In essence, the straight razor is a shaving blade with the ability to be folded into its handle. They are also known as open razors or even cut-throat razors and are not to be confused with the double edge razor that was described in detail before. Today, I’d like to start with a brief history of shaving, elaborate on the advantages and disadvantages of straight razor shaving, and provide a few tips on where and how to buy a straight-edge razor.
This is part of a series about traditional wet shaving. Take a look:
The act of shaving probably has its origins in Africa, some 100,000 years ago, back when cavemen began to pluck their facial hair using crude tweezers made of stone or notched seashells. The reasoning behind the sudden desire to rid themselves of their facial hair remains unclear. Whilst some simply see it as a result of the development of the essential tools and techniques required for the activity, others believe it was mainly to get rid of lice and other parasites.
Whichever the case might have been, around 30,000 BC men tired of individually plucking out their facial hairs and invented flint blades, which they were able to sharpen sufficiently in order to shave. Shortly after the introduction of flint, some men started using sharpened seashells as blades, though it was not until about 3000 BC, when mankind invented metalworking, that flint faced a serious rival. At around this time, copper-alloy razors appeared in ancient Egypt and India. The Egyptians switched to bronze razors between 1567 and 1320 BC, a big step forward in metallurgy.
During his war against Persia, Alexander the Great ordered his Greek and Macedonian soldiers to shave off their beards. This legacy survived his premature death, and his victorious army continued to shave, initiating a trend that was imitated by civilians through the empire. Alexander wasn’t alone in seeing the clean-shaven look as a step up for civilization. When Peter the Great became Russian tsar in the late seventeenth century, he too decided that beards were archaic and taxed anyone who wore one.
From the seventeenth century onwards, shaving technology improved enormously. The first recognizable straight razor appeared in Sheffield, England in 1680, and by the middle of the eighteenth century excellent-quality blades had become available.
Shortly before the First World War, Mr. King Camp Gillette patented his safety razor and made a deal with the U.S. armed forces. Every American soldier sent off to Europe was issued a Gillette safety razor in his backpack. However, when the men continued to use them after the war, it became apparent that the way that men liked to shave was changing. Nevertheless, enthusiasts of the traditional straight razor have refused to give up their tool of choice to this day, and the number of straight razor users seems to be increasing again.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Straight Razors
Using the straight razor gives you a smoother shave than even the most modern electric or safety razors, and if done accurately, reduces or eliminates razor burns and nicks. After the initial investment, it reduces the cost of shaving by eliminating the need for expensive razor cartridges or disposable blades. It also reduces the environmental waste cause by disposing of cartridge packaging material.
Straight razor shaving can make you feel like a craftsman – something not offered by the bare utility of a safety or electric razor. It is a daily exercise that will separate you from the masses. However, the price of quality that it takes a bit more effort and time to use than a simple safety razor, and most men do not have enough time to spend 20 minutes shaving.
Now, the shave itself should not take any longer than it does with a safety razor, but you’ll need additional time to maintain your blade, which has to be honed and stropped. Shaving with a straight razor also requires more concentration in the early morning hours than any other shaving alternative. So, you’ll have to grow accustomed to being more alert when you shave, in order to avoid hurting yourself.
How to Buy a Straight Razor
Unlike other razors,you can purchase straight razors either new or used! For example, you may find them on eBay, at flea markets or antique stores. Almost all used razors require serious reconditioning work before they can be used. A professional blade restoration will help you to avoid irritating your skin and causing nicks and cuts, but as a basic rule, if you are a novice to straight razors, you should abstain from using second-hand blades.
So, now you are in the market for a new razor. In my experience, you should buy one that is made either in Germany or France. This may seem harsh towards other manufacturers and indeed other countries, but I have tried many of them from around the globe and this is what I have found to be true. If you ever find yourself tempted to go for a new straight razor “budget” alternative, try not to give in and at least be extremely cautious. They may look wonderful, but they are frequently made from inferior steel and you will feel the difference on your skin. Many are in fact unusable.
