Before plastics were invented, polished horn was the choice material for buttons, shoe horns, combs, spectacle frames, mugs etc. Like plastic, horns are relatively lightweight, long-lasting, and easy to work with. With the advent of plastics, however, the synthetic material has widely taken the place of the traditional horn, producing cheaper and more aesthetically-perfect products.
However, here are many advantages to using a natural material such as ox horn compared to a synthetic one like plastic.
Horn products are usually stronger than plastic counterparts
While the strongest plastics are many times stronger than horn, the plastics used in place of horn in everyday products such as combs, shoe horns, and buttons are usually weaker than their horn counterparts. As such, you’ll rarely find reports of horn buttons snapping in the washer, while snapped plastic buttons are commonplace (retailers even give you an extra plastic button for these).
Horn products last longer
Unlike the plastics used in place of horn, horn products do not turn brittle and weak under exposure to heat and light.
Horn products are microscopically softer
While horn possesses higher tensile strength (it does not snap or bend easily) compared to plastics, it is also softer – the surface of horn is more easily scratched than comparable plastics. This is an advantage especially for horn combs and ox horn shoe horns because they are working on other microscopically soft, natural materials such as your hair and shoe leather. Whereas the surface of plastic degrades your hair texture and shoe leather through friction, horn does not.
This “softness” is because horn is made of a natural protein matrix which gives up material more easily than the complex polymer chains of plastic.
Horn products do not carry static charge
Unlike synthetic plastic combs, horn combs will not cling to your hair or cause it to frill as they disperse any static charge quickly. Horn combs glide through your hair much more easily.
They’re ornamental too
Because plastic is the cheaper and more widely used material, horn – with its natural color variations and striations – can be a point of interest for others when they see it. Ox horn shoe horns can easily double up as an ornamental piece when not in use.
Simple tests to distinguish genuine horn from plastic
With today’s technology, plastics can easily imitate the natural colour variations and striations of horn. Plastic and horn products also weigh about the same, so it can be difficult to distinguish the wheat from the chaff. Because horn products are usually more costly, you’d want to make sure you’re getting the genuine thing.
1. Smell the laser engraved logo on horn products
If your horn product comes with a laser-engraved logo like ShoeTree Project’s Ox Horn Shoehorn, you can give this a smell test. Because ox horn is made of protein, it should smell similar to a barbeque (in which protein in meat is burnt). The surface of the laser-engraved area should also look like faintly-charred bone.
Laser-engraved plastics usually have no lasting smell.
2. Conduct a burn test
Choose an inconspicuous area of the product (such as the tip of the handle) and put a lighter fire to it. Genuine horn does not catch fire easily, and creates a soft, flaky ash that turns to powder. The burnt area should also smell like a barbecue.
Plastics on the other hand will catch fire easily and melt. It will also produce a hard residue. The upside of this test is that it disposes of your plastic trash for you, but be sure to get ready to put the fire out!