The Bratcher Cooperage preserves the time-tested craft of barrel-making
Puffs of gray wood smoke rise from a small fire built in the bottom of a white oak barrel. Doug Bratcher of Bratcher Cooperage leans over the barrel and watches the orange flames below. Aromatic smoke, carrying the song and scent of an Ozark Missouri forest, wafts past Bratcher’s full white beard.
“The fire softens the wood staves,” says Bratcher, referring to the wooden sections that form the cylinder of a barrel. “It makes them easier to bend into shape.”
Bratcher is a cooper, or barrel maker, who has made oak barrels by hand for 30 years in his shop near Liberty’s historic square. He was born in Morganfield, Kentucky, and grew up in the state. After graduating from high school, Bratcher and a buddy hit on a means to earn money that also introduced them to the art of barrel making.
“My buddy and I took used whiskey barrels from Kentucky to a cooperage in Martinsville, Indiana,” says Bratcher. “The cooperage was built in the late 1800s. We’d trade barrels with the owner.”
Sometimes the new barrels weren’t quite complete. Bratcher and his friend learned the skills and steps needed to help the cooper finish building barrels.
Ten years before opening his business in Liberty, Bratcher and his friend Dale Kirby of Higbee, Missouri, began making and selling wooden buckets at Silver Dollar City. Forty years later, the friends continue to demonstrate another skill of the cooper’s craft annually each September and October at the theme park.
“Kirby is the kind of guy that would give you the shirt off his back,” says Bratcher. “He bought equipment from the Martinville cooper and got me interested in barrel making.”
Bratcher moved to Liberty, where his family had roots. His mother grew up in the town and left for Kentucky during World War II. Bratcher’s father went to school at William Jewell College.
“I came back so I could learn to fly,” says Bratcher. “I worked for Braniff for 15 years and got my pilot’s license but never flew for the airline.”
When Braniff went bankrupt, Bratcher turned to the craft he knew and started Bratcher Cooperage in 1982.
A smile forms behind his white beard. Bratcher says, “Sometimes where you’re going is not a straight path. Barrel making became my full-time job.”
Cooperages use Missouri white oak for barrels that hold beer, bourbon, rainwater, and other liquids. The pores of white oak contain tyloses, a membrane-like growth that plugs the hardwood and makes it naturally watertight. It also increases resistance to rot and decay. Since the 1920s, cooperages in south-central Missouri have used white oak to make barrels for this reason.
“The wood lets air exchange into the barrel, but it doesn’t leak,” adds Bratcher.
To make a barrel, Bratcher secures wood from a stave mill that is dried and cured. The staves are set on end and banded by a steel hoop at the head and foot of the barrel. Bratcher cuts the hoop from a large metal coil, rivets the steel into a ring, and uses a hammer and hoop driver to fasten the hoops into place and compress the wood. He lights a fire with pieces of wood at the bottom of the barrel to soften the staves and make them more pliable before driving the hoops further down. Once the hoops are set, Bratcher puts the barrel head onto the cylinder. Each barrel holds approximately 31.5 gallons of liquid. If making barrels of similar size, Bratcher can produce up to two barrels per day.
He uses hand tools such as a howell and croze, types of radial planes, that cut grooves into the barrel head so it fits into place. A champer knife shaves a chamfer, or cut that produces a sloping edge, along the top of the barrel. Bratcher’s workshop wall is lined with saws, augers and other tools employed in his woodworking.
Larger cooperages in southern Missouri use machinery to produce barrels for the wine and spirits industry. The machines are set to specifications so they can reproduce same-sized barrels repeatedly. Bratcher’s handmade approach enables him to shift production to barrels and projects of different sizes as needed.
“I use the same techniques as those coopers. I work slower this way. When the big shops repair barrels, they repair them the same way I do,” says Bratcher. “I also repair and make butter churns and water buckets that use nine types of wood.”
Bratcher also does work for historical sites, museums, films, and national parks in the U.S. and Canada. Bratcher says, “Missouri Town uses my buckets to water their animals. Dolly Parton’s Dixie Stampede in Branson uses them in performances.”
The Bratcher family has been a fixture in Liberty as it has grown into a thriving community.
Bratcher’s wife Jan manages the Americana gift store next to the cooperage. Jan has taught pre-kindergarten students at Liberty Baptist Church for 35 years. She also sells advertising in Discover Vintage America magazine. Cheery and talkative, Jan regales customers with stories and plies them with friendly questions. The Bratcher’s son, Rob, is a police officer in Liberty, by the way. Grandson Cooper is named after the shop.
Next door, Doug Bratcher leans back in a chair. Smokes rises and flames continue to burn at the bottom of a barrel that will be completed in due course.
Bratcher Cooperage & Gifts
109 S. Water, Liberty, Missouri 64068