The Last Barrelmaker

Les Skinner is manoeuvring a forklift laden with scrap into the back of a van at his workshop in Bootle on the second-last day he will ever spend at Skinner’s Cooperage, almost half a century after he first moved in. The master cooper has been making barrels for 62 years — and plying his trade in his sprawling warehouse a few minutes from Bootle Oriel Road station for 49. But after several near misses, 77-year-old Les is finally retiring.

Inside the cooperage, shelves are sparsely populated with tools, oils and assorted paraphernalia, thinned out over the last weeks and months but bearing testament to nearly half a century of barrelmaking. There are small clusters of works-in-progress and completed barrels here and there, one cast in the mid-morning sunlight that streams through a window. But most of it has now gone.

“If you’d been here a few months ago it would have piled halfway to the ceiling,” says Les, the last independent cooper in England. “I’ve had 5000 barrels in here at times.”

There are still reminders here and there of the last 49 years: Here a small forest of hazel, left over from props he made for Ridley Scott’s Robin Hood film (Les’s work can also be seen in Cinderella and Assassin’s Creed); in the corner a vintage Ratner’s fireproof strongbox that looks like it hasn’t moved in decades and won’t be easily persuaded otherwise; some of the steel used in making 1000 barrels for Marks and Spencer.

The M&S barrels are pine, but Les mostly works in oak or chestnut. He also acquired a bunch of staves from a yard in Dukinfield 40 years ago, made of a mystery wood he thinks is a tropical hardwood. “I’ve only just got around to making anything of them,” he confesses. “Well, it’s not as if I was going to burn them…”

“Up to last month there were the templates for building the Guinness barrels,” says Les, gesturing at a section of the wall where various tools hang. “I made all the barrels in the Guinness Museum. 250 of them.” I recall the giant pyramid of barrels at the storehouse in Dublin and wonder where else I might have seen Les’s handiwork. “All the museums and castles,” he says off-hand. We believe he might just mean all the museums and castles. Skinner barrels can be found in the Tower of London, Hampton Court — and your local garden centre.

Les and his colleagues (he employed six at one point) started off doing whisky barrel repairs, which would be dropped off as the renovated barrels were picked up. “It was like a conveyor belt,” says Les. Well maintained, barrels can last up to two centuries.

When that work dried up, he moved on to decorative barrels for garden centres, up to 60 of them at a time. But the seasonal nature of the trade meant more work was required to keep everyone busy. Amongst others repairing rum barrels for The Main Rum Company, which imports and blends bulk rum and supplies aged casks for distillers, has helped keep him going for 40 years.

When Les made the decision to retire he allowed his workforce to shrink as they moved on or quit. “I didn’t replace them because I could see my end coming. And I’d’ve had to find six redundancy monies!”

Were it not for the vagaries of the commercial property market, Les would have been happily retired five years ago. But with the sale of the cooperage repeatedly falling through he’s been forced to keep working to cover his costs. Blacksmith Julian Taylor, who made the Superlambanana and Hillsborough Band Of Life tribute, is taking over the warehouse – built in 1899 and backing on to the Leeds-Liverpool Canal. The building, it’s fair to say, is showing its age, 122 years of use pockmark its brick walls. But it’s Les’s pension.

As we talk, a cast of local characters come through the door, as if to pay their respects. The chap who owns the yard and the boss of a nearby coach-hire company come and go in a flurry of F bombs. The latter has his eye on an old yellow Dodge truck in Les’s yard. “He’s got all sorts up at his farm. Army trucks, guns, tanks…” says Les. “He’s another who won’t retire — he’s about 85!”

A man with long hair pulls into the front of the yard in his car and starts asking questions of Les in a manner that’s more animated than most at 11am. “Can you make a barrel from scratch?” he asks Les, who replies with the detached politeness of someone who fields a lot of questions about barrels.

“How long does it take to learn?” the long-haired man continues, as if he’s weighing up a sudden change of career. He looks like he’s thinking again when Les tells him how long it took him. “Enjoy your retirement!” He bids farewell with a cheery wave and zooms off in his car.

“When I started serving my time, I think there were seven cooperages in Liverpool,” he says. When Les started out in the trade in 1960 there were no opportunities to study the craft of coopering formally; instead he embarked on an indentured apprenticeship under his employer, Sid Leece, at Spencer Street in Everton. Not much has changed in terms of the craft, since Les finished his apprenticeship — or for several thousands years.

“You can’t change much of it,” explains Les. “The way you joint a stave to make a barrel, there’s no other way. You either use an axe or a jointer, which is like a big plane, to put the joints on. And that’s it. Whether you’re dealing with half a barrel or 20,000 gallon barrels it’s the same principle.”

Les recalls how north Liverpool has changed over those decades, before any Objective 1 money, before the Ten Streets, before the Wallasey Tunnel even. He gestures to the offices opposite. “There were 40 workshops there, before it was demolished. And there were old characters like Johnny McGee, the rag-and-bone man, who still used a horse and cart when we first moved in. But everyone dies of course…”

Les is demonstrating how he learned how to knock steel hoops down over barrel staves, the lengths of wood that form the sides of barrels when he drops the hammer. He stoops to pick it up. “That’s another thing I won’t miss,” he says with a rueful smile. His hands tell a story. They’re a spaghetti junction of gnarled joints and digits going off in unlikely directions.

Liverpool’s last independent cooper he seems resigned to the decline of the trade. Even with the boom in Scottish whisky, which means around 200 coopers and 30 apprentices are employed at any time in the big distilleries, the trade’s future looks uncertain due to a move towards mechanised barrel making and repairing.

And while there are a growing number of small-batch whiskey and rum companies setting up, Les doesn’t see much need for independent barrel makers in the future. But he’s phlegmatic about the trade dying out.

“Coopering is hard going, physically and financially. I wouldn’t bring my lad into it because it’s been so tough,” he says. “He gets more money than I ever earned and more holidays too. At the end of the day that’s what you want — a better life for your children.”

He says he’s looking forward to more holidays; beyond that he has no plans. But pushed a little more on whether he’s really hanging up his tools for good, Les relents. “Well, I am taking a few things home…”

• Originally written for the Liverpool Post. Click here so see the original: In a workshop in Bootle, England’s last barrelmaker hangs up his tools

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