As always in the run up to a fresh season, these last couple of weeks have been rather busy. In addition to the usual kit repairs and so on, my Etsy shop has taken off and I have had quite a lot to do through that, the Bone Crafting Facebook Group has been getting more popular, and in anticipation of the Society training weekend coming up I have gone through my Boneworking Guide and updated it (though apparently I have still managed to focus so much on getting references and information right that it is littered with grammatical errors I didn’t notice^^).
However, in between all this I have managed in cram in enough time to make a few other bits and pieces, the main ones being combs. As I have meant to write a comb-making post for a while, I made sure I photographed and recorded the process and the end result is this post. Ultimately I want to polish this up as a pdf guide for anyone wanting to make combs, so if anything is unclear or you feel it needs adding to (or some of it shortening) please let me know. Enjoy 🙂
Before we begin
I am often told that I make the mistake of assuming someone knows something and then talk to (or “at”) them as if they know something they don’t. So, to avoid this happening here, I will briefly illustrate the construction method of a composite comb before explaining how to do it.
Basically a composite comb consists of a number of elements of two different kinds – the side plates and the tooth plates. A variable number of tooth plates are sandwiched in-between two side plates and the whole assembly is riveted together and then the teeth cut, as seen in the picture below.
The various plates are all cut from suitably wide and thick pieces of antler; the tooth plates generally need to be cut from the beam (red box below) and the side plates can be beam or tines (blue box below) if they are appropriately sized. Due to the stress put upon the comb, the grain of the antler needs to be horizontal for the side plates and vertical for the tooth plates. The black arrows in photo below show the direction of grain in the antler.
Now that the very basics have been covered, onto the post proper.
“Take ye ane antler”
It all starts with an antler, and it’s selection can immediately determine how easy your comb making will be and how successfully the comb will perform. Ideally the best kind of antler to use is Red Deer or Reindeer. If you are lucky enough to source Elk then that is also good, but stay away from Roe, Fallow and any of the modern imports.
All of the components of a combs are cut from the cortical (solid) tissue of an antler rather than the cancellous (spongy) tissue. Thus, the aim with any antler selected for comb making is to ensure that the walls are as thick as possible to ensure the comb is the best it can be. In order to maximise strength, you want freshly shed antler rather than harvested as it is at it’s strongest. Antler that is collected after lying for a while or from shot animals that where still growing antlers can be quite inferior to fully grown antler that was gathered before it had a chance to be weathered or gnawed. Also, antler from older, well fed animals tends to be larger and have thicker walls (especially “farmed” deer).
Depending on how fine the finished comb is aiming to be, the side plates should be about 10-15mm high and 5-10mm thick, and the tooth plates should be 20-25mm wide and 2-4mm thick. The overall length of the sideplates and tooth plates is obviously determined by the style of comb you are making, but as a rough guide, a single sided comb of about 100-150mm long with teeth 20mm long is not far from being as close to “standard” as they get.
Once you have suitable antler(s) for the job it is time to start.
Cutting the blanks
Now that you have a selection of antler ready to use, you need to make the blanks. There will be two side plates and however many tooth plates are required to meet the length. In this instance I have used a beam for the side plates as it was closest to hand.
Step 1 – preparing the beam
NOTE: if you have a suitable tine to make the side plates, you can probably just split it/saw it down the centreline and skip to step 3.
Firstly remove the rough surface of the antler until you have a flat, clean surface, and then roughly draw the outline of your sideplate. This allows you to check you have enough width over the length of the plate as sometimes it can be tricky to judge by eye on a curved antler.
Step 2 – separating the sideplates
Turn the antler around and cut through the cortical tissue all the way the length. Make the thickness a little more than you want the finished plate to be.
This can now be split using a chisel, or you can turn it around and saw through the remaining cancellous tissue.
Step 3 – cutting out the sideplates
Using a rasp or drawknife, shave the sides of the plate to approximately the finished dimensions.
When both sides are roughly flat and parallel with each other, turn the plate around and remove excess cancellous tissue from the back. This can be done with a chisel, drawknife or rasp.
Once the sideplate is suitably flat on the rear and has been taken to the required thickness, put it to one side and make another. Then move onto Step 4.
Step 4 – matching the sideplates
Clamp the two roughly shaped sideplates together and then shape them as a pair so they match.
Step 5 – decorating the sideplates
Decorate the sideplates with whatever decoration you want. This example is an amalgamation of designs found on some 10th century combs in York.
Step 6 – cutting the toothplates
Repeat steps 1-3 but with shorter, wider antler to make as many tooth plates as you need.
Assembling the comb
Once your sideplates are decorated and you have as many tooth plates as you need, lay them out to check everything is ok before assembling.
Step 7 – drilling for initial riveting
If you are happy that everything is correct, mark approximately where the the rivets need to be at either end of the sideplate, put both sideplates together and drill through. Then using one as a marker, drill through the two end tooth plates. Personally I also try to make the so that the rivet is snug before being hammered i.e. tight enough that when tapped in I can shake the comb and the rivet doesn’t drop out. However, this is because I like to flush rivet as much as possible and want a particularly tight fit. If you are new to riveting by hand, it may be better to make the hole ever so slightly wider than the rivet.
