Guide to Drum Carders - Felting Fridays

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As I'm sure some of you noticed on my FB page, I've been laying low since the start of the new year. It's been a bit of a rough start (not business-wise but personal stuff), not to mention making small adjustments to my diet (nutrition is something else I'm passionate about) and dealing with what seems to be some form of pharyngitis. Can't think what else it might be, since I've lost some energy and have a sore throat which is affecting my voice but with no additional cold or flu symptoms. Or, as my 4 year old just said to me "I can't hear you because you're too sick." (Seriously, she was just building something out of Legos, and intentionally included a mini-figure that was bent over at the waist, saying that it's "sick and tired. Are you sick and tired mommy? He's sick and tired too." Thanks, dear.)

So what to do when I don't have much energy to focus on anything else? Play around with my new drum carder of course! And by play around, I mean I documented everything about it just shy of making an unboxing video. I would have but it was a gift from my husband so I kindof knew but didn't actually know until I opened it (no, I didn't peek, but I did let him know that's what I wanted, and we talked about the different kinds and options far more than he would normally care to know about). Don't get me wrong, I am far from an expert on the topic, but I thought I'd take pictures along the way as I figure it out so you don't have to.

One of my first screw ups. This was how much fiber was stuck between the drums after I just finished doffing off the batt. This is also before I figured out I can use a burnishing (blending) brush to help me pack the wool on thick.

Here's all I learned about drum carders from my research

  • There are double-drum and triple-drum carders (mine is a triple).

  • The smaller drum(s) is called a licker, and that typically has a coarser cloth on it than the main drum called the swift. I have seen drum carders where the cloth on both the licker and swift are the same TPI. From what I read, both of the smaller drums on a triple-drum carder are called lickers.

  • The TPI number, or teeth per inch, tells you how coarse it is, with a lower number being coarser than a higher number. The ones I've seen come in a range from 54 TPI for extra coarse (great for highly textured batts), 72 TPI (medium or standard, great in-between cloth), 90 TPI, 120 TPI, and even 190 TPI. The teeth on coarser cloths are a bit thicker/stiffer, so you don't have to worry about them bending/needing to replace the cloth as often.

  • Some drum carders allow you to adjust the spacing between the licker and the swift. You will want more spacing, about 1/4" for a coarser cloth, such as 72 or lower.

  • You can make smooth batts/roving on coarser cloths, but you can't do textured batts on finer cloths. A coarser cloth just means you have to do extra passes on it to get it smooth.

  • Finer cloths can cause more breakage with wool, one of the many possible causes behind nepps (others being things like including second cuts in the fiber, tender tips, careless carding, or leaving too much lanolin on the wool).

  • Fine cloths are used for carding plant/man-made fibers and very fine wool. Unless all you plan on carding are merinos, silks or plant fibers (such as cotton), stick to the coarser cloth.

  • Let's just say if you're a felter, you want the coarsest cloth you can get.

  • You can get belt-driven and chain-driven drum carders. The vast majority of drum carders on the market are belt-driven (the belts can be replaced), and chain-driven ones tend to be more expensive, however with chains you don't have to worry about the belt slipping. Chain would probably make sense for anyone who plans on processing a lot of wool and/or selling commercially, but my opinion is that it's overkill for a hobbyist. So far I haven't had any issues with the belt slipping, and my guess is if yours starts to slip, it probably means it's time for a new belt.

  • As with blending boards, you can either choose to leave it in a "batt" form or you can diz-off into roving. You can get what are called "roving" carders which are about half the width of a regular drum carder, but that just seems like extra work to me just for that purpose alone. Get a roving carder if you don't want to card large amounts of wool or if you're short on space to store it. Carders take about the same amount of space as a slow-cooker (for comparison), just remember to check the dimensions of the one you wish to get.

  • You will see some sites list a ratio with their drums. That is how many times the swift turns before the licker makes a complete revolution. Most of the time I see 5:1 or 4:1. That means you turn the crank 5 times (or 4) before the little drum turns all the way around.

  • Some carders come with a packing brush attachment. If this is the only thing that has you stuck deciding between one or another carder, I provide another solution further down in the post (mine does not come with a packing brush).

