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$15 Wool Combs (Some Assembly Required)

(This is a post by guest star Chris Lansdown, Beth's husband)

Those people who prepare their own fluff for spinning from the dirty tangled stuff that comes off of a sheep, whose scientific name really should be Filthus greasiens tanglatus, are aware that the stuff needs to be tamed down and homogenized so that it can be spun. (I don't really believe that it's possible to spin from the locks even though I've seen Beth do it, so let's just leave that out of account, ok?) There are three main ways of doing this which I'll list in what I believe is their order of commality:

  1. Buy it as roving or top in the first place.

  2. Use carding combs to make rolags, which are basically mini-rovings.

  3. Use wool combs to make your own top.

#1 is of course cheating, but my background is in math so we'll just call this method "null-combing". You just used the carder or comb 0 times, that's all. :)

Carding seems to me to be more popular than combing, I suspect for 3 main reasons, listed here in order of explanatory power:

  1. Wool combing has a reputation for being difficult and time consuming.

  2. Carding combs can cost half as much as wool combs, especially better wool combs.

  3. Carding combs are less likely to be mistaken for medieval weapons, and thus more likely to be applied to wool rather than siblings.

I had read, though, that combing wool produces top, which makes a nicer yarn. (Actually, it just produces a smoother, slightly stronger yarn, whereas carding produces a fluffier, airier yarn.)

Those who know me will know that I combine several characteristics which will explain the rest of this:

  • I've got a near-infinite curiosity, so after hearing that there's something better I have to investigate.

  • I'm arrogant enough to believe that I can do anything that I decide to do, as long as I know enough about it before I make the decision.

  • I'm willing to cut as many corners as required to make #2 come true, adjust my standards accordingly, and then work on improving until I'm where I originally wanted to be.

So, given that english-style wool combs (which apparently produce the best top) cost $120 or more, I obviously needed to make my own. So, a bit of thinking and a trip to Lowe's later, I had the following:

  • 1 box of 16d ("16 penny") 3.5" long finishing nails. $3

  • 1 box of 8d ("8 penny") 2.5" long finishing nails. $3

  • 1 tube of epoxy (the type with two connected plungers). $6

  • 2 pices of 1/2"x2"x24" (nominal; really .5"x1.5"x24") maple. $3

I already had some 1" wood screws, so throw in another $.98 for a bag of them if you don't have a toolbox full of wood screws. Really, though, just shell out the $3 or so for a box of the screws that you want — they're vastly cheaper in bulk and you'll use them eventually. If you keep them in a cool dry place, they'll be good 10 years from now.

I also had wood glue, if you don't add in about $3, but the stuff lasts years and is very useful in wood projects. This is actually optional, since you'll only be gluing things that you're also screwing, but I really recommend it. There's no reason that the combs that you make shouldn't last decades (that I know of; mine are only a few months old), and cheaping out on your connectives isn't worth it unless you're dirt poor.

To put all of this together, you'll need:

  • A drill.

  • Drill bits in assorted small sizes that match the nails and screws; virtually any collection of small bits will have everything that you need.

  • Something small, flat, long, thin, stiff, and disposable. Using a kitchen scissor to cut up a credit card (or similar card that supermarkets are all falling over themselves to give out) into 2"x1/4" strips works great.

  • Aluminum foil

  • A pencil

  • A good ruler

  • Some sandpaper, 100 and 220 grit is fine. If you don't have sandpaper, that's fine too, but I recommend using gloves if you're not going to finish the wood at all.

  • A hammer, or something else metal which weighs more than 2 ounces to hit nails with in order to dent wood.

  • Some board to use to back up the wood while you drill. If you don't have scrap wood around, you can get some while you're at lowe's or most craft stores sell cheap pine in reasonably large pieces for some craft purpose or other.

  • A set of clamps at least 2" which won't dent wood. Irwin quick-grip clamps are wonderful clamps that I love and swear by, but they are expensive. Home Depot sells some really cheap 2" spring clamps that should work.

With all of this stuff in hand, this is what I made:

I've combed a few ounces of top with them, and they've worked quite well. I don't really find combing to be any slower or more difficult than carding, though I am pretty thorough and picky about my carding. But I absolutely love the results. The top I combed was so easy to spin and produced such great singles that I'm now a convert to combing. (Though of course combing is somewhat symbiotic with carding, since to avoid waste it makes sense to card the wool that you would discard from combing.)

So, if you read any further, I assume it's because you want to make a pair of your own.

Before you start making your wool combs, I strongly suggest that if you're going to finish your combs, you take the time to sandpaper the wood that you bought before doing anything else. You'll do a much better job when nothing is attached to them, and you'll also reduce your likelihood of getting any splinters. It's especially good to spend some time rounding the corners of the boards, because those are the parts most likely to give you splinters, and most likely to be uncomfortable while using if you don't round them down.

The first order of business is to make the heads. The first thing to do in this is to pick a side of one of the pieces of maple and figure out where the holes are going to go. (I wouldn't cut off the comb head until after you've drilled the holes as the extra wood will give you room to hold and clamp while you drill.)

