Many people new to wet shaving initially have some trouble understanding the basics of the equipment they are looking to buy. With so many choices available it’s hard to know where to start. After last weeks post on Making sense of shaving brush knots I had a request to do something similar with razors. I briefly touched upon this is in Types of Razor: The Basics. However, I am going to expand on that topic here and go over what types of razors are available, a bit of razor terminology, and common variations of razors. To top it off I am going to go against convention and throw in cartridge/disposable razors and go over the some of their pros and cons as well. Please give me the benefit of the doubt and read the entire article before you threaten to sacrifice me to the shaving gods for my impertinence.
In essence a safety razor is a razor with a replaceable blade that has an integrated guard feature to minimize/prevent any cuts to your skin. The safety razor minimizes the amount of exposed blade by providing an easier way to maintain the angle of the razor and a convenient gripping surface (the handle). The handle is attached to the head unit at a 90 degree angle and forms a “T”. These features of the safety razor are touted as being easier to operate, easier to maintain, and providing a closer and more consistent shave.
Single Edge vs. Double Edge Safety Razors
A double edge razor is a safety razor with a single cutting edge on two sides of a razor blade. This in effect makes a razor blade last twice as long as a single edge (SE) razor. These blades are extremely thin and usually have some type of coating (think teflon or something similar) to make the shave smoother. These blades can run from $0.05 to $0.30each.
Single Edge Safety Razor (SE)
A single edge safety razor features a razor blade with one cutting edge. These blades are usually a little bit thicker than a DE blade. Many feel that this imparts a better shave due to the blade not flexing as much and that it more closely resembles shaving with a straight razor. Old versions of single edge razors could be re-sharpened by various means and this used as a selling point for saving money. Many people like to use SE razors for edge and line work on beards and mustaches.
SE razors can be broken down into two distinct groups. Those that use a blade that is “drop in” and secured (similar to a DE razor) and those that are referred to as “Injector” models. Injector models have to be injected into the razor head and are secured by tension. This blade was developed and marketed by Schick Razors in the 1920s. The injector was marketed as a way to change blades in a safer manner and had the added benefit of locking the customer into buying their brand of blades.
Fixed vs. Adjustable Safety Razors
When a razor is designed the aggressiveness of the razor is determined by the blade gap and the effective shaving angle. A blade gap is the space between the edge of the razor blade and the top of the comb that the hair follicle (and to a certain extent your skin) enter to be cut. An aggressive razor will remove a greater amount of hair follicles per pass. The reduction of strokes from an aggressive razor is considered a positive feature by those with tough and thick beards and a reason why those with sensitive skin prefer them. The fewer passes that need to be performed, the less chance of irritating your skin. Most razors are manufactured with a fixed blade gap, but a few models had mechanisms to adjust the blade gap portion of the razor.
Fixed gap razors
Fixed gap razors are the overwhelming standard and comprise most of what you will find available. This includes DEs, SE, disposables, and even cartridges. More often than not, the larger the blade gap, the more aggressive the razor. As described above, the effective shaving angle affects the aggressiveness as well, but blade gap is often easier to measure and refer too. Many fixed gap razors are known specifically by their degree of aggressiveness. Two that come to mind are the Gillette “Blue Tip” SuperSpeed (very mild) and the Gillette “Red Tip” SuperSpeed (aggressive) safety razors. Fixed gap razors have fewer, and less complicated, parts and as such cost less than their adjustable brethren.
Adjustable gap razors
Adjustable razors have adjustable blade gaps. This allows the aggressiveness of the razor to be changed depending on the preference of the user. This is accomplished by twisting a selector dial which causes the internal mechanism of the razor to adjust the pressure to the razor blade and making it flex just a little. This flex causes a greater or lesser blade gap. I personally advocate that the adjustable safety razor is ideal for the new shaver as it allows them to start at a very mild setting and progressively work up to more aggressive settings to determine what works best for them. Unfortunately, what often happens is that when they find the “sweet spot” they often leave it there and don’t use the adjustment feature anymore, thus in effect making it an expensive fixed gap razor. Settings with larger gaps are often better suited for men with heavier daily beard growth.
Open comb vs. Closed comb vs. Slant safety razors
The comb of a razor is designed to allow the edge of the razor blade to contact the skin at a certain angle. This in turn sets the optimal angle for applying the razor to your face to shave. The comb of a safety razor comes in three variations. These are Open Comb, Closed Comb, and Slant.
Uses a bar that has indentations like a comb has spaces between its teeth. Recommended for heavy daily hair growth beards and experienced wet shavers. Sometimes referred to as a “Comb Bar”. Many people feel that the open comb provides a more aggressive shave. Many people who like the open comb are those who often skip a few days of shaving, have thicker hair, and/or have sensitive skin.
