Saturday, December 31, 2011

Carving combs from yew wood

A friend asked me to make her a wooden comb because she said they don't build the static electrical charges in hair that plastic combs do. I sawed a thin slice of yew wood and began to saw a series of teeth, so thin that the comb promptly snapped in two. Some dismay and rage followed, before I began again, with a larger and stronger chunk of yew.
This time I left a wide section at the base of the comb uncut to add strength. You can see in this picture that I had begun to shape and sharpen the teeth on the right. On my first, abortive project I simply slotted a chunk of sandpaper between two of the teeth and rubbed them back and forth at an angle, slowly wearing down the roughly squared edges. This was very slow and inefficient work. Here I was experimenting with files; later I would use a sharp gouge to cut diagonal chamfers along the sides of the teeth so that they were already well worn down from square by the time I applied sandpaper.

A huge amount of filing, carving, and especially sanding later, I had a pleasingly smooth yew comb. This promptly broke in half. Fighting my dismay and irritation, I glued the project back together along the split, and then reinforced the comb with two slim sections of teak. You should be able to make out the split on the left here, looking at the underside of the comb, and the teak sections sandwiching the yew.
The teak greatly improved the strength of the comb so I could relax a little! At this stage the comb looked quite nice, the natural swirling cream and red of the yew beautifully exposed by the parallel lines of teeth.

One problem was that I had sawed the combs teeth by hand, using a large and rough crosscut saw that left horizontal scars on the insides of the teeth. This meant lots of extra sanding or, as at the bottom of the teeth, eventual abandonment, leaving annoying scars on the wood.
By the time I felt happy enough to cease sanding I was wondering what kind of finish I should apply. I liked the idea of French polish or beeswax polish that would bring out a brilliant natural colour from the wood without creating a heavy or glossy surface. I experimented with beeswax and with linseed oil on the broken remains of my first abandoned project. This looked pretty good but I was conscious that the comb would be dragged through hair, and I worried that oils and polishes might come off and stick to the hair.

I wanted something tough and inert, so I ended up applying two layers of clear satin varnish. Annoyed at first that the paintbrush was leaving streaky lines on the wood, I swapped it in favour of a soft cloth: an old (washed) pair of cotton boxing shorts! This allowed me to control the flow of varnish, rubbing on two thin layers of even consistency and no streaks. The final project:

Encouraged by this, but annoyed by some little mistakes I had made, I decided to have another go, and sawed another sliver of beautiful yew wood. This time I used the electric bandsaw to cut much neater teeth, so there were fewer unsightly scars to sand away. I also decided to include a teak reinforcing bar early in the project to provide extra strength before all the vigorous filing and sanding took place. This time I recessed the teak bar into the yew wood on one side, making the final comb much leaner and very satisfying to hold. A little more elegant than the earlier project.

I wondered for a long time how I should finish this. Finally I gave it without any varnish as a birthday present to my sister, offering to varnish and polish it if she preferred. She was happy with the simple wood surface, so that was that. Another comb in the bag!

It is quite labour-intensive work but I was pretty pleased with these projects. Hope you've enjoyed it too, Happy New Year all, and best of luck in 2012.


  1. Cheers Sujj :)

    I forgot to mention that the final project also broke - you can see that one of the teeth snapped in half and I had to glue it together again! This stuff is tricky. Next time I might need a tougher species of wood or something.

  2. Sweet comb yo. I would like to special order one with the carving "Bad-Ass Bitch" on it? Or a unicorn. Do you ship to the USA? P~

  3. What I love best -- other than the fact that they are beautiful -- is that you have tried and learned and tried again . . . the process of learning by doing is so precious! Thank you! Sara

  4. man, so clean and pretty, can you make me one? how much would you charge :D

  5. Thank you very much Mindyourbusiness person; unfortunately I'm not in a position to make combs at the moment but thanks for your interest nonetheless :)

  6. I have made wooden combs before and quarter sawn wood is your friend. Yew is far too brittle to make a comb and much too figured which accounts for the breakage. I would recommend strait grained oak, walnut, cherry, ash or any other strait grained hard but flexible wood. This is a tricky project and yours looks great! I love the look of yew definately one of my favorite woods.
    -Anthony Wilder

  7. Excellent, thanks for the advice Anthony. I'm very much an amateur at this but I'd definitely like to give it another go with a sturdier wood :)


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