3D printed combs

In May I got an email from Joseph Bjork at Good and Basic. He has developed a 3D printed charkha and 3D printed combs. He wanted to send these to me in exchange for a review in a blog post. This first review is about the combs.

The designs are free for anyone with access to a 3D printer, but Joseph also sells his products in his Etsy shop. Joseph wrote that he was shocked at the price of spinning tools. Furthermore he says he deeply enjoys fiber arts and wants everyone who is interested to be able to spin. The idea with the 3D printed tools is to offer a cheap alternative to more expensive spinning tools for a new spinner who wants to have a go at the craft. The 3D printed combs cost $31.25.

Hesitation

I read Joseph’s email several times. I honestly didn’t know how to reply. To me, the experience of the tools are as important for the process as the experience of the process. I want to feel the wood in my hands as I prepare my wool, something I won’t get with 3D printed tools. I have seen lots of 3D printed cross-arm spindles with perfect balance and great reviews. However, I have never been interested in these for that particular reason – the sensation of the material in my hand.

At the same time I’m intrigued by Joseph’s view that anyone who wants to should be able to learn how to spin and prepare their wool without having to pay a fortune. To me, hand crafted spinning tools are not expensive. They cost a lot of money, but they are hand made by professionals and cost accordingly. A lot of money, yes, but not expensive. Still, not everyone has enough money to spend on spinning equipment.

Experience

When I looked at the images of Joseph’s 3D prints I could see aspects of them that I knew would be potential problems. I have a lot of experience combing wool – I have combed my way through at least 30 whole fleeces plus another 30 parts of fleeces and lots of teasing with combs. Also, I teach wool processing and know what I want in a pair of combs.

Brutal honesty

I still didn’t know how to reply. Therefore I decided to let Joseph make the decision for me. I listed all my concerns in a bullet list – about the material, the issues I saw with the combs, how expensive it would be to send me the combs and that I would be brutally honest and transparent in a blog post. I also offered to send my review to him without a post in case I didn’t like them.

He appreciated my feedback and still wanted me to try the combs and post a review on my blog. He has received this review of the combs before I published it. So here it is, beginning with a short version:

  • Can the combs produce a top? Yes.
  • Are they safe to use? Not necessarily.
  • Do they give me a feeling of flow as I use them? No.
  • Do they inspire to learn more about combing? No.
  • Would I recommend them to a new spinner? No.

3D printed combs

3D printed wool combs in action
My friend Cecilia is combing some rya wool with the 3D printed wool combs. A pair of my regular combs in the background.

I had my friend Cecilia over for a spinning date and we decided to try the combs together. That way both of us could review them. We could also discuss the combs and further refine our thoughts.

Assembly

The combs came as two 3D printed handles and a bag of nails. There wasn’t much of a description in the package, but there is a video link in the Good and Basic Etsy shop where Joseph shows how he assembles the combs and how he uses them. As I got the combs directly from Joseph without going via the Etsy page, I didn’t see the video until after we had assembled the combs.

3D printed comb handles with nails as tines.
3D printed comb handles with nails as tines.

Since we hadn’t retrieved the instructions we tried different ways. At first we just hammered the nails into the handles. Some were a bit loose and some firm. We decided to add some glue, just underneath the nail heads. It didn’t work optimally. For the second row we glued in the holes before we put the nails in. This resulted in glue all over the nails as they pushed through the gluey holes. We realized that we hadn’t thought very carefully before we tried this. But we also realized that this could happen to anyone. So a clear written description together with the components would have helped here.

Weight and weight distribution

With two rows of nails the combs weigh 240 grams each. This is the same as my midi and maxi combs that I use with a combing station (and that leaves both hands free to hold the active comb). The 3D printed combs are designed to be used without a combing station, though, which makes 240 grams in each hand. For comparison, the mini combs I use privately and in my classes weigh around 100 grams each. 240 grams is manageable. However, each nail weighs over 9 grams, so of the 240 grams the nails weigh 200 grams. Add to this that the nails are outside the hand as you comb. Since a large part – 200 grams – of the 240 grams is outside the hand the 3D printed combs feel even heavier.

