EVEN the family dog belonging to the business brains behind Apsley’s Kent Brushes is groomed using one of the factory’s most expensive products – a handmade brush that will set you back £145, but will last a lifetime.
The humble hairbrush has become a booming business for Alan and Marcia Cosby, whose four children grew up surrounded by the latest sample brushes scattered around the home and business talk across the dinner table.
So it was no surprise when only son Ben, 36, asked to join the firm after completing a foundation course in art at the University of Herts.
But it was no easy ride to the top for the dad-of-two, who is now the creative director.
Mum Marcia said: “He came in and worked on the factory floor – he had no priority. He learned how to use every machine, we sent him to Germany where the machines are made and he had to do a period of time there. Alan has made him work in every area. Now his main job is the design.”
Kent Brushes is the longest standing manufacturer of brushes in the UK and holds the Royal Warrant, a mark of excellence indicating that the product is used by the Royal household.
It was first awarded by King George III and has been given to the company by eight successive monarchs since.
But, as the name suggests, it was not the Cosbys who founded the business.
The firm was started in 1777 by the Kent family but when the last Kent brother, Arthur, died the London-based firm went up for sale.
It was bought by Eric Cosby, the grandfather of today’s owner Alan.
For a short spell the firm was known as Kent Cosby before reverting to its original name.
And the Kent family is still involved in the success story – three family members work in the factory.
The brush firm, previously based in London, moved out to Hemel Hempstead in 1901.
A factory was built alongside the River Gade, which meant timber and coal could be transported by barge to the site’s own wharf.
This factory was demolished 20 years ago and a new one built with parts of the site being sold off and taken up by Dunelm Mill and Wickes.
Despite the changes one thing that has prevailed is the firm’s wooden hand-made brush.
It’s the most expensive item in the catalogue and each one takes a week to make.
The natural bristles, which are made from the hair of boars sourced from China or India – the colder the climate, the stiffer the bristle – are fixed into place using the ‘hand drawing’ technique, where the bristles are held in place by wire, or by ‘long holding’ when string is used instead.
To complete this part of the brush takes an experienced worker 90 minutes – and that’s just one tiny part of the making process.
Wood shaping, drilling, sanding and shaping, lacquering, buffing and polishing all play their part in the creation of a world-class product.
The Kent hand makers – a crew of three ladies – also turn their hands to restoring heirlooms that have been passed down through generations.
“We get lots of old beautiful brushes sent to us to have the bristles replaced,” said Marcia.
But today, this is just a small part of the business.
Marcia said: “Clearly we would have gone out of business if we carried on making only hand-made brushes.
“Now we do brushes for salons, traditional brushes and still make some hand-made brushes.”
Other products include toothbrushes, super-soft brushes for babies, clothes brushes, make-up brushes, shower brushes, nail brushes, combs and shaving brushes.
The plastic handle brushes are made in the Far East, mainly Korea.
Hand-made combs, saw cut and then hand polished and buffed to create soft-rounded teeth which don’t damage the scalp, come come from India and Scotland.
Today Kent Brushes are available at upmarket department stores like Fortnum and Mason and Harrods, as well as high street retailers such as John Lewis, Boots, a variety of supermarkets and, most recently, hairdressing salons.