When Spoons Got Dull, He Turned to Something With Teeth

Architect of style: Francis Breen. Photos by Evan Anderson

Francis Breen of Worry Knot Woodwork is not overly concerned with haircare routines. The Asheville-based craftsman admits he cuts his own “little, silly mullet” and washes it with a dash of soap. So it’s a little surprising to learn that he almost exclusively produces elaborate combs and hair accessories out of his studio at Foundation Woodworks.

For Breen, the decision to major in combs came not from a passion for hair but from an apathy toward kitchen utensils. Ten years ago, he moved from Washington, D.C., to a community in Madison County, where he was introduced to spoon carving. As he waded deeper into Western North Carolina’s craft scene, though, he noticed an overabundance of handmade spoons, spatulas, cutting boards, and the like. Soon bored with kitchen apparatuses, he began making shipping crates for internationally known concept artist Mel Chin (based in Burnsville) in 2013.

The woodworker, who says he doesn’t style his own hair with anything but his fingers, uses scrap hardwood to make his fine combs, which double as pocketable “worry” objects.

“Mel and his main fabricators, Barron Brown and Keith Grenoble, were a huge inspiration to me at that time. They have this wonderful ‘make anything out of anything’ sort of attitude,” says Breen. “Throw in Mel’s exacting tastes and hypercritical eye, and I left that shop feeling like I reached a new level of artistic ability.”

Working alongside Chin also allowed Breen to disentangle himself from timeworn expectations about craft. He learned that woodworking could be more than furniture making or spoon carving. “I started to think about different small objects I could make and feel good about putting into the world,” says Breen, who fashioned his very first comb in Chin’s shop. “It was a little eight-tooth number with a cute, floppy-eared bunny carved on top whose claws became the teeth,” he says.

In 2015, after studying the genre through the Professional Crafts Program at Haywood Community College, Breen founded Worry Knot Woodwork. Besides being a play on words, the business name is a kind of mantra: Sure, Breen’s combs can go to work on gnarly hair knots, but they also have a soothing effect.
Carried around in one’s pocket, they “have a calming force,” says Breen, “like a worry stone.”

Using a comb made of wood — as opposed to plastic or metal — also has practical and environmental benefits. Unlike a typical store-bought comb, Breen’s products absorb the natural oils from one’s scalp, helping correct overly greasy or dry hair. They’re made from wood scraps that might otherwise end up in a landfill.

Most of Breen’s pieces begin with a block of native hardwood, like walnut or apple, that his studio mates have no use for. He then uses a bandsaw or table saw to cut the teeth, much like slicing a loaf of bread. From that point, he uses a file to perfect the shape and then moves to sandpaper. To finish, he polishes with walnut oil.

He confesses he styles his own hair with nothing more than his fingertips. “But my products are not about me,” Breen clarifies. “I just want to put really simple, joyful objects into people’s hands.”

Francis Breen, Worry Knot Woodwork at Foundation Woodworks, 17 Foundy Street, Suite 10, in Asheville’s River Arts District (foundationwoodworks.com). Breen’s hairpins are carried at Echoview Fiber Mill (76 Jupiter Road, Weaverville, echoviewnc.com). His work will be carried by Greenhouse (15 Zillicoa St., Montford) through the end of September. On Instagram: @worryknotwoodwork

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