Learning more about straight razor history takes you back in the day to better understand the craft, providing you the best guide to achieve an excellent wet shaving experience.
The reign of disposable plastic razors is finally about to come to an end. People are slowly reverting to using straight razors for wet shaving as they become more conscious about the environment.
Sadly, the modernization of shaving and the popularity of plastic safety razors dimmed the light on the concept of using a straight razor. It has then become a skill only a few can master.
Traditional shaving techniques may no longer have the spotlight. But, it does not mean acquiring the skill is an impossible feat. There is no better way to learn how to use a straight razor than first knowing its history.
Hence, let this article give you everything you need to know about straight razors:
- What is a Straight Razor?
- What is a Straight Razor Made Of?
- Straight Razor History Timeline
- Modern Evolution
What is a Straight Razor?
A straight razor is a traditional shaving device with a blade that folds back into its handle when not in use. Its distinctive design embodies a one-edged blade attached to its handle through a pin. It is a tool people use for wet shaving and has been infamous as a cut-throat razor due to its notable sharpness.
What is a Straight Razor Made Of?
The blade of a straight razor can either come from stainless steel or high-carbon steel. Its handles, on the other hand, are commonly from wood and horn. However, as time progressed, manufacturers became more innovative and incorporated nacre, celluloid, bone, ivory, and plastic materials for the handle.
Artisans usually prefer stainless steel over high carbon, for it is less prone to rusting. However, high-carbon steel is better for malleability since it is easier to hone for a sharper edge.
Meanwhile, for handles, wood has always been a favorite. Once treated with resin, it becomes water-resistant. The other materials cannot withstand higher temperatures, can easily deform, and are brittle. Hence, a quality-made and long-lasting straight razor has a stainless steel blade and often has wooden handles that do not warp, crack, or absorb water over time.
Using a straight razor is an art on its own, but creating one entails an entirely new level of craftsmanship. Machines cannot wholly provide and ever replace the rigorous efforts put through in handmade razors. Aside from that, the effort and level of artistry also elevate the value of these shaving essentials.
So, how is a straight razor made?
Step 1: Forging
The process starts by forging steel ingots into a blank of the blade. The steel should have a minimum of 0.6% carbon content to achieve the ideal hardness, flexibility, and resistance. After cleaning it through a heavy forge, the artisan attaches the blank to the pivot point to drill in the tang.
Step 2: Hardening and tempering
Hardening and tempering is a crucial step to guarantee the flexibility and strength of the steel, ensuring that it will last a long time. That is why after forging, artisans heat the blade uniformly to approximately 760°C to achieve optimum hardness.
After hardening the steel, it is now ready for tempering. The steel will soak in an oil bath with a temperature ranging from 200°C to 400°C. The steel can either be hard-tempered, medium-tempered, or soft-tempered. However, the harder the tempering is, the harder it is to sharpen. Since straight razors need to be cut-throat sharp, it is only ideal for their blades to be medium-tempered
Step 3: Grinding and finishing
Straight razors transude a luxurious experience, which correlates to a lustrous gleam. If your straight razor has a foggy surface, it does not entirely provide the overall sense of luxury. That is why they need to undergo the grinding and finishing process.
Grinding removes excess materials on the steel to create a smooth surface. The steel then goes through polishing for finishing, which has varying degrees. The most expensive straight razors wear the most refined finish or a mirror finish.
However, most straight razors available today have a satin finish due to high demand and the need to beat production deadlines. Manufacturers often opt for this since it is easier and faster to achieve with black acid etching.
Besides that, some manufacturers use metal plating. Yet, doing so is not advisable as it quickly erodes, exposing the raw metal underneath. Manufacturers cannot properly hone metal-plated blades, therefore lacking functionality.
Step 4: Sharpening
You cannot yield a straight razor without sharpening the blade. It diminishes the value and purpose of the tool. Therefore, sharpening is the most necessary despite being the last step in creating your razor.
The manufacturer uses a grinding wheel to sharpen the blade. After that, it goes through honing on rotating round stones or grazing it on flat honing stones. The manufacturer can finish the process by stropping on a strop or let the buyer do that instead.
