Although straight razors were once the principal method of manual shaving, they have been largely overshadowed by the safety razor, which incorporates a disposable blade. Electric razors of various types have also been an available alternative, especially since the 1950s. Despite this, straight razors still hold a market share, and forums and outlets provide products, directions, and advice to straight razor users. Straight razor manufacturers still exist in Europe, Asia (especially Japan), and North America. Antique straight razors are also actively traded.
- 1 History
- 2 Parts description
- 3 Construction
- 4 Handle materials and their properties
- 5 Blade geometry and characteristics
- 6 Stability and balance
- 7 Uses
- 8 Usage
- 9 Modern use
- 10 References
The first narrow-bladed folding straight razors were first listed by a Sheffield, England manufacturer in 1680. By 1740, Benjamin Huntsman was making straight razors complete with decorated handles and hollow-ground blades made from cast steel, using a process he himself invented. Huntsman's process was adopted by the French sometime later; albeit reluctantly at first due to nationalist sentiments. The English manufacturers were even more reluctant than the French to adopt the process and only did so after they saw its success in France.
Sheffield steel, a highly polished steel, also known as 'Sheffield silver steel' and famous for its deep gloss finish, is considered a superior quality steel and is still used to this day in France by such manufacturers as Thiers Issard. Straight razors were the most common form of shaving before the 20th century and remained common in many countries until the 1950s.
Straight razors eventually fell out of fashion. Their first challenger was manufactured by King C. Gillette: a double-edged safety razor with replaceable blades. These new safety razors did not require any serious tutelage to use. The blades were extremely hard to sharpen, and were meant to be thrown away after one use, and rusted quickly if not discarded. They also required a smaller initial investment, although they cost more over time. Despite its long-term advantages, the straight razor lost significant market share. As shaving became less intimidating and men began to shave themselves more, the demand for barbers providing straight razor shaves decreased.
The parts of a straight razor and their function are described as follows: The narrow end of the blade rotates on a pin called the pivot, between two protective pieces called the scales or handle. The upward curved metal end of the narrow part of the blade beyond the pivot is called the tang and acts as a lever to help raise the blade from the handle. One or two fingers resting on the tang also help stabilize the blade while shaving. The narrow support piece between the tang and the main blade is called the shank, but this reference is often avoided because it can be confusing. The shank sometimes features decorations and the stamp of the country of origin. The top side and the underside of the shank can sometimes exhibit indentations known as fluting, or jimps for a more secure grip. The curved lower part of the main blade from the shank to the cutting edge is called the shoulder. The point where the shoulder joins the cutting edge is called the heel.
A thick strip of metal running transversely at the junction where the main blade attaches to the shank is called the stabiliser. The stabiliser can be double, single or can be absent in some razor models. The first stabiliser is usually very narrow and thicker and runs at the shank to blade junction, covering the shank and just spilling over to the shoulder. The second stabiliser can be distinguished since it is considerably wider and narrower, appearing after the first stabiliser and running lower into the shoulder.
The arched, non-cutting top of the blade is called the back or the spine while the cutting part of the blade opposite the back is called the cutting edge. Finally the other free end of the blade, at the opposite end of the tang, is called the point and, sometimes, the head or the nose.
There are usually two, but sometimes three, pins in the handle. The middle pin, if present, is plastic coated and is called the centre plug. Its function is to stabilise the sides of the handle so that they cannot be squeezed in the middle and acts as a bridge between them. When folded into the scales, the blade is protected from accidental damage, and the user is protected from accidental injury. During folding, the back of the blade, being thick and normally with a curved cross-section, acts as a natural stopper and prevents further rotation of the blade out of the handle from the other side. The frictional force between the scales and the tang applied about the pivot is called the Tension and it determines how freely the blade rotates about the point of rotation. A proper amount of tension should be present, for safety reasons, to ensure that the blade does not spin freely when opening or closing.
