Practical Skills Series

Practical Skills: Wooden Combs

comb photo

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.

A Home Cistern


Excerpt from Practical Skills 1985

Where well water is not conveniently available in the country or is so hard that it rusts the plumbing out in only a few years, a cistern is not the old-fashioned impracticality most of us moderns believe. A neighbor, Gerald Frey, who is in the construction business, just finished building himself a new house. He equipped it with a large cistern — not difficult for him to do since he is one of the few builders I know who still builds cisterns commercially. “We don’t get too many calls anymore, except from members of our own family. We’ve all been brought up on cisterns and much prefer the taste of rainwater.

Although a good cistern costs as much as a well, Frey points out that from then on the savings are all on the side of the cistern: no water softener needed, no monthly charging with salt. The cistern pump is far cheaper to run than a well pump. Rainwater requires less soap to get a clean wash and glistening hair. Clothes are not stained yellowish as from hard water. And corrosion from rainwater is far less than from hard.

A cistern can be built of any material that can be sealed against leaks, and in any shape. Frey builds round cisterns out of brick. His is large — 14 feet deep and 19 feet in diameter. The wall needs to be only one brick thick because the earth has the same effect on a round form as a roof has on an arch — the harder the earth pushes in, the tighter the wall.

Backyard Clotheslines and Washboard Secrets

The Logsdon Farm Clothesline

Excerpt from Practical Skills 1985

Most people would not want to be without their clothes dryer, but there’s something lost for every gain. What you lose with a dryer, besides the money and the energy it costs to run it, is that heavenly fresh smell of clothes and sheets dried out in the fresh air and sunshine. For both economical and aesthetic reasons, folks with yards like to hang the wash out during the warmer months, even if it is more work.

For a clothesline, use nylon rope, not wire. The wire will rust and the clothes will get stained from it. The easiest way to erect a line is to tie the rope from tree to tree, if possible. Otherwise you have to set poles in the ground — and very solidly, since the weight of a line full of wet sheets is considerable.

Steel or wood posts are fine. If wood, use a kind that resists rot. Put the posts 3 feet in the ground and pour cement around them to a thickness of 3 to 4 inches. By notching a crossarm solidly in the top of each wood post, you can run two parallel lines. If using threaded pipe for a post, a T-union and extensions of pipe at the top will provide a sturdy crossarm.

How far apart the posts should be will depend, of course, on how much wash you need to dry at one time. The distance between posts should hardly exceed 40 to 50 feet, or the line will sag too much or get too heavy to prop up easily. The prop is a necessary addition to the line. It is set in the middle between posts to make sure a loaded line does not drag on the ground. The tops of the posts where the line ties on should be at least 8 feet from the ground. The prop should be about 10 feet long. A branch with a Y tip to accept the line, or a 1 by 2-inch board with a V notch in one end will work fine. The prop is set under the line and, on a windy day, should be somewhat pointed toward the wind. The weight of the clothes will hold it up.

Where conditions are appropriate, a clothesline on pulleys is very handy and easy to put up. One pulley is set into a porch post or (ideally an upper deck post and the other out in a tree in the yard). The Amish put the second pulley high on a nearby barn or shed wall, if no tree is available. Then one need carry the basket of wet clothes only to the deck or porch. Clothesline pulleys made for this purpose are available in many hardware stores and are preferred over smaller, cheaper pulleys with shallow grooves in the wheels. The rope comes out of the latter too easily.

A big hook screw is screwed into the deck post and another in the tree or whatever, and a pulley is attached to each hook. Then the nylon line is threaded through the pulleys. The knot joining the rope together again should be positioned on the lower rope and should be pulled up tight to the pulley where you begin to load on the wash. As each item of clothing is pinned on the rope, you pull the top of the line toward you, advancing the clothing on the bottom part of the line away from you. When the knot reaches the other pulley, the bottom of the line is fully loaded with clothing. To remove the clothing, reverse the procedure. When the deck is high enough off the ground, as is usually the case, no prop is needed.

Washboard Secrets

Friends smile wanly when they see my wife’s corrugated washboard in the sink. They wonder when we are going to go down to the “crick” and pound our clothes on the rocks. This is very funny, of course, but it reveals the modern ignorance about washing clothes that is becoming nearly universal. A washboard is still the cheapest and often the only way to get dirty clothes clean.

We have two washboards, actually, a “Silver King Top Notch” from the National Washboard Company of Chicago and Memphis, and a smaller “Dubl Handi” from the Columbus Washboard Company of Columbus, Ohio. There’s another model of the Top Notch I’d like to own, which in addition to the usual message printed at the top — “Soap-Saving, Sanitary, Front Drain” as our says — also carries this advice: “Do Not Rub Hard. This Board Will Do The Work.” The corrugations on the board are zinc coated (brass is available) and are roughened by raised spirals, slanting in one direction on one corrugation and the other on the next corrugation and so forth. So when you push a dirty sock over the board, you push against a series of three different angled surfaces for triple scrubbing action. The smaller “Dubl Handi” (packs easily in suit case or traveling bag,” says the message at the top) has smooth corrugations for scrubbing more delicate fabrics, “ideal for silks, hosiery, and lingerie or handkerchiefs,” the printed message informs us. My wife cautions either to buy the double kind of washboard or to buy one that is only rough surfaced. The ones that are only smooth-surfaced are no good for dirty clothes, she says, and if the clothes aren’t dirty, well, throw them in the automatic washer. It does a real good job on clean clothes.

The proper use of the washboard involves setting it in a large sink, facing the scrubbing surface away from you, and leaning the top back into your waist. Take a really dirty sock (like one I’ve worn in the garden when hoeing and dirt has fallen into my shoes and I have ground the dirt into the sock) and wet it thoroughly. Rub a bar of soap against the wet sock or on the washboard until you have some working suds. Then scrub up and down against the washboard, turning the sock at every other scrub, until the dirt is gone.

My wife is the best advertisement the National Washboard Company ever had, if it is still in business. Believe me, she holds on to her washboard not for sentimental reasons. We bought her Top Notch when we married twenty-two years ago, and it has been used nearly every week since. It cost $1.45 and the frame is held together with dovetailed joints. We wouldn’t part with it.

P.S. The only soap we’ve ever used on the board is a bar of Fels Naptha.
See also Gene’s clothesline article: A Fairly Simple Way To Save Millions In Energy