Buying your first straight razor is exciting, but filtering through the many different types available can be a daunting prospect. In this short guide, we’ll run through the key differences between various straight razors, and help to clear away some of the mystery surrounding these impressive-looking blades.
CARBON STEEL vs STAINLESS STEEL
As with other high quality blades, such as chefs' knives and barbers' scissors, two materials dominate the landscape. Both carbon steel and stainless steel blades produce a great shave, but there are some differences between them that are important to understand.
A mix of iron and carbon, carbon steel has been used to produce cutting implements for hundreds of years.
- The added carbon produces a steel that is very hard and when properly sharpened, has a sharper edge than a stainless steel blade.
- Carbon steel holds its sharpness for more uses than a stainless steel blade.
- Carbon steel is susceptible to surface rust, and must be properly dried and protected with a razor oil before storing away after use.
- Over time, the blade will discolour slightly as it reacts with various particles in water, shaving creams, shaving oils and so on.
A mix of iron and chromium, stainless steel is a go-to material for wet environments or where hygiene is important.
- Unlikely to rust, and therefore requires less preventative maintenance than a stainless steel blade.
- Will be less likely to stain or discolour after years of use.
- Slightly easier to sharpen than carbon steel blades.
- Though sharp, stainless steel blades won’t be quite as sharp as a carbon steel blade.
Straight razor blades are most commonly measured in 8ths of an inch, such as 5/8”, 6/8”, 8/8” and so on. This measurement is the total width of the blade from spine to cutting edge.
Generally speaking, a small blade (such as 5/8”) is recommended for beginners, as the smaller blade makes it a little easier to see the cutting edge as it moves across the skin.
When viewed in profile along their length, straight razor blades have differing shapes that offer a slightly different shaving experience. These different shapes, called grinds, are created when the razor is produced and are one of the most important differences between various blades.
Fuller grinds, such as wedges and quarter hollows provide a comfortable shave that is perfect for those just starting out with straight razors. The weight in the blade provides a smooth, relaxed feel that is more forgiving of imperfect technique.
Thinner blade grinds, such as full hollow blades, offer some degree of flexibility as they are moved across the skin. The thinner blade can also get closer against the skin than a fuller wedge, but with less weight, it can be more difficult to move the blade through thicker facial hair.
BLADE EDGE PROFILE
Blade edge profile refers to the curvature of the razors cutting edge. Typically, most razors have either a straight profile, or a slight convex shape known as a smile. While both profiles will offer a great shave, some men with more angular faces prefer the smile profile for a closer shave across the cheeks.
The tip of the blade is known as the point, and as with most other aspects of the blade, this is an area that varies between different razors. In the drawing above, we show some of the most popular blade point types, which can be described as broadly as round or sharp.
Which is best is a matter of personal preference, but there are some considerations that will assist in making the decision a little easier. Round points are great for beginners as they are less likely to nick the skin, however, square points provide a more accurate edge where intricate shaping is necessary.
Arguable the most visually-striking aspect of any straight razor is the handle. Made from a range of materials from plastic to animal horns, these handles can rival the blades they protect when it comes to artisanal craftsmanship.
A good razor should have an even weight balance between the blade and handle to ensure a predictable feel when held at all positions around the face and neck. Famous brands such as Dovo Solingen and Thiers-Issard have decades of experience in crafting razor handles that provide a fantastic feel right across their product range.
Unlike a double edge safety razor that uses disposable blades, straight razors – with their fixed blades – require on-going sharpening to maintain their effectiveness. Every razor will require regular stropping with a leather strop (recommended before each use), and periodic honing with whetstones to resharpen the blade where prolonged use has dulled its edge. Honing is recommended once or twice per year, depending on how often the razor is used.
Any discussion of straight razors is not complete without mentioning shavettes. These razors are, in essence, straight razors with a disposable blade. While they are no substitute for an experienced hand, shavettes are a great way for beginners to learn the basics of using a straight razor without the additional fuss of stropping, honing and preventative maintenance. Their lower price point in comparison with traditional straight razors also helps to make the decision less daunting if you’re not sure that straight shaving is for you.