During the Victorian era, razors became a symbol of luxury. Blades had intricate designs, while straight razor handles were adorned with silver and ivory and, in some cases, even precious stones.
However, the handles of a straight razor have another function besides just being a vessel for extra embellishments. This part of a straight razor is one of the reasons why the blade does not close while shaving, and it defines the user’s grip for a smooth and close shave like the one you can get at the barbershop.
Get to know a straight edge razor’s handle beyond its aesthetic appeal.
- What is a Straight Razor Handle?
- Straight Razor Scale Materials
- Straight Razor Parts: An Overview
- Defining Straight Razor Handle Quality
- Handle with Care
- Does Razor Handle Matter?
- What is the Best Straight Razor Handle?
What is a Straight Razor Handle?
A straight razor’s handle is called “scales,” and it is one of the 13 parts of a straight razor. It is usually made of wood, resin, metal, or plastic. Aside from housing the idle blade, the handle also equilibrates the blade’s weight to prevent the razor from closing.
The handles of a shavette straight razor are also called the scales. Shavettes with a pivoted design similar to a straight razor use replaceable or disposable blades on a blade holder instead that do not need to be passed on a leather strop or go through honing for maintenance.
A Backtrack on Its History
Did you know that today’s razor handles were a far cry from what they used to be in the 1700s?
Back then, razors were crudely made compared to today’s standards.
The straight razor’s blade and handle used a wedge shape. Horn, wood, and bone were the usual materials that artisans used for creating the scales, and the surface was almost always flat.
In its early days, straight razor scales were made more for their practical value—although, as the Invisible Edge1 noted: some had beveled surfaces, no doubt because it allowed users to have a firm grasp on the blade.
It was only during the 1800s that the handles or scales began to show a slight curve. Around this period, the razors with decorative handles, usually made of pressed horns, began to appear.
Towards the 1850s, razor craftsmanship skyrocketed. Blades were etched with intricate designs and handles inlaid with silver and ivory. Surviving razors from this period are now valuable heirloom pieces.
Today, straight razor collectors would go into a frenzy if they happen to find an heirloom piece for sale. The most prized handles are those made of ivory, buffalo horn, and mother-of-pearl.2
Please be warned, though, that the use of ivory for anything is outlawed in most countries,3 so do be careful in acquiring an ivory scale straight razor.
Straight Razor Scale Materials
Modern razors often have wooden scales, and some wet shave enthusiasts have major opinions. Most of them argue that ivory and horn scales are better than wood, while some prefer plastic or celluloid above everything else.
Here are the different straight razor handle materials:
Since razors gained their esteemed luxury allure, many users preferred to use ivory for their scales. But aside from that, ivory was a popular material for industrial use in the 15th-19th century because it is soft, pliant, and easy to process into works of art.4, 5
Ivory comes from elephant tusks or teeth that extend beyond their mouths. Elephants used their tusks to break branches to access food and fight off threats as a defense tool.
Elephant tusks became a status symbol not because they have a significant feature. Ivory was so valuable due to its cultural implications and scarcity, especially now that stricter poaching laws are in place.
Some straight razor manufacturers use vegetable ivory or corosso (tagua nut) as an alternative.6 This nut is a seed from certain kinds of palm trees, like the ivory-nut tree.7 It has the same white hue, hardness, and malleability as animal ivory, making them the perfect substitute.
Tusks were not the only material straight razors manufacturers gathered from animals. Horn was also a beloved scale material, with cow and buffalo horns being the most popular.
Animal horns make excellent straight razor scales because they have thermoplastic properties and contain dense layers of fibers creating a hard and durable surface.8 Once processed, their dull and rigid facade gains a smooth and glossy appearance.
Dovo and Boker, for example, use Buffalo horns in some of their straight razors. Buffalo horn scales are black and have a ridged inner side curve that will surely make any razor look dapper.
Wood has always been an esteemed natural material for industrial use. However, not many vintage traditional straight razors have wooden scales, but not because wood is not a good choice.
Most old straight razors with wooden handles were more prone to rotting and corrosion because manufacturers did not have modern wood treatment techniques.9 That is why many of the vintage razors available today have ivory and bone handles.
Today, there are different ways to protect the wood from water damage. Some use polyurethane, varnish, lacquer, oil, and resin to waterproof the material.10 For more industrial use, pressure-treated wood shows better resistance to decay.11
Rosewood, ebony, sandalwood, and olive wood handles are the most popular for straight razor shaving.12 They are known for their dark hues, excellent durability, and ability to age beautifully.
In the 1860s, Alexander Parkes discovered the first synthetic plastic, celluloid.13 It came from cellulose nitrate plasticized by camphor. Known for its toughness, affordability, and wear resistance from water, oil, and acids, cellulose quickly became a popular material for straight razors and other grooming products like combs.
The only downside is that celluloid is flammable, which is a major hazard in the production process. Eventually, modern renditions of plastics came to replace celluloid scales.
Last but not least, straight razor handles also come in steel.14 The best choice would be stainless steel as it is excellent at handling a corrosive environment. Compared to carbon steel, stainless steel has better wear resistance and versatility.
