Barrel makers got extra work from these tools
Tools that purport to perform more than one task frequently do none of them particularly well. But sometimes a combination works so well it seems a natural. The ordinary claw hammer falls into that category, along with these less familiar tools.
Coopers relied on a number of unique tools when building staved wooden barrels. Most of those tools handled one specific chore. But the cooper's adze, left in the photo, and the bung borer, right, each combined two functions.
An adze is essentially an axe with its blade at a right angle to the handle. Used for anything from heavy stock removal to fitting and shaping, the adze, in one form or another, was standard equipment in almost every woodworking trade in the 1800s.
The cooper's adze evolved into a short-handled implement with a narrow, curved blade. But its most distinctive feature is the extended poll forming a square or rectangular hammer head.
Coopers used this adze to cut a bevel (called the chime) on the inside top face of the assembled staves. The deeply curved blade and short handle allowed the cooper to swing the adze inside the mouth of the barrel. For ease of sharpening, the handle could be removed simply by undoing a nut at the end.
The tool also served as a hammer. Though coopers used heavier hammers for riveting hoops and driving them on, the adze's hammer head came in handy for many tasks where a heavier hammer would have been overkill, particularly in repairing barrels.
Wooden barrels that would contain liquids (called tight barrels) usually had two tapered holes for filling and emptying--a bunghole in the side near the middle of the barrel and a tap hole through one head (end) near the rim.
Boring these ordinarily called for drilling pilot holes, then sizing them with a tapered reamer. The American-style cylindrical bung borer shown here streamlined the task by performing both steps.
After drilling through the stave or head with the auger bit at the tip, the cooper would simply push the tool's body on into the hole. As he continued to turn the tool, the cutting edges formed by a slot in the side of the tapered hollow body reamed the hole.
Cooper's tools weren't common-place, but many have survived because the skilled tradesmen who used them usually took good care of them. They're not highly sought after, so moderate prices prevail. One dealer recently listed a bung borer like the one shown for $35 and cooper's adzes at $65 and $75. And we found a bung borer and adze in a flea-market booth, priced at $85 for both.
Photograph: Hetherington Photography Written by: Larry Johnson Tools from the collection of Paul Gorham, Indianola, Iowa