Posted by: Wayne Robinson | May 21, 2010

Bucketing Down

When Glenda and I arrived at a certain working bee, we were warmly greeted and offered coffee and biscuits and told everything was going well but there’s been a bit of a problem with the company tub. In fact, it was this sort of problem.

Except I’ve tidied up a bit, when we first saw it staves were splayed out on the ground rather than in neat piles. It was obvious there were a couple of problems: there was dry rot and a knot going right through the base causing leaks and two of the staves were so badly warped they had to be replaced before the hoops could be refitted. These are the two staves in question.

As you can see, the two staves appear to have been cut from the same original plank and as the cut bisects the knot longitudinally, it was asking for trouble to have used them in the first place. Replacements were cut from a piece of kauri pine left over from rebuilding an antique kitchen table and installed with some difficulty. Part of the problem was that there was some sort of glue gumming up the groove at the bottom of the staves that had to be cleaned out. At least I think it was glue…

The rot in the base was scraped out and the resulting hole sealed with pitch, used for it’s antiseptic as well as sealing properties. The knot received the same treatment. Another part of the problem was that the grooves are cut flat across the stave with a table saw, rather than the curved cut they should have to conform to the edge of the base. This causes huge gaps that require a sealer that can move as much as the wood does. So pitch was also used to fill the gaps underneath the tub where the staves abut each other.

It is in the plastic bucket so it could be fully immersed to get even wetting inside and out. That way the wood expands at the same rate all around and minimises the stresses that could cause a blow-out. We found a small leak that needed to be fixed, so now the tub is watertight and ready to take on the washing up at Wintercamp. I reckon we’ll be lucky to get two years out of it.

We treat our wooden buckets abominably. In the seventeenth century, they would be used every day ensuring they were regularly cleaned and effectively kept wet to ensure the wood was always tight against the hoops. We use ours for four days straight, wash them out and put them away for the rest of the year to dry out and disintegrate. This is exacerbated by our buckets having metal hoops that expand in the heat at the same time as the wood is shrinking, theirs mostly had wooden hoops that had some sort of chance of following the shrinkage of the staves. The exception to the wooden hoops seem to be kitchen buckets which were constantly in use and therefore constantly wet.

I don’t know if the answer is to use hardwood instead. Oak may move less and end up being less problematic, but the issue is where do we get the oak and who do we get to make it? My normal approach would be to look at seventeenth century solutions to the problem, but this is one they didn’t seem to have as they had to use their wooden tubs frequently and didn’t have the extreme variation in humidity we have throughout the year.

We do know that buckets that were used only infrequently and had to be watertight were made from leather treated with Stockholm tar. Fire buckets could, with luck, be left dry for years at a time but had to be watertight when you needed them. Although I’m dreading the workload, I strongly recommend when it comes time, we replace our wooden buckets with leather ones.

I’m yet to see any viable historically accurate alternatives for tubs that were only used occasionally. Bolsover Little Castle has stone wash tubs, and Plas Mawr uses flat lead pans in the brewhouse. Neither of these are either portable, or in the lead case, safe. Maybe it’s something that we can factor in to the kitchen area building project at Kennedy Park, but that doesn’t work for other field events that move around. Some sort of tinned copper tub might work, but would loose heat very quickly and would quickly be damaged in transit. Leather won’t take the heat of the washing water and I don’t think it could hold the shape without serious wooden or metal reinforcement.

I really don’t know how we can resolve this. Should we just admit we’ve hit the practical limits of authenticity in this case, surrender and use a plastic tub that’s otherwise kept hidden? From the current state of the tub, I reckon we have two years or less to decide.



  1. […] Back in 2009, I wrote a post on making a 16th century leather water bucket. Given our recent discussion on the condition and life expectancy of the regimental buckets and tubs, I thought it time to […]

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