The Anatomy of a Straight Razor (2023 Guide)
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Men have always treasured their grooming. The styles and grooming tools they prefer have evolved over the years. Men used stones, flints, clamshells, copper, and gold to shave at one point in history. Can you imagine using stones and clamshells today? With the evolution of shaving tools, using these old tools sounds insane. But it’s great to have a mental picture of what went down eons ago to appreciate our high-tech shaving technology, including straight razors.
Straight razors gained popularity towards the end of the 17th century. At the time, Sheffield wares were hot products. They were made from intricately polished steel called Sheffield silver steel, that’s known for its high and deep gloss finish. Today, steel is used by companies like Thiers Issard to manufacture premium and beautiful straight razors.
Halfway through the 20th century, men’s preferences and shaving styles changed, and this saw more convenient safety razors replace straight razors. Fast forward to today, men are increasingly jumping on the wet shaving boat, and slowly but surely, traditional classic straight razors are making a comeback. Despite being centuries since straight razors were first designed and perfected, their design has remained relatively unchanged. To date, they are still a beard’s nightmare.
It is easy to use a straight razor, whether it’s a luxury brand like Thiers Issard or a premium German brand like Boker and Dovo. Sure, there’s a learning curve to knowing how to wet shave, but you’ll grasp it in no time. Even as a beginner wet shaver, you’ll have a smooth time learning. Just be prepared for a couple of nicks and cuts before you get it right.
Straight razors are better than safety and cartridge razors for several reasons, including:
- Increased control and precision – with better control, you can reach small spots on your face when shaving.
- A balanced shave – straight razors are well balanced, a feature that helps to reduce the risk of irritation, nicks, infections, cuts, and ingrown hair when shaving.
- Environmentally friendly and cost-efficient in the long run – with proper maintenance, straight razors last for ages. Since they don’t have disposable parts, they are perfect for the earth.
Anatomy of a Straight Razor
Generally, straight razors have two parts:
- The cutting edge
However, these parts are further split into different parts, each contributing to the function, ease of use, and efficiency of the straight razor.
The point refers to the spot where the top tip of the cutting edge ends. Despite the name, not all straight razor points are sharpened.
Points are categorized into six groups, with each having different characteristics affecting use.
- The round point – is the most common tip on straight razors because it reduces the chances of accidental nips. Despite this, the round point is sharp enough to remove ear and nose hair. Since it reduces the risk of cuts and nicks, it’s ideal for beginners.
- Spike/square – this is by far the sharpest tip and is perfect for pro wet shavers. The square point provides the best control for tight spots under the nostrils and under your earlobes. It’s also ideal for shaping beard edges.
- Barbers notch – this point is round-nosed and indented. The indentation makes it easier to open the straight razor. Since it’s a favorite for many barbers, it was nicknamed ‘Barber’s notch.’
- Irish/French point – found in specialty blades where the tip juts out at an angle from the spine. The French point tip improves maneuverability around beards and mustaches.
- Hook point – it’s a rare tip similar to a barber’s point.
- Spanish point – this point refers to unique blades whose notch is subtly concave than the barber’s point.
Any high-quality razor has an equally high-quality blade made from long-lasting material. Blade construction and the material used are the key elements users pay attention to when choosing a straight razor to buy.
The best straight razors feature steel blades. Straight razor brands play around with three steel types, including:
- Stainless steel – it’s an iron and carbon alloy that’s corrosion-resistant, strong, and hard. However, stainless steel blades are difficult to sharpen and don’t retain the sharp edge for long. Therefore, such blades require frequent honing – more than usual.
- Carbon steel – this is still an iron and carbon alloy. They can rust and hence require proper maintenance and storage. On the bright side, carbon steel blades are easier to strop and retain a sharp edge for a longer time.
- Damascus steel – this type of steel looks like carbon steel and is unique to every manufacturer.