To determine whether the quality of a straight razor is decent, you can employ the ´finger nail test´. Only the edge of a perfectly ground blade can visibly be bent on your thumbnail, returning immediately to its original shape when released. Cheap blades are too thick and don’t bend, which is why they are referred to by some as ´axes.´
German Straight Razors
When I say straight razors from Germany, I basically mean the town of Solingen, which has been the center of quality cutlery for ages. In my opinion, they produce the best blades and although I’m German, once you see the quality I think you’ll agree that there’s no bias here. Straight razors with the word Solingen on the blade are so good that the name had to be protected legally in 1938.
One of the commonly known brands from Solingen is Dovo. This venerable company was founded in 1906 by Mr. Dorp and Mr. Voss – hence the name Dovo. Over the years, Dovo has taken over a lot of other straight razor manufacturers (Tennis, Bismarck, Ankerflagge, Kronpunkt and Fontana), which brought together a wealth of manufacturing experience, resulting in a superior product. Generally, their straight razors will last for a long time and even their least expensive razors will serve you well for years as long as you maintain them properly. The lower end Dovo Best Quality razors can be purchased at prices from $110 / 85 € up to $300 / 230 €.
The options for the handle material are manifold: you can choose between desert ironwood, Spanish oak, buffalo horn, ebony or ordinary plastic variations. Those handles made of wood are normally treated to be water-resistant, though this isn´t really necessary because it is not supposed to get wet. At the end of the day, the material of the handle doesn’t make a big difference and it simply comes down to personal preference.
Another manufacturer of straight razors from Solingen is the less well-known brand Böker. Founded in 1869, Böker has always focused on using nothing but the best materials, and they aim to maintain the highest production standards. Following World War II, the manufacturing of straight razors gradually declined, but in recent years there has been a straight razor revival. Although mostly known for their hunting knives, Böker also boasts fantastic straight razors.
All of them are made using traditional methods and up to 150 individual production steps are necessary to create these shaving masterpieces. Of course, everything is made by hand and their most expensive model is made of powdered, metallurgical stainless Damascus that forms 180 layers of Damascus steel. Such a piece comes at a price of $1300 / 700 €. However, they also have more affordable options such as the Böker King Cutter $ 170 / € 129.90 / and the Böker Silver Steel $ 220 /169.90 €.
It deserves mentioning that silver in this context is now a marketing term although blades around the turn of the century actually contained silver. Due to the addition of silver, the surface structure of the blade was refined, improving the overall cutting performance. Generally, it seems like the € prices are better than the $ prices, so you may want to consider paying in Euros. Later this year, Böker plans to extend their offerings, so stay tuned. In my opinion, the blades with their traditional hollow ground shape look truly amazing but the handle scales made of imitation ivory may not be everybody’s cup of tea.
French Straight Razors
When referring to French straight razors, true connoisseurs will only have one name in mind: Thiers-Issard. This brand is to razors what Aston Martin is to cars. Similarly, Dovo and Böker can be compared to Mercedes Benz and BMW. This legendary company was founded by Pierre Thiers in France around 1884. He was a barrel-chested blacksmith who spent his lifetime hammering out top-quality products at the forge, becoming a master razor maker. He passed his knowledge and his business on to his son, also named Pierre Thiers. Over time, various other members of the Thiers family were brought in to work in the business.
Nowadays the company is no longer family owned, but the quality and tradition continues unabatedly, using only Sheffield steel for their blades. If you want to purchase a work of art, take a look at their special editions, or consider their less expensive models. Legend has it that good maintenance will preserve your Thiers-Issard razor for generations.
The Shavette (aka Feather) Razor
Often, people confuse a shavette or feather razor with exchangeable cartridges for a straight razor, but it is not. In fact, it is a hybrid between a disposable and a straight razor. It has the form of a straight razor, but it holds a disposable blade. You might have seen or felt them in a barber shop, when the barber cleans up the neck below the hairline. The feather razors are less expensive $ 25 – 50 / € 20– 40 than straight razors, and there’s no need for honing and stropping, so they are a good choice for beginners, or as an interim step before investing in a decent straight razor.
