So you have decided to give wet shaving a chance, or perhaps you are just interested in gathering a little more information. Today we will be going over the different types of razors used in wet shaving. If you stand far enough back to “see the forest for the trees” you can see that wet shaving razors can be broken into two groups. These are Straight Razors (commonly referred to as straights, barber razors, barber knives, or cutthroat razors) and Safety Razors…. I can’t think of any nicknames or monikers for safety razors. If anyone else have one, leave me a note in the comment area.
Let’s take it a step further and break it down a little more:
Straight Razor Basics
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“ While this is technically correct it does not convey the entire picture and only partially describes the traditional “western grind” straight razor.
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 (razor speak for handle).
Examples of this type of razor have been found as far back as the 1600s. I believe (but can’t find evidence that proves or disproves my belief) this type of razor is referred to as a western style do to the dominance of the western European cutlers who produced (and still produce) most of the world’s reputable “western style” straight razors. The western style straight razor has had many variations over the centuries. This can be seen in the actual grind of the blade (the hollowness), the length of the tail, and the shape and material of the scales. The degree of hollowness of the grind is perhaps the biggest variation and selling point. The grind can vary from a full wedge with no hollow grind all to a very hollow grind with a “razor thin” section of steel running from the spine all of the way to the cutting edge with no taper and many degrees in between.
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. Due to the metallurgical technology of the time and limited access to high grade ore the Japanese smiths made use of a cladding system. A softer layer of metal was clad over a hard steel core. The lower grade metal makes up the bulk of the razor while the higher grade ore just makes up the cutting edge.
Modern artisan craftsmen have produced hybrids of the eastern and western razors and produced “western grind kamisori”. While not fully traditional, some believe they combine the best of both worlds.
Both of these types of straight razors are traditionally a fixed blade that requires maintenance to keep sharp and be “shave ready”. There is a subcategory of straight razors that have replaceable blades similar to a safety razor. These are often actual safety razor blades that are cut in half lengthwise or single edge razors that are specifically produced for this purpose. Straight razors of this type are commonly referred to as “Shavettes”. This term 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.
Replaceable blade safety razors come in a variety of styles and price points. These are usually associated with being a cheaper product. However, some of the replaceable blade straights are highly sought after items. These razors are often used by barbers to clean up the neckline after a haircut, used as a travel razor, or as an entry point into the world of wet shaving… as I did.
Safety Razor Basics
The definition given from the Collins English dictionary refers to a safety razor as “a razor with a guard or guards fitted close to the cutting edge or edges so that deep cuts are prevented and the risk of accidental cuts reduced”. While this is true, once again it doesn’t do a lot to explain what a safety razor is, what it does, or why it does it.
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). These features of the safety razor are touted as being easier to operate, easier to maintain, providing a closer and more consistent shave.
The safety razor has undergone an evolution from its initial incarnation. The first safety razor patent on record is from 1847 by William S. Henson “the cutting blade of which is at right angles with the handle, and resembles somewhat the form of a common hoe”. The evolution of the safety razor is an interesting read, but is far too long and off topic to go over here. While the design of modern safety razors has evolved quite a bit, they are still very similar in many aspects.
While many of the blades were originally able to be honed (sharpened) and re-used one of the biggest draws to a safety razor is being able to easily change out a very inexpensive blade and not have to maintain the cutting edge like a traditional straight razor. Another selling point was the safety factor of not having a large sharp blade scraping along your face. While you can be cut with a safety razor (trust me on this…. 🙁 ) it will not be as bad as a cut with a straight razor could be.
Unlike straight razors, there are many more variations to safety razors. Here are (in my opinion) the three biggest differences. If you can remember these three broad categories you will have a much better idea of what you are looking for when you search for a safety razor.
Double Edge vs. Single Edge safety razors
When safety razors first started coming into the shaving scene they took their cue from the straight razor world and were all Single Edge (SE) razors. As time went on, new innovations and marketing brought the Double Edge (DE) safety razor. The DE razor is often seen as more economical (two cutting edges for the price of one) and the razor blades are swappable across most all different brands of safety razors. However, the SE razor blades (especially the vintage ones) are made of a thicker piece of metal and many people believe this delivers a better shave, especially on thick beards. Many of the vintage SEs are also able to be honed for re-use.
Fixed vs Adjustable safety razors
At some point in time someone came up with the idea of offering a safety razor that would allow you to adjust the aggressiveness of the razor. This is usually accomplished by means of a twistable
dial that caused the razor to flex (just a little) and open or close the blade gap. On average the adjustable safety razors sell for more than the fixed blade safety razors. Many people advocate the adjustable razor for newer shavers so they can start with a very mild shave and slowing become more aggressive in the razor settings as their skill and confidence increase. On the other hand, many people end up finding a comfortable setting and not using the adjustable feature anymore, in essence ending up with a fixed blade razor. Fixed blade safety razors, as the name suggests, do not adjust and have a fixed blade gap as designed by the manufacturer. Fixed blade razors have fewer parts, and therefore, have less potential problems.
One, two, or three piece assembly
One, two, or three piece assembly… I probably just lost a few of you but stay with me. Throughout the years many people 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 razors are most often seen in vintage models, most notably Gillette models.
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. Two piece razors usually have a detachable handle and a separate head assembly. The head assembly usually has a flip top for razor insertion. 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.
There you have it, a basic explanation and breakdown of razors used for wet shaving. This is just the tip of the iceberg on this topic, but I plan on a few more post with more details on the specific types and terminology. There are numerous discussion boards debating the merits and rarity of different types of razors. Take a look at the RESOURCE page for a listing of the most well known communities. If you have any specific questions please drop me a note. I will help as I can and point you toward greater sources of information if I can’t.
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