Return of the Craftsman
Excerpted from The Chronicle Vol. 27 no. 1, April 1974
by Doris S. Halsey
Before the advent of the assembly line, when time was of lesser importance and fine workmanship was expected and appreciated, we had many fine craftsmen who took pride in their work and turned out beautiful and enduring products. With repetitive machine production. with the demand for cheaper goods. and with built-in obsolescence, all but the very best craftsmen in a few fields disappeared.Those who remained could usually command a large sum for their services.
Now we have swung almost full circle. In this day of the 40-hour week or less, and of retirement at 62 or younger, people are returning to the crafts. Some start as hobbyists and never go further than producing for their personal satisfaction, to astonish their friends, or to make some highly selective gifts. Others try from the beginning to make a livelihood from their craft. Still others try from the beginning to make a livelihood from their craft. Still others make a second career after retiring from business.
G. Atlee Crouse of Reinholds, Pa., falls into the last category. He has retired as a machinist and is now a full-time hornsmith.
Many of us saw Mr. Crouse demonstrate his skill in Doylestown at the EAIA meeting in the spring of 1973. Those who were present felt and perhaps absorbed some of the pleasure he showed in his work. He plies his craft with infinite care, endless patience, and evident enjoyment.
The craft has come down in the Crouse family since 1700. Mr. Crouse’s great-great-grandfather made combs at Valley Forge from the horn of cattle slaughtered to feed the remnant of the Continental Army. At that time, when both men and women wore long hair, combs were an important adjunct to personal grooming. The wealthy could afford the beautiful imported tortoise shell combs, but from others in the growing population there was a demand for inexpensive horn combs, both for practical and for decorative use.
Atlee Crouse’s father, the late George Crouse, demonstrated hornsmithing in Doylestown 58 years ago. He owned a horn factory that held five cutting machines. When it burned in 1954, the Crouses were able to salvage only enough parts to make the one machine now in use.
Texas Longhorns provide the best horn stock, but it is no longer readily available. For one thing, cattle are being sent to market at an earlier age, and for another, dehorning is being practiced for safety’s sake. The best horn must be at least three years old.
Atlee Crouse uses Panama horn. Fortunately, his father some years ago bought 75 tons in partnership with a button-maker in Long Island City, and so he has enough stock to last a lifetime. Most of his horns, however, have their tips missing, since that was the part the button manufacturer needed. Consequently. Mr. Crouse confines himself to making steel-backed combs and horn buckles. He does have several complete horns, beautifully worked, hanging on his walls or on tables as ash trays at home.
Horn has the same type of grain as wood and therefore must be treated similarly. Mr. Crouse carries out some 23 steps in making a steel-backed horn comb.
First he saws the horn in a circular-diagonal path around the full length of the piece. He soaks this in water for at least one week, after which it is ready to open (Figure 1). He uses tallow as a softening agent in the opening process, as its natural oil retains a better color in the horn. He heats the tallow to 340° and cooks the horn until it begins to uncurl. He then removes the piece from the fat (Figure 2) and places it in a table-vise or clamp to flatten it (Figure 3). He shaves this to uniform thickness. (The shavings and waste are ground up into fertilizer.)
He then cuts the largest possible rectangular piece from this horn, with the grain running in the direction of the comb’s teeth. From this piece he can usually cut two comb blocks. These are seasoned before going to the cutting machine for the final operations. The blanks are heated, preferably on a heating block, though they can be heated to a pliable state in hot tallow. The machine makes two combs at once from each blank. the teeth alternating and interlocked. The two combs are pulled apart while hot ( Figure 4). They are permitted to cool, after which the ends must he ground off and the corners heated and bent.
Mr. Crouse next bevels the teeth. then sands. smooths. and rounds them off. He uses a sanding wheel to do this polishing (Figure 5). He then cuts a dovetail groove on each side of the body of the comb. using a double saw filed at an angle. He follows this with a wet buff, using a cornhusk wheel with a combination of half pumice and half wood ashes (Figure 6). To make the back, he takes a half-inch strip of stainless steel, uses a foot-press machine to form the strip into a tube. pushes the tube into the grooves and over the top of the comb, and closes the ends. Finally he grinds off any rough spots and gives the piece a good overall polish. The finished product is a comb that is useful, beautiful, and almost indestructible.