Straight Razor Handle (Scales) Materials Explained (Easy Read Guide)
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Straight razors were a sign of luxury in the 1800s and early 1900s. While most manufacturers have worked hard to retain the luxurious appeal the classic straight razors have, they have become more practical wet shaving tools.
Since the world’s economy is on a downward trend the last thing you want is to keep replacing your straight-edge razor every few months because of a broken handle. To get value for your money, you need to pick a straight razor with the best handle material for your needs.
But since the straight razor handle materials have come a long way since the 1800s, here’s a quick guide to fill you in on the choices available.
What is a Straight Razor Handle?
Straight razor handles, also known as scales, are an important part of straight razors, usually made of plastic, metal, resin, or wood. The handle is designed to house the blade when in storage, create a weight balance for comfort, and keep the razor from closing when in use.
Shavettes (straight razors with disposable or replaceable blade designs, often used by professional barbers) also have scales designed with the same function.
Straight razor handles made today differ from what was made in the Victorian era.
In the 1700s, straight razor blades and handles had a wedge shape. The handles were made from bone, wood, or horn and designed with flat surfaces. For added function, the scales are curved for improved grip.
In the early 1800s, a new trend of decorative straight razor handles made from pressed horns emerged. By the mid-1800s, the creation of beautiful handle designs with ivory and silver had taken root. Today, the last surviving razors from this era are heirlooms for which straight razor collectors go crazy. The most prized options are made from mother-of-pearl, buffalo horn, and ivory.
Straight Razor Materials
Today, most razors sport wooden handles, a fact that has elicited a lot of divided opinions from wet shaving enthusiasts. Most insist that horn and ivory scales are better compared to wood, while others swear by celluloid and plastic handles.
Below is a quick dive into the different handle materials you should consider.
Since straight razors became a luxury, most people have preferred Ivory over most handle materials. Its rise to popularity with industries was because it was pliant, soft, and easy to work into different pieces of art.
Ivory is a material that’s gotten from elephant tusks. Elephants use these tusks as defense tools and to break tree branches to reach food. Tusks were valuable because they were scarce and had cultural implications. Since today poaching is outlawed, ivory scales from the 19th century fetch a pretty penny and are a collector’s item.
For those who love the idea of owning a straight razor with an ivory handle but don’t have the money to purchase the old but restored versions, resin-ivory is a great alternative. Manufacturers have done a good job replicating ivory and still maintaining its beauty.
Another budget-friendly alternative is vegetable ivory which has a similar white hue, hardness, and malleability as animal ivory.
Aside from tusks, razor manufacturers also used horns from other animals, including buffalos and cows. Animal antlers make good scales because they are thermoplastic and have dense fiber layers that create hard and durable surfaces. Horn scales go through processing to achieve a smooth, glossy appearance.
For the longest time, wood has been a valuable material used to make all kinds of furniture and art pieces. Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of vintage straight razors with wooden handles. But this isn’t because wood isn’t a good option.
We all know wood is prone to corrosion and rotting. But today, this isn’t a problem because industries employ wood-treating techniques that weren’t available centuries ago. This is why most vintage straight razor handles sports bone and ivory handles.
Today, most brands use polyurethane, lacquer oil, resin, and varnish to shield the wooden handle from water damage. For industrial use, manufacturers use pressure-treated wood that resists decay best.
Olive wood, sandalwood, ebony, and rosewood are the most popular wooden choices for straight razors. They are loved for their durability, beautiful dark hues, and aging beautifully.
Celluloid is a synthetic plastic that was first discovered in the 1860s by Alexander Parkes. Celluloid is popular for its affordability, toughness, and wear resistance from acids, oil, and water.
But because it’s flammable and a hazard in companies, it was replaced with modern plastic.
Steel scales are among the best at handling corrosive environments. Stainless steel is more versatile and wear-resistant than carbon steel. Manufacturers ensure they match the steel scale’s weight to the blade’s weight for ease of use.