Straight razors consist of a blade sharpened on one edge and a handle attached to the blade through a pin. The blade can then rotate in and out of the handle. The blade can be made of either stainless steel, which is resistant to rust but can be more difficult to hone, or high-carbon steel, which is much easier to hone, obtains a sharper edge but will rust more easily than stainless steel if neglected. Cheap stainless steel straight razors from Asia and more expensive stainless steel and carbon steel razors from Europe are available.
A razor blade starts as a shape called the blank supplied by the steel manufacturer.
The first step is to clean the blank using a heavy forge. The material used for open razors is steel with a minimum carbon content of 0.6%. This percentage of carbon content ensures optimum hardness, flexibility and resistance to wear. Following the forging stage, a hole is drilled in the tang at the pivot point. This is a crucial step, since after the steel hardening process it would be impossible to drill. This process requires great skill.
Hardening and tempering
The steel is hardened through a special process where the forged steel blade is heated up to approximately 760 degrees Celsius (or about 1400F) dependent on the specific steel. This heating enables fast and uniform heating of the steel at the optimum temperature for maximum hardness. The tempering stage follows the hardening process, where the blade is heated in a bath of oil at a temperature between 200 °C - 400 °C. Tempering imparts the steel its flexibility and toughness according to the phase diagrams for steel. There are three types of steel blade according to the level of tempering it has received. Hard-tempered, medium-tempered and soft-tempered. Hard-tempered edges last longer but sharpening them is difficult. The converse is true for soft-tempered blades. The characteristics of medium-tempered blades are in between the two extremes.
Subsequent to grinding, the blade is polished to various degrees of gloss. The finest finish, used in the most expensive razors, is the mirror finish. Mirror finish is the only finish used if gold leafing is to be part of the decoration of the blade.
Satin finish requires less polishing time and therefore is not as expensive to produce. This finish is mostly used with black acid etching. Satin finish can sometimes be applied, as a compromise, to the back of the blade while the mirror finish and gold leafing are applied to the more visible front of the blade. This way the blade will not be as expensive as a fully mirror finished one. Metal plating is also used, using nickel or silver, but it is not preferred because the plating eventually erodes through use revealing the underlying metal which is often of inferior quality.
The blade is decorated by engraving or gold leafing depending on the price. Less expensive blades undergo an electrolytic black acid engraving process. For more expensive blades, gold leafing applied by hand is employed, following a traditional process.
Sharpening is the final stage in the process. At first the blade is sharpened on a grinding wheel. Following that the blade can be honed by holding the blades against the flat side of rotating round stones, or by drawing the blade across stationary flat stones. The cutting edge is finished using a strop. Sharpening is usually not completed during manufacturing, instead being done after purchase.
Handle materials and their properties
Handle scales are made of various materials, including mother-of-pearl, Bakelite, celluloid, bone, plastic, wood, horn, acrylic, ivory and tortoise shell. Celluloid can spontaneously combust at elevated temperatures. Buffalo horn tends to deform with time and it possesses form memory so it tends to warp. Mother of pearl is a brittle material and can exhibit cracks after some use.
Resin impregnated wooden handles are water resistant, do not deform and their weight complements the blade's to provide good overall balance for the razor. Snakewood, Brosimum guianensis, is also suitable for long term and intensive use.
The mechanical properties of bone make it a good handle material. Handles were once made of elephant ivory, but this has been discontinued, though fossil ivory, such as mammoth, is still sometimes used, and antique razors with ivory scales are occasionally found (it is illegal to kill elephants for their ivory, but it is legal to buy an ivory-handled razor made before 1989).
Blade geometry and characteristics
The geometry of the blade can be categorised according to the following three factors: First according to the shape of the profile of the point of the razor, second according to the type of grinding method used for the blade; the degree of curvature, and therefore hollowness (or thinness), of the sides of the cross section of the razor blade depends on the grinding method. Finally the blades are categorised according to their width.
Blades are, at first, categorised according to point type. There are three main types of point:
- Round point. As the name implies the point profile is semicircular and therefore it lacks any sharp end points. As such it is a more forgiving blade than the other two types and, although lacking the pinpoint accuracy of the other two, it is recommended for relatively new users. There are also secondary edge types that derive from a combination of the above such as half round point incorporating round edges joined by a linear segment.