Because of the uneven weight distribution the movement of the combs in the combing process gets uneven. As I watched Cecilia comb with a vertical circular motion the active comb almost fell on the way down and struggled on the way up. I have done a lot of combing and consider myself a reasonably experienced comber, but I am not tempted to comb a whole fleece with combs of this weight and weight distribution. I don’t think a beginner would either.

Nails

The nails are quite thick, around 3.5 mm, hence the weight. When Joseph first contacted me I looked at the pictures of the combs and suggested that he made them with thinner tines. He had considered this, but the material and work it required would make the combs cost more, which was against his vision of combs at a low cost. But apart from the weight and weight distribution discussed above, the width of the nails make the combs cumbersome to use. When Cecilia and I assembled the combs we started with a single row of nails. As we combed there were lots of lumps and we needed to comb a lot more passes than we usually do. There were still a lot of lumps left in the resulting top, plus a lot of waste. When we added the second row the result was more satisfying and with an acceptable amount of waste.

I comb to organize the fibers parallel. I also comb to remove vegetable matter, nepps and second cuts and to open up the fibers. The width of the nails in combination with the distance between them isn’t optimal for a satisfactory result in these aspects.

To avoid tear on the fibers I want to comb with large movements in the periphery of the wool, especially when the staples are long. With these combs it feels awkward and heavy. The nails don’t allow the wool to slide smoothly between them. Therefore I need to comb closer to the nails, which leads more tear on the fibers.

Cecilia pointed out that the tapering of the nails felt too abrupt. She would have preferred a softer tapering. From Joseph’s perspective I think a custom made tapering would make the combs cost too much.

Handles

As I wrote in the beginning I am very reluctant to plastic, which I told Joseph when he first wrote to me. He assured me that the material is biodegradable and made of fermented starches, which of course is a good thing. Still, I personally prefer working with wood. The sensation of holding the tools is as important to me as the spinning process. These handles don’t give me that feeling.

Cecilia and I were also concerned about static electricity. The air in Sweden is dry, especially in the winter and more dry the further north you get. The material in the handles may increase this static electricity, making the wool tentacle out in all directions and thus leading to more tear on the fibers.

The handles are square in the shape and not very comfortable to hold, at least not for a long time. Cecilia adds that she wants to be able to flip the handle of the active comb to achieve a more even fiber distribution. The edges of the handles in combination with the weight in the periphery of the combs makes this action difficult and awkward.

Setup

When I saw the pictures of the combs I saw that the setup of the tines/nails was off. For an effective combing the length of the tines need to be sightly longer than the width of the tine setup. In this case the with is about 3 nails too wide. When I pointed this out to Joseph he said it was possible to change the design to accommodate this request, so this may already have been changed.

The combs are quite easy to assemble with just a hammer and some glue. However, there is a risk that the row of nails becomes uneven. Even if the person assembling the combs is super careful, the little ridge underneath the nail head will prevent the nails from coming all the way to the handles. Cecilia, even had a fancy name for this – Smidesskägg, forging beard. The consequences of the ridge will influence the smoothness of the combing.

Risk of injuries

These combs are heavy. More than that, the weight is unevenly distributed. The combing motion becomes arrhythmic. Because of the weight and the uneven weight distribution there is a risk that the user either misdirects the motion of the combing or drops the comb. Either way there is a higher risk of breaking skin than with combs with a more even weight distribution, perhaps even more so for a beginner.

Flow and inspiration

I have the opportunity to buy high quality spinning tools that I like and not think too much about the price. I realize that not everybody has this luxury. There are tools available at mid-range prices too. I consider the 3D printed combs to be in a low-range price category. But the low price comes with a price too.

