In wet shaving, the blade is half of what makes a good shave. It is important to choose the best material, and for that, the highest quality comes in the form of carbon and stainless steel—but which is the best choice for straight razor blades?
This article will break down how each type of metal performs as a straight razor blade.
- History of Straight Razor Blades
- What Makes a Good Straight Razor?
- Carbon Steel Properties
- Stainless Steel Properties
- Carbon Vs. Stainless Steel Razor Blade
- The Best Straight Razor Blade
History of Straight Razor Blades
It would probably not be easy to get a nice close shave in olden times, given that our ancestors were using bronze metal for their blades.
Bronze was brittle and prone to develop a rusting pattern, despite never rusting through the metal.1 Even when iron, later on, replaced bronze as the go-to metal for blade-making, there was only a bit of an improvement.
Meanwhile, iron razors are less likely to break or bend during use—sure. But they were also prone to corrosion. It was not until the Industrial Age when the English developed Sheffield steel, that razor blades started to evolve into what they are today.
Modern Steel Razors
Today’s modern razor blades come from stainless steel and carbon steel. There are also razor blades that use Damascus steel with a carbon steel edge. Damascus steel is suitable for knives, but it is exceptional for straight razor blades because it is one of the strongest and hardest metals, making it ideal for maintaining a sharp edge.
Harry Brearley was a metallurgist who developed new steels that could better resist the erosion caused by high temperatures.2 His discovery of rustless steel in Sheffield was a game-changer, perfecting the process for large-scale manufacturing of rustless steel.3
What Makes a Good Straight Razor?
High-quality straight razors have an ideal blade-to-handle ratio, wherein the blade’s weight perfectly offsets or balances the heft of the handle. This symmetry guarantees that there is enough tension in the pivot pin.
The straight razor’s scale is often made of wood with a full-metal single-edge blade. If straight razor blades wore thinner and lower-quality steel, the chances of it closing back into the handle would be higher.
In addition, thinner blades also vibrate while shaving, which is a common disadvantage that many shavette users experience. There is more tugging on the hair and more disturbances on the skin, which results in horrid post-shave skin irritations like razor burn, bumps, and accidental nicks.
Hence, the very first thing you should look for in a straight razor is the balance between the blade and the scales. Without it, you cannot guarantee an effortlessly clean shave.
Carbon Steel Properties
Among the many different types of steel, carbon steel is the most popular for industrial use,4 especially for knives and blades. However, it is important to know that all steel is an alloy metal, which contains carbon and iron, but the high concentration of carbon in this kind of steel truly sets it apart.
There is only less than 0.35% of carbon in the steel, but carbon steel has an average of 0.7% to 2.5%. This high concentration defines the significant characteristics of carbon steel,5 which are:
- Improved hardness
- Better strength
- Proper hardenability
- Lower melting point
- Greater durability
Because it can shuffle iron’s crystal lattice and improve the steel’s tensile strength, there is no doubt that carbon is the most important alloying element. However, it can be both a blessing and a curse because high contractions lead to higher brittleness, faster corrosion, and poor weldability.6
Stainless Steel Properties
Stainless steel is an important commercial high-alloy and cutlery-grade metal with at least 12% chromium content. Similar to carbon, chromium strongly increases the hardenability of steel but also improves its corrosion resistance.
The excess chromium content in stainless steel triggers austenite formation.7 Austenite is the critical factor that drives the benefits of stainless steel, which are:
- Low critical cooling rate
- Increased wear resistance
- Better scaling resistance
- High-temperature strength
- Better versatility
But most importantly, chromium’s chemical reaction with oxygen makes stainless steel stainless.8 It creates a stubborn thin layer that prevents oxygen from getting deeper into the steel and reacting with iron, which is the primary cause of corrosion.
The only downside is that stainless steel with higher levels of chromium is unstable at room temperature. Hence, other alloys, such as nickel, titanium, and molybdenum are added to the steel to improve its oxidation resistance and strength.
