Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Choosing your shaving gear: The Razor

Electric razor, Edwin Jagger Safety Razor and Dovo Bergischer Lowe Straight Razor

Recently we looked at choosing between shaving soaps and creams, and choosing a shaving brush. Today we’ll be looking at the piece of hardware that draws most men into traditional shaving: The Razor.

There are basically four types of razor available to men today: Straight Razors, Double Edge Safety Razors, Cartridge razors and electric razors. More recently, disposable blade straight razors have been created by Dovo and Feather (and a handful of other brands), which have some of the advantages (and disadvantages) of both safety and straight razors.

Multi-blade cartridges and electric razors have their advantages (convenience), but we feel that the disadvantages (poor shave, poor value for money, lack of charm!) outweigh these. As a traditional shaving blog, we’ll be looking at Double Edge Safety Razors and Straight Razors.

For the summary of pros and cons, skip to the bottom.
Dovo Astrale Straight Razor
Dovo "Astrale" Straight Razor

Straight razors are the more traditional choice, and in some form or other have been around since people decided there was such thing as too much hair. Over the centuries there must have been many designs and materials used in them, but today the term refers either to the typical Western design, with a single edge blade made from high-carbon or stainless steel blade mounted on a handle, referred to as “scales”. A stylised version of an open Western straight razor is seen in the Kaliandee logo. There were once hundreds of manufacturers of straight razors, but today only a few reputable ones remain- the biggest two being Dovo of Germany and Thiers Issard of France.

The other style still found today is the Japanese straight razor, which is a blade and handle forged from a single piece of high carbon steel. The traditional ones tend to be expensive, because as with traditionally sword-making, there is an attitude of making them well or not at all (borne out of the relative scarcity and therefore expense of iron ore in ancient Japan).
Straight razors possess no safety features besides the user’s concentration and steady hand. Since straight razors are not disposable, they will need stropping (edge maintenance done by drawing the blade flat, spine-first across a leather strop) before every use. As the blade slowly loses it’s edge with use, it will need honing once or twice a year.

With this increased maintenance and lack of safety, comes incredible control over your shave. A dedicated straight razor enthusiast can hone and strop the blade to their exact preferences, and achieve some of the best shaves possible. Straight razor users also tend to get to know their faces and hair growth patterns in a whole new way, and over time will probably be able to get a better shave than if they visited a top barber. The impeccable technique required of a straight razor also has some carryover to shaving with a double edge or cartridge razor. The non-disposable nature of a straight razor also means that the cost of the razor is spread over the rest of their shaving life. Straight razors also tend to be more decorated than safety razors, with some high-end models featuring engraved or gold-etched blades, patterns etched into the spine, and wood or horn scales.

Merkur 38C Safety Razor
Merkur 38C Safety Razor

Double Edge or “Safety razors” first became popular in the 1920’s, having been issued to troops in the trenches. They were revolutionary in that for the first time, men could shave themselves daily without having to worry about razor maintenance, and with a great deal less concentration required. The safety bar of a safety razor prevents deep cuts but there is still more blade exposure than with a modern cartridge razor, so more care and attention is required than with modern razors. Adjustable models are available that allow changes to the blade exposure and angle.

Safety razors allow men to shave with a single edge, which provides more tactile feedback (not as much as with a hollow-ground straight razor), less irritation and more control than a cartridge razor. Safety razors still require a supply of blades, but unlike their modern counterparts, Double Edge blades from any manufacturer should fit any Double Edge Safety Razor. While the basic design of DE blades is standardised, the durability, sharpness and “feel” of the blades varies between manufacturer. This give men the freedom to experiment with different blades until they find the one that gives them the best shave for the money. DE blades are significantly cheaper than cartridges.

Dovo Shavette
Dovo Shavette

Hybrid straight razors are blade holders in the shape of a straight razor. Originally, this style of razor was meant for barbers to finish off around the nape of the neck, the ears, and occasionally to give a traditional shave. The ability to swap blades meant that barbers didn’t have to own several straight razors and sanitise them between uses.

The two to know about are Dovo’s “Shavette” type, and the Feather “Artist” series. The Shavette can take either standard DE blades snapped in half (which can be safely done BEFORE removing them from their wax paper wrapping), or special Dovo Shavette blades. Feather razors take special blades.
The advantage of this style of razor is that it allows a shaving experience not unlike that of a conventional straight razor, but with the convenience (but also cost) of replaceable blades. Getting the most out of these razors usually means buying the special blades made for them, which does limit choice of manufacturer. Generally, these style of razors do not feel the same as a “proper” straight razor, so although they achieve a similar result, the experience is quite different.

Straight razors:
+Most traditional
+Most control over shaving experience
+Often very beautiful
+Cheap in the long term
+Potentially addictive hobby

-Most high maintenance
-Steep learning curve
-Expensive initial outlay
-Will also require purchase of a strop
-Will need to send off for honing, or purchase of a hone
-Honing also has a learning curve
-Potentially addictive hobby

Safety razors:
+More control, potentially better shave than cartridges
+Better looking than most cartridge handles
+Wide choice of blades
+Cheaper initial outlay than most straight razors
+Cheaper ongoing costs than cartridge razors
+Shallow learning curve

-Still need replacement blades
-Can still give nasty cuts if care is not taken
-Steeper learning curve for adjustable models

Hybrid (straight razor style disposable razors):
+Low maintenance
+Single, exposed blade shaving experience
+Different feel to both straight razors and DE razors

-Requires replacement blades
-Smaller selection of blades
-Different feel to both straight razors and DE razors

In the near future we will take a closer look at these different types of razor, how to use them, and how to maintain them.

Kaliandee.com and Kaliandee.ca carry a selection of Straight razors and Safety razors.