Tuesday, October 2, 2012


A gentleman from England sent me this image of the interior of his fire bucket and asks, "what is this odd looking stuff ?". Answer; Pitch.

Pitch is a viscous substance derived by rendering either bituminous or resinous organic material. Bituminous pitch is a type of raw petroleum tar that can be found throughout the entire world oozing up from the ground. Perhaps the most famous of oozings is the La Brea Tar Pits in California. Another source and a different type of pitch is that which is rendered from the sap of resinous trees such as the Pitch Pine.

The use of all forms of pitch has an ancient history and has been utilized by man since prehistoric times for a plethora of applications. In association with leather drinking vessels and fire buckets, pitch was applied to their interiors as a water-proofing agent. The application process is simple; heat the pitch in a tin melting pot over some coals (or a 5th burner), taking care not to get it too hot as it is combustible. Once the pitch is at its melting point (if its smoking it's too hot) it can be poured directly into the leather bucket. When the pitch touches the leather it cools instantly and adheres. Just a thin coating is all that is needed so when I pitch, I quickly roll the bucket and pour the remaining hot liquid pitch back into the melting pot. It's a juggling act to do it neatly. I do not recommend this for the novice...an accident can leave you badly burnt. In ancient times, melted pitch was poured down from castle walls onto attackers with great effectiveness!

In it's raw state, pitch requires some amount of rendering to remove the unwanted volatiles. Once the volatiles are rendered off the remaining pitch can be very brittle, to return it to a plastic state I add approximately 10-15% beeswax. However, even with the addition of wax, pitch can break if the bucket is dropped on a cool day. Ah, here is the brilliant quality of pitch, it can be repaired even by the most feckless of clods! The easiest way is to add more hot pitch but if you're fresh out of pitch, a lit candle passed over the crack can reseal the break...it won't look very tidy but it can be made serviceable again. And this my good fellow is why the interior of your bucket in the photo above looks like such a blubbery mess, it's the result of  many repairs over the past centuries....and it looks just like it should.

You may visit a museum someday and be told that fire buckets were kept filled with sand or water (or both)at all times. If you are told this, the correct response should be to give the docent a sound swat to the back of their head as this information is 100% incorrect. (No, don't swat, I'm only joking...keep in mind they only make minimum wage and it's not their fault, it's the museums fault for not properly training their interpreters). If you want to know the entire story of how fire buckets were used, someone must ask me, (you may use the comment section here on the blog).

Thursday, September 20, 2012

13 Rings

 Here's my most recent creation. The painted design is based upon original artwork found on a fire bucket from the 18th c. The letters within the 13 interlocking rings reads; "Liberty & Peace"...a motto we can all cherish! Each ring has painted upon it the names of the 13 original States. The clasped hands is a design copied directly from an early fire bucket...this handshake holds a secret. This custom bucket is bound for a client in New Hampshire.

 The fire bucket stands about 13" tall at the rim and the handle adds another 7" to the height. The diameter is a little over 9". Inside the rim, under the leather covering, is a steam bent oak stave. All original fire buckets had some sort of internal bent wooden rim to add support to the bucket shape. Later in the late 19th c. there were some makers that used an iron rim or heavy iron wire to support the opening.

 The method of applying the wooden rim to the exterior of the leather bucket and stitching a leather covering over top is a design feature indicative of 18th century made fire buckets. The other common method which came along around the turn of the 18th to19th c., was to fold the sides of the bucket over the wooden rim. I do not see the folded technique appearing on buckets until around the year 1800. By the 1820's almost all makers had assumed the fold-over method of construction. Why? As you see here in the example above, there is an extra line of stitching needed to preform this older style, thus more work. By cutting the leather of the body longer the maker could then simplyy fold the extra length over the rim and save himself the time of cutting a separate piece of leather as well as omit the need for an extra line of stitching. This new technique as far as I have been able to determine is an American innovation and was never adopted by English or European makers.

Illustrated above is an example of an early 19th c. American fire bucket with the fold-over rim method. Note~ only one line of stitching.

 Here is a variant rim construction. Instead of wood, the maker used rope as the core and covered it with leather. It requires two lines of stitching although the top line of stitching is hidden by the way the rim leather is folded. (A small area of the top line of stitching is visible where 1" of rim leather is missing).
  It is possible that this bucket was made in Europe for the American market as every construction detail is performed differently from any English or American bucket I have ever examined. I will expand on this bucket in a later blog posting.

