“It's a very physical job. You're using shoulders, forearms and your back”

“It's a very physical job. You're using shoulders, forearms and your back”

Ian Wisniewski talks with Michael Jamieson,the longest serving cooper at The Edrington Group's Clyde Cooperage.

People | 22 Jul 2008 | Issue 73 | By Ian Wisniewski

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IAN How did you get into the profession ?MICHAEL I followed my dad into it, my brother was a cooper as well, I left school on a Friday and the following Tuesday I started at the cooperage.IAN Did you have any experience of carpentry ?MICHAEL No, just wood work classes from school, I was always interested in wood and still am to this day.IAN How long was your apprenticeship ?MICHAEL Five years. I had a first class teacher, I learned a lot from him.IAN How long have you now been working as a cooper ?MICHAEL Since 1971, and for the past 15 years I’ve been a test cooper which is all about quality control, checking for any faults or defects. We buy a lot of casks in from Spain, a lot of these are tested for tightness and cracks, and then they go straight back out of the door, anything we repair goes through the shop.Over the years I’ve been lucky enough to be involved in quite a few jobs, from making casks to selecting wood for, and building washbacks.IAN Would you start building washbacks in the workshop ?MICHAEL Yes, it starts with the wood selection, Douglas fir, which comes from the western coast of the United States or Canada, and for one washback it usually takes 3-4 weeks to machine it, cut the staves, and then a week to build it on site.Everything is tied down to the final fitting date.To hoop one up could take maybe a day.IAN Presumably you have to tie in with the silent season at a distillery ?MICHAEL Oh yes, everything’s about timing, you’ve got a one week window so you’ve got to have it ready to go first thing Monday morning. It would be a team of four, me and three others. We also inspect the washbacks during the silent season.We check mainly for leaks and rot.IAN Have there been any big changes in the way you work since you started ?MICHAEL The main objective is still the same, having the cask to a suitable standard.What has changed a lot over the years is Health & Safety, and a lot of new machinery has taken the intensity out of it, everything was done by hand. We’ve got hoop drivers, machines which actually drive the hoops down when the cask’s finished. We’ve got riveting machines, and a lot of things that help the cooper. But it’s still a very physical job. You’re using shoulders, forearms and your back, those are the main problems for coopers.IAN How many of you are there in the cooperage ?MICHAEL There’s about 18, we’ve got test and service coopers.IAN What’s the difference between a test cooper and a service cooper ?MICHAEL Basically we’re all service coopers, but their job title used to be a test cooper because you were responsible for quality control. You get service coopers who make the heads of the casks, who will maybe go out and select what can go back out, and what needs to be repaired, jobs like that are service related, and they’re called service coopers.IAN Have any traditional aspects of the job gone ?MICHAEL You used to get what we call shooks (staves) from America, they were 40 gallon bourbon casks that have been knocked down and banded, and we would be building them into 54 gallon hogsheads.IAN A bit like a flat pack system then?MICHAEL Basically, and we made new heads for them, you’d be looking to do about 15 in a day, it’s very hard work. You used to have a job that when the barrel was already standing, a bourbon cask, you knocked the hoops off and added maybe 4-5 staves to make it up to 56 gallons, what you would do is to look for two barrels of the same size, so that you could take staves out of that.IAN What do you think are the right qualities or characteristics that make a good cooper ?MICHAEL I think a willingness to learn, like any job, I think it’s how you approach it, how you’re taught, what you take in. You should always be looking to learn all the time.
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