How to Make a Viking Age Wooden Comb




About: I'm a frustrated artist, happily married, retired military and a reenactor. I love to find things that I don't think archaeologist got quite right and then figure out the nuts and bolts of things. ...
Examples of wooden combs from 800-1200 are very rare but they do exist. In this example we will be looking at what sort of combs were used in that time period and picking one to replicate, where possible we will use replica tools or approximations. This is not meant to be the bar all end all reference in comb making, being an ancient art and globally diverse there will be a host of methods. Wood is not the best material for a comb, horn or antler because of their smoothness when finished and durability probably is, but wood was something everyone had access to and probably was used by folks who couldn't afford the better products. 
It is a fact that the first thing that people notice even beyond body shape is hair, smooth well kept hair speaks of good health social abilities, while unkempt wild and tangled hair can mean that one is ill, or not being taken care of. So combs have played an important roll since they were invented.
Lets take a look at historical combs

Step 1: Historical Combs

The oldest comb that I have reference and photography is dated to the 1rst Century BCE in the Dead Sea region, after that they begin popping up all over the world, Ireland and Scandinavia had a booming trade of making and selling bone, antler and horn combs, maybe wood too
Here are pictures of combs that I have amassed from all over Europe, on the internet and from friends, I've lost track of their sources.

Most of these are made from antler but there are some wood ones mixed in.

Looking at the historical ones we find clues to technique and construction methods, there are also clues to what tools were used.  Put on your investigator hat and take a close look at all of them then move on to the next step

Step 2: Evidence 1

OK now that you've drank from the fire hose of ancient comb wisdom lets look at some important factors that need to influence our replica to be.

In the top two examples there is evidence of cut marks on the spine lames or pieces made from a very thin saw but the space between teeth is wider then the saw cuts and there are no wide cut marks on the spine.

The blade is wedge shaped on cross section

The blade and spine are seperate pieces

The rivets are mushroomed on both sides

There are rosettes used as decoraton and the width of the rosette arc is the same as the width of the teeth. 

The distance between rosettes is the same as the width of the rosettes.

So what we know is that the blade was made seperately from the spine then the blade was most likely scraped to form the crosssection of the teeth most likely using the same tool that is used to make the rosettes.  The tool besides insising also funtioned as a caliper.  Is there a tool that does this?  No although a sharp caliper can be used. 

Step 3: Evidence 2

This is a projection from a archeological scale to all sides then using paintbrush to project straight lines for calibration.

With all of this we can make our special tool that will play a pivotal role in construction.

What is important is proportions not specific measurements, if you want to make a 4 foot comb that's ok but it needs to be scaled proportional and the rosette cutter/tooth scraper/caliper is the key, once we have that we will use it for layout and construction.

Step 4: The Rosette Cutter/tooth Scraper/calliper

Unfortunately I don't seem to have photos of this tool being made or actually used, I'll correct that as soon as I have a new camera.

Any piece of steel that you can work will be fine as it is much harder then wood, softer steel will have to be sharpened often but is probably in keeping with the average hardness of steel available historically.  Don't get me wrong there were hard steels available that scissors and razors were made from but the average was not that great.

The best way to make this is with a piece of 1/4 x 1/16 x 8 inch piece of softened tool steel then temper it as hard as possible but if you don't have those skills it's OK because steel is harder then wood and you'll just have to sharpen it more often, a convex or oval crosssection jewelers file is great for shaping the cut after you make it with a hacksaw..

Expect better info as soon as I have the camera.

Step 5: Harvesting the Wood

The maximum thick ness of wood that you want for this project is 1/4 inch, the amount will be determined by the size of your project.  Most of my combs have been 5 inches long by 1 1/2 to 2 inches wide.

Soemtimes I buy the wood sometimes I split it from a larger piece, a froe would be an improvemnet on my technique and one of these days I'll make or buy one.  A froe is a knife like blade mounted 90 degrees to a handle and is used to split off shakes or boards on straight grain wood.

