Increasing numbers of men are returning to the use of straight razors for their daily shave but some, certainly, are unsure just what to go for. This article should help them make that all-important first purchase.
So what to look out for in your first straight razor? Let’s look first at just what makes a straight razor what it is. A straight razor is, essentially, a very simple tool. The scales (sometimes called ‘the handle’ or ‘the sheaves’) aren’t even really necessary in terms of using the blade to shave with. Their only function is to protect the blade when the razor is not in use, and of course to provide a guard against the edge so you don’t accidentally cut yourself when handling the razor.
Most vintage razors that you will see for sale have a blade made from high-carbon steel that has been strengthened and tempered in order that an extremely fine – and sharp – edge can be achieved. Some older razors are made of cast steel but for the purposes of this article these can be ignored. Stainless steel, which is a relatively new invention, is now used in some modern razors and gives a longer-lasting edge but is more difficult to hone back to sharpness when the time comes.
The piece of steel that makes the blade of the razor is forged to shape and specially ground (the ‘hollow grind’) to optimum shape and profile. This was of course at one time done by hand but latterly by machine. Very few modern straight razors are hand-made and those that are made in this way are very expensive. When forged and ground, the blade is then finished by honing to a sharp edge. Again, this used to be done by hand but is now at least machine-assisted. It is worth noting that most new razors aren’t usually ‘shave ready’ and generally need some light honing and then stropping prior to use. This can be done by the buyer or the straight razor can be sent out to a specialist to be honed – these can easily by found on the internet and prices are usually very reasonable.
Properly looked after, a straight razor should only need honing perhaps twice yearly, though it will need stropping on a special leather strop before each shave. This in effect gives a ‘new edge’ for each shave and is one of the reasons that straight razors achieve such good results once the shaving technique is learned. Again, there are many resources on the internet to help the newcomer, including various forums run by razor collectors and enthusiasts who are always pleased to offer help and advice.
So why do some razors cost more than others? Well, some of this price is in the steel – the best quality Swedish carbon steel and very high-grade Sheffield carbon steel is more expensive than regular carbon steel. Also the degree of work in making the blade affects the price – the more shaping and grinding that is done, the higher the cost.
However, you can liken razors to wristwatches in some respects – after all, the movement – the ‘heart’ – of even the very best wristwatch can only be made so well. There comes a point when it cannot, mechanically speaking, be made any better. The rest is ‘window-dressing’ – gold bracelets, diamond-studded bezels and so on.
It’s the same with razors. Deeply-engraved blades, gold-washed blades, gold-plated tangs, fancy patterning and the like all add to the cost, as do scales made of progressively more expensive materials. The same blade fitted with standard plastic scales may be a third of the price – or less – than one clad in genuine mother-of-pearl – but it will give you the same close shave as its expensive variant!
With vintage razors there is also the complication of collectable desirability. It’s a truism to state that anything is only worth what someone is willing to pay for it and this is nowhere more true than with collectors. A razor made by a sought-after maker, or one to complete a collection, may fetch many times in excess of its original price, even allowing for inflation.
My own advice for someone wanting to take up the art of straight razor shaving is this: Don’t spend too much – it may not be for you. You should be able to pick up a perfectly usable razor on eBay for about £10 – £15 ($20 – $30). A strop might set you back another £30 ($60) but these can also be picked up on eBay, though make sure they’re not full of cuts! Look for a razor from either Sheffield or Solingen – avoid cheap Far Eastern razors like the plague, their track record is not good. Buy a ‘5/8’ (blade depth) hollow ground blade. They are easier to handle for newcomers than the really big stuff and, because they are more common, are usually cheaper.
Ensure that the blade isn’t worn (watch for statements like ‘minimal hone wear’ – these are the ones to go for) and especially that there are no nicks or cracks – however ‘insignificant’ or small – in the blade. Avoid any where the blade looks tapered with large flattened areas to top and edge – these are usually worn out and won’t shave well.
In conclusion, it pays for the first-time buyer to choose their first razor with some care. If a good, workmanlike piece with little wear and made in either Sheffield or Solingen comes up, chances are it will be ideal for your first foray into straight razors – and once you get used to one, chances are you won’t use anything else.