First off, let’s get acquainted with the straight razor (also called cut-throat or open razor). It is a razor that has a blade that can be folded into the handle, and using it requires considerably more skill and finesse compared to using the safety razors (as well as the electric ones) more commonly available nowadays. Those who are avid fans of using a straight razor swear by the fact that the shaving results are superior when compared to using the “more convenient” safety razor; in addition, the element of danger associated with a straight razor only adds to its attraction (there’s nothing tougher than exposing your face and neck to a glinting, sharp object).
There are different types of straight razors, which can be differentiated according to the grinding method, blade width and point type. Knowing the types of straight razors will help you in choosing which one would be best for your requirements. Think of your razor as something extremely personal; and for that, you would need one that fits you as perfectly as possible.
Straight Razor Types
According to Grinding Method. This refers to the curvature of a straight razor’s cross section, and also to the blade’s shape after the manufacturer has finished grinding it.
Hollow Grind: refers to straight razors whose sides have concave cross sections.
Straight or Flat Grind: these razors possess linear cross section sides. They may also be called “wedge” because that’s how their cross section looks like. These models were popular in the late last century. Nowadays, 99% of straight razors feature a hollow grind.
According to Blade Width: the width of straight razors can usually go from 3/8 of an inch to 7/8 of an inch. Wider blades have a longer life cycle and can be more enjoyable to use; however, they require more dexterity and experience. Razors with narrower blades are easier to sharpen and shave with; but, they will have a shorter life and the very narrow (3/8”, for example) blades will always have the tendency to sink into the skin. Widths of 5/8 and 6/8 tend to be the most popular and most recommended for a good shave.
According to Point Type. Refers to the point profile of the straight razor.
Round Point: these straight razors have a semi-circular point profile, and their ends do not possess sharp points. This type of razor is best for those who are just exploring the use of straight razors, as they do not have the exactness of razors with different point types.
Sharp, Sharp Spike or Square Point: these have a straight point profile ending at an extremely sharp point, which is angled perpendicular to the blade’s cutting edge. Highly-experienced users will benefit the most from these types of straight razors, as they are mainly used for precision shaving, especially in hard-to-reach areas. However, they will also provide you with a nick if you are not paying very close attention to what you are doing.
French Point: these razors (also commonly referred to as “oblique point”) have sharper angled curves, and a point profile that looks like a quarter circle. They similarly end in a sharp point like the sharp, spike or square point razors; however the edge is not a straight, abrupt line. A French point razor looks edgy but refined, as compared to its sharp, spike or square point brothers.
How to Safely Use a Straight Razor
After deciding on a straight razor, you have to know the basics of how to use it properly. On your first few tries, go easy on yourself and accept that you may get results that are less than satisfactory; you can come up with patches of uneven shaving, or may get a few nicks in the process. Once you discover the shaving technique you are most comfortable with, you can start relaxing and enjoying the fruits of your (shaving) labor.
You have to choose a high quality straight razor for your shaving needs. Keep in mind that you will be putting this blade against your unprotected face. It would be ideal if you can closely examine the razor before you actually purchase it. Make sure that the blade is in perfect condition (avoid those that have uneven surfaces, nicks, indentations); you also have to check if the scales holding the blade can do so securely; you wouldn’t want a razor that suddenly snaps open just when you least expect it to. The last two pieces of advice are particularly important if you buy an used or old straight razor from Ebay or a flea market.
Probably the most important rule that should be observed is keeping the blade sharp. This ensures that even the toughest hair strands can be cut without having to go through the same area again and again. The sharpness of the blade also contributes to overall safety when shaving; if you use a dull blade, the tendency is to use more force or pressure when you shave, which might lead to accidental nicks and cuts. Keeping the blade sharp will help keep your face (and your neck) free from cuts and nicks.
You can keep the blade sharp by regularly honing it, and stropping it on leather or a flexible piece of canvass. Stropping makes sure that the indentations on the blade are in correct alignment, without having to eliminate any material. You can use a hand-held paddle or a hanging leather strip for your straight razor. Leather is accepted as the best material for this purpose. If you are just starting to use straight razors, you can turn to the Internet for guidance; there are a number of videos online showing you the proper way to strop. For a more personal demonstration you can ask a straight razor aficionado the correct way of doing it.
Make sure that you have your favorite shaving cream or soap handy before using the straight razor. It would be very uncomfortable (and almost impossible) to shave with a dry face; the coarse facial hair might resist the blade’s action, and this will certainly lead to razor burns and other skin irritations. You should apply a thick lather onto your face, and ensure that it doesn’t dry up prior to the actual shaving process. Use a shaving brush to coax the hairs on your face to stand to attention, making it easier for them to be removed by the razor.
You are now ready for the most exciting part, the actual facial hair removal. If it is your first time to use a straight razor, take a deep breath, relax, and try your best to enjoy this experience. If you are too stiff and tense, you might end up making more mistakes, painful ones at that. Your first three fingers should hold the shank, which is the thin, lower part of the blade that is not used for cutting (it also serves as the joint that turns as you fold the blade into the scale). Keep your thumb underneath to hold the razor steady, while your ring and pinkie fingers should be wrapped on the tang (the small protrusion that lets you swing the blade into the scale). With your free hand, stretch the skin on your face so you can get the closest shave possible.
Before we proceed further, you need to keep this in mind: under no circumstances should you move the blade horizontally on your face. Doing this with a sharp razor would most likely lead to pain, and possibly humiliation; you probably won’t be proud in explaining how you got a two-inch (clean, straight) cut on your face.
Let’s move on. Hold the razor at an angle of about 30 degrees to your face and make sure to keep your touch light but firm at the same time. Do your best to keep your hands steady, to avoid moving the razor across your skin unnecessarily. Shave with, or across, the direction of your hair growth. You can shave against the grain if you are already comfortable doing that, although going with the hair growth’s direction will less likely result to hair follicles being ingrown. Apply another layer of lather and go over the same area again to get a closer shave. Repeat, if necessary.
Now look into the mirror and admire that bright, freshly-shaved face. That wasn’t too hard, was it?
There are still a lot of things that you need to know about straight razors; some of the information can be found on user guides all over the Internet, while more can be learned mainly through experience. Our goal here is to arm you with as much useful information as possible, so you can concentrate on using your straight razor for wet shaving without worrying too much about putting your neck on the line, so to speak.