Posted by: Wayne Robinson | July 18, 2010

Testing Times

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 present the findings on some comparative testing I’ve been doing over the past 12 months.

The primary concern is how resistant the waterproofing is to use, abuse and rough handling and how much maintenance would be expected when compared to a similar wooden bucket. Leather buckets of this period are waterproofed by coating the inside with Stockholm Tar, an approximately equal mix of black pine pitch and linseed oil, diluted with vegetable turpentine to make it brushable. The oil makes it more flexible than pitch on its own, the full buckets have quite a bit of movement when picked up.

The leather bucket has seen some use over the past 12 months, easily as much as our wooden ones. As we don’t use the wooden ones daily, they are allowed to dry out and have to be soaked for a period of time before use to swell the timber and seal again. The best one we own from this point of view is made of hoop pine, soaking in a tub full of water overnight followed by being left full for 3-4 days is usually enough to make this one waterproof. The total elapsed time for this effort is probably around 30 minutes, and the buckets would be used three times per year on average, making 90 minutes annually. The other bucket and tub need several days’ immersion and about a week standing full and being topped up a couple of times a day to seal adequately although much of that time overlaps with the 20 minutes effort already allocated for the one. Let’s increase it to 100 minutes annually to allow for the longer soaking and more frequent topping up. It’s much the same for one bucket as for five and there’s no repair time taken in to account as I haven’t had to repair either of our buckets or tub in about 10 years of ownership.

The leather bucket sat on the shelf, was first taken to and used at Linwood House in 2009 without any preparation and at a couple of other events since then also with nothing required other than quickly rinsing out the dust. In early 2010 was knocked off the shelf and fell 1.5m on to a concrete floor, landing on one corner of the base. I didn’t think about it at the time, but when we took it to the Blacktown Medieval Fair, we found it leaked through the stitching in the base. Inspection revealed two fine cracks, each about 20mm long and 90° around the base from the point of impact. I dried it out during the day, took it home and re-pitched that part of the base that evening. It was ready for use the next day. Total time spent would be about 15 minutes if I’m being generous.

The leather bucket traveled with us to Wintercamp to test if the lining became brittle when frozen or if any water getting into the stitching would expand when frozen. It held up brilliantly, the contents freezing a couple of times over the weekend without any evident damage and importantly, when the ice was taken out, the pitch remained soft enough to pick up the bucket and handle normally without cracking. I’ve used it in 40° heat at summer and found no problem with it at that extreme, either.

I’m told it got to -5°

A brief comparison between our wooden buckets and the regimental ones is relevant at this point. Made by the same cooper from the same materials, the regimental buckets and tubs are a couple of years newer than mine and Glenda’s and have been used at a similar number of events. We’ve had to completely rebuild the regimental tub and perform major surgery on one of the company buckets in that time. They also get cleaned and oiled at the December working bees where we find everything wooden looks like it needs oiling to a Routier with a bottle of linseed (I suspect this treatment is why Glenda’s and my buckets now look newer and are in better condition). The regimental buckets certainly need longer to soak requiring an extra 10 minutes of effort spread over that time and the tub now sports nearly as much pitch as the leather bucket. If we amortise the repair time over the life of the buckets, it adds 40 minutes per annum, so the club buckets require conservatively 150 minutes per year plus the time taken for the (probably unnecessary) oiling.

One of the repairs to the company buckets

The moral of the story is that leather buckets are streets ahead of their wooden counterparts in situations where they are allowed to dry out. They are easily up to the extremes of climate we are likely to face and take normal handling well and require next to no maintenance other than a quick rinse before use. The weakness is that they do not take abuse well, although the repair time seems to be a tiny fraction of that taken to rebuild wooden ones. In situations where wooden buckets are used daily, their robustness would make them far more useful and economical than the leather ones. The wooden buckets also seem to insulate their contents better, not freezing or heating up quite as soon as the leather bucket did.

I’m still concerned that leather buckets aren’t up to the sort of abuse common property seems to get from both action and inaction. What do you think?

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Responses

  1. […] The testing was informal rather than structured but I found it interesting to note how the leather bucket performed in a variety of climactic conditions and rough handling, including freezing, 40 degree heat, humidity ranges from 4% to 100% (sometimes on consecutive days) and being dropped from a height of about 1 metre on to concrete. The wooden buckets were exposed to similar conditions and handling. I thought it might be of interest to readers here. 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 present the findings on some comparative testing I’ve been doing over the past 12 months. The primary concern is how resistant the waterproofing is to use, abuse and rough handling and how much maintenance would be expected when compared to a similar w … Read More […]

  2. I’m still looking at alternatives. There’s an iron-bound 15th century bucket from York. Just about all depictions of late medieval or early modern buckets are either wooden hooped like this example from the Roznava Altarpiece, 1513, or leather. Exceptions to my theory seem to be very few.


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