Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Picking the Right Razor for You, Part One of Two

[UPDATE Aug 16, 2015: In this article and others, I incorrectly used the term blade-bar gap to mean blade-bar span. The difference between the two terms is as follows:

  • Gap indicates the shortest distance between the blade edge and the safety bar. This is relatively easily measured with a feeler gauge. Unfortunately, blade-bar gap has little to do with shaving character of a razor.
  • Span indicates the distance between the blade edge and the line along the safety bar that determines the shave plane of the razor. See this page for more detail and a picture that may help clarify.]

I've had time to further ruminate on best razor choices. My personal opinion on how many razors one should have for an at-home razor, best case, is three or less -- but one has to choose mindfully. I recommend an upper limit of three -- though a solitary razor could easily suffice -- because the fussiest of shavers may prefer to have high-, moderate-, and low-capacity razors to suit different life circumstances. Of course, hobbyists and aficionados may prefer to have a larger stable; as the saying  goes, "you pays your money and you takes your choice." 

A twist-to-open, butterfly-door razor,
which is open and ready for blade insertion.
Yet I know as well as anyone that trying the find the right double-edge razor can easily and quickly lead to full-blown razor-acquisition disease as it did for me. As of this writing, I sheepishly admit that I own eleven double-edge razors, which is downright silly if one is not a collector -- and I'm not. But there has been a learning curve, and if I had it to do over again, I wouldn't own eleven razors!

I hope that if I share some of my observations with you and others, I may help some avoid the madness of unintended razor-acquisition disease.

Classifications of Razors

A classic three-piece razor, disassembled,
with a stamped safety bar. Top cap is fore-
ground left, baseplate with safety bar at
right, and the handle is in the background.

The three general types of double-edge razors follow:

1. Straight bar - These are the most common, and offer the greatest variety of choice in brand new razors. These have a continuous safety bar, which is perpendicular to the handle and comes in many designs. Some are stamped metal with tiny diagonal ridges that meet the skin surface, others are more round or oval in cross section, and still others, usually the safety bars made of cast metal, will have deep scallops -- even teeth --  in the safety bar. Sub classes of straight-bar razors include the following two:
1.a. Twist to open - with butterfly-door top caps. I believe that these, in general, give a slightly more harsh shave than unscrew-to-open razors. This is due perhaps to a slightly different angle of the blade edge in relation to the shaving plane, which may scrape against skin more that the older, unscrew-to-open designs.
A slant-bar razor, in which the safety
bar and blade are not perpendicular
to the handle.
1.b. Unscrew to open - are the classic two- and three-piece razors. A three-piece razor is pictured above. Two piece razors (not pictured) have the baseplate permanently attached to the handle, and the handle has an in-built knob that allows the user to unscrew and separate the top cap for blade insertion and removal.

2. Slant bar - These razors mount the blade askew in the head, which both twists the blade and gives it a slant (see photo). To over simplify (there are many subtleties), these razors cut in a guillotine fashion, and are known for their capacity to efficiently mow down whiskers -- even several day's growth -- while at the same time being fairly kind to sensitive skin. The thing to watch with slant bars, however, is to keep your shaving strokes direct -- that is, move the razor head across your beard in a direction parallel to the razor handle (see the illustration below) -- as well as maintaining light pressure. If one ignores these two warnings, it is likely that blood will be shed.

The direct stroke.
3. Open comb - These razors are a design variant of the straight bar (or, perhaps it is historically more accurate is to say the straight bar is a design variant of the open-comb razor). Instead of a safety bar as part of the baseplate under the blade, the baseplate of these razors literally has a comb underneath the blade edge. They are known as being an efficient razor, though, really, just like their straight-bar cousins, their capacity -- their so-called aggressiveness -- will vary depending on the blade exposure; that is, how much the blade edge is enclosed or not in a protective cove formed by the top cap and the baseplate of the razor.
An open-comb razor.

So which type to choose? 

As you may have guessed, it's not completely simple. Generally, straight-bar and open-comb razors can be high or low capacity -- or anywhere in between. Any razor can give you a close shave, but based on the razor's design and your beard, it can happen in as little as a single pass, or could require more than what is now considered the "traditional" three passes.

The Newbie Question

This question of which razor is further muddled by the issue of user experience. Many will recommend a mild-shaving (that is, low-capacity) razor for inexperienced double-edge users because mild razors are less likely to bite and shed blood if you use poor shaving technique.

