Busy Building Authentic American Buckets

American Artisans, Odd Jobs, People
on November 19, 2006
Tor Olson "Each bucket has its own characteristics because each piece of wood is different.

On the chalkboard in his log house, cooper Jim Gaster has written his to-do list for the week: one 3-gallon primitive camp bucket, one flour barrel, six butter paddles . . . .

“This is what America used when it was growing up,” says Gaster, 57, of Indianola, Neb. (pop. 642), who makes wooden buckets, flour barrels, powder kegs, washtubs, butter churns and yokes for carrying buckets of water.

A general carpenter for 25 years, Gaster was looking for a woodworking hobby when he made his first bucket in 1989. He knew there was a market for authentic wooden buckets among historic re-enactors, plus he liked the symbols of rural life because they remind him of his childhood on the farm homesteaded by his ancestors near Beemer, Neb. (pop. 773).

“He likes a challenge,” says his wife, Marilyn, who handles the bookkeeping for the coopering business they call Beaver Buckets.

In warm weather, Gaster takes his shaving horse and hand tools from his shop and works on a hilltop surrounded by wide-open countryside. The secluded spot is quiet enough to hear the scraping of his drawknife as he thins a chunk of white oak into a stave, or side piece, for a bucket. A dozen staves are required to make a bucket, and they must line up snugly or the bucket will leak.

Gaster cuts a groove in each stave, joins them together to form the sides, and then works two metal bands around the bucket. Sometimes, he uses tree saplings for bands, which inspired the name for his business. “The little beavers chew the trees down and I use the shoots that come up,” he says.

Gaster works four or five hours to create a bucket before sealing it with hot wax and adding a rope or metal bail for carrying the container. From crushed walnut hulls, he concocts a dark brown stain, which he applies to some buckets. A one-gallon camp bucket sells for $110.

“Each bucket has its own characteristics because each piece of wood is different,” he says.
Gaster’s craftsmanship is known from Hollywood to Washington, D.C., where his buckets and barrels appear in movies, including Seabiscuit and Master and Commander, and at the Smithsonian Institution and the White House Visitor Center.

His largest creation to date is an 1,100-gallon wooden water tower for the Littleton Historical Museum in Littleton, Colo. He also built five water and gunpowder casks modeled after containers excavated from the 1686 La Belle shipwreck off the Texas coast.

“We sent Jim detailed drawings because we wanted to reproduce these items,” says Roy Garrett, of the Corpus Christi Museum of Science and History in Corpus Christi, Texas. “His skills are rare and very much appreciated. Our archaeologist was very impressed.”

Gaster’s tools and bucket designs are based on years of research at libraries, museums and antique shops. Among his historically authentic creations is an 1812-style wooden U.S. Army canteen and an axle-grease bucket for a Conestoga wagon. He also makes water dippers, washboards and 13-gallon barrels to age sauerkraut.

The Gasters’ sons, Bryan, 30, and Jeremy, 27, have pitched in to help market their father’s durable and enduring wares. Jeremy designed the company’s website and Bryan, who lives in Denver, wrote and illustrated a step-by-step guidebook, How to Make a Coopered Wooden Bucket.

While mass-produced metal and plastic pails have replaced handmade oaken buckets in most homes, Gaster stays as busy as a beaver shaping pieces of wood into beautiful replicas of containers that served people for centuries.

“I guess you could call it Old World integrity,” he says. “I take a lot of pride in my work.”

Visit www.beaverbuckets.com for more information.