Carbon steel was the original material used to make straight razors in the 19th century. It’s flexible, maintains a sharp edge for a long, and is easier to strop. But because it’s not corrosion resistant like stainless steel, always ensure you dry the carbon steel blade thoroughly and store it in a cool and dry place. Alternatively, you can apply a light coat of petroleum jelly or camellia oil to protect it from moisture.
While carbon steel is an iron and carbon alloy, stainless steel includes chrome too. The addition of chrome makes stainless steel corrosion-resistant and makes its atomic structure coarser.
Original Damascus steel is made from two or more steel alloys, which might not be great for wet shaving.
However, brands have gotten creative with their manufacturing process. They use powder metallurgical Damasteel that’s rippled together, pressed, and then sintered. This manufacturing method creates a fine structure of the steel and results in a higher carbide share than in traditionally made steel.
Blade grind is a method of measuring sharpness. The grinds range from thin and long to wedged and short. Every level of fineness provides special benefits depending on your skin’s sensitivity and hair thickness.
If you have a straight razor, open it and look down the blade’s barrel to see what type of grind it sports.
Thinner and longer blades are ‘hollow grinds,’ and they are more flexible when wet shaving but require an advanced technique to use. Wider blades (Wedges) aren’t as flexible but are more forgiving to beginners with shaky hands.
Given their flexibility and efficiency, manufacturers prefer making straight razors with hollow grinds. However, they make them at different degrees, including full hollow, quarter hollow, and full wedge. To make a full hollow grind, a manufacturer removes more material from the face.
A thinner blade (full hollow) is most flexible and can better follow contours on the skin. However, the thinness makes them more fragile, so you need to be cautious not to over sharpen or drop the straight razor causing it to break.
Some straight razors have hollow grinds with bellies, slight curves, and stabilizing ridges across the blade. These features provide support by increasing the blade’s resistance.
Some types of thin grinds include:
- Half hollow
- Quarter and full hollow
- Extra hollow
The main styles under the wider grind category include
- True wedge
- Near wedge
When the blade’s edge is on your skin, the spine is the part on the opposite side. Generally, the spine wasn’t made for your fingers. However, most men rest their index fingers here when shaving for better control. You can move your straight razor in any direction and adjust the blade’s angle to the skin to avoid errors when shaving. If your straight razor is a car, the spine is the steering wheel that determines where you move and the direction you take.
We’ve determined the point is the tip of the blade. The toe is the cutting edge endpoint. It’s normally in an arc shape or angle, depending on the tip of the straight razor features. Although the toe is adjacent to the point, it serves a different purpose. It helps you know if the blade is adjusted correctly. When the toe is in the correct shape, the blade has no bends or dents, hence efficient in wet shaving.
Aside from this, it helps wet shavers get into hard-to-reach places.
The size of a blade is measured from below the spine to the cutting edge, and it’s often measured in eighths of an inch. Generally, small blade sizes provide better control for shaping and otherwise tricky maneuvers like trimming facial hair under the nose.
The 5/8 inch blade is by far the most popular blade size. It’s often recommended for beginner wet shavers. As skill and technique improve, most wet shavers prefer adding a 6/8 inch straight razor to their collection. Some experts and razor collectors will get 8/8 inch, 7/8 inch, 4/8 inch, and 3/8 inch razors.
With that said, here’s an overview of these blade sizes:
For men that want better maneuverability:
- 4/8 inch
- 3/8 inch
For men that want some fun in their wet shaving:
- 8/8 inch
- 7/8 inch
The popular sizes are
- 6/8 inches
- 5/8 inches
This part is directly opposite the toe on the cutting edge. For straight razors that have short tangs, the heel remains inside the handle. Generally, it doesn’t have a specific purpose. However, it gives it an identity, and some men use it to shave some hard-to-get spots.
The bevel is the sharpest part of a straight razor. Bevels are available in two types:
- Curved – Also known as a smile. It’s curved to varying degrees from the heel to the toe.
