Thinking of Switching to Straight Razors?
Here's what you need to know
Why Straight Razors?
There is a growing trend among wet-shavers looking to do away with safety razors and return to the simpler art of shaving the way our great grandfathers did, with a straight razor. There is an inherent 'cool' factor to utilizing one of these glorious razors in your shaving routine and many out there are thinking about making the switch simply because they are following their 'man-stincts', but it might be surprising to learn that shaving with straight razor can save you a ton of cash in the long run. How so? Well, for one thing straight razors have a huge longevity. When you make an investment into buying a well-made straight razor, even one that might already be 100 years old, you are buying something that could last long enough to be used by your children and grandchildren. They quite often last that long. Also, they save you tons of cash that would normally go to buying replacement blades for your safety razor or in replacing it all together. The accessories of owning a straight razor (such as a strop and the occasional sharpening) pale in comparison to the cost of ongoing shaving with a safety razor. So what do you need to know?
Consider Starting with a Shavette
So now that you've decided to make the switch, what is the first step? Well, what helps is for a wet-shaver to become familiar with using a straight razor. One of the best ways to do this is by starting out with a shavette. What exactly is a shavette? Well, to the untrained eye, it may look the same as a straight razor, except these shaving tools actually do not have a blade. Shavette’s have slots to install a standard double edge razor blade that you would normally use with a safety razor. The advantage of this is that shavettes tend to be substantially cheaper than standard straight razors and also save the cost of buying a quality strop or paying to have the blade sharpened. For those who feel uncomfortable jumping immediately into buying a quality straight razor or who have never used one before, this is a great place to start. Think of it like the training wheels of shaving. It allows wet-shavers to become comfortable with the motion and practice of shaving in this manner as the angle and positioning of the blade will be very similar to the real thing. Once you've become comfortable with it, then you can move onto the real thing.
What to look for
Now, we know that once you start shopping for a straight razor, it can feel overwhelming. There are so many different ones out there. So let's take a look at the different things to look for.
Vintage vs Modern
A big decision beginners face is choosing whether to buy a modern straight razor or a vintage one that could be anywhere from a few years to an entire century old. There is a great deal of things to consider when making this decision but despite what anyone says about the merits of one versus the other, the most important thing to look for is the condition of the blade. If you are comparing a modern straight razor that has been sharpened, polished and was made with quality steel, you might consider choosing that over an antique razor that may have been made by a lesser quality craftsman and has irremovable wear on the blade. It is always a good idea to pick a razor with a blade made from quality steel. Also, the edge of the blade that has been finely sharpened should be so thin that can bend when applying pressure to it. It is often that several modern razors have an edge (no pun intended) over vintage in this area simply because of the technological advancements that have taken place since these razors were first being produced. However, many vintage straight razors, such as the Boker brand or Thiers-Issard made razors that have been well-maintained will have a quality that equals and often surpasses even the finest modern razors. So make sure that the steel is sharp, not too thick and that the scale (handle) is attached tightly at the pivot. Don't be fooled by the scale in thinking that the blade is modern. Scales can, and often are, replaced on vintage blades and therefore a razor may look brand new but may in fact be decades old.
Round Tip Vs Square
Another thing that is debated among practitioner's of straight razor shaving is the round tip blade versus the square tip (or spike blade). Most will tell you that the round tip is safer and there is some truth to that. For beginners, it would normally be recommended for you to purchase a round tip straight razor merely because it is easier to avoid cuts with this style blade (especially when shaving your neck). That doesn't mean that you should avoid square tip blades entirely. They are simply a different style shavers must get used to. However, if you're big on safety, you can't go wrong with a round tip razor.
Another big thing you will want to consider when making your first purchase is the measurements of the blade. If you've ever taken a look at straight razors in the past, you might have asked yourself "what do those numbers mean?" It can be a little confusing when you first decide to take the plunge to straight razor wet-shaving because most novice shavers don’t know what the difference is between a 5/8'' razor and a 9/16''. What these numbers mean in reality is that they correspond to the width of the blade by measuring the length of the top to the bottom. In other words, the higher the ratio, the thicker the width.