- Square, spike or sharp point, so-called because the point profile is straight and terminates at a very sharp point perpendicular to the cutting edge of the razor. This type of blade is used for precise shaving in small areas but, at the risk of pinching the skin, it requires some experience in handling.
- French (or oblique) point. Its point profile resembles a quarter circle, but with a sharper angled curve, and while it ends in a similarly sharp point as the square point it lacks the abrupt straight line edge profile. The difference between these two is mainly aesthetic, although the French point may help to shave "difficult spots" such as under the nose.
The second category refers to the type of grinding method used and, since it affects the curvature of the blade cross section, includes the following two main types of blade grinds:
- Hollow grind, indicating that the sides of the blade cross section are concave.
- Flat or straight grind, indicating that the sides of the blade cross section are linear. This cross section most closely resembles a wedge and therefore this blade is sometimes called the wedge.
The combination of the types found in these two classification categories can, in theory, lead to a wide variety of blade types such as round point hollow ground, square point flat ground etc., but in practice some points are combined with a specific grind. As an example, a French point blade is usually flat ground.
A hollow grind produces a thinner blade than the flat grind because it removes more material from the blade (hollows or thins the blade more). The hollow-ground blade flexes more easily and provides more feedback on the resistance the blade meets while cutting the hair, which is an indicator of blade sharpness. Hollow-ground blades are preferred by most barbers and some high-end razor manufacturers limit their production exclusively to hollow ground razors.
The third and final category refers to blade width. The width of the blade is defined as the distance between the back of the blade and the cutting edge. It is expressed in units of eighth of an inch. The sizes vary from 3/8” up to 7/8”, rarely 8/8”. A wider blade can carry more lather, much like a scoop, during multiple successive shaving strokes and thus it allows the user more shaving time and minimises blade rinse cycles. The disadvantage of the wider blade is that it is not as manoeuvrable as a narrower blade. A narrow blade can shave tight facial spots such as under the nose, but it must be rinsed more often. The most popular blade width size is 5/8”.
Stability and balance
The degree of hollowness and thus the cross sectional area (thickness) of the blade vary depending on the grinding method used. Higher degree of hollowness in the blade implies a thinner cross section and this affects the stability (bending or buckling properties) of the blade; the thinner the blade the more flexible it is. The length and weight of the blade and handle and their relation to each other determines the balance of the straight razor.
For hollow-ground blades stability is augmented by a transverse stabiliser in the form of one or two narrow strips of thicker metal running from the back of the blade to the end of the shoulder (at the junction where the blade meets the shank). This piece, if present, is simply called the stabiliser (single or double) and indicates a hollow ground blade, since a flat ground blade is massive and stable enough to not need a stabiliser. A double stabiliser implies 1/1 (full) hollow ground blade. The stabiliser protects the blade from torsional bending in the transverse direction (transverse spine).
In addition to the transverse stabiliser a longitudinal stabiliser is sometimes created in the form of a ridge parallel to the cutting edge and the blade is ground in two areas or bevels, each with different degrees of hollowness or curvature; the area between the back of the blade and the ridge is typically less hollow featuring a larger radius of curvature, also called the "belly", and the area between the ridge and the cutting edge which is more hollow i.e. with a smaller radius of curvature. These two beveled areas have different curvatures and in a well-made razor they transition seamlessly in the ridge (belly) and the cutting edge respectively. Sometimes the number of bevels is three.
The ridge stabilizes the blade against flexing in the longitudinal direction by acting as a spine for the blade in that direction. The distance between the ridge and the back of the blade is inversely proportional to the hollowness of the blade and is described in fractional terms in ascending steps of 1/4 as, for example, 1/4 hollow, 1/2 hollow, or 4/4 or 1/1 (full hollow). Full hollow indicates that the stabilizing ridge is very close to the midsection of the blade and the farthest from the cutting edge compared to the other grades. This is considered the most expensive blade.