I have given the razor-for-new-user issue some thought, and have come to these conclusions:
  1. If the new user is of a mind to thoroughly and carefully read and view how-to information on double-edge shaving techniques, and apply that information right from the start, then there is no need to buy a special, mild razor to protect the new double-edge shaver from his own ignorance.
  2. If the new user is an act-first-(and-maybe)-ask-questions-later type, then to reduce blood shed and the accompanying discouragement and possible abandonment of the double-edge option, a mild razor may be necessary to protect the newbie from himself (or herself). 
So before you try to pick the right razor for you, you first have to decide if you are an experienced double-edge shaver or not, and if not experienced, consider whether you are the 1) look-before-you-leap kind of person, or 2) of the damn-the-torpedoes-full-speed-ahead persuasion.

That said, if you are a number-2-type new double-edge shaver, you probably want to go with a mild- to moderate-shaving instrument instead of a real chain saw of a razor, able to handle a thicket-like beard. That eliminates the slant-bar options and most (but not all) open-comb razors. If you are an experienced double-edge user or a number-1-type newbie, then your face and beard characteristics should be your primary criteria in selecting a razor.

First, the easy choices based on skin and beard type:

If Your Skin Is Not Particularly Sensitive

If you have rather tough hide and smooth, round contours to shave, you don't have to concern yourself with whether a razor is exceptionally face friendly. You options will be narrowed by how often you shave, how quickly your hair grows, and the toughness of the hairs themselves.

  • If you have a tough, thick beard, no matter what razor you choose, you will want a very sharp blade. The Feather brand is at the top of that list, but there are others, so read the reviews and try a few sample packs. (By the way, there is no such thing as an "aggressive" blade. There are degrees of sharpness, longevity, and smoothness -- based on blade materials, edge grind and coating.)
  • If you shave every day but your hair grows quickly, then you want a moderate- to high-capacity razor, which includes slants, aggressive open combs, and high-blade-exposure straight bars or adjustable straight bars. Also, because your skin is tougher and more round, it probably won't matter whether you use twist-to-open or unscrew-to-open straight-bar designs.
  • If you don't shave every day, then you should probably stick to moderate- to high-capacity razors as discussed in the previous bullet.
  • If your beard grows slowly and you shave every day, or you have sparse, thin hair, you can probably get by with any lower-capacity, mildly-shaving razor.  No need for a slant, aggressive open comb, or straight bar that takes a wide bite.

If Your Skin Is More Sensitive

[UPDATE: When in doubt, assume you have sensitive skin.] Those with sensitive skin, or thinner skin that has lots of dips, contours, angles, and may be loose in places, things can get more interesting. For one thing, you probably want to choose a blade that is only as sharp as your hair requires, and preferably coated to increase smoothness and decrease irritation. However, it must be sharp enough to shave without undue pressure, because pressure of blade against sensitive skin is the formula for irritation.

Also, despite the temptation to get an exceptionally close shave every day, if you have sensitive skin, discretion may be the better part of valor; that is, it may be better to settle for close enough on the average day, and only go for exceptionally close occasionally. So on those average days, one might only take a pass or two; and only save the three-pass (or more) shaves for special occasions.

Lastly, excellent shave prep is key, using products that will be most protective during the shave, and may require additional products after the shave to help attenuate irritation.

All that said, the following razor-selection guidelines should probably be applied, and in general, you will likely want to lean toward two- and three-piece designs, not twist to open for reasons stated above:

  • If your hair is fine or thin, you can probably get by with a mildly-shaving razor.
  • If your hair is thick, tough, or coarse, you shave every day, and combined with sensitive skin, requires a very sharp blade -- preferably coated for smoothness -- but probably calls for a very mild razor.
  • If you don't shave every day, this will allow your skin to rest and heal, and may allow you to use a more moderate to aggressive razor to attack your longer multi-day stubble. Alternatively, you can make more passes with a milder razor. A middle ground is to have a more capable razor for the first pass, and a milder razor to address subsequent passes to get that close but less-irritating shave. (This is how I shaved yesterday.) [UPDATE: This is also the perfect scenario for a mild-shaving open-comb razor such as the Merkur 15C.}
  • If your hair grows quickly and you shave daily, this combined with sensitive skin puts you in a category similar to the preceding bullet. Yet you don't skip shave days, so you don't want to have a progressive build up of skin irritation; you need to keep your daily shaves effective enough, yet not irritating. A single moderate-capability razor may be an adequate compromise, but like those who don't shave every day,  having a more capable razor for the first pass, and a milder razor to address subsequent passes to get that close but less-irritating shave may be a formula for good shaves and happy skin.
Tomorrow I will complete this theme, picking the right razor, by discussing the specifics of razor design that can help you sort out the wheat from the chaff when reading customer and seller reviews and descriptions of razors. There is much confusing but usually well-intentioned information out there, and, armed with better facts about characteristics of razor design, it's easier to see through the fog of misinformation.

Hope to see you tomorrow for part two....

Happy shaving!

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