Open comb razors are preferred for a few reasons. The teeth on the razor help direct hair follicles toward the blade. This helps make the open comb more effective in cutting longer stubble. Due to the blade exposure the open comb is resistant to clogging with shaving soap or heavy hair removal (for all you guys ditching the beard). As with any aggressive razor you need to be a little more careful with your pressure, shaving angle, and maintaining a proper lather for lubrication. Because of its aggressiveness an open comb razor should typically not be used if it’s your first time shaving with a safety razor.
Uses a straight bar to keep the blade evenly away from your skin. Most popular design and considered the easiest to use. Recommended for moderate daily hair growth beards and beginners. Sometimes referred to as “Bar Comb”. The Closed Comb seems to be a bit more common, but doesn’t seem to dominate the market.
While the Slant razor would technically be classified as a Slant Closed Comb razor, it is a unique enough animal to deserve its own classification. A slant works on the principle of slicing a hair follicle rather than chopping a hair follicle. Try thinking of what it is like chopping a tomato. Imagine placing a sharp knife edge on a tomato and pushing it straight down with even pressure. Even with a sharp knife the tomato will start to flex and distort before the knife breaks the skin. Now picture slicing a tomato with a well sharpened knife by pulling the blade across the tomato with just a slight amount of pressure. The tomato will only flex a little bit before the skin splits and the knife starts to travel through the tomato. This results in a cleaner, straighter cut.
The slicing motion of a slant is achieved by mounting the razor in the head of the razor at a predetermined angle. This angle achieved by a slant allows for a better slicing motion against your beard resulting in a more effortless and closer shave. Slant razors have a greater blade gap and are aggressive razors. The slant style razor is often recommended for heavy daily hair growth beards and experienced wet shavers. The slant is also highly effective for those whose neck hair grows in all directions and experience redness and irritation from trying to perform a three pass shave. For more information on slants there is a great write up here
Another common variant of safety razors is the length and heft of the handle. The weight of the handle affects the balance of the razor and the heft of the razor while it is in your hand. This is largely a personal preference and also has to factor in the length of the handle, the shaving head being used, and the intended application of the razor. Short handles are sometimes preferred for travel, while long handled safety razors are often preferred by individuals who shave their legs.
A newer design feature (and an often exploited older feature) is the swapping of razor head assemblies, handles, and other sub assemblies to customize a razors length, weight, appearance, and shave qualities. This is an advertised feature of some lines of razors. When older razors are swapped and cobbled together they are often referred to as Franken-razors.
Throughout the years manufacturers have tried to balance portability, storage, performance, and manufacturing cost when designing a safety razor. As the dust has settled you will see three major variations in how a safety razor is assembled.
Three Piece razor
The handle, base plate, and top plate (or some variation of those names) screw together to make a complete razor. The razor blade goes between the top plate and base plate. There are no knobs or mechanical parts so there’s less room for mechanical error The advantage of the three-piece is that they are extremely easy to clean and maintain. The disadvantage is that you have three parts to handle when changing your blade.
Two piece razors usually have a detachable handle and a separate head assembly. The head assembly usually has a flip top for razor insertion. The advantage of using a two-piece is that it’s easier to replace a blade as opposed to a three-piece. The disadvantage is that the head assembly does not fully break down to allow for full access cleaning.
One Piece razor
One piece razors are usually a razor that is assembled at the factory and are not made to be disassembled. Razor insertion is usually accomplished by a flip top head or a twist to open mechanism (TTO). These razors are often referred to as Butterfly or Silo door razors. Once open, simply remove the blade, insert a new one and turn clockwise to close the flaps. The advantage of the one piece razor is that the blades are easy to replace and you never have to worry about losing a piece of it. The disadvantages is that it is impossible to fully clean the razor. Adjustable safety razors are all one piece razors.
Does the material make a difference
While the metal the razor is made out of does not in and of itself affect performance, it can be an issue with longevity and maintenance. These are a few of the more common issues broken down by material type:
- Brass: Softer material, has a tendency to bend the corner of the comb when dropped. This leads to an uneven blade gap.
- Stainless steel: Cannot be stamp formed, must be milled or sintered. More expensive.
- Aluminum: Very reactive to chloride corrosion, looks like white fuzzy spots when active.
- Pot metal (usually zinc based): Very susceptible to galvanic corrosion, the threaded portion of a three piece razor head is know to break off if mishandled.
Common plating is nickel, gold, chrome, silver, and rhodium. What the razor is made out of and what it is plated in is more of a personal preference or a collectability factor than a performance issue. A very interesting article going over the subject of metallurgy for safety razors is here.