Let me tell you a story from when I first started spinning: I went to an evening class in hand spinning. We got the opportunity to buy the hand cards and the suspended spindles that the organizer provided. The shaft of the spindle available was 15 mm in diameter and the spindle weighed 93 grams. This is unnecessarily large and bulky for a suspended spindle. I think I payed around 10 or 12 Euros for it, which I consider a low-range price for a spindle. It worked to spin on, but the process wasn’t very enjoyable. I wasn’t eager to learn more about spindle spinning at the time. Instead I tried a (modern) spinning wheel and eventually bought one of my own. It wasn’t until a few years later that I went back to spindle spinning, with lighter and more easy-to-use spindles.

So, what I mean by telling this story is that the 3D printed combs do their job, just like the 93 gram spindle did. But the process is not enjoyable. There are too many adjustments I need to make as a spinner to get the combs (or the 93 gram spindle) to do their job. I want to work with tools that are constructed to suit my body and the technique they are designed for, not accommodating my technique to the construction of the tools. I fear that a beginning spinner who buys combs like these will soon tire of them and buy commercially prepared top rather than discover the beautiful world of processing wool with hand tools. A new spinner usually doesn’t know that combing can be as enjoyable a process as spinning. My guess is that they would buy the combs that were available at their price range. The experience with these first combs would probably form the new spinner’s experience with and attitude to combing.

Conclusion

So if the question is whether it is possible to produce a top with the 3D printed combs the answer is yes. If you ask me if I enjoy the process the answer is no. The combs don’t feel gentle to either hands or wool. To me spinning is a mindful and oftentimes meditative process through all the steps – sorting, washing, teasing, combing/carding, spinning and plying. I want the tools I use and teach with to assist me in the process. I want to enjoy the tools in my hands and using the tools. With the 3D printed combs this is not the case. The material, even if it biodegradable and made of starches, doesn’t feel alive and gentle in my hands. The motion doesn’t make my hands and arms dance as they do with my other tools.

Consequently, I would not recommend these combs to a new spinner. Coming back to the price range I discussed above there is a mid-range that I would recommend a new spinner with a limited tool budget. I don’t think the low price on these combs is worth the effort in the combing process and the lack of flow and inspiration when using them. Just as there is an alternative to the 93 gram spindle at a mid-range price, there is an alternative to the 3D printed low-range priced combs. I would rather recommend the new spinner to practice with dog combs before investing in tools that are more user friendly, more adapted to the process and potentially result in a high quality combed top and a smooth combing experience.

Thank you Cecilia for helping me reviewing the combs. And thank you Joseph for giving me an opportunity to articulate for myself what I want from a pair of combs.

Coming up: Review of a 3D printed charkha.

Happy spinning!

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9 Replies to “3D printed combs”

  1. The idea sounds good but everything you found were things that I thought of when I saw the photos – uneven nails, weight, square handle, nails that are not tapered.

    Thanks for being honest.

    1. Yes, the idea of combs at a low cost is good, but it comes with the price of quality and user friendliness. And, as someone pointed out, professionally crafted tools will last a lifetime, if not more.

    1. And yet, these are things a new spinner doesn’t have a clue of. Hopefully they will get good advice from experienced spinners before buying tools that don’t work the way they had hoped.

  2. Man påminns om att den som köper billigt ofta köper dyrt när det billiga inte duger och man måste köpa rediga grejor ändå.
    Litet roligt var det när en spinnkompis tyckte ullkammar var dyra och hennes händige make försökte hemtillverka ett par av en kasserad bärplockare. De var förvisso gratis men funkade ju inte så det blev ändå ett par ordentliga till slut.

    1. Ja, precis. Hantverksmässigt tillverkade redskap håller dessutom minst en livstid. Samtidigt finns de de som inte har råd med dessa eller bara vill prova tekniken. Då är det bra med billigare varianter, men dessa 3D-utskrivna känns avskräckande ur många aspekter.

  3. I think one can tell by just looking at these combs that they would not work well or feel good in the hand. I’m wondering if at least the square handle could be made round. And smaller tines would be absolutely necessary. Maybe there are some things that cannot be made low-cost?

    1. I imagine it takes a few years to work out a design that works well. I have definitely learned and got the opportunity to express what I am looking for in a pair of combs. Let’s hope this is just the beginning with more user friendly models to come.

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