At the highest end of hollow ground, more hollow than even the 1/1 grade, is the so-called singing razor, so named because its blade produces a specific resonant tone when plucked, similar to a guitar string, however such use is not recommended as it can distort the cutting edge. Its manufacturing process is so demanding that a full 25% of the blades get rejected as not meeting standards.
Stability and sharpness
There is a tradeoff between stability and long term blade sharpness. A full hollow ground (1/1) blade can keep a very sharp edge even after a great number of honing cycles because of its high degree of hollowness but it is more susceptible to torsional bending because it is thinner. A partially hollow blade (1/2 or 1/4 for example) cannot sustain the same degree of sharpness for as long, because as the cutting edge erodes it can eventually reach the stabilising ridge faster, but it is more stable because it is less hollow. In addition a flat ground blade, since by definition is not hollow (curved) at all, is the most stable of the blades but because its cross sectional area is the largest it also feels heavier than hollow ground and this can affect the feel and balance of the blade.
A razor is well balanced if when opened it balances about its pivot pin, indicating that the torques about the pivot point, caused by the corresponding weight distributions of the blade and the handle along their respective lengths, counterbalance each other. A well-balanced razor is both safer to handle when open and easier to shave with.
The characteristics of each blade type determine the type of recommended uses for each blade as well as their maintenance routines.
Each type has its own strengths and weaknesses depending on the requirements of use.
Extra hollow blades such as singing blades are the thinnest and therefore they provide the best possible shave from all the other types. However they are also very flexible and therefore not suitable for tasks requiring increased pressure to the blade such as heavy beard growth etc. Care should also be taken when stropping so that the thin blade will not be overly stressed, since it cannot withstand abuse as well as lower grades. Flat ground razors are very stable and as such they can handle tough shaving jobs since they do not easily deform under pressure and they can take rough handling such as heavy stropping and honing.
Shaving is done with the blade at approximately an angle of thirty degrees to the skin and in a direction perpendicular to the edge; an incision requires the movement of the blade to be sideways or in a direction parallel to the edge. These circumstances are always avoided by the shaver, who always shaves in a direction perpendicular to the cutting edge of the blade.
To be most effective, a straight razor must be kept extremely sharp. The edge is delicate, and inexpert use may bend or fold over the razor's edge. To unfold and straighten the microscopic sharp edge, one must strop the blade on leather periodically.
To sharpen or finish the blade using a suspended strop, the razor is pushed toward the suspension ring while both the back and the cutting edge lie flat on the strop and with the back of the blade. No pressure should be applied on the cutting edge. A strop may be two sided with leather on one side and cloth on the other side. The cloth is used for blade alignment and sharpening. The leather is for finishing.
The stropping process involves sliding the razor blade flat on the strop; upon reaching the end of the cloth or leather near the suspension ring, the blade is turned about its back (clockwise for a right-handed barber; counter-clockwise for a left-handed one) until the cutting edge touches the strop. It is then pulled toward the rectangular handle of the strop with back and cutting edge flat on the strop as before. The blade is moved in a slightly diagonal direction so to give every point of the edge a chance to touch the strop, without applying too much pressure. This process aligns the cutting edge properly with the back of the blade, avoiding "bumps" on the cutting edge. Rotating the blade on the strop about the cutting edge can damage it because such use will impact the micro-alignment of the edge. Depending on use and condition, the blade can be sharpened occasionally by using a razor hone. Strops prepared with pastes containing fine grit are also used for honing but are not recommended for the inexperienced user, as they can easily rake off the edge if they apply the wrong amount or apply too much pressure.
Some strops have a linen or canvas back embedded with a fine abrasive used to maintain a sharp edge before final polishing with the leather side. A face's worth of thick hair may require multiple stroppings for one shave, but a blade is usually honed only two or three times a year. Occasional regrinding by a professional may be required to restore a badly worn or damaged edge.
