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vintage safety razor

What to watch for when buying vintage safety razors

After taking up wet shaving a lot of people develop a bad case of Razor Acquisition Disorder (RAD).  It’s a devastating disease that leads to many late nights scouring eBay, haunting the local antique shops, and trying to think of excuses to tell the wife when the next package arrives by UPS.  While I know people who have had RAD go into remission, it’s never truly gone.

So what happens when YOU get bitten by the RAD bug?  You start looking around and come across a vintage safety razor.  Problem is, you’re not really sure what to look for.  What’s a good razor look like and what should you watch out for?  In this post we will cover some common issues found on used and vintage safety razors.  If you are new to the hobby and come across a razor with any of the issues listed below I would advise you to pass on the item (unless you like to tinker and fix things, then have at it).

For the purpose of this article a “good” razor is not necessarily the one with perfect plating and paint.  A good razor will provide a great shave as found and does not require repair, special handling, or equipment to make it operable.

For a quick refresher on safety razor terminology take a look at the safety razor section of Making sense of the world of razors.  Click on pics for larger versions.

COMMON SAFETY RAZOR PROBLEMS

Blade gap

Uneven blade gap exampleBlade gap is space between the razors edge and the top of the comb.  This gap determines how much hair is cut in each pass.  If the gap is different from one side to the other then your shave, and possible your face, will suffer for it.  This is often found along with misaligned doors on  twist to open (TTO) models

Dropped knob

A common problem on TTO razors is that the TTO knob has dropped.  The knob is still attached to the internal mechanism of the razor but will not function properly unless the knob is manually pushed up while the knob is turned.  Trying to hold the knob up and shave at the same time is asking to get cut.

Misaligned TTO doors

A common issue when the razor is dropped, the doors do not align correctly when closed.  Since the TTO doors apply pressure to the razor blade, this can lead to uneven blade gap.

Bent comb

The comb on a razor serves to set the blade gap, stretch your skin, and direct hair follicles into the blade gap.  Bent or uneven combs cause these functions to be hampered. Bent combs can also contribute to uneven blade gap.  The one exception I can think of is a bent tooth of an open comb razor.  If it is bent down it should be ok.

Missing teeth

Example of a broken open comb safety razorOpen comb razors are often missing teeth.  While often still usable this can cause rough edges to drag on your skin and affect the symmetry of the razor.

SE blade retaining tabSE blade retainer example

Single Edge (SE) razors often have small tabs at each side or the razor head that ensure the blade sits evenly when the blade edge contacts the razor comb.  These are often misaligned or broken off.

Broken or stripped posts

Two piece razor post stripped Three piece razor post brokenFor two or three piece razors make sure and check that the screw post the handle screws into has not been stripped of its threading. As well as stripped posts, when handling the razor before purchase make sure the screw post is actually attached and not broken off or epoxied back into place

Blades not produced

Make sure you can still get razor blades for the razor you want to buy. There are quite a few vintage razors available that no longer have the required blades being produced.

4 safety razors that require proprietary blades

These all contain proprietary blades that are no longer produced

 

Split handle

Three piece Gillette safety razor with split handleOlder three piece Gillettes were produced with hollow handles.  The end pieces were pressed in and stayed attached by the extremely tight fit.  Over the years the stress has gotten to a lot of these and the handles split.  This is a fairly common occurrence.

Blade moves when razor is tightened

Check and make sure the blade is firmly fixed in place when the razor is closed and secure.  A wiggly razor blade is a sure way to cut yourself.

Head to handle angle

Example of stress at handle to head interface leading to failure

Broken joint

When the razor has been dropped or enough pressure has been applied to make the angle between the handle and the head of the razor anything other than 90 degrees.  This movement, even if corrected, will cause a weakness at the head to handle junction that can result in the handle separating from the head.

