How to Use a Straight Razor

Every wanted to know how to use a straight razor? Here's some advice from a man who took up the skill after electric razors proved unsatisfactory.
By John D. Meek
March/April 1972
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This is what is meant by "hollow ground" : Note the Y shape of the blade. Razors not ground this way are tough to sharpen.
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Regular Maintenance

We use available time in the winter to preform routine maintenance on appliances and tools.

It seems probable to me that many men spend a certain share of their lives engaged in that most ridiculous of Western Man's cultural rituals, shaving.

OK, some of us have to do it for one reason or another: to hold that job until the Time comes, or to keep from having a scraggly growth on the face because we can't grow a good beard, or whatever.

But let's give the problem some thought. Short of electrolysis (preferably at an early age), there are only two basic methods of depilation: the electric razor and the blade. Each has its advantages: fewer cuts with the electric, a closer shave (in spite of what the electric razor manufacturers say) with the blade.

But there are disadvantages to each, too. Electric razors needlessly support the power companies, are initially rather expensive, and require maintenance (which often involves sending the blamed things to the factory) from time to time. And suppose you want to go out into the woods for a while without coming back looking like one of the animals. What then? That electric razor is about as useful in the forest as a refrigerator. Very few trees come equipped with outlets.

Now consider the safety razor. Any male who's ever used or thought about how to use a straight razor will attest there's nothing safe about it. The first shave on a new blade leaves your face looking as if it's been gone over by someone in hobnail boots, and when the blade gets dull, the last shave is just about as bad as the first with the sole difference being that it hurts more. And what do you do then? You cuss, replace the blade, and consign the old one to that little slot in back of the medicine chest.

How many tons of steel are consumed each year in this way, never to be seen again until and unless the house is torn down? I'd love to know how much steel and other less common metals we consume annually in the form of blades. The manufacturers are using platinum now and claiming 10 or 15 shaves per blade, the same number claimed for the stainless steel cutting edges when they were introduced seven or eight years back. This is an improvement?

Well, many moons ago, while picking a safety razor from the gouge in my cheek (it was quite literally hung there) I decided that there must surely be a better way. I had already been the electric route and found that it left much to be desired — for instance, a decent shave.

The next afternoon, while trucking around town, I dropped into a junk shop, and there in a display case was something I hadn't seen outside a barber shop in years: a straight razor. The razor was in good shape, so I bought it and took it home. After a week or so of experiments (during which I cut myself, I think, four times) I got the hang of the thing with a little help from a friend who had used a straight razor before.

Since then, the results have gotten better all the time. I'm not babyfaced, but I can sure look like it with a little application, and the shave lasts the whole day instead of just a few hours.

After I'd learned the ins and outs of wielding a straight razor, I began to have fun with the stainless steel boys when they gathered to swap lies about the number of shaves they were getting from a single blade. I'd look around the group and top them all by saying, "I use a straight razor, and I'd hate to tell you guys how many shaves that one blade has given me."

I usually keep several straight razors on hand now. Most are hollow-ground (the best, most comfortable shaves obtainable come from hollow-ground straight razors) and some have pretty fancy handles, which doesn't help their performance any but which are nice to look at. All are in good working condition and all are first-class instruments. Every once in a while someone gets interested and I turn him on to this "new" method of shaving. Generally he goes away with one of the razors and a much happier face.

Here are some tips for the man who wants to try it:

(1) Don't buy a new razor unless you're sure that it does not have a stainless steel blade. Stainless steel won't hold an edge worth a good damn. Look for good quality old-time razors in your local junk and antique shops. Examine the blades of the ones you find. The best are made of Sheffield steel and are clearly marked so on the blade. Don't pay money for a fancy handle unless that's what you really want.

(2) Check the blade's cutting edge for nicks. Don't accept even the slightest imperfection and don't let the man tell you that such nicks will come out. It's your face, baby, and a jagged cutting edge will make it look like a battle map. And no, those nicks won't come out.

(3) If you think the blade is OK, have a look at the handle. It may be wood, bone, horn, celluloid, or possibly some other material I've never seen. Make sure the handle is in good shape. Plain or fancy, its primary job is to give you something to hold the razor by and something to fold the blade into. If it's broken ANYWHERE, the razor is potentially dangerous to your face and your hands.

(4) You can lose a lot of flesh if the blade flops too easily. You're much better off with one that is hinged into its handle a little too tightly.

If you pay more than $2.50 for your used razor, you're getting ripped off. I have personally never shelled out more than $2.00 for a razor in Class A shape. If that's too steep, scrounge around. The one I'm using now didn't cost me anything. Lots of folks have grandpa's old shaving implement lying around rusting in a drawer and will be glad to get rid of it before little Wilbur finds the cussed thing and whacks off his arm.

