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by Steven D. Johnson
Racine, Wisconsin

This month:

Rag Time

Clay Carving Cast

Goodbye, Old Friend

5S Compliant Wall Cabinets, Part III

Rag Time

Click on any picture to see a larger version.

Over the past few months we have looked at several shop "commodities," including waxed paper, tape, and paper towels. The question occasionally comes up, "What exactly is a commodity?"

Strictly speaking, a commodity is any good or service that is freely traded in an open market. In the more common vernacular, though, a commodity is a product that demonstrates little or no difference regardless where, how, or by whom it was produced. It is a fungible (or partially fungible) product. Corn, wheat, and soybeans are commodities. Gold, silver, and copper are commodities. Gold is gold, whether it was dug from the ground in California, South America, or Africa.

We have seen that some of what we generally consider to be commodities actually demonstrate subtle differences in use. And we have seen that some commodities, no matter how hard the manufacturers try to achieve differentiation, are still basically the same… at least for our woodworking purposes. In this last installment in the series I was more forced than coaxed to look by necessity at what should be a very simple commodity… a basic white rag.

Figure 1 - On the left the telltale wrinkles indicate coarse
hard fabric. The ribbed fabric in the middle is usable,
but not ideal. The best rags are like those on the right.

All right… admission time… as the resident proponent of using 5S principles for workshop organization and efficiency, I should never admit to "running out" of a basic commodity, but it happens. I try to anticipate, plan, and be prepared, but sometimes I simply forget to order (or order enough of) the supplies I need.

I use a lot of rags. I wipe on a lot of finish… shellac, wiping varnish, oil varnish blends, urethanes, etc. My favorite (and best for the purpose) rags are made of T-shirt material, but since retiring, my T-shirt consumption has dwindled. Need a little explanation? The company I worked for required a suit and tie every day. Under a dress shirt a T-shirt is comfy and actually makes expensive dress shirts last longer. The T-shirts wore out fast and I never threw a single one away. Just cut away the seams and hems and what is left is perfect for French polishing or wiping Danish Oil .

No longer wearing suit and tie everyday (or perhaps ever again), my supply of white T-shirt material dwindled quickly and I was forced to shop, in the commodity marketplace, for rags. Eventually, I stumbled on some nice rags from Highland Woodworking . Their Cotton Finishing Rags are cost-effective and are made of a very nice low-lint fabric. But I sometimes run out of rags at the most inopportune times and am forced to shop locally. That's when the trouble starts.

Sometimes it is possible to find boxes or bags of rags in the local stores that are "okay." About half of the contents are legitimate T-shirt-like material and the other half are a ribbed, stretchy material that looks more like skivvy fabric or the material of which sleeveless tank top type shirts are made. That fabric does not work well for applying finishes and I really don't care to think about where or how the manufacturer obtained it. Only getting a few decent rags out of a "mystery contents" box is not cost-effective and is frustrating. And it seems that recently the locally available boxes and bags of rags have gotten even worse. The small amount of actual T-shirt fabric in the packages is now full of hems and seams that have to be cut away before the rags can be used. Shameful waste of time.

The last pack of rags I bought was stuffed with a stiff fabric – coarse and nowhere near as absorbent as T-shirt material. The fabric was reminiscent of hotel room bed sheets. Awful stuff.

Figure 2 - "Roll O' Rags"" is actually a stack of individual
rags of assorted sizes rolled up and wrapped with a label

A friend recommended "Roll O' Rags" from a company called Intex DIY, Inc. and available in some big-box stores.

For the most part, these rags are the real deal. A one-pound (0.45 Kg) package costs $3.98. That's roughly 50% more than the common mixed bag of T-shirt and skivvy rags usually found at big-box stores, but cheaper by the time you sort out all the "bad" rags from those bargain bags. It works out to be about the same price per pound as Highland's nice Cotton Finishing Rags.

Don't be misled by the "Roll O'" name, by the way… these are individual rags of various sizes that are stacked and rolled up… not one long continuous roll of fabric. The largest rag in the pack I bought measured almost 23" X 32." The smallest was about 6" X 9." There were no seams or hems. Unfortunately, the packages appear to contain a range of fabric from "new looking" to "very used looking." Some of the fabric had spots and some had gray lint… almost like someone washed the rags along with a few pair of old wool socks. But if you are in a pinch, in the middle of a finishing job, or simply forgot to add rags to your last Highland Woodworking order, these rags will work. In the future, though, be smart and add some rags to your next Highland order. In the long run, they are much better!

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