Straight Razor History Timeline
Nothing can overthrow the comforting experience that traditional wet shaving techniques can offer using a straight razor. However, it is inevitable to wonder how these methods came about and know more about straight razor history. When did people realize the need for shaving, and has it always been as convenient today?
Grooming was never essential in a man’s life in the beginning. Undoubtedly, people in prehistoric times and the stone age gave little to no care about the hairs growing on their bodies. Well, not until the parasites came.
Eventually, plucking away ticks became too tiresome. People began to sharpen clamshells and shark teeth and use them to cut away their beards. Hence, the beginning of the history of shaving. There are proofs of these early razor designs on prehistoric caves.
From rugged razors made of clamshells, the Egyptians provided a more advanced design for their shaving tools. Artisans from Egypt made bronze razors with fixed handles from 1569 to 1081 BC. According to relics and hieroglyphs, historians believe the early Egyptian colonies are the forefathers of actual and fully functional straight-edge razors.
The Egyptians’ fascination with hairless and smooth facades is undeniable. Pharaohs and other men in power often sport bald heads and clean-shaven faces. How would they have ever achieved this without shaving?
The Egyptians are not the only early civilization that does not prefer beards. Romans also have a liking for hairless faces. During these times, negative stereotypes surround thick and long facial hairs. They believed it was only for the lower classes. Hence, the elites would use tools like razors to attend to their grooming needs.
Both the early razors of Romans and Egyptians are unique. The Roman razors do not look anything like the straight-edge razors that the Egyptians had. Instead, they use a “novacila,” similar to a brass knuckle, with a straight edge. It is an easy-to-use and simple-looking design, yet nothing like a straight razor.
In the 1500s, straight razors took on another form. These eras somehow deviated from the original straight-edged look of Egyptian razors and instead looked like small hatchets. Hence, men often left their beards out to grow, untouched, as cutting them with such a tool is not an entirely pleasurable experience.
The 1600s to 1800s
The late 1600s until the 1800s was the part of straight razor history when shaving and straight razors were at their prime. The first narrow-bladed folding straight razors from Sheffield, England, came into the picture in this era. Manufacturers also began adding “jimps” to the tang for a more stable grip.
Not to mention, Michael Faraday’s invention of silver steel re-envisioned the old look of straight razor blades into having a more aesthetic appeal. Along with the use of ivory, horn, and bones for the handle, photo-etchings on the blades, and personalizing it with the owner’s initials, straight razors eventually became a status symbol for the elite.
There was also a new design in town by William Henson. He created the hoe razor with a blade perpendicular to the handle. It provided a more accessible and more comfortable shaving experience for the men like never before.
And when women prefer a hairless fashion for their heads to sport powdered wigs, shaving became an essential not only for men. As a result, the demand for straight razors reached a peak.
However, by the end of the 1800s, the Kampfe brothers from the United States began to design the prototype for the safety razor. The idea was simple: decrease the risk of cutting the skin without compromising a good shave. It is safe to say; this was when the straight razor’s popularity began to dim.
Although straight razors remain relevant today, it was in the 1900s when the industry began to fall. This era was the birth of the Gillette safety razors. King Camp Gillette, a traveling businessman, combined the Kampfe brothers’ design and used disposable blades. Thus, the advent of disposable safety razors.
Yet, professional barbers and shaving enthusiasts who have long been using straight razors continued to keep their skill. Therefore, the need for traditional shaving techniques and tools never went away.
Currently, the demand for straight razors is going back up. More businesses are starting to manufacture their versions of the renowned shaving tool. The modern straight razor bears the same traditional design but is crafted through non-conventional techniques using better materials and some are even made to be travel-friendly.
With today’s technology and superior artistry, straight razors have never worn a more functional and long-lasting design that is also easier to clean compared to today's shaving tools. You can find quality straight razors, such as Naked Armor’s Lancelot Black Stainless Steel Razor, which embodies a sleek facade.
Straight razors came a long way from simple one-edged blades to bearing a long-lasting stainless steel blade. Even with the threats from the convenient plastic disposable safety razors, straight razors remain valuable and irreplaceable grooming essential.
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