Before plastic was introduced in India, combs were made of wood, bamboo, metal, bone, and ivory. Whether simple in design or an intricate work of art, comb-making was a hereditary craft. Now the craft product is viewed as an object of curiosity and decorative value rather than as an object of everyday use. The share of the market controlled by wooden comb-makers has dwindled and they are now focusing on crafting hair ornaments and pins, along with intricately carved spoons, ladles, and other items of cutlery.
This hereditary craft uses tools that are crafted by the artisans themselves with the help of an ironsmith. The wood used for a quality comb is deodar, ebony, or any other strong wood that is locally available. The wood is cleaned and given its outer shape with the help of a file. The piece is gripped firmly with the feet; the seating posture resembles an inverted lid with its three sides raised by about 6 inches to 8 inches with a nail strategically positioned as a hold for the foot. The finishing file is double layered, with one of the layers having sharply serrated edges and the second layer serving as a moving measure to mark the length of the comb while the teeth are being sawed. A special file is used to smoothen the teeth. No pencils or markers are used, no designs are drawn, and the designs are made entirely in free hand. A simple wooden comb takes about an hour to make, while a complicated and intricately designed one can take up to three days. A comb that is regularly used lasts only for a month, thereby ensuring regular employment to the comb-maker. The wide-toothed side is meant to be used before the narrow side to prevent the teeth from breaking.
An interesting and ingenious product is the oil dispensing comb in which oil is poured in through a central aperture open at the top of the spine. When the aperture is filled with oil, the opening is closed firmly. When the comb is used this oil comes out evenly from tiny holes in the teeth and the hair is thus oiled and combed at the same time.
In Bastar, in Chattisgarh, combs have a special significance. Among the young Muria tribes the boys gift either wooden or brass combs to the girl(s) of their choice and the status of the girl is enhanced by the number of combs she possess. These combs are carved by the boys themselves using very simple tools. They are used by both boys and girls as a hair ornament and are embellished with motifs of birds, fish, animals, warriors, and fertility symbols. The combs are made of bamboo spikes tied with sago-palm fibres or with fine thread. They are cherished possessions and it is taboo to use someone else’s comb(s). In Central India wooden combs are still being used by tribals and villagers, though they are being replaced increasingly by plastic combs. Wood and horn combs were once popular among the Banjaras, though the craft has now been abandoned. Ivory combs were popular at the turn of the 19th century and were used by the nobility and royalty. More common, however, were combs made of horn — whether of rhino, buffalo, or bison. This craft has all but disappeared. Artistic brass combs were made by tribals in Central India using the cire perdure process. These combs were large and heavy and used only on festive occasions as hair ornaments.