Stainless steel straight razor handles can be of an equal match to their blade’s weight. If they are made of the same material, there is no doubt that this kind of scale will offer its user an advantage.
Straight Razor Parts: An Overview
Straight razors are traditional razors with a pivoted design, in which the blade slides back into the handle when not in use. It has a more straightforward mechanism but with more components than modern razors, like cartridge razors and safety razors.
Listing down the importance of a razor’s handle can become technical. Hence, below is an overview of the different straight razor parts:
- Pivot pin - connecting peg between the scales and the razor blade
- Scales - official term for a straight razor handle
- Tang - other end of the blade for balancing or stabilizing the finger
- Shank - binding metal section between the blade and the pivot pin
- Jimps - ridges or “fluting” under the shank assisting better grip on the underside of the shank
- Shoulder - end of a straight razor blade or the section between the shank and spine
- Spine - top side of the blade
- Point - straight razor blade’s profile or flat end
- Face - blade’s side surface that can be customized with logos, initials, and other decorations
- Toe - endpoint of the blade’s cutting edge
- Edge - straight razor blade’s cutting edge or sharp cut-throat surface
- Heel - area under the shoulder, connecting the heel and shank, aiming to protect the thumb
- Stabilizer - embossed area between the shoulder and heel
Each of these parts works harmoniously with the scales to help the straight razor achieve its most efficient shave. The blade’s dimensions, grind, and steel base defines the blade's weight, which the handle needs to complement. Meanwhile, the pivot pin is what puts them all together.
A straight razor’s handle is not universal because it needs to counter the weight of the blade.
Narrow straight razors with a full hollow grind are significantly lighter than a wide straight razor with a wedge grind. The perfect straight razor dimension is at least a 5/8 blade size, hollow grind, with a round point. Hence, razors with heavier blades cannot do well with a handle made of light materials.
Defining Straight Razor Handle Quality
Beyond the type of material, there are three essential qualities that one should consider in a handle. These are:
Whether to pick a straight razor with a heavy or a lightweight handle will largely depend on your personal preferences.
Metal handles tend to be heavier and are best suited for those with sensitive skins. It only requires a light grip, and the weight of the handle will manage the pressure of the blade for you, resulting in a clean and smooth shave.
However, lighter handles made of wood or plastic will allow you to control the pressure. This comes in handy, especially when one is trimming the edges of a beard or sideburns.
A curved handle allows a much more comfortable grip on the razor. The user does not need to bend the wrist more than necessary when passing the blade to the skin.
In contrast, kamisori razors with straight handles require more skill to get a similar and smooth shave. That’s because the user needs to adjust the angle constantly to reach every corner of the face.
When opened, a quality straight razor’s balance should be at the center of the pivot pin. A good handle balances the razor so that it is more comfortable to hold while helping cut precisely at all the right angles.
With that, a straight razor with a curved wooden handle is the best for you if you are a beginner. Scales made of premium heavy woods offer beginners an easier learning phase. The handle's weight allows them to practice their grip without relying too much on the razor. Therefore, they can transition to heavier straight razors with less challenge.
Handle with Care
Different kinds of handles also require different levels of maintenance. The least intensive would probably be plastic handles.
We recommend avoiding soap and detergents when cleaning handles. Wipe with a damp cloth moistened with distilled water and dry immediately, using clean absorbent cotton.
Wooden and metal handles are a different matter. While generally compatible, under adverse conditions, corrosion can occur and will not be good for the razor.15
Handles made from oak, sweet chestnut, and red cedar are usually associated with the corrosion of metals when in contact with a damp environment. Similarly, iron and steel are generally susceptible to corrosion when in contact with wood and water.
A razor with wooden handles must always be pat dry with a cloth after every use and stored away in a dry airtight container. Don’t place it in a bathroom since the constant moisture might corrode the handle. Store it instead in your bedroom drawers.
Does Razor Handle Matter?
Real straight razor enthusiasts know the importance of not overlooking their handles. The kind of scales or handles of a straight razor does matter because they provide support to the shaver and define their grip to prevent accidents from happening while shaving.
Here is why straight razor handles are important:
- Defines the grip of the shaver to prevent the razor from slipping.
- Offers a counterweight to the blade to put tension on the pivot pin.
- Prevents the razor from closing while shaving.
- Secures the blade when not in use.
- Adds value and makes the straight razor last longer
What is the Best Straight Razor Handle?
When buying a razor, most people think more about the blade than the handle but choosing the right handle is also important because the right one can add more value and make the straight razor more durable enough to last a long time.
The best straight razor handle is made of one of the most valuable woods in the world, sandalwood. It holds a religious significance among most of the world’s religions. This is because sandalwood is supposedly the legendary algum wood that was used to build King Solomon’s Temple in Biblical times.
Sandalwood also offers excellent health-improving properties. For centuries, people have used sandalwood as a herbal remedy for chest and urinary infections. The wood produces an essential oil that has anti-viral properties, which makes it a promising treatment for genital tract infections.16
Packed with Antioxidants
It also contains powerful antioxidants which prevent the formation of wrinkle-causing free radicals. When used as a face mask, it can help restore skin tone through an anti-inflammatory component that helps improve blood circulation to your face, making it an excellent anti-aging fix.18
Sandalwood is a favorite component in aromatherapy preparations.19 Unlike other aromatic woods, they retain their fragrance for a long time. When inhaled, the scent triggers a calming effect and promotes mental clarity. So you can just imagine how regularly shaving with a Naked Armor Straight Razor can make you healthier and ready to face your day.
