Rehabbing An Old Barrel

I was recently given an old five gallon barrel that had sat empty for about 5 years. Increasing my barrel collection by 50% seemed prudent, even if had to work for it. The process took me longer than I intended, but mostly because life got in the way, if you’re on top of things this would probably only take a week or so. I learned a few things along the way about how I might approach this next time, too, so I’ll document what I did and what I would do differently where appropriate. As I am not a cooper, my terminology may be a little off, for which I apologise.

Since this is a small barrel, my plan was to wax the entire outside eventually, so I only needed to get it mostly leak free and worked on the assumption that a good coat of wax would help seal the outside completely.

Step 1 – Prep the Barrel For Swelling

With a really old barrel, not only will it not hold water the staves are probably no longer properly aligned. The first thing I did was tap the hoops into place so that they no longer moved around freely. I used a small mallet and a big screwdriver to do this. I assumed that if the rings were in snug, but not tight, that the staves would swell in and tighten the hoops. I used the existing hoop marks as a guide for where to place them, though I did notice that they were a few mm past the old marks in the end.

After getting the hoops in place I moved on to swelling the heads.

Swelling the barrel head.

Swelling the barrel head. When I set it up, the water poured through at a very fast rate. I left it overnight hoping to see an improvement by morning.

Water retention after leaving it running overnight.

The water retention after leaving it running overnight was drastically better. This looked good enough to me, so I flipped it over and did the other side.

Step 2 – Swell the Barrel

With the heads holding water better I snugged down the hoops a little more and moved onto swelling the barrel. There are many ways to swell a barrel, as I understand it steam is the best, but I chose to simply fill and wait.

Swelling the leaky barrel

The barrel held water better than I initially feared. There were many fast moving streams of water early on, though. I left it overnight with the water running.

Slower leaks after an overnight swell.

As with swelling the heads, leaving the barrel with a steady stream over water overnight greatly reduced the water pouring out.

Over the course of the next week I checked on it a few times a day, reducing the flow of water to keep it full without overflowing. Towards the end it had slowed to just a drip out of the hose, though the leaks didn’t appear to want to stop completely.

I emptied the barrel and took it to the garage to see if I could snug the hoops down one last time to help seal up the final leaks. I was given a tip that a laminate floor pull bar made for a good hoop tapper given the wide, flat surface and ability to withstand repeated hammer blows. I would do this from the start instead of using a screw driver next time. I was definitely able to get the hoops a little tighter using this method, which slightly reduced the last leak. I judged the final leak to be negligible enough to move on to the waxing phase.

After tightening the hoops more and re-filling, this looked good enough to proceed to the waxing stage.

Step 3 – Waxing the Barrel

I purchased Gulf Wax at my local Meijer, which is shelved with the canning equipment. Last I checked do not buy it on Amazon, it is much more expensive there. Anywhere that sells canning supplies should also sell Gulf Wax, or some other paraffin wax brand, and it should only be a few dollars per box.

I used a small, clean paint can to contain the melted wax and used a double boiler on my stove to melt it.

I also bought some very cheap paint brushes to spread the wax on the barrel. I started with the heads, put a good coat of wax on, and used a heat gun to melt it and absorb it into the wood.

The waxing process is very messy and got drips everywhere. Fortunately I did it outside, but I would definitely put more underneath while heating next time around. The box I used was not big enough.

Waxing the barrel apparently gives it a permanent ‘wet look’, which I think is fantastic.

The finished barrel – swelled, waxed, and looking great. Now it just needs some beer in it!

Step 4 – Fill it With Beer!

Now that my barrel is ready to go the only thing left is to fill it with beer! My plan for this barrel is a saison that I will age with a to-be-determined strain of Brettanomyces. While it was sitting ’empty’ I added a couple of bottles of rum and bunged it to keep some liquid and have been rotating it regularly to try to keep the staves swelled. The wax on the outside should help with this, and I haven’t seen any leaks yet. Beer will be in there soon and stay there a minimum of 3 months, possibly up to 6 months depending on how long the Brett takes.


  1. Robert Barrett

    Colin, Glad you were able to revive my old barrel. Can’t wait to taste the beer when it is done. Prost!!!

    • Thanks again for the opportunity!! I’m brewing the first beer for it tomorrow night, so hopefully have something to share from it over the winter.

  2. Max Grebe

    I’m really curious to know why you waxed the barrel. To reduce evaporation, or to seal up any last stubborn leaks?
    I always thought complete coverage in wax would prevent the wood from breathing and cause spoilage organisms to grow between the outer layer of wax and inner “goods”.
    Have you had any issues w/ spoilage? Am I totally off on this assumption?

    • It doesn’t prevent breathing completely, there is still some evaporation and oxygen ingress. I guess it isn’t a perfect seal, though it wasn’t supposed to be.

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