- Traditional – this edge is straight from the heel to the toe.
A curved bevel is designed to slice instead of chop facial hair. As such, the blade’s life is extended. Some men also have an easier time honing curved blades.
The point and the edge cut the hair, while the other blade parts provide a perfect grip for a smooth close shave.
The shoulder is a tiny bit gradual decline on the blade’s face, which denotes the end of the bevel and the start of the tang, the straight razor’s traditional grip. Not every straight razor has a shoulder, but for those that do, they are useful to beginners as it helps them know where to grip when shaving.
It’s also known as the shank. The tang is located on the blade’s lower end – from the shoulder moving downwards. The tang’s main part is between the pivot and the shoulder. This section allows you to use your finger to control the straight razor when shaving. With the fingers or thumb, you can apply controlled pressure to create a perfect balance.
The curved part of the tang, past the pivot, is the tail. When you push down on the tail with your fingers, the blade opens. However, you can also leverage the tail when shaving to apply just the right amount of pressure when shaving.
Some straight razors have jimps, and others don’t. Those that do have what looks like tiny ridges or indentations on the tang. These indentations are added to improve your index finger and thumb grip. Jumps are located on the bottom and top of the tang – positions where you rest your fingers when shaving. Often beginners have an easier time mastering wet shaving when using straight razors with jimps.
The face is the flat side of the blade where manufacturers and brand etch their logos and artwork. The face is usually thicker towards the spine and thinner towards the bevel. When you shave, it’s parallel to the skin.
Other Straight Razor Components
Aside from the above parts, a straight razor also has the pivot pin and the handle (scales). Here is an explanation of what to expect from these parts and their role in straight razors.
The scales (also known as the handle) are made to cover and protect the cutting edge when in storage. Moreover, it adds some weight that helps to balance the razor when shaving and makes it more appealing.
The beauty of the handle depends on the material used. Pearl horns, resins, plastic, and different woods are some common materials straight razor brands use to make high-quality razors. The durability of the handle depends on the material used on it. Handles need to be handled with care. If you drop it, the scales crack or the blade chips. Also, most scales aren’t waterproof. Therefore, you should dry the razor completely before storage.
We’ve mentioned some common materials used in making straight razor scales. Below is a list of standard scale options in a variety of styles:
- Carbon fiber
- Cow horn
- Faux tortoiseshell
On the other hand, some luxurious scale materials used include:
- Mother of Pearl
- Curly Birch
- Desert Ironwood
Collector wet shavers hunt down straight razors in the hopes of getting unique scales. Though they may differ in some features, including water resistance, the scales you choose ultimately come down to personal preferences.
All the parts we’ve mentioned so far rely on the pivot pin to function efficiently. The pivot pin is located where the tang and spine meet and where the straight razor’s blade is attached to the handle. The pivot pin should be flexible enough to let you open the razor easily but strong enough to provide a balanced shave. Other straight razor brands feature adjustable pivots that offer better control.
Types of Straight Razors
As a wet shaving beginner, aside from mastering straight razor parts, you need to know the difference between traditional straight razors and shavette.
A traditional straight razor is a regular long blade with different blade widths attached to a handle using a pivot pin. On the other hand, a shavette is a straight razor where the blade is replaceable. It’s often used by professional barbers keen on hygiene and details.
Jump Into Wet Shaving
Once you understand the parts of a straight razor and their role in helping you get a close and smooth shave, you’ll have an easier time mastering wet shaving techniques. Why? Well, you’ll understand how to hold the razor and how to strop and hone. Moreover, this information helps you pick the best straight razor for your needs. Learn more about how to shave with a straight razor.
Ruiru Kibet is passionate about beard care and male grooming. He believes it’s an art form and is happy to share his insight with men across the globe. He’s into wet shaving and evidence-based grooming, a passion that helps him analyze men’s grooming brands, products, and wet shaving practices presenting you with the best recommendations and advice.