Try barbers as a last resort only. A lot of them have abandoned the straight razor and changed over to using electric clippers on necks. They often have good razors lying around unused, but again, don't pay a premium for one. Remember, the barber doesn't need the thing and he's already making a living cutting hair, Western Man's second most ridiculous cultural ritual.

Once you have your razor, you'll need two things to keep the tool in shape: a stone to sharpen it and a strop to hone its edge nice and flat.

The stone is potentially the most expensive part of the deal. Expect to lay out from $2.50 to $10.00 for a good one, and make sure it's intended for razors and nothing else. Knife sharpening stones just don't make it with a straight razor, and I suspect they'll even ruin its blade. They're just too coarse.

A good strop is also mighty important because, if the blade on your razor is wavy, your face will be too. Antique and junk shops often have serviceable strops for a buck or less. Just make sure the face of the one you buy is smooth and not all cut up. A bit of saddle soap or bar soap or neats-foot oil (boot grease) applied sparingly will generally put an old strop into working shape.

For instruction in the art of using the straight razor, I firmly refer you to a barber, preferably an old one. Barbers often use one of these babies on themselves, and are usually delighted to demonstrate both the handling of the razor and its care and feeding. They'll tell you how and how often to use the stone, how to strop the razor without ending up with a frayed temper and a handful of shredded leather, and other little secrets.

For that matter, if you don't want to invest in a stone, you can often find a barber who'll put a new edge on your razor for free, or at least let you borrow his stone for the few moments it takes. I know, I've done it myself. The only problem you may have is in convincing your benefactor that you intend to shave with the thing, not use it on someone.

With a straight razor you can get a close shave with anything that'll put a good, moist foam on your face, but I personally won't touch the aerosol creams. You're being ripped off terrifically when you buy them, they're too thick, you always wind up wasting half of what you shoot out of a can, and the containers (which are still half full of goo when the gas runs out) present a recycling problem.

I use cup soap and a brush. (The best brushes are badger hair, which must give pause. Try the junk shops again. It's better to recycle an old one than to buy new.) Ordinary soap will work quite well, especially when you're going backpacking and don't want to tote along the cup variety as added weight, but do carry that strop. Your boots won't put a flat edge on a straight razor's blade. I know, I tried.

You can plan on cutting yourself about once a month. Better yet, skip that day and 14 others by shaving only every other morning. When you have a real razor that shaves as close as the straight ones do, you can hack off two days' worth of brush as fast and much easier than any other equipment will take off one.

At the risk of incurring some personal injury suits, the general idea of whacking whiskers with a straight razor (if you can't get someone who knows how to show you) is this:

(1) Always shave against the grain. That is, if your whiskers grow down, shave up. Shave cowlicks twice, once up and once down. When you make razor strokes only with the grain of your beard, you're not shaving, you're just scraping your face and it'll feel like it.

(2) Good concentration is absolutely essential until you get the hang of handling a straight razor. When you're first starting out, use a light touch, take your time, and shave alone. Later, after you've mastered the art, you can let the kids watch or you can think about the compost heap while you shear your shag.

(3) Always mow in a direction 90 degrees to the length of your razor's blade. Never, never, never move that blade lengthwise across your face. Be especially careful when trimming around your mustache or 'burns, unless you want a nice scar to use as a guide in the future.

(4) Finish with a little alcohol (it's much cheaper than the perfume they sell for aftershave lotion and just as effective) and then go out and turn your buddies on to a really decent shave with about as little environmental impact as possible, a shave you can get anywhere (I've shaved in the rearview mirrors of my truck out in the wilderness).

If you pack your razor with you and it doesn't have a case, wrap a strong rubber band around the instrument a couple of times after you close it, to keep it closed. And don't EVER leave that thing lying around where your little boy can get it; children love to imitate paddy shaving, and emergency calls are expensive.

Well, there it is, an introduction to the finest shave in the world and the best, the greatest, the ONLY way to trim around mustaches and stylized beards such as goatees. With a straight razor you can select a single hair that's out of place and cut it off without touching another whisker. The tool will make beautifully straight lines for this job and, with a little practice, trim curves too. Just remember that you must never move that "razor sharp" blade lengthwise.

Shaving with a straight razor is a very simple idea that will preserve your face, and in some small measure the environment as well. Small measure? I may be nuts, but when I think of all those old razor blades rusting away inside the walls of houses, all those throw-away shaving cream cans, and all the raw materials and energy it takes to produce and market them ....


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Post a comment below.