Parts of a Straight Razor
Aside from the scales, straight razors have several other parts, as described below:
- Pivot pin – this is the peg connecting the blade and the scale
- Tang – this is the end of the blade closer to the scales used for stabilizing and balancing the finger
- Shank – it’s the metallic section between the pivot pin and the blade
- Jimps – they are ridges under the shank that help provide a better grip on the shank’s underside
- Spine – the top part of the blade
- Shoulder – this is the end of the blade between the spine and the shank. Not all straight razors have this part, though.
- Point – it’s the tip of the blade
- Face – the side surface of the blade that’s often customized with brand logos and decorations.
- Toe – it’s the end of the cutting edge
- Heel – it’s the area under the shoulder that protects the thumb when shaving
- Stabilizer – this is the part between the heel and shoulder
These parts are designed to work together in delivering a close shaving effortlessly.
Note: straight razor handles aren’t universal. Instead, they are customized to counteract the blade’s weight. Narrow, full hollow straight razors are lighter than wide wedge razors.
Straight Razor Handle Quality
We know times are tough economically, so the last thing you need is to get a straight razor handle that’ll fall apart after a few weeks or be a pain to use.
To help you pick a straight razor with a handle that’ll serve you for a long time, consider the following factors too:
Whether you pick a lightweight or heavy handle boils down to personal preference. That said, we should point out that metal handles are heavier and ideal for men with sensitive skin. Because of their heft, you’ll apply light pressure.
On the flip side, light handles like plastic and wood provide better pressure control. Control is useful when trimming the sideburns and beard edges.
Curved handles have a more comfortable grip since they don’t force the user to awkwardly bend their wrist when shaving.
Kamisori razors have a somewhat straighter handle compared to regular straight razors. There’s a learning curve to it, as you’re constantly forced to adjust the angle to reach different spots on your face.
We cannot stress this enough. When you open your razor, it should balance at the pivot pin. Handles with good balance are comfortable and easier to control for precision.
For beginners, curved handles made from premium heavy wood are best. They make learning and the transition to heavier razors easier.
Caring for Straight Razor Scales
Some materials need more or less maintenance than others. Generally, plastic scales need the least care and maintenance.
With that said, we recommend avoiding detergents and soap when cleaning the handles. Instead, wipe it with a wetted with distilled water, and dry it using clean cotton.
For metal and wooden handles, things are slightly different. Although they can handle corrosion better than before, they aren’t immune. Wooden handles made from red cedar, sweet chestnut, and oak are associated need good care. Luckily, it’s easy; pat it dry using a dry cloth and store it in an airtight container. Don’t leave it in a bathroom since the constant moisture will negate your drying efforts. Instead, store it in your bedroom drawer.
Purpose of a Razor Handle
Razor scales are important for:
- Defining your grip and preventing slippage
- Counteracting the blade weight on the pivot pin
- Keeps the razor from closing when shaving
- Secures the sharp edge when in storage
- Adds durability and value
The Best Straight Razor Handle
When purchasing a straight razor, picking one with a quality handle will save you money in the long run. Sandalwood is one that’s guaranteed to provide such durability. It has a rich history and is relished in religious circles.
Below are some reasons why:
- Health benefits – for years, sandalwood was used to treat urinary and chest infections. It’s used to produce essential oil rich in anti-viral properties, making it a good home remedy for genital tract infections.
- Rich in antioxidants – sandalwood oil is used in facial toners and aftershaves to tone and soothe the skin. It has powerful antioxidants that prevent the formation of free radicals that cause wrinkles. In facial masks, sandalwood restores a healthy skin tone through anti-inflammatory components, which help to improve blood circulation in the face.
- Mental wellness -it’s used in aromatherapy sessions because they retain the fragrance for longer, and the scent has a calming effect, boosting mental clarity.
- Great heft – sandalwood adds a good amount of heft to straight razors. If you are a newbie, it’s better to have a heavier razor since you’ll use less pressure.
Because of its benefits, sandalwood has been heavily harvested to the point that it’s now protected. In some countries like Indonesia and India, harvesting sandalwood trees is illegal. But in Australia, sandalwood plantations are grown to supply material for trade, religion, and medicine.
Be keen on the straight razor handle material you choose. If you’re looking for something durable and valuable, sandalwood is great. It’ll save you money in the long run. Just be careful with your maintenance.
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.