Step 8 – riveting the end tooth plates
Holding the sideplates and one of the endplates, line one set of holes up and tap a rivet through. After checking it is the right size, rivet it.
Now for a brief interlude to cover riveting:
Step 8a – how to flush rivet
The rivets are not actual forged rivets with heads, but simply short lengths of iron rod (or bronze), and because of this, the actual riveting process is different to that often used in metal or wood working. There are also no clench plates or washers on the rear of the rivet as the rivet is not actually going to be bent over or clenched at all.
The aim is to obtain a double sided flush rivet. This means that both sides of the item are smooth, with (virtually) no part of the rivet protruding. Flush riveting is achieved by expanding the rivet inside the hole so that the pressure and friction of this horizontal expansion is what holds the work together (as shown in the image below)
When cutting rivets for flush riveting, each rivet must be cut individually to the correct length, as excessive metal will cause the procedure to be much more difficult or fail. The ideal length is just a tiny fraction longer than the depth of the hole – maybe 0.5mm at the most. Any longer and the metal will bend under the hammer blows rather than compressing vertical and expanding horizontally, any shorter and the rivet will not expand enough to grip the hole before becoming flush with the surface.
The actual process of riveting is quite simple. Once the rivets are cut to length, place the piece to be riveted on a suitable hard, flat surface; if an anvil is not available, the flat head of a hammer will suffice or a flat stone. Slide the first rivet into place and begin to firmly tap the top of the rivet squarely to compress it until the rivet is flush with the surface and the comb pieces are firmly held together. If the rivet is struck at too much of an angle, then it risks bending rather than compressing as described above.
The aim is use the rivet to apply enough horizontal pressure to hold the pieces together but without creating so much pressure that the material splits along the grain or is weakened. This can particularly be a problem with bone combs and it one of the reasons why most, as well as the strongest, combs are made from antler.
Once the end of the rivet is flush with surface of the work, stop hammering and check the strength of the joint. A well riveted piece should be tight with no movement in any direction (except possibly swivelling if only a single rivet is in place). If necessary file any burrs or projecting metal until it is neat.
Back to Step 8; once the end plates are fixed in position you should have something that looks like this:
Step 9 – fitting the remaining toothplates
Now that the end plates are fixed, slot the other plates into the gap and check that they all fit, some may need a little taken of the sides to make them fit neatly.
Step 10 – drilling and riveting the toothplates
Once all the plates are fitted, the remaining rivet holes need to be drilled. How these are drilled depends on the style of comb you are making. The holes can be drilled in a number of configurations;
Once the holes are drilled, rivet as for Step 8.
Step 11 – trimming the top of the toothplates
Trim the top of the projecting tooth plates and file/sand the top of the comb so it is even and smooth. Now is the time to leave any little decorative projections etc.
Step 12 – preparing the bottom of the toothplates
Using a rasp, level the bottom of the tooth plates and then file the row into a wedge shape.
Step 13 – cutting the teeth!
This where things can go horrendously wrong as the saw deflects and causes crooked teeth, you misjudge and cut teeth too wide or narrow, or even worse a particularly fine tooth snaps! However, it can be made easier by the following.
Before I cut the teeth with a saw, I use a triangular file to mark the approximate positions of where I want to cut. As well making sure that the teeth are the correct size, the small cut also allows the saw to cut into the antler more cleanly, rather than jumping as it bites.
Once the tooth spacing is marked out, gently cut the teeth with a narrow bladed, fine toothed saw. I generally use a coping saw, but most small modelling saws are suitable. In order to keep an eye on my previous cuts and ensure that my current cut is running parallel to the last, I cut the start on the left of the comb and work across to the right. If you are left-handed this will be reversed i.e. right to left.
As the teeth are cut, it is simply a matter of keeping the saw straight and taking care with each cut. Speed will come with practise, so it is better to initially concentrate on keeping the teeth even and the cuts vertical.
Step 14 – finishing the teeth
There are a variety of ways to do this, but in a modern shed with access to modern equipment this is usually I how I go about it.
- “point” the ends of the teeth with a triangular needle file
- File the vertical sides of the teeth to make each more octagonal in section rather than rectangular and to start tapering each to the point.
- Finish each tooth with a strip of 80-120 grit sandpaper worked back and forth as well as vertical inbetween each tooth.
The teeth can also be shaped with a very sharp knife instead of files. However, I find this creates more uneven teeth and has greater chance of damaging the comb.
This comb has quite a coarse TPI (approximately 8tpi, as requested by the customer) but much finer teeth can be achieved in the same. Also, as can be seen in the above photo, I added a final bit of decoration to the blank spaces on the end tooth plates. The photo below shows a comb of similar provenance (also 10th century Anglo-Danish) but with up-turned endplates (as mentioned in Step 11) and a finer TPI (about 11-12tpi).
A final note regarding teeth: they will not be perfect 🙂 Every single comb is different and very rarely is a comb that is handmade (without using precise modern gauges and such) ever total perfect. Teeth will be slightly different widths, occasionally one will come out too wide or narrow, some may waver slightly etc. However, if you look at the original finds you will see that you are not alone – many combs from the past also have little imperfections and until you are at the point of being a dedicated comb-maker with hundreds to your name you are always allowed a little margin for error 🙂
Thanks for reading,