We previously touched on The Art of Shaving Like A Man in which we outlined the most important tool for the job: the straight razor. Perhaps though we just skimmed over the straight razor in all of its sharpened glory. And while they have been overshadowed since WWII by the safety razor (which incorporates a disposable blade) the straight razor is the principal method of manual shaving and the choice of men like Clint Eastwood in High Plains Drifter.
A straight razor is a razor with a blade that can fold into its handle. They are also called open razors and cut-throat razors. They require considerable skill to hone and strop, and require more care during shaving. Straight razors consist of a blade sharpened on one edge and a handle attached to the blade through a pin. The blade can then rotate in and out of the handle. The blade can be made of either stainless steel, which is resistant to rust but can be more difficult to hone, or high-carbon steel, which is much easier to hone, obtains a sharper edge but will rust more easily than stainless steel if neglected. Cheap stainless steel straight razors from Asia and more expensive stainless steel and carbon steel razors from Europe are available but certainly not recommended. After forging the steel is hardened through a special process where the blade is heated up to approximately 760 °C (1,400 °F) dependent on the specific steel. This heating enables fast and uniform heating of the steel at the optimum temperature for maximum hardness. The tempering stage follows the hardening process, where the blade is heated in a bath of oil at a temperature between 200–400 °C (392–752 °F). Tempering imparts the steel its flexibility and toughness according to the phase diagrams for steel. There are three types of steel blade according to the level of tempering it has received. Hard-tempered, medium-tempered and soft-tempered. Hard-tempered edges last longer but sharpening them is difficult. The converse is true for soft-tempered blades. The characteristics of medium-tempered blades are in between the two extremes. Then comes grinding and finishing which involves the blade being polished to various degrees of gloss. The finest finish, used in the most expensive razors, is the mirror finish. Mirror finish is the only finish used if gold leafing is to be part of the decoration of the blade. Try getting that sort of detail and attention to detail from your Mach 3!
When purchasing your razor be sure to go for quality even if it costs a little bit more. You don’t want the cheapest; you want the best. This is your face and/or head we’re talking about. Poor razors end up being more trouble than they’re worth. They irritate your skin, cause nicks and cuts, and could potentially be very dangerous! If well maintained, a good razor will last for years if not your lifetime.
Let’s get down to it though, shall we?
Straight razor shaving is done with the blade at approximately an angle of thirty degrees to the skin and in a direction perpendicular to the edge; an incision requires the movement of the blade to be sideways or in a direction parallel to the edge. A seasoned shave though will always shave in a direction perpendicular to the cutting edge of the blade.
NOTE: To be most effective, a straight razor must be kept extremely sharp and done so with the use of a strop.
It is also important to remember that straight razor shaving holds no place for Gillette Foamy or even Barbasol. Straight razor shaving requires shaving soap in a cup which is lathered and applied using a rotating in-and-out motion of a shaving brush, usually made of boar or badger bristles. There are synthetic bristles on the market but if you are going to go this far why stop at the brush? The shave itself is completed using as few strokes as possible. In fact, a good shave will use long, concentrated strokes stopping only sparingly, if at all. Rinsing ones face with cold water constricts minor abrasions or cuts, followed by patting dry (not rubbing) and an astringent or aftershave lotion. The desired shave though uses a light steady touch. Light and steady!
And that gentlemen is all there is to it. In just a few strokes (with a few steps of preparedness) you can have the closest shave of your life without enduring the demon barber of Fleet Street or using an overpriced, disposable piece of recycled plastic.