You can of course make your combs any way that you like, so I'm just going to describe what I did and leave variations up to your own cunning. You'll certainly have my blessing to change anything that you see, though I would question your judgement if you felt that you needed my blessing. :)

I made three rows of nails: two of the 16d nails and one of the 8d nails. In each row, I put the centers 3/16" apart. I've been told that the spacing on mine was a bit tight, so 1/4" might be more appropriate. I put 22 nails in the first row and 21 nails in the second row, offset so that each nail in the second row was between two nails in the first row, making for a finer effective pitch. The third row was 22 8d nails lined up with the front row (i.e. on 3/16" centers). I set the rows 1/4" back from each other, with the front row being 1/4" from the edge of the wood measured to the centers. I left about 3/4" of an inch of wood on either side of the nails. Once you've got this all marked out, take a nail and a hammer and put a dent the wood in the center of each pencil marking you've made for where the nails go. This will make it easier to find the center with your drill bit. Now it's time to do the drilling.

If at all possible, use a drill press. Beg friends and neighbors to let you use their drill press if you have to. A drill press will make this much easier and make your combs look a lot nicer. Plus, drill presses are cool. If possible, buy a drill press and if you have a spouse or significant other, justify it by pointing out how much money you'll save buy not buying commercial wool combs. Yes, this is ridiculous since for the same money you could just buy commercial wood combs, but any real wood worker has to learn to be crafty in aquiring tools (since the things are so expensive!), and there's no time to learn like the present. Plus, would you rather have just wool combs, or wool combs and a drill press?

Ok, so if you're like me and didn't buy a drill press, you should at least make a jig. For each bit that you're going to use, take a piece of scrap hardwood, the thicker the better (so long as your bit can go through it with more than 1/2" on the other side), and start drilling holes as straight as you can. (A small piece of the maple that you've bought will work if you have nothing else.) After you've drilled a few, test it out with one of the nails by sticking the nail through. Find the hole that's acceptably straight to you. Now circle it with the pencil. Repeat for each drill bit size. Congratulations, you now have a jig for drilling relatively straight holes. A drill press would be better, but this should at least be workable. You might wonder whether the hole isn't just going to be enlarged to the point of being unworkable after a few uses. Surprisingly, most drill bits are very bad at drilling sideways (by design), so your jig should last through the project if made of hardwood. Oak is a pretty good for this, by the way.

Now, making sure to use the backing because drilling holes this close together is especially prone to causing tear-out, drill all of the holes. You'll want to use bits that allow the body of the nail to pass through without using a hammer, but don't let the heads in. (You'll use the same bit for the first two rows, obviously, and a smaller bit for the third row.) On my combs, if you look closely, you'll see that I also partially drilled the front row with a bit that was slightly larger than the head, in order to recess the front nails to make them slightly longer than the second row. If you're inclined to, then by all means do it, but I doubt that this bought me anything.

Once you've got the holes all drilled, cut off the head, sand down the edge, and put the nails through. Now clamp it to something so that the top is parallel to the ground and you're not likely to get epoxy on anything important if it drips while you're applying it.

It's time to epoxy the nails down. First, you should do this in a well ventilated area, though epoxy isn't nearly so nasty as many glues or most wood finishes.

If you're never used it, epoxy is a resin and a catalyst which, when they're introduced, makes a hard plastic which bonds to most stuff quite well. Use the aluminum foil to make a little cup to eject the resin and catalyst into. (Most consumer epoxies come in two tubes with a fused plunger to make it easy to dispense equal amounts.) Put about enough to cover the top of the nails with into the little foil cup, and mix it with the credit card slice (or whatever mixer/applicator you've chosen). Mix quickly, since you have about 6 minutes or so until the stuff begins to set. I recommend spending about 30-45 seconds very thoroughly mixing; the better you mix the stronger the cured epoxy will be. Now apply it liberally to the nail heads. You'll want to completely cover them (like in the picture), though you don't need it any thicker than that.

Technically most epoxies tell you to wait 24 hours until using them, but most of them are plenty strong enough in about 6 hours. Once the epoxy has cured long enough, attach the handles. On the maple that I used the head isn't large enough to attach the handle securely, so I first added a support. I made my supports 1.25" long; I wouldn't go any shorter than that. I used a single 2" wood screw down the center and wood glued it to the side, positioning it as you can see in the pictures. (note: if you don't have a 2" wood screw, you might be able to get by with just wood gluing it in place as long as you clamp it well, wait a full 24 hours before handling it, and you're gentle attaching the handle.) Make sure to use a wet paper towel to wipe away all excess wood glue.

Once the wood glue had a few hours to set, I drilled the holes for the 1" screws first in the handle, and then using them as a guide, halfway into the head and support. I then applied wood glue to the parts of the handle and the head/support that were going to meet and screwed the handle down.

You're supposed to wait 24 hours for wood glue to get to full strength, and I'm not going to counsel against that. At this point, you should have working wool combs. In my next post, I'll explain how to use these combs to produce top.

Related Posts (on one page):

  1. Using wool combs
  2. $15 Wool Combs (Some Assembly Required)
To spinning by Chris on 2006-05-08.