Monday, September 17, 2012

A fire bucket collector recently sent me the following questions and photo;

Dear Sir
Thanks for your reply. I attach photos of the buckets,any comments ,age etc would be much appreciated.
I have gone through my shipping directories and the only possible one I can find with Co and the stop after the 2 names is an American company
Benham Pickering Co
who were working as a shipping agent / owner/broker in 1881/2/3
Whether they were for show,or for use as a fire bucket,I simply dont know. I have looked for a makers stamp/ name but no luck
Thanks for your help
Regards David
Dear David,
  Thank you for writing and sending images.
  I would classify these buckets ( top photo) as prime examples of English made fire buckets, circa 1700-1800, (give or take a few decades). The primary clue that suggests that these are English made is the body shape of the bucket. Early English buckets were, "stout", being almost as wide as it is tall. Almost every bucket I have examined over the past 30+ years that has a solid English provenance exhibits this same profile. This shape of English bucket pre-dates the Great Fire of London (1665) and is still, more or less,  the basic design made in England today, albeit with great difference in construction technique from the early buckets.
 The photo above is a reproduction I made based upon an original fire bucket in the old Greentree Fire Insurance Company corporate museum. The original dates to the 3rd quarter of the 18th c. and bares the rebus logo of the Sun Fire Office, an early London fire insurance firm. You can see the obvious resemblance in shape and construction to your buckets.
 During the 18th c., many leather fire buckets were exported to North American. This was at a time when there were few makers of fire buckets operating in the North American Colonies due to the prohibitions against making and exporting finished goods. Very likely, during the early years of the Republic, the first American makers of fire buckets were English trained and so it stands to reason that the many of the earliest fire buckets actually made in the Colonies would strongly resemble the same form of fire bucket that was most familiar to them. As time went on, fire buckets made in the exColonies diverged from the classic English pattern and took on a more American style. This divergence of pattern was a predictable result of the eventual need for new equipment as with the wooden molds that buckets were formed over. ( you can make a pattern fit a mold but it is very difficult to make a mold properly fit a pattern).  Not only did the basic body shape transform over time, new improvised methods of construction were devised.

 To answer your question about B.P & Co.; Keep in mind that fire buckets were incredibly durable and most outlived their owners. Buckets made in 1750 were often still in useful service a hundred years later. I have found many early buckets that show as many as 3 different painted designs, each design being over-painted by it's subsequent owner. (Note: the majority of buckets had no painted design at all). So, yes...the firm Benham Pickering Co. may have once owned your pair of buckets even though they were operating several decades after these buckets were made. The anchor design certainly suggests that the owner had nautical interests. Fire buckets were certainly still in active use during the 1880's but I believe these buckets of yours pre-date the 1880's by as much as 100 years.

 By the 1820's-30's, traditional methods used in England to construct buckets began to change. No longer were fire buckets entirely held together by hand-stitching but instead copper rivets were substituted for cordage. Considering that your buckets are entirely hand-stitched I speculate that they were made before 1850....and perhaps even as early as 1750.
 The fire bucket I've posted above is a classic example of a 19th c. English made fire bucket. You can see that all of the areas of construction that were traditionally held by cordage (foot, back seam and rim) are now replaced by copper rivets. I doubt that this change made making a fire bucket faster, but it did make it possible for less experienced laborers to preform the construction. Interestingly, copper rivets do not make a stronger or better bucket...just cheaper. 

  I do not believe your buckets, or any historic buckets for that matter, were ever made just for show. It is true that there were very elaborate buckets made in the period, so well crafted and elegantly painted that only a fool would consider fighting a fire with it. In wealthier homes and businesses fine buckets with elegant paintings were hung in conspicuous places, their quality denoting the social status of the owner. In many cities it was law that for X number of fireplaces a dwelling needed X number of buckets. The law then made the fire bucket into a fixture and in fine homes it was common to have fine fixtures.  
  The lettering and the anchor design on your bucket are nice and highly collectible but are not great works of art. In my estimation their painting was applied more for identification of ownership than as a statement of refined taste and lavish embellishment.

My best,
Steven Lalioff

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Benjamin Dammrell

It's been some time since last I posted here on my bucket blog. My apologies. For your enjoyment, I have for you  a new design I've just completed.

The design for the painting was provided for me by my client as a special order. I was pleased to fashion such a handsome bucket. The shape of the bucket is very similar to the historic original bucket. I'm fairly certain the maker of the original came out of the John Fenno shop in Boston sometime during the first quarter 19th c. Fenno was in my estimation the best fire bucket maker in history on any Continent. I try my best emulate his work stitch for stitch.

 The bucket stands about 11.5" to the rim. There is a steam bent stave of ash inside the folded rim of leather. I hand-stitch every part with waxed hemp cord. The leather is steam hardened in the traditional manor of early fire buckets.

If anyone would like to order a bucket of this design please feel free to email me at; steven@lalioff.com

My best,