Even with all of the various subcategories above there are still some that don’t quite fit. One great example of this is the Rolls Razor. This is a single edge razor that resembles a cross section of a straight razor with an attached handle. What makes this unique is the metal carrying case with a build in strop and finishing hone. Many people use these as travel razors or display them for thier novelty value.
Safety Razor Maintenance
Maintenance for a safety razor usually consists of the following:
- Before shaving: Ensure the blade is seated correctly with no visible defects
- During the shave: Rinse the razor between passes to ensure no soap or hair is clogging the blade gap.
- After shaving: Open the razor and thoroughly rinse the blade and head of the razor. Shake dry and store for next shave.
Some individuals will also remove the blade and dry it off before storing it separately, while some people dip the head of the razor in isopropyl alcohol as a disinfectant.
Safety Razor Breakdown
As shown above, safety razors come in a many variations. One of the main benefits of a safety razor is the wide array of choices available coupled with the minimal maintenance required. Safety razors only require a light touch to effectively shave your beard. Since so little pressure is required, most men find they do not suffer from razor burn.
The definition given from the Merriam-Webster dictionary refers to a straight razor as “a razor with a rigid steel cutting blade hinged to a case that forms a handle when the razor is open for use“.
The two variations of the straight razor are the Wester Grind straight razor and the Kamisori.
Japan developed a version of the straight razor that is referred to as the Kamisori. The word Kamisori literally translates to “razor” in the Japanese language. This is a straight razor with a fixed (non-folding) handle and a non-symmetrical grind to shape the cutting edge. One side of the razor is a hollow grind with the other side being a straight “wedge” grind. The handle is a larger, elongated tang that is forged at the same time as the razor itself.
A western grind straight razor refers to the symmetrical grind to both sides of the blade that establishes the cutting edge and a pivot to fold in on the attached scales. 98% of the straight razors you see will fall into this category. For this reason we will concentrate on the western grind straight razor in this article.
Straight Razor Variations
Straight razors are made from either carbon steel or one of several varieties of stainless steel. Carbon steel is slightly “softer” and easier to hone, is supposed to take a slightly better edge, and is more susceptible to corrosion. Stainless steel is a harder steel and will take more effort to hone, but will hold an edge longer. Stainless steel is in NOT rust proof, but is more resistant to corrosion.
Grind of blade
How a blade is ground affects the balance of the razor and how it feels against your skin. Some believe that a heavier grind such as a wedge is better suited for individuals with heavy beards. Razors with a substantial hollow grind are thought to “sing” when being used due to the harmonics created by the friction of the blade cutting through the hair follicles.
Straight razors are traditionally measured in eighths of an inch increments. The most common sizes sold are 5/8 and 6/8 inch blades. Blades as small as 3/8 were manufactured for shaving underneath your nose and for trimming sideburns and mustaches. Larger blades of 7/8 and 8/8 are not that uncommon and have a strong following.
It is not uncommon to see people split the difference between eighths when selling a straight razor (e.g. “9/16”) as a wider razor is generally considered more valuable.
Finally, consider what type of blade point you want. The most common points are square, round, barbers notch, and french point. Beginners are often encouraged to chose a rounded point until they become proficient as a square tip is known to bite the wielder if they are not proficient. Square tips are often used for those difficult to reach areas and for edging beards or mustaches (sorry for the not so pretty razors, these came off of my project pile during my late night rush to get this finished up).
The shoulder of the razor comes in three common varieties. the single stabilizer and double stabilizer shoulder are made to provide more support to the blade. I believe the shoulderless variety is easier to grind and many people prefer it for its aesthetic value.
Maintaining a Straight Razor
Straight razors require more maintenance than a safety razor. At a minimum, you need to maintain the edge with a daily stropping. You will also have to periodically send it out for honing. The time interval for honing depends on the skill of the user. When you first start out it may be as often as every month, but with practice you may be able to go 6 months to a year between needing to have the razor honed. Many people decide to purchase a honing stone (quite often more than one) so they can touch up their own razors and not send them out.
A typical maintenance cycle for a straight razor is as follows:
- Before shaving: 60 to 100 laps on a strop
- During the shave: wiping blade down, ensure no water gets onto the scales or into the pivot
- After shaving: wipe down the razor and ensure no water is left., 10 to 20 laps on strop to ensure water is off of edge, apply oil to blade, store in dry secure place
In reality, not everyone does all of the above actions. Mix and match to see what works for you. People who live in the humid swamps of Florida probably have different issues than the people who live in arid New Mexico.
