Great Designs in Wood (74) - The Olde Oaken Barrel

I was giving a presentation to a group of chestnut scientists (more about that in days to come) when I showed them these slides...

Courtesy: Jean-Claude Cerre

Courtesy: Gary Carver

The first shows shows a phenomenon called tyloses, which is a waxy build-up of parenchyma cell distensions that grow like balloons and plug up the cell lumens, or the pores, of woody cells. Tyloses grow to a slight extent in most hardwoods, but they are especially prominent in the various species of white oaks.

The second photo, which illustrates the difference between red oak wood and chestnut wood (primarily, the wide multi-cellular rays in the oak [Item G]) also illustrates why red oak isn't used for wooden barrels. As you see, the large early-wood pores are mostly free of tyloses, whereas the cell lumens in the upper picture are obviously packed with them. This packing of the cell lumens with tyloses is why the white oak species are the preferred species for hardwood barrels...they have more tyloses than all other hardwoods. What advantage is this? The plugged pores prevent liquid from leaking through the wood! Pretty good property for a barrel wood to have.

Anyway, I just barely touched on this in my presentation, not intending to get into the whole tyloses thing. But from the back of the room, a voice spoke up and said, "Tell them about barrels." So, the chestnut scientists learned why white oak is used for barrels.

And with that long introduction, I'd like to share two really good videos with you. The first is an old movie showing barrel production at a Guiness factory in Ireland back in 1954...and the second is a video of a modern wine barrel factory in France. What is interesting is that the fundamental process and product has remained the same, but technology has really made it easier for the modern workers. Of course, that is true of most things that are done...but watching these two almost identical processes more than sixty years apart is a fascinating study of how our world really is a better place to work today than it was a few short generations ago.



Barrels have been around even longer than pallets, and have moved an unimaginable amount of food and beverages around the world over the past several centuries. And yet, the more the world changes, the almost perfect design of the wooden barrel lives on in practically its original form.



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Jeremy said…
Those sure are some sharp tools they used in the 1950s. And sharp skills as well. Thanks for sharing. I toured a barrel making facility in southern ohio and was blown away by the mix of automation and time tested techniques.

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