursk, found his vocation in cooperage.


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Know-How from the Past

Though there were no coopers among Dmitriy Nepanov's ancestors, his grand grandfather went for an excellent craftsman. "Grand-granddaddy Yakov made everything on his own in the household," he recollects. "When I visited him during a school break, Grand would teach me a lot of things: how to drive a nail, how to plane a board, how to split firewood. In autumn, we used to go to a marsh to collect osier twigs. Then grand-granddaddy would show me how to weave baskets and pannets out of it.  Of course, there were barrels in the house (who did not have them then!), but Yakov did not make them. When many years after this his great-grandson wanted to learn this tricky craft, he had to start from scratch.

So why did he set his mind on it? He wanted to have a barrel in his household for pickled cucumbers and cabbage. Prior to taking on woodwork, ones needs to understand the nature of wood: how annual rings are arranged, under what temperature and humidity completed parts should be conditioned to keep them from cracking up – this is quite a technique! He studied special books, spending long hours in a library. He plugged away at his first little barrel for a month. Neighbours asked him to make the same for them but the self-taught cooper was not still sure in his skills, so he wanted to find a tutor. An old cooper lived in a small village called Banischi on the bank of the Seym River. It was him whom Nepanov visited. And that first barrel of his is still in a good shape sitting in a cellar and holding pickles.

Birth of Dynasty

An old family Moskvitch car has been rusting outside for some ten years. Since Dmitriy embarked on a cooper's job, his garage transformed into a real workshop with machines, chaotically scattered tools, work pieces, wood chips and a unique aroma of freshly cut oak. The ancient art of barrel making returns to life here.

To prevent a barrel from leaking and coming unglued during its expected service life of 40 years it is important to prepare the material properly. Only three central boards are sawn from a 50-year-old oak log. And only boards from the root to the first knot are used. Surprises do occur even here – the wood brought from Dmitriyevsk district contains many fragments and bullets from the war. The boards must have been air-dried for 2-3 years prior to beginning work on them to make and fit staves. The staves are used to assemble the body of the barrel that is fixed by steel hoops. With this technique, Nepanov made more than five hundred barrels of various sizes: from 1 to 1,000 litres. Only one third of his produce has stayed in Kursk, the rest has been delivered to other cities. Even Channel One featured the cooper in one of its TV programs.

The business would not probably take off if it wasn't for Timophey, a little apprentice and his five-year-old son who is always eager to help. He does turning, grinding and polishing with pleasure, you are always welcome. "D'you see that certificate of achievement on the wall?" Dmitriy points out. "We were awarded with it for a birdfeeder. There was a competition in kindergarten." Thanks to Timophey, parents also began making wooden puzzles and brain-teasers.

"Sometimes he comes up with interesting ideas!" Nepanov says, laughing. "Once in a shop, he asked mother if daddy could make some toy that he liked there." There was nothing for it but to try. Then my wife Tanya took over." Younger daughter Sonya is slightly over one year old. She cannot cut or polish for the time being but loves to nibble on... self-made toys. Perhaps, this is the way a craftsman dynasty is born.