Carbon vs. Stainless Steel Straight Razors
The introduction of the Bessemer process made it possible to incorporate Sheffield steel in all manner of tools development, such as the production of Sheffield steel straight razors.9
Blade manufacturers from Sheffield were the first to use stainless steel to produce straight razors. Its best characteristic, being resistant to corrosion, making it the ideal blade material for straight razors, which is technically a home essential.
Since then, stainless steel became the revolutionary point d’ appui of wet shaving, a total upgrade to its paleolithic counterpart, the bronze metal, and the modern carbon steel blades.
So, that leads us to the question, is carbon steel or stainless steel better for a straight razor?
The cutting edge of a straight razor is what defines its efficiency as a shaving tool. When it comes to sharpness, carbon steel blades are not necessarily sharper than stainless steel blades, but they are easier to sharpen and hone since they are softer than stainless steel.
According to some blade enthusiasts, “carbon steel is softer and tougher. It can be sharpened more easily and the edge can be recovered quickly partially because you are just re-aligning it to an extent. It responds to steeling (like, with a steel) like a kitchen knife if it isn't too hard. It will take a fine edge.”10
Stainless steel straight razor blades have a large volume of carbides at the same hardness as carbon steel because they are high-alloy steels. However, they are more difficult to hone and strop because they are too hard due to the size of carbide clusters.
The excess chromium on stainless steel ties with the carbide, making the blade achieve hardness above 60 HRC. As a result, this straight razor blade is harder to work on a honing stone and a leather strop.
However, due to their hardness level, the edge retention of a stainless steel straight razor blade is longer than a carbon straight razor blade. You can guarantee that the edge will stay sharp even when used daily.
Since the blades of a carbon straight razor are softer than stainless steel, it becomes more challenging for them to go through major grinding processes. Carbon straight razor blades are best for thicker grinds, such as a wedge, a quarter hollow, and a frameback,11 as it lessens the risk of breaking the edge or the blade.
Meanwhile, the versatility of stainless steel makes it easier to form into different shapes for a broad range of mediums. Straight razors with stainless steel blades are easier to grind into thicker widths, and their hardness is more stable for half-hollow to extra-hollow grounds.
The major difference between carbon steel vs stainless steel blades lies in their corrosion and wear resistance. Many stainless steel blades are rust-free, while carbon steel blades are said to rust more quickly. Rust resistance is an important feature a straight razor blade should have because it faces constant water exposure.
Thanks to the added alloys in stainless steel, oxygen from water exposure cannot easily permeate into the core of the steel. This protective film protects and prevents the reaction that causes corrosion.
Carbon blades are made of pure steel, which is more prone to rusting. Corrosion in carbon steel blades is faster because it does not contain other alloys. Therefore, shavers need to be extra careful when storing their straight razors after shaving, wherein the blades should dry properly.
Aesthetic and feel
Carbon straight razor blades have an aesthetically pleasing black facade. Meanwhile, stainless steel straight razor blades have a familiar silver-chromatic look.
At first, carbon straight razors offer a more luxurious and classy appeal. However, after several uses and passes on a strop, the iconic dim shade will eventually fade, and chips of silver will appear at the edge.
Also, stainless steel straight razor blades absorb heat very quickly. They are excellent for a warm, comforting shaving experience that you can get from a traditional wet shave. Warming the blade in warm water will guarantee the best experience. On the other hand, you need to be careful with carbon steel blades as they have a low melting point. Hence, constant exposure to warm water may affect its shape and hardness.
Straight razors are expensive on their own. The type of blade materials put the mark on their price. Since carbon straight razors are made of pure steel, manufacturing requires fewer resources, hence the lower price point. Stainless straight razor blades are more expensive because of the added alloys.
An excellent straight razor should have a balance of all these factors, wherein it needs to have a sharp blade that has good edge retention and rust resistance.
The Best Straight Razor
While it may be cheaper to buy carbon steel straight razors, consider a stainless steel blade as a long-term investment when choosing a straight razor instead.
Considering all factors, the best steel for straight razor blades is stainless steel because the blades are high-tempered with an excellent edge retention and rust resistance, which lowers the need for blade maintenance.