 

Jacqeu
6/21/2014 11:17:33 PM
You definitely need a good straight razor to shave with or else you will get some pretty bad scratches on your face. If you guys need any good reviews, you can check out www.mensgroomings.com

Dan
11/25/2013 1:57:01 PM

Dan
11/25/2013 1:56:30 PM
Nice read, although I could beg to differ with a few small details. I had a barber straight razor shave back in 1971 and I loved the experience (and the two-day shave). After subsequent years of hating to shave with double edged blades, cartriges and electrics I grew a beard and wore it for 40 years. I shaved my neck, unhappily, once a week or so. Recently I got a bug in my bonnet and bought an old straight razor, a broad Sheffield blade in great shape (save for one small chip), for $25. I got a few stones, learned how to set a bevel (nothing in common with knife sharpening, by the way - nothing), hone and strop. I ground out the chip, sharpened the blade and, with help from some related web forums, learned the drill. In a month I was getting very good shaves with three passes (with the grain, across the grain and against the grain) in 20-30 minutes; in three months the shaves were excellent in a relaxed 10-15 minutes. If time isn't on my side, two passes can be well done in 10-minutes or less. I'll stick with a great shave and the pleasure of knowing the art and sharing with anyone who's interested. If you can shave hair off your arm with a knife, you can shave your face with a straight. Smooth as silk. A real pleasure to experience.

Alexander Frost
3/22/2009 9:21:55 AM
I'm looking into using a straight razor for the first time, and I'd have to say that I'm pretty disappointed that this is the first article that comes up on google. Well done on getting that number one spot, but don't you think it might be nice to update to an article written less that 35 years ago, when something other than a safety razor was the height of shaving technology.

matthew aldridge
8/14/2008 11:50:44 PM
I must say I use a staright razor and have foe a while not that I am an expert but this information is somewhat flawed on it suggestions. The only rhing of value is the blade material and the enviromental issues it rasies. Razor: DOVO or Thiers Isard, top quality razors avaliable from $60 (not bad for a razor that lasts a life time) Soap: High glyserin content is a must Hone: Norton whetstone two sided 4000/8000 grit $100. you can always send the razor out ot be hones and depending on your hair growth and coursness will be infrequent, the barber hone which costs $2 - $5, small awakward and unless you get trained will damage your blade if your starting out, use something a little more forgiving ie..norton or japanese whetstones... Strop; $30. miras covered the technique spot on and as for using alcohol, good idea if you want to look old fast! This is a realistic setup cost still cheaper than buying gillete blades the rest of your life.. lots of you tube video on honing, stropping and shaving check those out.

Sam_25
1/4/2008 8:34:11 PM
Hey, I'm a thirteen year old kid who wants to shave like in the old days. Ever since i saw my barber use it i have been waiting for the time when i start to grow hair. Well thanks mr. John, and now i know how to shave. I also want to show off that i can shave with a straight razor

john_132
12/8/2007 7:21:19 PM
NEVER shave against the grain, this can cause skin irritation and ingrown hairs.

Miras
9/9/2007 1:32:04 PM
Having used a straight razor for quite a while, I continually endeavor to integrate my experience with suggestions from a range of other publications seeking to improve my experience, and ease of shaving and razor maintenance. Unfortunately, this article incorporates a number of wholly inappropriate suggestions as well as inadequate explanations, preventing individuals from evaluating them. Among other things, the espoused means of holding a razor is dangerous--always avoid holding the protective handle while shaving by opening the blade to 270 degrees and hold the blade itself--thunb underneath, first two fingers above in front of handle, and ring finger on the curved finger rest. the ninety degree instruction leads to excessive scrapping--angle of blade to skin should remain between 30 and nearly 90 degrees (the latter steep angle is for scraping the upper lip and around the chin). 45 degrees is often ideal when moving across the cheeks. Stropping and honing instructions are absent--and must be discussed in order to maintain a razor (i.e. does one use abrasive rubs on the strop, should one avoid them and stick with fat/oil based strop conditioners, what grit is ideal for a honing stone, what is the angle of incidence when stropping and honing, especially for hollow ground razors, etc.). Also, good quality shaving soaps are ALWAYS needed for a straight razor--foams and gels are designed to aid our modern 2-4 blade razors in moving cut beard out of the way, not properly lubricating and conditioning the skin. Rather than alcohol (instead of after shave), if you want to save money, the environmment, and your face, usee mild astringents like witch hazel. Rather than go on further, I would advise readers to look elsewhere and site managers to update this article with a much better one. Also, new razors are not that expensive and worth the investment.....

J._1
2/28/2007 1:08:24 PM
This is one of the best instructions I've found on the matter of handling and using a stright razor. Shame the pictures are missing though but it's still a very good if one read carefully. Thanks JOHN D. MEEK (even if this article is pretty old) and thanks Mother Earth News for sharing it. MOTHER EARTH NEWS RESPONDS: You can view the pictures in the Image gallery at the top right of the article under "Related."








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