I used two splitting wedges and followed season cracks in a piece of white oak fire wood, to split of a shake about 1/2 inch thick, it takes some practice but it's a lot easier then sawing the wood and you get grain that is completely intact as oposed to sawed lumber.  It makes for longer and stronger teeth on the finished comb.

Step 6: Drawing the Board

OK now you've got a split board that is to thick to do anything with so you need to start drawing it or thining it, I like a draw knife which is pictured.  You could use any of several tools most of which are historiclly acurate.  An adze is a great tool, I have one but it is for squaring logs and far to big for this project (guess I need to make one of those too.)  A bearded axe would do the trick but I don't have the control with them, I've seen people who do, it takes practice and determination.  A plane would do it or even a sander.  I just like my draw knife, it was my grandfathers and he taught me how to use one when I was about 5, I was never allowed to use it alone but it went a long way toward inspiring my love for hand tools.

So vice or clamp you board and thin it down to a uniform 1/4 inch. 

Taper the end to form the blade of the comb, spines are easy to make and you can use scrap for them but the blade takes work and practice.  The teeth will be scraped and sawed in line with the grain.  Actually the grain will become the teeth.

Step 7: Making Rivets

llI used to make these all the time, to make the rivet form take two pieces of steel and clamp them together, drill straight down so half the hole is on one side and the other half on the other.

Vice up the form so it's nice and even, drop in some straight copper wire the same size as the holes but a little longer.

File the tops that are sticking out to flat

then peen the portion sticking out to hard against the form.  Remove the form from the vice and when you break it open you have rivets.  If you are careful to make your form fit nice and smooth together you can sometimes use it to cast rivets instead of forging them.

Step 8: The Pieces

I  owe you some pics of a blade being made an teeth being shaped, this pic is from one of my early attempts that ended in disaster, the grain was weird and I was in experienced, during assembly the blade split.

You can see the process from this pic though.

I've also changed up to straight copper wire because the heads are unnesasry, when you peen the copper it expands into cone shapes that are closer to historical pieces.

Step 9: Shape and Final Finnish

Cut the blade flush with the spine lames and then sand everthing to the highest finish possible.

Finnish with olive oil or vegatable oil, linseed oil will leave pieces of finnish in the hair.

I ussually make cases for the combs, it adds to their appearance.

I'm going to have to beg off here to and promise better as soon as I get the new camera, I'll do a start to finish to include the case.  And close details of how to use the rosette cutter and shape teeth.

I'm not sure how soon I'll get the new camera so don't wait on me if you want to do this, just look over my past works and the historical pieces.  If you need a plan make one and then just do it.

Keep the first one and give the rest away.



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    26 Discussions


    4 years ago on Step 9

    How much longer than the material you are going through (the layers you are attaching) does the rivet 'tail' need to be? Your rivet process would be perfect for me to add some decoration to my drinking horn, but I've never riveted before and don't want to crack the thing or have huge lumps on the inside...

    2 replies
    Rune CutterServelan

    Reply 9 months ago

    It's trial and error, I want to do a drinking horn also, but rats got to my supply of horns

    Rune CutterServelan

    Reply 3 years ago on Introduction

    Servelan, In determining rivet length we also need to consider diameter of the rivet wire and the diameter of the rivet hole. If the rivet is the same diameter as its passage hole then 1/16 or .0612 inch should be fine but the hole needs to be slightly countersunk on both sides to minimize splitting from the wire expanding. I highly recommend testing your materials separate from your project.


    1 year ago

    Nicely done, though your spacing technique leaves a bit to desire...but no worries, you may want to reconsider a final attempt after this:

    (please take a look at the picture of step 1)
    I am afraid these type of combs are not meant for grooming persee...
    Because they have all the obvious hallmarks of a flea and/or lice comb.
    Two different tooth sizes, one fine and one less fine (for fleas and lice)
    Some of the combs shown as so called grooming combs have a screamingly obvious fine toothed medical de-licing look..

