Straight Razor Startup Guide
So you’re ready to go cutthroat, huh? Maybe you’ve covertly observed the manly art of running a steel blade over your stubble and thought “why not?”. Maybe you’ve experienced a professional hot-towel shave experience and thought “how can I not?”
For the true straight razor aficionado once you start, you will never go back. The benefits (arguably the closest shave possible, less irritation, less infection, less environmental impact) can far outweigh the concerns. But this isn’t for the faint-of-heart, and it may help to know a little about what makes one straight razor different from another, and why you may benefit from one blade versus another.
When looking into your first straight razor, there are a few factors to consider: steel, grind, blade height, & scales are just a few.
Don’t worry, there won’t be a quiz. The vocabulary will just better help you understand the anatomy of the straight razor, what each does, and why you might choose different preferences. It might help you expand your collection away from what you already have.
Pin: The pin is the pivot joint that attaches the body of the razor to the conjoined scales. It allows you to manipulate the orientation of the scales to adapt to different areas of your jaw.
Tang: The tang is the portion of the razor approaching the face of the blade, and is where you will hold the razor itself. Typically, two fingers - your index and middle - straddle the top of the tang, while the other two fingers rest atop the tail. The Tail is the curved portion of the blade opposite the pin. The thumb then rests on the underside of the tang.
Jimps: Jimps are akin to the knurling of a safety razor handle. They are thin, parallel notches on the underbelly of the tang that allow for increased grip of the thumb. They are not always present on every straight razor.
Shoulder: Travelling down and away from the underside of the tang is the shoulder. The shoulder is best described as the conjunction of the blade to the tang. With some custom razors, the shoulder is left out, and the underside of the tang smoothly melds into the heel.
Edge: Now this might seem self-explanatory, but I’ll include it anyways. The edge is what will actually be doing the cutting. The portion of the edge closest to the pin is the heel, while the most distal portion of the edge is known as the toe.
Point: The point is, well, the point. The furthest portion of the blade.
Spine: The spine is directly opposite the edge, and is not sharpened. Oftentimes, razors will feature custom laserwork or etching into the spine to create texture or a more personal aesthetic. This is the portion of the razor that you will “lead” with when stropping, as the edge will undoubtedly gouge the leather if the opposite is done.
Face: Last, but not least, is the face. The face of the blade is the wide portion that will face YOUR Face during the shave, and usually features the company or model emblem.
Type of Steel
Typically, straight razors are forged of either carbon steel or stainless steel.
Carbon Steel: Steel is an alloy of two metals: iron and carbon. In carbon steel, carbon is the main alloying element and, due to the properties of carbon, this type of steel is very durable and so will retain its edge quite well. The advantage of this is that you may not have to have your razor honed quite as frequently. Carbon steel is also slightly more malleable, so it will be great for those who may have raised areas such as moles or acne along the area to be shaved. Carbon steel, however, is more susceptible to corrosion and rust, so extra care should be taken to dry the blade after each shave.
Stainless Steel: In contrast to carbon steel, stainless steel has a lower concentration of carbon within the alloy and, rather, a higher concentration of chromium. Chromium creates a protective oxide layer over the steel which prevents staining and corrosion, so this may be beneficial to those who may live in an inherently humid environment, or if you plan on storing the razor somewhere likely to be exposed to moisture. Stainless steel will not retain its edge quite as readily as carbon steel, so keep this in mind if you are a frequent shaver, as you may need to more frequently hone the blade to keep it at its maximum whisker-destroying ability. Despite this, stainless steel is quite a bit more rigid, so those looking to swiftly and smoothly reduce some dense/coarse growth, rejoice. This will benefit you greatly, but does not mean that carbon steel is off the table (you'll see that when we discuss the grind).
Type of Grind
The grind of a razor essentially refers to how drastically the spine tapers toward the blade edge in a sort of “upside down teardrop” fashion. Below is a diagram that may help to visualize a few of the grinds I’ll discuss below:
Extra Hollow: In common production, extra hollow grind is the most drastic of grinds. This means that the bulbous spine will quickly taper into the very narrow face of the blade. This would be ideal for someone who has very fine facial hair, or is looking forward to shaving daily. The edge is a bit more delicate, so if you’ve got dense and/or coarse facial hair, I’d highly suggest a less ground blade.
Half Hollow: Half hollow grinds are a bit more of a gentle taper and, as such, will be ideal for a couple of days worth of growth and, with less growth, should work just fine for most facial hair types. If you plan on twice or thrice- a week shaving, a half hollow grind should suit you quite well.
Quarter Hollow: In standard production, quarter hollow blades are the most gradually-ground blade. What this means is that the blade edge will be held a bit more firmly, as there will be more mass of steel moving down the face of the blade toward the edge. This will be ideal for those who are working with very dense/coarse facial hair or several days worth of growth.
Wedge/Near Wedge: Wedge grinds are the big boys of the straight razor world. Typically forged by artisans of the craft, wedge straight razors are more of an upside down triangle in their cross section, and will give the stiffest blade edge possible. If you need to mow down a dense shadow of stubble or a 6-month beard with ease, this is the blade.
The blade height of a razor is just that: the height of the blade. The height is measured along the face of the blade, from the blade edge up to the spine. There are two very common blade heights: 5/8" and 6/8".
5/8": A 5/8-inch-tall straight razor is among the most common heights used by most manufacturers. A 5/8" blade is a good middle-of-the-road weight, and will be very maneuverable and easy to wield. Coupled with a half grind, the blade will also be somewhat rigid, but will flex enough to be more comfortable for beginners.
6/8": Though a 6/8-inch-tall straight razor is only one eighth of an inch taller than the aforementioned, this razor height has the benefit of significantly more mass. Ignoring scale mass, 6/8" straight razors are typically around 20 grams heavier than their 5/8" counterparts. This is also beneficial for beginners, as the heavier weight allows one to be more gentle and let the razor's weight (and NOT any added pressure) do the cutting. Also, a larger face is typically easier to keep track of in terms of keeping a consistent angle.
Much of the varying price of straight razors will be found right here in the type of scales. Rich woods with elaborate engraving can create true works of art -- with a price tag to match.
Scale material: Now this is the most subjective of straight razor aspects. Scale material varies widely, but typically uses a type of wood, acrylic or cellulose, or natural bone. Depending on the density of the material, the scales could be quite heavy and displace the center of gravity, but this would typically only be with certain wood or stone material.
Acrylic or Cellulose: typically the cheapest, these handmade materials are durable, water-resistant, and lightweight. These acrylics can be in a virtually endless range of color schemes, from black, "glass", faux tortoiseshell, and more.
Bone or Horn: the very first straight razors would have been of this type. Today’s option are usually artificial. However, if you happen to be set on horn scales (usually from buffalo), beware that horn comes in a range of colors between white/bone, a semi-transparent amber, and black. So your razor will likely be different from what is pictured online. But this is part of the beauty of the natural material!
Wood: Under this option are an almost endless variety of colors, textures, grains, and weights. Options range from bamboo, which is very light, yet extremely durable, to Spanish Oak, which is very dense and will result in a heavier scale.
With all this material under your belt, you should be able to better understand which straight razor is best for you. When holding cold steel up to your neck every morning, it's best that you're using the right tool for the job. Have more questions? Comments? Drop us a line in the comments below. Shave on!
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