The blade’s narrow grind profile accounts for a close and smooth shave. It is easier to bevel the skin to achieve the ideal blade-to-skin angle to cut one’s facial hair at skin level, especially for beginners. As a result, it leaves less risk for post-shave irritations, such as razor burn and razor bumps.
On the other hand, those who already have experience with straight razor shaving can get away with using a carbon straight razor. Experts and long-time wet shavers already have the necessary blade maintenance and storage know-how. Hence, they can better take care of the fragile blades.
Do not forget that all straight razors have a learning curve and need stropping and honing. If you do not want the hassle of sharpening and maintaining your razor's cutthroat edge, it would be best to opt for razors with disposable blades, like safety razors and shavette straight razors.
Always partner your shaving tool with the necessary wet shaving essentials to enjoy a shave similar to what you will get in a barbershop. Create a lather with a combination of shaving soap or shaving cream, scuttle, and brush, then apply an aftershave.
Naked Armor Straight Razors
Naked Armor’s collection of stainless steel straight razors: Lancelot Straight Razor (upper right), King Arthur Straight Razor (upper left), Thor Straight Razor (lower right), Merlin Straight Razor (lower left).
Whatever straight razor you prefer will cater best to your needs. You can surely find the best razors from high-quality craftsmanship at Naked Armor. Our Lancelot Straight Razor wears a sexy carbon coating from blade to handle, and our premium Thor Straight Razor has ACRO Japanese Stainless Steel.
These traditional straight razors are also between a full hollow and a half hollow grind, and this grind structure makes it versatile for all hair textures and types that a newbie or a pro can also use just as quickly.
Naked Armor Straight Razors have shave-ready blades with an HRC level of 61-62, making them one of the best in the world. Despite their quality, they come for a fairly affordable price, perfect for an awe-inspiring gift for yourself or your loved ones.
Shop them below:
More Naked Armor Reads:
- Bronze vs Iron vs Steel Swords: Evolution of Metals. Mas-Swords. https://www.martialartswords.com/blogs/articles/bronze-vs-iron-vs-steel-swords-evolution-of-metals. April 3, 2017
- Harry Brearley: The man who discovered stainless steel. Sheffield Galleries & Museums Trust. https://www.museums-sheffield.org.uk/project-archive/burngreave-voices/BrearleyH.html
- Sheffield’s Steel-Making History Unearther. BBC. https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-england-south-yorkshire-40669159. July 20, 2017
- Pros and Cons Of Carbon Steel: What You Should Know. Monroe Engineering. https://monroeengineering.com/blog/pros-and-cons-of-carbon-steel-what-you-should-know/. October 10, 2018
- B. Capudean. Mettalurgy Matters: Carbon content, steel classifications, and alloy steels. The Fabricator. https://www.thefabricator.com/thewelder/article/metalsmaterials/carbon-content-steel-classifications-and-alloy-steels#:~:text=And%20while%20there%20are%20steels,less%20than%200.35%20percent%20carbon. August 8, 2003
- Effects Of Chemical Elements In Steel. Steel Tank. https://www.steeltank.com/Products/PressureVessels/EffectofChemicalElementsinSteel/tabid/916/Default.aspx.
- Chromium Steel. Hardening Of Stainless Steel. https://www.hardening-of-stainless-steel.com/materials/chromium-steel/
- A. Peshin. What Makes Stainless Steel ‘Stainless’?. Science ABC. https://www.scienceabc.com/innovation/what-makes-stainless-steel-stainless.html#what-is-stainless-steel. January 22, 2022
- Bessemer Process. Brittanica. https://www.britannica.com/technology/Bessemer-process
- Why Is Carbon Steel Easier To Sharpen. Blade Forums. https://www.bladeforums.com/threads/why-is-carbon-steel-easier-to-sharpen.1243364/
- Different Types of Straight Razors: Grinds, Points, Notches & Designs. Bespoke Unit. https://bespokeunit.com/shaving/straight-razor/designs/#grinds