Use a dark or grey wool to break in a brand new drum carder or carding cloth. Not an issue if you obtain a used one.

Here are a few sites for budget-friendly drum carders. Yes, they are expensive, but we're talking about a difference of spending $300-400 versus $800 and up. The one I got is the Howard Brush carder, which for some inane reason sells for $636 on Woolery's site when you can get it directly from the manufacturer's site for $375. (Just that fact alone makes me think twice about shopping on there unless I absolutely have to have something that nobody else has.) I am not an affiliate of any of these, just passing on what I've found.

  • Howard Brush triple-drum carder (my baby)

  • Kitten Drum Carder (small family-owned business, these babies are built by hand - they do have other carders available but the Kitten is their cheapest one)

  • Brother Drum Carder. This one seems to be an extremely popular budget-friendly starter-carder, as I've seen people re-sell these on the Facebook fiber de-stash pages when they upgrade. Huge benefit is that you can get one for lefties or righties. Most of the other drum carders are right-hand crank.

Using a doffing stick at the carding cloth seam. This is the strip you will need to pry up should you need to replace your cloth. Do not use your doffing stick anywhere else on the carder to prevent unnecessary damage.

What I've learned while using a drum carder

  • First things first: when you get your brand new drum carder - not an issue if you bought one used - you want to use a dark wool to prime it or break it in (some say clean it but I think priming makes more sense). There may be some residual oils and metal dust on it which I assume might stain lighter wool. What you definitely don't want to do is make your first art batt right out of the box. Or, if you do, just make it a dark or grey one. From what I read, any residue from the carder doesn't make the wool unusable, so don't worry about having to toss it afterward.

  • Feed it small amounts of fiber, and use a flicker to open up the ends before feeding it in. Take your time building up the wool on the carder. You do not have to feed it through the licker either. You can lay the wool directly onto the swift, and you definitely want to go that route when incorporating locks into a textured batt. Hold the wool firmly in one hand as you slowly turn the drum, allowing it to catch some of the teeth. When feeding it through the chute, do not pull the fiber tight! All that does is get the wool on the licker and not transferred onto the drum. The licker's job is to push the wool towards the drum which picks it up,

  • Go slow. Carding is a slow, relaxed, zen-like process. The last thing you want to do is tear up your wool.

  • Pick up a few porcupine quills. They're thin and flexible enough to allow you to get those fibers stuck in your cloth without damaging your carding cloth. One should be enough, but you may accidentally bend/break one so good to have an extra on hand. I found mine on amazon, but I've seen them on Etsy and on Ebay as well.

  • Don't overfeed your carder. You can cause it to jam up, and you may have to back it up to pull the other fiber out. I learned this the hard way, because after I finished pulling my bat off the drum (this process is known as doffing), I turned it again and apparently there was all this wool that had gotten stuck under one of the lickers. Oops. It didn't get jammed up though.

  • You can use a doffing mesh. This is a fine netting that fits over the teeth and on the cloth, which makes doffing the fiber off supposedly easier. I have not tried this method personally, because it really seems like it might end up being extra work anyway between getting the mesh all the way on the cloth and then pulling it off. I do have quite a bit of tulle which I think should fit, so I may give it a shot at some point and report back. I did read that it is recommended to use one when carding especially fine fibers, because it's apparently difficult to get those off the carder.

  • To doff off (and diz off if you're making roving), you use your doffing stick at the seam on your carding cloth - typically a wooden band that sits somewhere on the drum. You run your doffing stick under the wool and pull it up off the carder, then pull it down going with the grain of the teeth (turning the drum backwards) as you slowly tug the fiber off. It should come off in one sheet for the most part, though there will be remnants that get stuck. This is when you grab your handy porcupine quill and pull the fiber up off the carding cloth and rejoin it with the batt. I do this as I go along, slowly pulling it up and using the quill to assist where needed.

  • If you're going to run your batt through the carder again, don't feed the whole sheet in at once. Split it up into thin sheets, being careful to keep the fibers all going in the same direction (after all you don't want to undo the carding you just did) and slowly feed it back through the chute/licker. There was a fine dust from particles in the wool on the pull-out board, so I like to clean/wipe it off between recarding so it doesn't go back in with the wool.