    I am rather surprised this in your face (or rather head or elsewhere) fact has been largely missed by most and the function of such combs has been even academically debated which in itself goes to show that non farming (decent) academics should stay away from studying farmers of any kind, both modern and especially ancient ones... I challenge those guessers to make sense of any random modern farming implement (which can be lifted by hand even)...I am fairly sure most of them fail even at grasping it's basic function let alone say something sensible about how it should be operated... All due respect...

    On a practical note: Anybody with some hear length (beyond 3-4 inches that is) knows that a comb of any kind will not work in any practical capacity, it will simply break most of it's teeth on the first few uses... Surely the Vikings used a brush to straighten there hair. A brush is easier and cheaper to produce and more importantly very much practical, which must have had great dominance in those times, function over beauty, the way of the farmer, now and ever before...

    But hey, go right ahead, hang the fine toothed comb from your belt and show off any underlying infestations if you so please ;-)

    PS: compare the historical combs to the modern (and very much confirmed fleea comb functionality) and tell me what you think... You know the saying: If it walks like a duck and quack like a know the drill...

    modern flea and lice comb.jpg
    Rune CutterNooleanBot

    Reply 3 years ago

    Thanks, I looked over your page and would have commented there but the edit police said I couldn't. Yes, they are fun to make. Great one day projects or more if you want to do them up a bit..

    Rune CutterNooleanBot

    Reply 6 years ago on Introduction

    Great job on the comb!

    Not sure why your tooth tool didn't work, I used .125 in 1075 steel fully annealed for the marker and then the same steel to 80% hardness for the saw, but ended up using a comercial dovetail saw..

    There is a lot of confusion and bad information on the net about Runor (Runes) check your resources stick to reputable sources, runes are not ideograms they are phonetic also refering to them as Futhark is wrong on many levels like calling our own alphabet Abcdef.

    You're using a lot of power tools so your results are going to be different than mine.


    4 years ago on Step 9

    Thanks for those great instructions.
    I wonder how to make a lice comb.
    It must be really tightly between the teeth ...

    1 reply
    Rune CutterEmilA1

    Reply 3 years ago on Step 9

    A lice comb is done basically the same way except as you noted with tighter teeth, they were usually two sided also, there are a couple in my examples page.


    4 years ago on Introduction

    could some one show documentation of where and when the combs were found. primary sources please.


    5 years ago on Introduction

    amazing instructable. it deserves more credit and more favorites. The break down of the the comb in step two shows the passion.


    The Viking Answer Lady has all the details,
    In addition to combs the vikings carried a "toilet set" that comprised an ear spoon, tweezers and pick carved from bone or antler. Vikings in Iceland and many other areas wintered with their livestock indoors, so daily combing may have been necessary to remove fleas, chiggers, ticks etc. The English complained that the Vikings in the Danelaw seduced high born English women by grooming often, bathing weekly, and changing their clothes, (presumably to launder the dirty ones).

    Somewhere there is an entry in a book of hours that complains of the Danes vanity, something to the effect that "they are always combing their hair and bathe daily" I heard the reference 30 years or so ago and haven't been able to document it but it seems credible.

    Phil B

    9 years ago on Introduction

    We take things like combs for granted.  It is interesting to learn how people from millenia back in history handled such things.  I made an example of a combination square and level used by the Egyptians at the time of Ramses and published it as an Instructable.  Many of these things involved clear thinking about basic processes more than fancy tools.  Thank you for publishing this.  I think it deserves to be Featured, but I am not an editor.


    9 years ago on Introduction

    This is great, but I think the copper-riveting process itself should be expanded into a more detailed Instructable.

    1 reply
    Rune CutterKiteman

    Reply 9 years ago on Introduction

    Thanks, I agree.

    I had the time to get this up but not the camera, I'll edit in more details as soon as I can either with art or pics