Using a straight razor
Preparation: For a comfortable, close shave, you should follow the preparation steps described in the Double Edge Guide.
How to hold the razor: Using a straight razor is practically identical to using a safety razor. The only difference is the grip you use.
- Hold the straight razor with your ring finger hooked over the tang
- Rest the middle and index finger on the back of the blade
- Place your thumb on the side of the blade next to the center
To make the first pass:
- hold the blade at a 30-degree angle
- move the blade in the direction of the grain, using even strokes with very little pressure
- Always make sure to stretch your skin with the other hand to keep it taut
- If need be, you can can make multiple passes over one area
- Don’t shave against the grain, otherwise you’ll get nicks and cuts
Personally, I found the video guide below very useful when I started.
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An important thing to know about straight razor blades is that most are high-carbon-content steel. For all the non-metallurgists out there, this means they are not stainless steel and will rust. This kind of steel is used because it results in a sharper blade.
If you plan to use the same steel straight razor for a lifetime, proper maintenance is key:
- Let it rest for at least 24h after you have used it
- At the same time, keep using it at least once a week
- Dry, strop and occasionally hone your blade after using it
Why does a razor need to rest? Right after the shave the tip of the blade may be slightly bent and by letting it rest, it straightens out a little more. So, after 24h the blade is less bent than right after the shave and hence you are less likely to damage your blade when you use the strop. As a consequence, your blade will remain sharper for a longer time and needs less honing. This theory has not been confirmed scientifically but people I know who have shaved with a straight razor for 20 years definitely swear by it. At the same time, if you can just afford one razor in the beginning, it won’t be a tragedy either. Some even think it was just a marketing ploy to sell more straight razors.
For storage keep it lightly oiled and in a dry place
A strop is a piece of leather, used to keep the blade dry and correctly aligned. Strops come in different types, shapes and sizes, the most common being the hanging strop. It is a simple strip of leather, with a piece of string or a hook at one end to hang it up.
How to use a strop:
- Hook in one end of the strop or hold it
- With your other hand, pull the razor slowly without pressure up the smooth side – the rough side is not used at all
- When you have reached the top of the strop, you turn the blade over and pull it back down again.
- To sharpen your blade, add strop paste to your strop by covering it completely with paste.
- For visual instructions, watch the video above and jump to 3:50 min.
Over time, the edges of your razor will become blunted. To sharpen the blade again you will need a hone. Honing removes a fine layer of metal from both sides of the razor blade so that the two edges of the blade meet in accurate planes. Once the imperfections have been corrected the razor will be sharp again. You can choose between different hone materials: blackstone, waterstone, ceramic and others. Beginners should start with a Norton 4k/8k stone.
- You will have to make four or five strokes each way to hone a blade.
- The edges of the blade and the spine should touch the hone at all times
- You should hone gently without rushing.
- If you allow the spine to lift off the hone, you will blunt your razor.
- If you are interested in learning about honing in more detail I recommend the book “The Razor Edge Book of Sharpening” by John Juranitch. Although it is not dedicated exclusively to straight Razors, it gives a very good background knowledge on sharpening any kind of blade to perfection.
Also, you can watch the honing guide below that I found useful.
The straight razor gives you a smooth shave and reduces razor burn and nicks, but then again it will take more time to shave than it does with an electric or safety razor. As a beginner, you should buy a new razor, preferably a Solingen or a Thiers-Issard razor. Always sharpen the blade before use and keep it lightly oiled if you are going to store it in a dry place. At all times, strop your blade before and after the shave, slowly without using pressure. To sharpen the blade you will need a hone or strop paste. It is important to hone in a slow and gentle manner.
Now you should know everything you’ll need to get started with straight razor shaving. If you want to learn about different grips, reviews etc. you may want to check out: Badger and Blade.
What are your experiences with straight razors? Which brand do you use? Let us know in the comments below.
This is part of a series about traditional wet shaving. Take a look: