A while back now I bought a handsome looking secondhand shaving brush on eBay, the handle was very fine marble but the knot could have been better. When it arrived I measured the knot size with a vernier and ordered a replacement from The Golden Knib, who are the major supplier of shaving brush knots to the traditional shaving community. The knot I ordered was a 22mm with a 68mm loft silvertip with “extra hair” which cost $13.56 (on special offer!).
I then set about removing the old knot from the brush and promptly broke the marble handle. Totally my own clumsy stupidity and haste. Which left me with a fantastic badger knot with no handle to put it in. Now I believe that when you have a lemon you should make lemonade, that when things go wrong it presents opportunities.
So I got in touch with Fido at New Forest Brushes who also writes the authoritative shaving brush blog and asked him who makes the best custom brushes in the UK. He told me to go to “beejay” (le Tuft) and he gave me his contact details. Now all I needed was something to make the handle out of.
It just so happens that my brother in law buys trees, ones that have been cut down. He then stores them for years and eventually has custom furniture made out of them once the wood is well matured. So I contacted him for a little piece of one of these trees to make a handle from. He emailed me back: “I have some oak at 9X9 cms and some iroko at 8X8 cms and some beech / ash (not sure which) at 9.5X9.5 cms, but the grain on all of them is not very interesting. Oak tends to blacken with prolonged exposure to water, so is not ideal for what you want. I have some smaller cross-section yew in sizes around 5X5X7.5 cms which turns well and is very durable and takes oiling well. If any of these are of use let me know.”
I looked up the properties of yew on the interwebs and found that it was very long lasting and tough, it machines nicely and likes to be oiled and that it had been the wood of choice for making the traditional English longbow. So I asked for some of this and my brother in law kindly sent me enough for three handles which I then mailed to “beejay” with the knot. The tree the wood came from had been growing in Ennerdale in the English lake district but about 10 years ago the local council ordered the farmer to cut it down because it was in a dangerous condition.
“Beejay” had emailed me: “If you have a shape in mind, a drawing or brand example will give me enough to work with. Yew is a nice wood but is prone to checking and it can throw up some surprises at times, knots and pips etc which can work loose. The knot you have will probably be 67/68mm total length and normally I set those at 48-50mm but in this instance I would think around 52mm loft will be about right. Tell me though if you want a different loft. I do a mock up first to show shape a loft before I commit to the final material and for this I charge £25 inc del to a UK address. I should explain that this is a hobby for me, and I do work so it’s done at weekends and in my spare time. At present, you’d be looking at 2-3 weeks to complete.”
I was looking for a big handle that really showed off the wood and for a floppy brush for using with shaving creams, so I sent “beejay” a picture of a custom brush I had found on the internet that I liked, just to give him a very rough idea of what was on my mind, but said that he was the expert and it was up to him to make the best of the wood.
About a week later “beejay” sent me an email with some photographs of a mock up of the brush. He said: “I’ve mocked up a handle for you to look at. It’s from a piece of yew from my stock so don’t worry. The knot you sent is 77mm ht. and 23mm plug diameter. The cove between the two beads is 29mm and the hole is 25mm diameter to accept the knot and allow some spread. That means of course that wood at that point isn’t terribly thick, viz, 2mm each side. The pics are really to show the loft and to ask if you’re happy with it or do want it set to 50mm. It’s a big knot, 77mm, and at 53mm loft the backbone isn’t too bad. The shape of the handle will change a bit to give more height to the bulb at the expense of the two beads which will be narrower (more compressed) and slightly more rounded, hope that makes sense. Naturally your comments are invited re shape style size etc. At 111mm total height it’s a good size brush and should feel well balanced. The handle is 58/59mm but can be made longer if you wish, there’s enough wood.”
A week later and disaster has struck. “Beejay” sends me this: “I finished your handle yesterday and noticed that the rim had some fine checks (splits) beginning to show through. Although almost hairline they would open up sooner or later. I’ve now cut about 1” off and will do it again. Apologies for the delay, yew is just one those woods I’m afraid, sometimes no problem other times this can happen.”
Then another week or so and it was decision time as “beejay” sent me the following email: “Almost done, just a case of you picking the handle you’d like the knot to be set in. I’ve attached 3 pics showing the knot in each one. L-R, Purple Yew from my stock as the piece you had with some showing kept splintering and checking on me and I couldn’t really get a workable piece from it that looked nice. No extra charge for this by the way. Middle one is from the second piece you sent and it’s quite a nice piece with a few pips at the base giving it a bit of character. RH is another piece from my stock with just a hint of sapwood, the rest dark heartwood with some pips showing. Nice pattern on this bit. Again no extra charge if you want this one. They’ve all had one coat of oil and a light buff to show a soft sheen. Let me know which one you’d like and I’ll set the knot, give it a few more coats/buff and get it out to you probably Saturday if that’s Ok. I need that time as it’ll be 1 maybe 2 coats per day.”
Obviously the middle one was the choice as it comes from the original Ennerdale yew tree. And it looks fantastic. “Beejay also sent a travel tube with a lovely wooden lid, the handle on the left in the picture above as a spare, a wooden pen and a letter with more details of the brush and comprehensive usage and care instructions.
So out of the disaster of breaking the marble brush handle I now a have a special, unique, very high quality brush which is a work of art as well as being a functional tool. “Beejay” has excelled himself in delivering such a great product with a great service. And the whole exercise has cost very little compared with buying an equivalent top end shaving brush off a shop shelf.