Tuesday 28 July 2020


Years ago, passing through Mountrath, Queen's County, I saw a clatter of half whiskey barrels outside the junk-yard second-hand furniture emporium. I stopped, jumped out of the car, and made them an offer they didn't refuse. I think that year it became a birthday present for The Beloved, who likes old round things made of wood. [For a while she said she'd use my skull (old roundish mostly wood) as an ink-stand, if I predeceased her.]. The barrel was intended as a planter, (too big for an ink-stand) but I don't think it ever served in that capacity. When we put up the poly-tunnel, however, it was recruited as a rain-catcher at one end of the up-slope gutters. The wonderful thing about oak barrels is that they are water-tight so long as they are wet on the inside but get leaky if there is a long drought. In long dry summer of 2018, I had to keep splashing in precious water to stop cracks appearing between the staves.

Wooden barrels, of all sizes, used to be very widely used for storage and transport but their use is getting more niche [mainly in the booze trade] as blue polythene "herring-barrels" replace them: lighter, cheaper, cleanabler. Plastic barrels, as petrochemical by-products, are just extruded so the factory has a very low wage-bill and the material costs are artificially low because nobody taxes "unsustainability".  Cooperages, otoh, although they do use machinery, also employ a lot of crafts-people to shave the staves, assemble the barrels, whack on the hoops, fire up the insides, drill holes for spigots, make the end roundels and force them into their grooves.
What sizes are barrels?  For that we refer [again] to Pendlebury's New School Arithmetic (1924). Last time I took a gander at weights and linear measures. That could do most people, for most daily work, most of the time. But for some substances (liquids especially) weight is not so handy because the container needs to be factored in: so a series of defined volume measures are used.
  • Imperial measure
  • [a pub measure in England is a mean 1/6th gill: in Ireland a liberal-handed 1/4 gill]
    • 5 fluid ounces = 1 gill
    • 4 gills = 1 pint ("a pint of pure water weighs a pound and a quarter")
    • 2 pints = 1 quart 
    • 4 quarts = 1 gallon (about 4.5lt)
  • Not to be confused with US 'customary' measure in which a pint weighs a pound
    • 4 fl.oz = 1 gill
    • 4 gills = 1 pint
    • 2 pints = 1 quart [which is conveniently close to 1 litre]
    • 4 quarts = 1 gallon (so a US gallon is about 4 lt) 
  • Above those domestic quantities there a range of medieval-sounding larger containers
    • 9 gallons = 1 firkin
    • 18 gallons = 1 kilderkin
    • 36 gallons = 1 barrel
    • 54 gallons = 1 hogshead
    • 108 gallons = 1 butt
    • 216 gallons = 6 barrels = 1 pipe
A kilderkin weighs about the same as me: so if you are reasonably fit, you can lift a kilderkin but you can't carry it from breakfast to lunchtime. And a pipe weighs about a ton. Indeed a tun is another measure of liquids, variously defined but often a little bigger than a 'pipe'.

At the bottom of the page in Pendlebury which deals with Measures of capacity - British and Metric, there is this gnomic statement:
A gallon contains 277.274 cubic inches: 
hence a cubic foot of pure water 
weighs very nearly 1000 ounces. 
I like the "hence" which implies that the calculation is obvious to all thinking people. Earlier they helpfully tell you that 1728 cubic inches make 1 cubic foot.  Ans: 1 cu.ft = 997.14 fl.oz.
Every day, and in every way, metric measures are just easier,

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