Let’s talk about barrels. Barrels come in all different shapes and sizes, and for our purposes some are better than others. If you have the opportunity to select a barrel from a range of options, here’s what you want to look for, roughly in order of importance:
- Diversity of widths of staves. This is the main thing that you probably wouldn’t think of, but matters quite a bit, especially if you’re only getting one barrel. Every cooper has their own way of making a barrel, and that includes the widths of woods used. What you’re looking for is a continuum of sizes from about 1.5” wide to about 4”, with there being many staves (probably ~24) between 1.5” and 2.5”, then the rest around 3”-4”. A bad barrel would be one with a bunch of staves that are really wide, then another bunch of staves that are really small (<1.5”). Those small staves are nearly useless, and the big staves are only useful for certain parts. If you’re getting multiple barrels to make multiple chairs that can be fine, but if not you’d be in big trouble.
- Condition. Is the wood faded, blackened, covered in gross goo, or otherwise in poor condition? Recovering it could be difficult to impossible, so try to get one that’s in pretty good shape.
- What it was filled with. This is partly aesthetic and partly about avoiding pointless cleaning. First, try to get a barrel that’s been empty for a while and that only had liquid in it. I’ve gotten barrels that contained fruited beers, they were a pain in the ass to clean. The longer a barrel’s been empty, the easier it will be to take apart, because the staves dry out and shrink. Second, you’ll want to choose your char level and liquid. A bourbon barrel will have a high level of char and look black, which gives off a very different vibe from a red wine barrel that will be deep purple. I haven’t worked with white wine barrels, but they might leave very little color and give you a chair that looks like oak all around. Provided you can choose from a diversity of barrels, you should think about the look you want.
- Height of the barrel. This is mostly preference, because the height of the barrel determines the maximum height of the back of the chair. If you’re tall, you’ll want a taller barrel. If you’re not, you might not care so much.
- Appearance. Does the wood look cool? Some barrels are just beautiful and will make a chair that stands out that much more. It’s hard to tell before the wood has been finished, but worth taking a look at if you can.
- Number of hoops. The more hoops there are, the harder it’ll be to take apart.
That’s about it! So do the best that you can to pick out the barrel, but most barrels will work great so don’t sweat it too much. Up next we’ll talk about taking apart the barrel.