Choosing & Using a Straight Razor - pt 1

Sadly, Neil died earlier this year - he was the acknowledged expert on straight razors and had amassed a huge wealth of knowledge on makers - especially English ones. His memory lives on in the 3 posts relating to razors, strops and hones.
Thanks for updating me with the situation. Sorry to hear the sad news. I am sure I will appreciate his other posts as much as this. A shame I will never get to know him.
My good god , over the last 6/7 years ive spent time at neils house i was only there in april having my razors touched up , ive been so into my work this year, ive only just found out about neil. So sad such a good man he always moaned at me to sort out my blood pressure problems and i did finally this year and threw my self into my work again. R.I.P my old friend until we speak again.
Boab very kindly asked me to write a few articles about straight (aka "open" and "cut-throat") razors, so here is the first one. Others will follow with info about strops/stropping; hones and honing and the like. Please forgive the amateurish layout and writing, but I'm a restorer and honer among other things - not an author. The usual caveats apply to this and future ramblings: anything stated is just my opinion, you follow any advice given at your own peril, other peoples ideas may well be different to my own and free advice is worth what you pay for it. If this hasn't put you off, read on...

1. Types of Straight Razor
First things first - get to know the jargon! The following image (courtesy of Dovo) gives most of the names of the various parts of a straight razor. Note that there are variations in naming.

One of the first queries is whether to buy a stainless steel or carbon steel razor. There are other types of steel (damascus or pattern-welded, for example) but as the cost is usually prohibitive we'll stick with the two widely available options. Both types of steel have their pros and cons:

Stainless steel - pros
holds an edge for much longer than carbon steel due to its higher temper
needs less maintenance than carbon steel to stay shiny (but is does stain - just not as much as carbon steel)

Stainless steel - cons
harder to hone and maintain the edge (but you get used to it - its just takes a bit longer to hone)
takes longer to strop

Carbon steel - pros
easier to hone and maintain the edge than stainless due to its softer temper
some say it can take a keener edge than stainless
usually cheaper than stainless

Carbon steel - cons
the edge dulls quicker than stainless
if not scrupulously dried and cared for, it will rust and pit quickly

2. Types of Grind
The next thing to decide upon is what sort of grind you want. Grinding refers in this instance to taking metal off the face of the blade on each side. The following diagram shows a simplified progression from wedge to full hollow:

A wedge is at one extreme - it has no hollow grinding, so in section it looks triangular. They are great razors to use, but require a long, long time to hone, as all of the face of the blade will be sitting on the hone and you have to remove all that metal. At the other extreme is the full hollow ground (sometimes also called "singing" or "extra-hollow") - a large piece of metal has been ground out of the blade on both sides, leaving a very light razor with a very flexible blade. It is far easier than a wedge to hone - when you lay the blade on the hone just the spine and the tip of the blade touch the stone, so much less metal has to be removed.

There are all steps in between the full hollow grind and the wedge, of course! But we can break them down into this simplified sequence: wedge - quarter hollow - half hollow - full hollow. Which one to choose is a matter of personal choice, but I would start with something near the middle of the sequence - like a quarter hollow or half hollow grind. Then you can decide to get a thicker (less flexible) or thinner (more flexible) razor next time. The very popular Wapis are about a quarter hollow - a lot of people start with these for instance.

3. Point Variations
The point can have a number of variations in shape or style. Each style is usually associated with how accurately the tip of the razor can be used. Some variations, of course, are just aesthetic - that's human nature! The names used for the point styles can vary, but this is a list of a few of them, illustrated with some of my own restorations:

Round point - like it says, the point is rounded so it is a good choice for a beginner, as there are no abrupt transitions to a sharp edge, so less chance of cutting the face.

French point - this variation has a number of sub-divisions and namessuch as irish point and oblique point. The name varies according to the slope of the point - whether it is rounded or more straight - one with a straighter slope is generally termed irish. It's forte is in accuracy of cutting - the spine stops well in advance of the edge, leaving a very precise tip to work with.

Spike point - also called "square points" as the point of the blade is abruptly squared-off. This lends a great deal of precision - you can select individual hairs. You can also quite easily dig it into your cheek. Not recommended for beginners!

Barbers Notch - this point has a notch ground into it, and is also known, not suprisingly, as a "notch point" and sometimes as "hollow point." There seem to be as many theories about this one as about Lord Lucan's whereabouts, the main ones being that it is an aid to shaving nostrils and ears and that it was to help a barber open the blade. If the person shaving my face needed that amount of help to get the blade open I'd be off before it touched my face. I prefer the nostril theory.

There are other variations - Spanish Point and Dreadnought to name but two. The dreadnought is so-called because it resembled the prow of a battleship. The spanish point looks a bit like a gentle hollow point (blades with a barbers notch in them begin life as hollow points then the notch is ground in below the spine).

3. Blade Width
Traditionally, the width of the blade has been expressed in 1/8ths of an inch, so an 8/8 would be 1 inch wide. The width of the blade has a number of implications - a very narrow blade is more rigid than a wide blade, and a wide blade can hold more foam before it needs wiping. A wide blade with a full hollow grind will be very flexible - the edge of the blade may well deflect when it is contact with the skin. A very wide blade with a quarter hollow grind or no hollow at all (ie a wedge) will be very rigid - and heavy. This type of blade is often referred to as a "meat-chopper" for obvious reasons, and is said to be particularly good for shaving tough, wiry beards. The wider flexible blades take a bit of getting used to and aren't really recommended for a beginner. A 5/8 blade is a good place to start.

5. Summary
From the above information it should be apparent that a good choice for a first razor is a carbon steel blade with a round point, a quarter- or half-hollow grind and about 5/8ths of an inch wide.

At this point it might be useful to know what not to buy - this would include any of the new, cheap razors that you might see on places such as Ebay. They are often bundled with strops, mugs and so on, and there are usually hundreds of listings for them. A number of different companies market them - I won't list their names in an open forum, but you can message me if you want to check-up on a brand. They are usually made of inferior steel, poorly tempered, and usually incapable of either taking or holding a sharp edge. If you need to save money, buy a good used classic razor from a trusted vendor that is shave-ready, or stick with the tried-and-trusted makes such as Dovo, Thiers-Issard, etc. However, the old classic razors often out-perform (in my opinion) good new razors.

One last thing to bear in mind - if you do buy a new razor, don't expect it to be shave-ready. It may say shave-ready in the advertising blurb, but if you get one that is count yourself exceptionally lucky! You usually have to factor in the cost of sending the razor to a honemeister - makes the old classic shave-ready razors look an even more attractive proposition, doesn't it?!
Thank you Neil