Friday, September 6, 2013

Choosing your shaving gear: Straight Razors

If you've finally decided that you have to try shaving with a straight razor, you've no doubt discovered that straight razors come in various shapes and sizes, with different grinds and prices varying from around $100 to several thousands of dollars. In this post I'll be taking a look at some of the variables you'll have to choose from, before suggesting a good (if somewhat unoriginal) starter razor.

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Brand


Dovo Bergischer Lowe


For a good quality new razor, your choices are currently limited to those produced in Germany, France, Japan and North America.  Without some significant increases in quality, Indian and Chinese “straight razors” are display pieces at best. If you are looking at vintage razors, you can expand the above list to include the UK and Sweden- there may be others, but you are advised to do your research on forums before buying any vintage razor.  

There are now only a handful of brands still making new razors in any significant quantity. The ones I can vouch for are:
Dovo (Germany)
Thiers Issard (France)
Boker (Germany)
Ralf Aust (Germany)
Revisor (Germany)
Giesen and Forsthoff (Germany)
Hart Steel (USA)

There are also a manufacturers in Japan, though they tend to sell the Japanese style razor, which is another post entirely. A handful of talented individuals also create some very beautiful custom razors- for many beginners, these will be prohibitively expensive.

Provided you buy from a good manufacturer, you can be sure you own a razor capable of taking and keeping a shaving-sharp edge. Dovo and Thiers Issard are arguably the two most important of the companies mentioned above. Both make more affordable entry-level items and highly decorated “prestige” razors (such as the Dovo Bismarck). 

Dovo razors tend to offer more value for money than TI, and are slightly easier to hone. The difference between a basic Dovo and an expensive one will tend to be in the decoration more than the shave. Many people believe that TI razors offer a slightly better shave, while being harder to hone. The difference is not a significant one, and only likely to matter to very experienced- not to mention perfectionist- straight razor users. 

For serious enthusiasts with money to burn, TI make beautiful 7-day razor sets, and have some stunning spine decoration options, as well as stunningly expensive scale materials. Bear in mind that upwards of the $300 dollar mark, you are likely paying for prestige rather than performance.

Because of their value for money and ease of honing (and a little bit because of personal preference), Dovo is my recommendation for beginners, albeit by only a small margin.

Blade width

Blade widths are measured in inches, with 5/8” being probably the most common width. Narrower blades are more maneuverable, and very narrow 3/8” razors exist for beard trimming and hair thinning by barbers. Larger blade sizes, such as 7/8”, can “carry” more lather and need rinsing less frequently. Blade width will also affect the “heft” of the razor, and some people may favor a size simply for how it handles. I have a heavy "Wedge" razor (see below), whose heft I enjoy, but for the beginner, 5/8” is a good compromise.

Grind

Hollow ground razor on the left, near wedge on the right.
My Hollow-ground Dovo on the left, and a near-wedge Wade and Butcher on the right


The grind is essentially the thickness and end-on profile of the blade. A thicker blade is better for very thick, coarse hair, while a thinner grind will provide much more tactile and audible feedback. With a quality, full-hollow grind, you can often hear and feel individual hairs “pop” as they cut. 

The thickest grinds available are the full wedge and near wedge, rarely seen except for vintage barber razors. They are harder to hone as much more material is in contact with the stone, so much more steel needs to be removed. While a hollow grind is light, agile and gives you a better "feel" for your face, a wedge grind is a heavy duty tool, with less feedback but plenty of hair-removing firepower.

We recommend half hollow grinds for beginners, as they have a good compromise between heft and feedback. If your hair is not especially thick or coarse, a full hollow grind would also serve you well.

Blade shape

Anatomy of a straight razor
Anatomy of a 5/8" Round point straight razor


There are many parts to a straight razor blade- the toe, point or tip, shoulder, heel, tang, tail... The part most relevant to your decision should be the toe, the end of the blade furthest from your hand, where the blade meets the face. A square toe is far easier to nick yourself with (my first experience with a square toe razor was not pretty), but in experienced hands is better at getting into those “hard to reach” contours. A rounded toe is the safest option for a beginner, and still allows for a very close shave. You will also see "notched" or "dreadnought point" razors- I mainly like them because I think they look cool, but the purpose of the notch is to give you somewhere to put a finger so you can use the razor with both hands. This can be useful for certain tasks, such as shaving below the nose, but is in no way essential.

Wade and Butcher straight razor with a square point
Wade and Butcher straight razor with a square point (or "toe"). The point drew blood on it's first use, though we're on good terms now.


Steel Type

Different manufacturers will use specific steels for their models, but your basic choice is between stainless steel and carbon steel. Stainless steel is harder- this makes it more difficult to hone, and therefore unlikely to take as sharp an edge as a carbon steel blade. The upside to this hardness is that it will keep its edge for longer- if you plan to send your razor out for honing rather than doing it yourself, this may be an advantage. Stainless steel is more resistant to rust, but not immune, which is why my personal collection does not contain any stainless steel blades.

Carbon steel is softer, and takes a little more maintenance, but will take a much sharper edge when honed with skill. Carbon steel blades need to be carefully wiped dry after use, and it is recommended to oil them periodically.

Carbon steel is the more usual choice for a beginner, as it will be easier to hone when the time comes.

Decoration



Blade decorations can include engraved patterns on the spine, such as those on many TI razors, as well as the more common engravings and gold wash designs on the side of the blade. Decorations will have no effect on the shave, but spine decorations may complicate honing. Ultimately, decorations are entirely up to personal preference- but if you have a highly decorated razor in mind, it is worth investigating how easy it is to hone.

Scales

The handle or “scales” of the razor (absent on Japanese style razors) is largely an aesthetic choice. Some very exotic materials are available from rare woods to fossilized mammoth tusk. As with blade decoration, scale choice will not usually have any effect on your shave, and while the highest quality razors usually have higher-end scales to match, there are some excellent razors with plastic scales.

My recommendation

Dovo "Best Quality" with cream handles
Dovo "Best Quality" with cream handles



At the risk of being stunningly unoriginal (and maybe a little self-serving), I recommend the Dovo "Best Quality" as a good starter razor. It has a 5/8” blade, half hollow grind and a forgiving, rounded toe. It is a cheap model to opt for if you are unsure if straight razor shaving is for you, and even if you do move on to more exotic models, you will probably want to keep it around for travel, honing practice, or just old time’s sake. A Dovo Best Quality was my first razor, and still has a place in my collection.

In second place would be the basic Thiers Issard "Special Coiffeur", which has most of the same things going for it as the Dovo, the difference between the two is mainly one of budget and personal taste.

Bear in mind, all this advice is on the assumption that you are buying a razor for shaving your face. I know a few brave people who shave their legs with straight razors- for that task, a larger blade and a thicker grind would be entirely appropriate. A Thiers Issard with an extra heavy grind would do the job pretty well.


p.s For those who are interested, my rotation consists of:

1) a Dovo "Best Quality"
2) a vintage hollow ground "Sprock" razor
3) A plain razor which I believe is an unbranded "Best Quality", or a Boker
4) a vintage Wade and Butcher with a near wedge grind, which badly needs new scales.