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Artisans of Michigan: Making oak barrels

Jun 1, 2018

A Michigan white oak stave that Ben Aldrich of Kalamazoo Cooperage just finished making.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

Since Michigan Radio started bringing you this series on Artisans of Michigan, we’ve been asking if there are any coopers in the state. We have learned of two of them: Lake Effect Cooperage in Traverse City and Kalamazoo Cooperage. We recently got to spend some time with Ben Aldrich, the owner of Kalamazoo Cooperage.

There haven’t been any coopers in Michigan for decades. Figuring out how to make the slats of the barrel (staves) and make it round and narrower at the top and bottom, then make that wood structure fit so well that it won’t leak takes some learning from the past.

“You reverse-engineer the barrel. You decide what the volume needs to be, what the height is and that sort of traditional set height and diameter. So, once you know those figures, you can do the math as to the angle the staves should be so that it’s the right diameter in the middle and the right diameter at the top.

The real question is this: why does a guy who’s been making kitchen cabinets and doing okay want to try to make barrels in the first place?

Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

BA: “So, Rick and Gerren, my shopmates (who helped him set up his equipment for making barrels) -- I was sitting here at my bench, having a cup of coffee and Rick walked in and had run into a distiller downtown. And he said he (the distiller) had gone up to as many woodworkers in town as he could, but no one would make him barrels. They were very interested in locally made barrels. Rick said, ‘You wanna make barrels?’ I said, ‘Sure.’”

LG: Who was that for?

BA: “It was for Green Door Distillery. First (distiller) in Kalamazoo since the mid-19th century. So we said absolutely. They were getting their processes up and going and we had to figure all this out, how to make these fast. So, I took a bucket making class at Tillers (International) and a handmade barrel making class at Tillers. And after that –I’ve been woodworking 20 years and I thought well, making barrels is really easy. Well, make one barrel in three days is easy to make. Thirty barrels a week or a month is very difficult. So, that’s where we kind of dropped back, punted a little bit and started figuring out better ways to do these things quicker.”

Forty-five seconds seems like a long time to let the interior of the barrel burn for charring.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

LG: Yeah, otherwise you’re going to be selling barrels for $800 a piece or something like that.

BA: “Right. And no one is buying an $800 barrel.” (laughs)

LG: Let’s talk about the market. There are quite a few wineries in the state now, quite a few distilleries in the state now. What’s the argument for Michigan oak and a Michigan barrel?

BA: “So, as far as distilleries go, the fact that there are more and more popping up makes it a good time to be starting this up. Michigan oak, you know, people like locally grown, locally sourced stuff. A month ago I went out and picked the trees, spray-painted them with ‘Y,’ which said cut me down. And then we took them to a local sawyer and cut them up. I can drop a pin on the map to show you where those trees came from and I think that’s a cool thing, you know, getting back to a smaller community-based thing.”

LG: I know quarter-sawn oak is very pretty. Is there a practical purpose you do quarter-sawn?

BA: “There is. The structure of the grain, there are these things called medullary rays that run perpendicular with the grain lines and that’s one of the reasons that the barrel doesn’t leak. It also provides a little more structural integrity. Quarter-sawn doesn’t shrink as much as plain-sawn. So, you’re reducing your shrinkage probably by half per stave to keep a water-tight barrel.”

Just about ready for whiskey.
Credit Lester Graham / Michigan Radio

LG: Prior to this, most of these barrels came from the Ozarks, southeast Missouri and places like that?

BA: “Sure. From Kentucky over to Missouri. So, for winemakers, Michigan white oak mimics French oak better than oaks grown at that latitude. We have a shorter growing season so the growth rings are tighter together which is more desirable for winemaking especially.”

The day we visited, Aldrich was putting the final touches on a small barrel. This one was going to be used at a distillery. The last step is to burn the barrel, char the inside. It’s good for whiskey. Charring is a delicate step.

For the particular char he wanted for this barrel, he burned sawdust inside for exactly 45 seconds then doused the flames.

Aldrich said the first few times he charred a barrel, it seemed so risky. All that work could be lost in just a few seconds. It’s still causes a bit of anxiety, but Aldrich is becoming an artist at that final step.

Support for arts and culture coverage comes in part from the Michigan Council for Arts and Cultural Affairs.