Straight Razor Breakdown
A common point of contention is whether a straight razor is sharper than a safety razor, and as such if it provides a better shave. There are WAY too many factors that can affect this determination, so I will just say that a straight razor gives the user the greatest amount of control over the quality of their shaving edge. This control over the shaving edge allows a user the greatest amount of control over the quality of their shave. Straight razors have a steeper learning curve than a safety razor and the potential for greater cuts.
This is a category that blurs the lines between straight razors and safety razors. Shavettes are often thought of as a replaceable blade straight razor. Shavettes have replaceable blades similar to a safety razor with the form factor of a straight razor. The blades are often actual safety razor blades that are cut in half lengthwise or single edge razors that are specifically produced for this purpose. The term shavette appears to have become popular due to the Dovo “Shavette” model. . Much like the brand Kleenex describes nose tissue, Shavette seems to have come to describe any replaceable blade straight razor.
The handles of shavettes are usually made from a combination of stainless steel and plastic. Higher end models can have custom scales with wood, horn, bone and such. The blade inserts are made up of some kind of stainless steel alloy. The exact alloy depends on the brand of blade.
The length of the blade is either what you find on a normal safety razor blade, or one of the custom made blades that two to three inches in length. These are proprietary blades that only fit the brand they are made for. The longer length of the blade more closely resembles a straight razor.
Shavettes require maintenance similar to a safety razor and requires no stropping or sharpening.
Shavettes are still in use by barbers to shave a customers neck after a trim and are another option for wet shavers. Quite often people mistake a shavette as being an entry level straight razor. While a shavette and a straight razor may look alike they have a different heft, the blade needs to be held at a more obtuse angle, and shavette blades are known to be less forgiving than a straight razor blade. There is a vast difference between the low end and the high end of the shavette razor market. Some of the higher end models that use proprietary blades are said to be as good or better than a straight razor. This can make it a nice alternative travel razor for people who use straight razors.
DISPOSABLE / CARTRIDGE
Before the death threats come rolling in, let me take a second and put forward my case as to why I included the dreaded disposable / cartridge razor. While anyone who wet shaves is pretty much universally against disposable and cartridge razors I would argue that there are certain applications where they are appropriate or why they are even preferred by some people.
If you are travelling and you are not going to be able to bring (or don’t want to risk losing/damaging) your straight razor or your safety razor with you on your carry on. You can place these items in your checked baggage, mail some safety razor blades to your location ahead of time, or buy some blades when you get there. However, not everyone will be checking luggage or trusts the airports with one of their prize possessions. A common alternative is to pack a few single edge disposable razors in your dopp bag. A common example is the single edge Bic. These are allowed by TSA and are generally regarded as being able to provide one or two decent shaves.
I know quite a few people who use a straight or a safety razor to shave their head, but there is a large number of people who use a cartridge razor. Many wet shaving advocates specifically call out the Gillette Trac II as being a great head shaving cartridge. This cartridge was the first multi-blade disposable on the market. A recent innovation called the Headblade is a very popular way to use your chosen cartridge to shave your head.
Trimming Below the Belt
Disposable razors are quite popular for those who chose to perform “manscaping”. These are popular due to the limited maneuverability and tight confines, not to mention the overriding fear of nicking oneself.
These disposable razors consist of a handle made from either plastic or metal that holds a plastic head with a range of razor blades. This can range from one blade up to five. These razors can come as a single fixed unit or with a replaceable cartridge head. Cartridge razors usually have a little more robust handle. Disposable and Cartridges razors can last for an average of three to five shaves and must be replaced after that.
Cartridge / Disposable Breakdown
Whether you like it or not, cartridges are the norm. While I personally don’t advocate for their use, I would rather see someone using a shaving brush and shaving soap with a cartridge than nothing at all. However, I do see a place for disposable single edge razors. While not adequate for day to day use, they make a good substitute when needed.
Reasons people like cartridges
- Cheap as a one time razor
- No maintenance required
- Easy to find
Reasons people dislike cartridges
- More expensive way to shave as shown here.
- Multi-blade razors have a greater chance of skin irritation
- Plastic waste when razor is dull
- Lots of gimmicky sales pitches
- pivoting heads
- vibrating heads
- lubricating strips
I hope you have stayed with me this far. I have gone over a LOT of information. Take you time and read it again and ask questions of your fellow wet shavers. There is no wrong way to start wet shaving. I started with a shavette, moved to a straight, and now bounce between a straight and a safety razor. If I were to start over I would recommend starting with a safety razor due to the easier learning curve, minimal maintenance, and the vast pool of knowledge available from other shavers. As far as the whole disposables / cartridges examples, I do feel a single edge disposable is a viable alternative when needed. I do not recommend using cartridge razors, but will admit that some people have success with them.
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Have a great day and a smooth shave!