Shaving soap in a cup is traditionally lathered and applied using a rotating in-and-out motion of a shaving brush, usually made of boar or badger bristles. The shave is completed using as few strokes as possible, stropping sparingly if at all. A second shave with another razor in an alternate direction against the beard yields an extremely close shave. Rinsing with cold water constricts minor abrasions or cuts, followed by patting dry (not rubbing) and an astringent or aftershave lotion. More serious nicks can be attended with direct pressure for perhaps a minute with a styptic pencil, or with an application of a household astringent such as witch hazel. A light steady touch is most effective at providing a close shave, preserving the edge and avoiding cuts.
In the heyday of straight razor shaving, wealthy users maintained a weekly "rotation" of seven razors to reduce wear on any one piece. Straight razors were often sold in special boxes of seven labelled for the days of the week. However, many users owned only one razor.
Straight razors are still manufactured. DOVO, of Solingen, Germany, and Thiers Issard of France are two of the best-known European manufacturers. Feather Safety Razor Co. Ltd. of Osaka, Japan, makes a razor with the same form as a traditional straight, but featuring a disposable blade that can be installed through an injector-type system.
Modern straight-razor users are known to favor them for a variety of reasons. Some are attracted to the nostalgia of using old and traditional methods of shaving. Others wish to avoid the waste of disposable blades.
Still others argue that straight razors provide a superior shave through a larger blade and greater control of the blade, including the blade angle. Straight razors cover a much greater area per shaving stroke, because their cutting edge is much longer than any of the multi-blade razors.
They also do not have to be rinsed as often, because their blade acts like a scoop and carries the lather on it during multiple shaving strokes, while the multi-blade razors are not nearly as efficient at such a task because of their considerably smaller blade geometry.
Straight razors are also much easier to clean and can handle tougher shaving tasks, such as longer facial hair, than modern multi-blade razors, which tend to trap shaving debris between their tightly packed blades and are easily clogged, even with relatively short stubble.
In addition, multi-edge razors can irritate the skin due to their multi-blade action, and this can lead to a condition known as pseudofolliculitis barbae, colloquially known as razor bumps. One of the recommended actions for those so affected is to switch to single blade use.
Others simply like the good results and the satisfaction of maintaining the blade themselves. Yet others cite aesthetic reasons in addition to the practical ones. A well-made blade, in a nice handle with a well-crafted etching and decorated shank, carries a sense of craftsmanship and ownership difficult to associate with a disposable blade cartridge.
Finally, a well-kept razor can last for decades, and can become a family heirloom that can be passed from parent to child. For all of these reasons, devotees of the straight razor make for an active market.
Some areas require barbers who provide straight-razor shaving to use a version that employs a disposable blade system. In places such as Turkey, Australia, New Zealand, Ontario, Pennsylvania, Denver, Boston, Texas and San Diego, however, the professional use of straight razors in barber shops is legal.
The 2012 James Bond film Skyfall has renewed interest in straight razors due to a scene when the agent shaves with one and his co-star Naomie Harris helps him finish shaving while remarking that “sometimes the old ways are the best”. Online straight razor retailers have reported increased sales ranging from 50% to over 400% due to the exposure generated by the film.
The increase in sales is part of an overall growth in demand for straight razors over the past three years which has also seen an increase in the number of barbers offering straight razor shaves. The phenomenon seems to be driven by renewed nostalgia for things retro such as the straight razor which evokes simpler notions of the past such as the "macho" image associated with its use and also the skill required to shave with it which can be a source of pride.
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- motherearthnews: "..Shaving with a straight razor is a very simple idea that will preserve your face and, in some small measure, the environment, as well."
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- Weblog: "I am skeptical of this product, though, because the Mach 3 does clog up badly and the blades of the new razor are allegedly even closer together."
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- E.B. (Nov 8th 2012). "James Bond and male grooming Getting stroppy". The Economist: Blighty Britain. Retrieved 23 November 2012. "Yet the latest cut-throat boomlet is part of a growing demand for classic razors and kit. Mr Mulreany notes that sales at his company have risen 240% in three years. He adds that he spends much of his time teaching grooming basics to men of all ages. “It used to be that dad would take his son into the bathroom and show him what to do,” he says. “I now meet men who have never shaved properly in their life.” More barbers are offering cut-throat shaves as well."
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