Woodworking with Barrel Staves

I recently started working in a whole new wood medium – oak barrel staves from reclaimed wine barrels.

This is beautiful wood with lots of character. One side is stained a deep purple from the red wine that aged in the barrel for up to seven years. The other side has a lovely grey patina from being exposed to the weather, with white stripes from the metal rings that held the barrel together.

Depending on the source, the barrel might have held red wine, white wine, or even whiskey (retired wine barrels are often used by whiskey makers to impart a unique smokey taste to their product).

Here is a video about how a traditional wine barrel is constructed.

As you can see from the video, one of the challenges of building with barrel staves is that no two staves are the same shape. They are different thicknesses, widths and even lengths. They are also curved in all three dimensions: they are wider in the middle and tapered at the ends, the inside is concave, and the outside is convex.

They are held together in the barrel by iron rings, and when the rings are removed the wood springs back a bit. The amount of springback varies depending on the wood, the age, the temperature and the humidity. Even two adjacent staves that fit together perfectly in the barrel will not align exactly once released from the rings.

Joining any two staves together takes a good eye and lots of patience.

One of the reasons we do not have a large selection of barrel stave items yet is that the first of each is incredibly challenging to make.

For instance, every piece in our barrel stave wine rack has to be cut, shaped and fitted by hand. The shelves that hold the bottles have to be raised at a 8 degree angle from horizontal to make sure the bottle does not roll off. However, those shelves are attached to a vertical arm that is itself curved. So the bottom shelf has to attach to the vertical arm at a 3 degree angle and the top shelf connects at a 12 degree angle. The base of the shelf also has to be curved slightly because the vertical arm is also slightly concave from the circumference curve of the barrel.

You can see the curves and joints in this photograph.

Barrel Stave Wine Rack Detail

I first have to build a special jig to hold the vertical stave in place while each arm is measured, cut and shaped. The angles and joints are not perfect. Unlike traditional wood construction, where you can plane each piece of wood perfectly straight, flat and square, barrel stave joints have slight gaps, variations and imperfections.

As I dream up new items to make, I really enjoy the challenge of figuring out exactly how it will go together.

And finally, the wood gives off an amazing smell when cut and drilled – my workshop is redolent with hints of woodsmoke, wine and sometimes even whiskey.

Check out the barrel stave gifts available in our store.

Wally.

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