Here goes with columns 1 and 2 in a series which is so far just a notion.  Posting now in the hope of picking up sympathetic readers with suggestions to make. 

In 2002, the sci-fi writer William Gibson produced an essay, headlined Shiny Balls of Mud, which was reprinted a couple of years ago, in a collection of his odds and sods called Distrust That Particular Flavour.

Gibson is a fan of Tokyo and in particular of an eight-floor emporium called Tokyu Hands, in the Shibuya district, which caters for DIY activities up to and including diamond cutting.  He introduces us to it on his way to explain a Japanese obession with producing perfect spheres, known as Hikaru dorodango,  from hand-moulded clay.

He says: “When I first visited the Shibuya branch of Tokyu Hands, I was looking for a particular kind of Japanese sink stopper: a perfectly plain black sphere of rubber, slightly larger than a golf ball and quite a bit heavier, on a length of heavy-duty stainless-steel ball-chain.

“A Vancouver architect had shown me one. He admired the design for its simplicity and functionality: it found the drain on its own, seating itself.

“As the Abercrombie & Fitch of my father’s day was to the well-heeled sport fisherman or hunter of game, Tokyu Hands is to the amateur carpenter, or to people who take exceptionally good care of their shoes.

Tokyu Hands assumes that the customer is very serious about something.  If that happens to be shining a pair of shoes … he or she may need the very best German edge-enamel available for restoration of the sides of the soles.

“The secret of Tokyu Hands is that everything on offer there inclines, ultimately, to the status, if not the perfection, of hikaru dorodango.

“My delight at this place was immediate and intense. I had stumbled, I felt, upon some core aspect of Japanese culture, and everything I’ve learned since has only confirmed this.’

I am not very Japanese but I want to go to Tokyu Hands and I know family and friends who feel the same.  It has occurred to me before, during the holiday hours I spend browsing the depths of the local ironmonger, ferreteria or equivalent, that there is a website waiting to be born which acts as an international hardware and homeware catalogue for those of us who understand a polish designed for the edges of shoe-soles.

I thought there might be one already and Googled for Japanese sink stoppers, but got no closer than – where an eclectic academic called Gwern Branwen discusses the same  Gibson essay.  I must return there.  Meanwhile, I attempt, here, to reach out to those of you who go to Tenerife and come back with a device for pulling feet off poultry and drawing the tendons.

Actually, you can get one of those in this country –  And you might find one, or at least find somebody who knew where to get one, in a good “country stores” if it has not given in to the green wellies and horse blankets market.  We will look in on one or two of those later …




As my T-shirt might say, my wife went to Germany and all I got was a computer brush.  Her friends were baffled.  But she knew I would be delighted. It has soft bristles at one end, for the screen, and stiffer ones at the other, for between the keys.

It came from a street stall full of brushes for all jobs.  Similar stalls are common across Europe, according to Robin Silver, who has the best selection of brushes I have come across in his shop, The Home, in the elegant mall his late brother Jonathan made out of Salts Mill, Bradford.

He has dado brushes and crumb brushes, plughole brushes and Velcro brushes, and a brush for brushing other brushes – actually a kind of wire comb.  The door-to-door brush salesman of British legend must have had a suitcase filled with this sort of thing, but he presumably disappeared along with most of the British brush manufacturers.

Robin Silver guesses: “I think we moved on to plastic and nylon as we lost our Empire sources of low-cost materials and labour.  But Germany and France and Italy always made their own brushes from traditional materials and they kept on doing it.”

A lot of his brushes do come from Germany and German brushes clearly have an international following.  One of Mr Silver’s suppliers, Bürstenhaus Redecker (, produces both a catalogue and a quarterly magazine, Quergebürstet, in English.

It answers some of my questions.  Goat hair, which is very soft, is tops for dusting.  Horsehair is the standard for indoor brooms.  Palm fibres suit outdoor brooms.

There is much more at, website of a brush-maker in California …

Goat Hair:  A very fine hair with limited elasticity. It has a natural kink that cannot be straightened. Used for short, soft bristle brushes like cosmetic brushes.

Hog Bristle:  The best natural filling material for a wide variety of bristle brushes. Each strand of bristle has a natural taper from the butt or flesh end to the tip, giving it resilience not found in other hairs. In addition, the tip end of each bristle is naturally split into two or more branches called the flag. Hog bristle has a slightly stiff to very stiff texture and is excellent for ESD applications ” (* see note below).

Hog bristle is nowadays quite rare and expensive, by the way, because you do not get it from the smooth-skinned pig breeds developed for meat production.

* ESD means electro-static discharge – an important function for brushes used in industry.

Horsehair: Tail hair is stiffer than mane hair. Its soft to slightly stiff texture gives scratch-free dry cleaning and good durability. Not resistant to acids or alkalis. Used for floor sweeps, shoe-shine brushes, dusters, and window brushes; excellent for ESD applications.”

Ox Hair:  Perhaps the stiffest of all soft hairs. Ox hair is particularly sought after in brushes for fine lettering, striping and marking.”

Red Sable:  The hair of the red sable” (a kind of weasel)  “makes the finest artists’ brushes. Pure red sable hair has a perpetual taper, creating the finest point possible on a bristle brush.”

Skunk or Fitch (Polecat):  Combined with Chinese hog bristle, makes excellent sign writer’s brushes. Grey skunk hair from eastern and western Europe has been found to be ideal for bristle brushes used in the manufacture of shade cloth” (for parasols, canopies, etc.).

The Gordon Brush guide also covers the choosing of vegetable fibres, artificial fibres and metal wires, for jobs as different as street sweeping, vehicle cleaning, horse grooming, dental work and rust removal.

The wood that holds the sisal bristles of a standard scrubbing brush will probably be beech – cheap, and easy to cut and drill – says Robin Silver.  But he offers a nailbrush in pearwood at £8.95 and another, at £11.95, in something called Thermowood, which is a Finnish redwood, baked to make it fully water resistant.  Like plastic?  Er, well, yes, but then, functionality is not the only criterion.  Mr Silver guesses that many of his customers want to match their décor as much as anything.  But some are buying for function.  He has been told, for example, that steady demand for an old-fashioned pot scrubber is partly because it is particularly suitable for brass rubbing.

Badger hair is still rated best for shaving brushes because it can be tightly packed but goat may be better for sensitive skin.  Rubber bristles are the standard for suede.  Coconut fibres are just right for carpets.  Olive wood is reckoned good for hair brushes because it imparts some oiliness into the bristles.

Home maintenance guru Jeff Howell ( reckons natural bristles are still best for applying oil-based paint but they swell when wetted, so use synthetic for water-based paints.  For emulsioning big areas, use synthetic roller sleeves with a short pile.  Long-pile rollers are for rough surfaces.  The pros will use disposable foam sleeves to apply gloss paint and then go over it with a brush.


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1 Response to TALKING TOOLS 1 & 2

  1. Also reading Gibson on sink stoppers. I desire one terribly. Great blog.

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