What to do when you actually find a vintage safety razor you are interested in

Whenever possible try and handle the razor before purchase.  Make sure and try out all of its features.  If its a two or three piece razor then take it apart, if it adjustable, them make sure the adjustment mechanism moves as it should and actually causes something to adjust.  If you are looking online, then examine the pictures carefully and ask lots of questions.

A razor can be dirty, dinged, and covered in soap scum and still be a great shaver.  The same thing cannot be said of a razor that is in poor mechanical condition. Quite a few of the above issues can actually be fixed or worked with.  However, I strongly encourage you to find a razor is solid mechanical condition.  Everything needs to work as intended from the factory.

The above issues are all pretty common when looking for used razors.  The older the razor, the more likely there will be issue.  However, there are still a plethora of razors in great shape waiting to be rescued.  If you are not sure about finding a razor in the wild, look on your favorite shave forum buy/sell/trade (BST) or ask a shaving buddy for some advice.

I hope this helped a little bit.  Please spread the word by leaving a comment, a like, or a tweet.  If you would like to be informed of new articles, please sign up for the newsletter (top right of the article).  Have a great day and a smooth shave!

Matt

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10 Comments

  1. Do you have any tips or advice for buying a used safety razor? Help out a shaving brother and let us know in the comments.

  2. brandon

    Do you know the exact model of that three piece Gillette razor used in the top picture and the example of a split handle? I have one and use it regularly (of course the handle is split, but heavy clamps and liquid nails work wonders for that), but I don’t know what it is.

    • Let me take a closer look and get back to you. I need to pull it out and give it a once over.

      Edit: The razor in question came in a flip top case with the Gillette Diamond logo and “Old Type” on the inside of the lid. the serial number on the top of the baseplate reads P387279. The markings under the baseplate are the Gillette diamond logo on the bottom left and Made in USA in bottom right. This info combined withthe data from http://wiki.badgerandblade.com/US_Gillette_Dating_Information would lead me to conclude that this is a 1921 Gillette Old Type Ball End Razor with the “Thin style” head.

      Hope this helps!

    • Brandon, if you need more details please feel free to email or use the Contact form.

  3. Robert Carey

    ~GREAT~ post! As someone who dove headfirst into collecting there is some great info here for would-be razor hunters! Don’t let the RAD make you buy a lemon!

    • I’m glad you liked it Robert! Like you I dove in headfirst and have a few razors that are only good for showing off to friends as a something that never took off.

  4. Stephanie

    I just found an old three piece razor in the back of a cabinet in my grandmother’s bathroom. I would like to replace my plastic one for something more sustainable and this seems perfect. Though not shiny and new it looks to be in great condition. Any tips on cleaning it up, finding blades, or anything?

    • I will be more than happy to help you out Stephanie. First of all, congratulations on finding a bit of family history and putting it to good use. Let me take this one step at a time.

      1) cleaning can be as simple as a dab of toothpaste and a toothbrush with a vigorous scrubbing. I prefer to use scrubbing bubbles (the foaming bathtub cleaner) to remove soap. That and a toothbrush, toothpicks, and some q-tips should clean 99% of the razor and bring it back to its former glory. If you want to make it pop, try some non abrasive metal polish. Most people will use MASS or Blue Magic (both can be found at corner auto stores or Amazon).

      2) Blades can be found in corner stores but are very easy to find online. Check out the Trusted Vendors page for a listing of most of the well known and reputable vendors. You can also search on Amazon for a “Blade Sampler” pack to get a variety of types of blades.

      3) Join some of the online communities (there are a lot) and read up a bit. Try your razor out and ask some questions. People will help you find out exactly what you have and will be more than happy to help with any questions you have.

      When starting out, the information overload and product choices can seem a bit overwhelming at first. Take things slow and give yourself a awhile to get up to speed. It’s a much more enjoyable way to shave and if you’re not careful can turn into a nice hobby as well 🙂

      This barely scratches the surface so let me know if there are any other question you have.

      Matt

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