You’re probably thinking, “What does that mean to me?” Well, to beginners, it might not mean a lot. Traditionally, shavers with thicker stubble tend to prefer to purchase straight razors with a larger width, because the heft of the blade is easier to maneuver. So as a beginner, it might be a good idea to consider purchasing a blade that has a width of 13/16’’ instead of one that is 4/8’’. Also, the larger the blade, the longer it will last. When you sharpen or HONE a blade, you are taking metal away to expose a new edge. The larger blades will have the potential to be sharpened longer, hence lasting longer. Keep in mind that even a 5/8" blade should last decades! Of course, there are exceptions. Wet-shavers all have different preferences, but this is a good rule of thumb for beginners: The thicker the stubble, the higher the ratio.
Still want more information?
Watch our comprehensive guide to straight razors video:
Purchase a Strop
Strops are absolutely essential for the maintenance of any straight razor. It is as important as changing the oil in a car. Now, just so we’re clear: stropping is NOT the same as sharpening the blade. When owning a straight razor, it is important to get it sharpened from time to time, but stropping and sharpening are very different concepts. Stropping has to do with the alignment of the blade. To understand that in layman’s terms, compare the edge of the blade to the edge of a piece of paper and every time you use your straight razor, the paper becomes slightly bent or crumbled. What most don’t understand is that the keen edge of a straight razor blade is one of the sharpest tools you can find out there. It is sharper than any surgeon’s scalpel or pair of scissors. We’re talking sharp! The reason for that is because the hairs of your skin are very dense. Traditionally, a healthy strand of human hair has the same strength as copper wire of the same width. That is fairly strong which is why the blade of a straight razor needs to be especially sharp. So each time you shave, your razorblade’s edge is going to be out of alignment. That is why it is necessary to use a strop before every use.
To learn more about stropping, take a look at this video:
Prepare Your Skin
When shaving with a straight razor, especially for the first time, it is important to prepare your skin by washing it with warm water. Even before adding shaving cream or shaving soap, your stubble will be easier to shave after it has been washed. If you have a thicker beard and are more concerned with cuts and knicks, consider investing in a preshave balm or soap. A good example of a quality preshave soap is the Razorock Mister Joe Preshave soap. This gives your skin much needed moisturizing, making it more elastic so the blade is not as harsh on the skin. However, for those with more sensitive skin, a quality preshave product would be the Proraso Anti-Irritation Preshaving Cream. This product is designed to reduce irritation while softening the hair for shaving and also prevents bacterial infection while also making the skin more elastic.
Like we mentioned earlier, these blades are sharp, very sharp and though it should be obvious to most, it still bears repeating. Even though most wet-shavers find it fairly easy to adapt to shaving with a straight razor (some find it even more comfortable than safety razors), it can be difficult for others. It is no different than any other skill, odds are you will make mistakes in the beginning. Just remember to take your time and be careful to avoid unnecessary exposure to the blade. After a few shaves, you will most likely find it to be a breeze. Also, if you ever purchase a straight razor from a less than reputable source, make sure that the pivot pin that connects the straight razor to the scale is tight. Meaning, the blade should not act like the hinge on a door and snap shut the second you let go, it should remain open. Making certain that the scale and blade are connected properly should prevent accidental cuts or damage.
Take Care of Your Razor
A straight razor is a great investment for numerous reasons, but the worst thing that can happen is you get rust on it or damage the blade. That could cost you more than it would save. It’s important to take care of the razor. Be sure to pat it dry after use and store it in a dry area when it is not being used. Also, be sure to get it sharpened every so often. Again, stropping is no substitute for sharpening. How often do you need to get it sharpened you ask? Well, depending upon how often the razor is used, it is good to keep it between every 3-6 months or whenever you feel it start to pull or tug.