Practical Skills: Wooden Combs



comb photo

From GENE LOGSDON
Excerpt from Practical Skills 1985

My son has been making wooden combs in his workshop. They are strikingly beautiful, and they do comb hair. They also make excellent letter or note holders on a desk. Much of the beauty comes from the wood itself. Since only scraps are needed to make the combs, one can use black walnut, rosewood, zebra wood, and other exotic woods without denting the pocketbook. Or one can use unusual woods generally available only in small widths or pieces, like pear, peach and sassafras. The block of wood needed for a comb rarely exceeds 4 to 6 inches wide, 5 or 6 inches long, and 3/8 inch thick (never more than 1/2-inch thick).

The teeth must run in the same direction as the grain or they will quickly break off, but other than that, the design is up to you. Cut the teeth in the block first, then taper the block and teeth to the proper shape. You can cut the teeth with a table saw, handsaw, or bandsaw. The table saw makes it easier to cut straight and uniform teeth, since you can use the saw fence as a guide. But the saw kerf should be no wider than 1/8-inch and preferably smaller. Most table saw blades leave a kerf a bit large for a comb. My son uses a band saw because the blade makes a smaller kerf. But some skill is involved in making a band saw cut a perfectly straight line. A wavy cut shows up clearly in a comb.

At any rate, the comb’s teeth should be 1/8-inch thick and the spaces between the teeth not more than that if the comb is to work well. Pencil the saw lines in first. Or with a table saw, move the fence 1/8-inch over for each cut. Make the first cut 1/2-inch from the edge and proceed across the block to within 1/2-inch of the other edge. If you use a table saw, you will have to turn the block over and run the kerfs through the saw again to even up the end of the cut, since the circular blade cuts about 1/4-inch more on the underside than the top side.

Comb Drawing

How far up toward the handle you cut the teeth is not critical. Teeth should be long enough to comb through the thickest hair, but the cuts should not proceed too far into the handle or they will weaken it or make it look out of proportion. Usually teeth are cut in various lengths, following the contour or curve of the handle, but they are seldom longer than half the length of the entire comb. This is, however, an arbitrary design feature.

With the teeth roughly cut out, shape the comb to a proper taper, from about 3/8-inch at the top of the handle to a point at the end of the teeth — but not too thin or sharp a point just yet. Sawing the taper is difficult, though a combination of sawing, whittling, and hard sanding will do the trick. A motor-driven belt sander makes the tapering easy work. Lay the comb on one flat side on the sanding belt and tip the handle slightly up as you push down. Keep checking the progress of the sanding. When one side is finished, turn the comb over and taper down the other side, ending up with a balanced taper on each side. Now sand in the bottom outside corner on both sides, to make those wide 1/2-inch outer teeth tapered inward and pointed.

Next comes the fine work of sanding the teeth smooth and semi round, with the ends coming to a rounded point. Put the comb in a vise, teeth up. (Clamp it between two other pieces of wood so you don’t mar the comb with the vise jaws). Using strips of sandpaper, work them between the teeth just as you do when flossing your own teeth. Don’t sand too much or you will make the gaps too wide. At the very tip of the teeth, sand in to a firm but well-rounded point.

Sanding can be done on some belt sanders that allow you to slide the sanding belt out over the edge a couple of inches and operate the sander that way. With the belt sticking out, you can slip the comb teeth in from the edge and, by tipping the comb ever so little one way and then the other, get the teeth nice and smooth. It takes a steady hand. And it is very easy to sand away too much wood, so be careful until you catch on to it. Upright sander-grinders with their narrow, vertical belts also work well for sanding comb teeth.

You can finish the wood any way you want, but beware of the varnishes that might clot in the small spaces between teeth. Several rubbings of linseed oil is the best finish, in my opinion. If the comb is used regularly, it needs no finish at all; the oil from the user’s hand and hair will add to the luster of the comb with the passing years.
~~

4 Comments

Quite a feat to make a comb. Even better if a person (at my age) still has a need for one.

Marsha, Queen of Buzzards…(love it), women used to make jewelry from their hair! They twisted it and wove it into little pieces of art! Look it up on the “magic 8-ball”!

Gene,

I have done my share of woodworking and am also in that business. I must say there is a bit of art to making a comb that is functional. Shaping the teeth and cutting the gap just right is not for the faint of heart. Even picking out a piece of wood with straight enough grain would not be for the novice. Your son obviously has talent.
You shape sentences and paragraphs and he shapes wood….I guess the nut did not fall far from the tree.

Marsha, Queen of Buzzard's Glorym Hub of the Universe in SE (frackin') Ohio near Gilmore November 3, 2014 at 11:49 am

How cool is that, Sir? As I get up in years, svelte figure gone,lines in my face, the only thing left that works is my long thick hair which got that way when I stopped dyeing it years ago. How elegant. The other thing I need to look up on the net which I call the “magic 8-ball’ is why did ladies save their hair in jars? I know there’s a simple explanation. Love tokens, lack of a wastebasket, who knows?

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