At 6 a.m. each day, Lee Arnold and his 18-year-old son, Tucker, work with wood, fire and machines to keep alive a centuries-old practice — making barrels from oak.
Moving around the 42,000-square-foot space that used to house Georgia Chair, the two spend 10 hours a day crafting oak barrels from start to finish, a process called coopering. Lee, who also runs Architectural Details and Millwork in Gainesville, said he opened Gainesville Cooperage three years ago.
“It’s fun,” he said. “It’s an art that’s over 5,000 years old. It’s hard work, and that’s one reason why a lot of people don’t do it. The modernization of equipment in the turn of the century, during the early 1900s, got rid of a lot of coopers in this industry. It’s a skill that’s dying, and we hope to keep it going for quite a while.”
Lee said he got his first taste of coopering when he was 23 years old. He watched as a man in Colonial Williamsburg crafted one with his hands.
“With woodworking as a whole, I’ve been in it for 38 years,” Lee said. “I just though it (coopering) would always be something neat to do. About three years ago, the opportunity came along.”
Lee, like other coopers around the world, keeps his trade secrets close. When he first dove into the industry, Lee said he spent around a year learning the craft from his own trial and error.
"I had to find out the hard way,” he said. “There are no schools in the U.S. for this. The only schools that teach this are in the U.K.”
At Gainesville Cooperage, Lee and his son start with staves of white oak. Lee said the wood comes from the Burgundy region of France and various distributers from the northeastern U.S.
Gainesville Cooperage’s products range in price from $250 for bourbon American oak barrels to $2,000 for French oak wine barrels. Lee said Gainesville Cooperage produces an average of 10 barrels a day and ships them to wineries, distilleries and breweries locally and throughout the U.S., including Left Nut Brewing Co. in Gainesville, Kaya Vineyard & Winery in Dahlonega and Three Sisters Vineyards in Dahlonega.
Lee said he recently extracted lumber from a 120-year-old tree being removed from a construction site in Roswell. He said the tree should yield around 10-12 barrels. When hunting for wood to use in his craft, he prefers trees to be at least 80 years old.
“Any younger than that, the growth ring are going to be too far apart, and it’s not going to hold water,” Lee said. “You got to have an aged tree. Ideally a 100-year-old tree is perfect.
Crafting barrels isn’t easy, and Lee knew that when he dove into the industry. The Arnolds begin the process by taking large stacks of the staves and leaving them outside for six months or more.
Lee said the oak needs to be exposed to an abundance of rainwater to wash out most of the tannins from the staves. Tannins are a bitter-tasting organic substance found in bark, which he said can taint the flavor of any liquid in the barrel.
After cutting the staves with a machine to the proper size, both Tucker and Lee take the wood through several bending and shaping processes. By using steam, Lee said they’re able to mold the wood into the shape of a barrel, making sure each piece fits perfectly to hold liquid.
Tucker said he considers steaming the wood one of the most challenging aspects of coopering.
“You have to make sure it’s on long enough, so it doesn’t break when you bend it,” he said. “You have to make sure they’re all even. You do have some that will break or don’t fit.”
If a piece snaps or doesn’t fit properly, Lee said they will “cannibalize” another stave by swapping the wood from the same type of barrel.
Near the end of the coopering process, Lee and Tucker take the wine barrels to be “toasted” over an open wood fire for 20-30 minutes. Instead of using fire like he does with the wine barrels, Lee said he chars the bourbon barrels with a specialized machine. He toasts the insides for four minutes, depending on the preference of the buyer.
Lee said when fire is added to white oak, it brings a sweetness to the surface.
“Based on the length of time you leave it on the fire, different flavors come up,” he said. “You’ll get caramel flavor, you’ll get vanilla flavor, or you’ll get a sweetness out of it.”
When toasting barrels for bourbon, Lee said he completely chars the wood, turning it black.
“That’s what gives bourbon its color,” he said. “It’s clear as water when it comes in.”
Before branding the barrels with the Gainesville Cooperage logo and sending them off to customers, each undergo a test. Lee said he fills them with 5 gallons of water and applies 100 pounds of pressure to ensure the stability of the wood. He rolls and spins the barrels, making sure liquid doesn’t escape.
Lee said the smaller barrels used for bourbon can hold up to 53 gallons and the larger ones for wine 60 gallons.
Tucker, who recently graduated from high school, said he intends to keep working with his dad for years to come.
“I like all of it,” he said. “There’s no specific thing, just being able to say, ‘I can do that.’”
People can order barrels by visiting Gainesville Cooperage’s website.