  • The wool that gets stuck on the lickers aren't the good pieces from the wool This is where the second cuts, short fibers, nepps, etc. get stuck. Don't ask me how the carder knows which parts are the good stuff and which is not so good. This is some kind of crazy magic. That being said, if you're planning on spinning the fiber, this stuff gets chucked. If you're needle felting (like I am), these "crap" pieces are still useful, but you may choose to use it as a texture in your piece or just mix it in with the core wool where it still serves its purpose but doesn't affect the look of your art.

  • You do want to keep your carders clean. By leaving fluff sitting around, you can attract wool moth larvae, which look like fuzzy grains of rice. The last thing you want is for your next batt to pick up these larvae and incorporate them into your work where they can eat your 3D wooly from the inside-out. There are better ways to make hollow objects.

  • If you have a blending board/blending brush, you can use your blending brush to help push the fibers down on the carder after it's been carded a bit so you can add more wool. Before I used one, I was limited in how much I could add to the carder before it started getting backed up. I am pretty sure it's essentially the same thing as a burnishing brush which you can purchase for your carder separately. You can also use a packing brush (it's a wide, stiff-bristle brush that helps you pack the wool on). Why spend more money if you already have something like that laying about?

Make sure you get all the fiber up. If you need to get in at a better angle, attack from both sides. Pull up on the doffing stick and move side to side until the batt starts to separate.

Cleaning the drum carder is a real PITA, unless you're a weird nit-picky type like me. Then maybe it's more of a PITA because you'll go crazy trying to get it all off, but with this odd mixed in bit of satisfaction when it's done. I've seen sites that recommend using the doffer stick to help pick it out, however you're more likely to damage your carding cloth that way. Especially if you got the HB one, because that stick is a 1/2" dowel with a pointy end. Grab your handy quill and maybe a pair of needlenose tweezers for those stubborn bits and work on cleaning off your licker(s), then the swift, then the licker again (and back and forth and so on until it's "good enough"). Remember how I've mentioned dog brushes a few times to use as hand carders? Those make fairly quick work of most of it, just turn the drum and brush with the grain. If you have a flicker brush, you can use that. Another awesome tool is to get a stiff boar-bristle hair brush (you can get one for about $6 or so on amazon) and use that to really brush the stuff out. Getting your carder uber clean isn't important if you're carding similar colors, but you'll want to make sure it's really clean if your switching different colors, and especially if you're carding an all-white batt. You can also use my trick from my blending board post, grab a can of dust remover (the stuff you use for keyboards/electronics) and blow any dust off after you're done cleaning the drums. So far my favorite way to get it clean has been by using the dog brush. 

Use a porcupine quill to help you lift fiber off the drum while doffing off your batt.

To sum up: how I use my drum carder:

  • For the first carding, I put the wool directly on the swift while turning the handle. This way I have better control over where the wool goes and makes it a lot easier to ensure even coverage, and not having to worry about it getting backed up between the licker and swift. It's a bit harder making sure you don't have gaps using the chute.

  • I turn the crank a few times to make sure it's all nicely carded, then I hold the blending brush in one hand as I continue cranking the handle. I can slowly move the brush across as I'm going making sure it's all down.

  • After using the blending brush, I add another thin layer of wool. Think about how you use a blending board (burnishing between each color/layer), you're doing the same thing here.

  • Continue adding, carding and burnishing until your batt is as thick as you want it to be.

  • Doff the wool off the swift (going backwards), using your porcupine quill as you go to make sure it's all off the drum and in your hand.

  • Crank the handle a few times to make sure nothing's stuck where you can't see it.

  • If you're going to card it again, pull apart from the ends (not the sides) to keep the fibers in line, and this time you can feed it through the chute. Make sure your layers are nice and thin.

  • Once you're done, clean off the licker(s) and swift with a pet brush going with the grain while turning the drum, stopping to use your quill and needle nose tweezers to get the really stubborn bits. I find that if I turn the drum while cleaning it with my brush, it also picks up some of the fiber from the lickers. The swift is easier to clean because it's more accessible.

If you have the money and lots of wool to play around with, I recommend getting one. These are so much fun!

Happy Felting!