With care and occasional cleaning, your leather vessel should provide at least twenty years of good service. Leather vessels require periodic maintenance, normally by waxing, patching, relining and occasionally, re-dying. Many ended a long and useful life, first as a vase or container for holding small objects, and when too worn for that use, as a football to entertain the children.
When new, it will still smell of pitch. To remove the smell, fill with water and leave sitting overnight before tipping it out. You may need to repeat a few times. Despite the smell, it won’t flavour beer or water. On really hot days in the field, keep it full of water or beer to prevent the pitch getting soft from the heat. It softens at about 35-40°C and can start to run at 60. Don’t use it for anything stronger than beer or for hot liquids as alcohol dissolves the pitch. Heat above 70°C polymerises the leather, making it brittle.
Clean it by not letting it get too mucky and rinse in clean warm water only. Don’t rub or scrub with scourers or scrubbing brushes, or use soap or detergent, particularly if it has painted decoration. Air dry before putting it away. I usually keep the stopper in to help maintain the shape of the neck. Don’t drink the washing water as there are traces of heavy metals in the paint pigments
At least once a year, feed the leather by waxing the outside heavily with a commercial pure bees’ wax and turpentine furniture polish from a reputable furniture store, and buff off.
Occasionally, small cracks will form in the pitch, you’ll know because you can see a small dark patch on the leather. Leaky stitching shows first as small beads of liquid, or if left too long, as a puddle near an embarrassed looking leather vessel. It’s best to treat these early rather than wait for the cracks to join up, flake the pitch off and leak badly. Preheat the oven about 70°C, turn the heat off and place the costrel on newspaper on a flat tray in the oven for a few hours to let the pitch reflow. This sort of reproduces the historical technique of hanging them in the smoke of a fire. I haven’t yet experimented with hanging over a fire, if you want to try, be careful.
There’s something deeply seated in the Australian psyche, that doesn’t seem to happen anywhere else. When presented with a bottle or jug and told that it’s made from leather, your average Australian, regardless of age, beauty or intelligence, will then immediately thrust both thumbs in to the side of the vessel as far as they can, invariably cracking the pitch. Leather vessels are best handed to other people while chanting the Parents’ Mantra for Tetra juice containers: “Don’t squeeze it”. Repeat as required.
Leather vessels are made from vegetable tanned, unsealed cow hide. Stitching is pure unbleached linen thread, hand plied and worked with bees wax. Any moulding has been done using wooden formers and any carving or stamping with wooden or brass tools that I make to match the impression of the originals. Interior sealing is done with Brewer’s pitch, cheaper honey coloured pitch for closed vessels, the more accurate black when it can be seen. The paint is pretty basic, just pigment with an egg-white binder. I’ve taken a leaf from 17th century landscape painters and protected the paint with a coat of varnish, but it can still be fragile. The exterior finish is beeswax.
If a leather jug I’ve made for you does leak at any time over the ensuing years, send it back and I’ll repatch it and replace the neck gasket. I’ll also repair stitching and can patch most cut, crack or burn damage, although I reserve the right to poke fun at you if the burn is the shape of a candle flame. Paintwork can be redone, but due to the presence of wax in the leather, is never as fine or clear as the original.