Barrel Sizes

Barrels were made from staves split from white oak. Originally made by hand with bent hickory hoops, the demand for kerosene brought automation to the process, and iron hoops were driven down with steam hammers and the ends were trued and grooved on a lathe. After 1866, barrels made for oil were lined with glue or isinglass to render them leak proof (unless the barrel was poorly made or the glue dissolved), while water barrels were held tight by the swelling of the wood, and if they had been dry for a while, would leak profusely until the wood swelled up enough.

Pin 4 Gal
Firkin 9 Gal
Kilderkin 18 Gal
Barrel 36 Gal
Hogshead 54 Gal
Puncheon 72 Gal
Butt 108 Gal
Tun 216 Gal

(Measures are in Imperial gallons, equal to approximately 1.2 US gallons.)

Confusing the issue further, some commodities are measured by “barrels”. Some examples are:

Wine 31 Gal
Flour 196 lbs
Beef or Pork 200 lbs
Oil 42 Gal

Note that the 42 gallon oil “barrel” was not settled on until the early 1870’s. Before that, a “barrel” could range in size from 40 to 50 gallons.

In a similar vein, unscrupulous dealers would sometimes use barrels with staves that were thicker than normal, reducing the actual volume and thereby stretching the dealer’s profit.

A barrel was approximately 33 inches long, and about 24 inches in diameter.