Sandalwood provides a good amount of weight to the straight razor. And if you are a newbie, it would benefit you more to own a heavy shaving tool for an effortless shave.
Several wet shavers prefer heavy straight razors.20 This kind of razor offers less room for mistakes and less effort from the user. It does most of the work. All you have to do is glide and guide it as it plows through your facial hair.
Unfortunately, because of the many benefits of sandalwood, it has been often harvested without any regard for its species' survival. This is why sandalwood is now a protected species. In places like India and Indonesia, it is illegal to cut down sandalwood trees to allow the local population to recover.
But since sandalwood is used for many important applications in traditional medicine, trade, and even religion, countries like Australia and some Southeast Asian nations have set aside sandalwood plantations for limited harvesting.
Where to Get Sandalwood Straight Razors
At Naked Armor, our Solomon Straight Razors come with top-quality wood handles that heighten the luxurious feel that a Naked Armor shaving experience brings. It comes equipped with a finely crafted shave-ready Japanese steel blade which folds neatly into high-quality sandalwood scales.
Naturally, because there is a limited supply, sandalwood is more valuable than ever, which makes the Naked Armor Straight Razor a very select item, worthy for the man of distinction.
So why settle for a straight razor with an ordinary wooden handle when you can have more? Click this to add Naked Armor to your cart now.
More Naked Armor Reads
- The History Of Straight Razors. The Invisible Edge. https://www.theinvisibleedge.co.uk/content/13-the-history-of-straight-razors
- Straight Razors - Do You Know What That Handle Is Made From? Street Directory. https://www.streetdirectory.com/etoday/straight-razorsdo-you-know-what-that-handle-is-made-from-ejaaca.html
- T. Parmar. More Than 100 Nations Say the Legal Ivory Trade Must End. Time. http://time.com/4516137/cities-ivory-trade-end/. October 3, 2016
- Elephant Tusks: What Are They Made of & What’s Their Purpose? A-Z Animals. https://a-z-animals.com/blog/elephant-tusks-what-are-they-made-of-whats-their-purpose/. September 2, 2021.
- A. Diamond. Why Is Ivory So Precious? Smithsonian Mag. https://www.smithsonianmag.com/smithsonian-institution/why-ivory-precious-more-questions-readers-180975209/. July 2020
- What is vegetable ivory and what does it have to do with real elephants? Technology https://www.technology.org/2019/06/04/what-is-vegetable-ivory-and-what-does-it-have-to-do-with-real-elephants/. June 4, 2019
- W.P. Armstrong. Vegetable Ivory. Palomar https://www2.palomar.edu/users/warmstrong/pljan99.htm. July 12, 2010
- Sources of Horn. Abbey Horn. https://www.abbeyhorn.co.uk/index/sources-of-horn_41.htm
- Does anyone share my dislike for wooden scales? Badger & Blade. https://www.badgerandblade.com/forum/threads/does-anyone-share-my-dislike-for-wooden-scales.86068/
- Protecting Wood From Water Damage: Here’s How. Fisher Lumber. https://www.fisherlumber.com/protecting-wood-from-water-damage-heres-how
- What Is Pressure Treated Wood? Curtis Lumber & Plywood. https://www.clp-inc.com/what-is-pressure-treated-wood/. January 27, 2020
- Scales Material - best wood? Sharp Razor Palace. https://sharprazorpalace.com/razors/128825-scales-material-best-wood.html
- Celluloid summary. Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/summary/celluloid
- Different Types of Straight Razors: Grinds, Points, Notches & Designs. Bespoke Unit. https://bespokeunit.com/shaving/straight-razor/designs/
- Corrosion of metals associated with wood. Victoria And Albert Museum. http://www.vam.ac.uk/content/journals/conservation-journal/issue-04/corrosion-of-metals-associated-with-wood/
- Haque M, Haque A. Use of sandalwood oil for the prevention and treatment of warts, skin blemishes and other viral-induced tumors. 1966;(US6132756A). https://patents.google.com/patent/US6132756
- Sandalwood: An Ancient Anti-Aging and Acne Treatment. Amber Lily Naturals. http://amberlilynaturals.com/7-beauty-benefits-of-sandalwood/
- Oils for Wrinkles? 20 Essential and Carrier Oils to Add to Your Routine. Healthline. https://www.healthline.com/health/beauty-skin-care/essential-oils-for-wrinkles#rejuvenatingoils
- J. Axe, DC, DNM, CN. Sandalwood Essential Oil Benefits for the Brain & Body. https://draxe.com/sandalwood-essential-oil/. December 3, 2018
- Do you prefer a larger/heavier straight razor, or a smaller one? The Shave Den. https://theshaveden.com/forums/threads/are-heavy-straight-razors-better-shavers-in-general.52869/