Sunday, August 16, 2015

Best of Grandad: Picking the Right Razor for You, Part 2

[This article was originally published on Sept 11, 2014. This version has been slightly modified from the original version.]

Yesterday I began an ambitious article intended to summarize the essential guidelines for making more appropriate double-edge-razor choices. The article became too lengthy for a single post, so this is the conclusion of that topic.

You should first read yesterday's article. Then based on your skin and beard characteristics, you should then have a general idea of the capability and face-friendliness of a razor that will work best for you.

Now we continue:

Harshness versus Capability

Although all other things equal, a more capable, higher-capacity razor does run the risk of shaving more harshly, the two are not directly related. Also, mild shaving straight-bar razors can be used in a way to increase capability. More subtle design factors as well as choice of shaving technique can influence razor harshness and capacity. Some examples:
  • In two razors with equivalent blade reveal (how much blade is visible when viewed from above the top cap) and equivalent blade exposure (how well the edge is protected within the cove of the top cap and safety bar or comb), the angle of the blade in relation to the shaving plane may affect the amount of scraping that a blade does on the skin, making a given razor more or less harsh. That's why I tend to favor many unscrew-to-open razors over butterfly-door designs; I think, in general, the butterfly-style razors scrape a bit more, the unscrew razors a bit less. As I mention below, this perceived extra scraping of the butterfly-style razors may, alternatively, be due to the micro scallops on the safety bars, which will more greatly reduce the amount of lather on the skin as the blade passes as compared to a typical unscrew-to-open design.
  • The slant razors might be categorized generally as high capacity, but only moderate harshness. There are several reasons for this. On the Merkur 37C slant, with which I am very familiar, the blade exposure is neutral, that is, the blade edge is about even with the mouth of the protective cove of the top cap and safety bar. This makes the potential harshness of the shave moderate. Yet the slanted blade and the large gap between the edge and the safety bar offers exceptional shaving capacity. So used properly, this razor can offer a reduction in shaving passes to eliminate a significant volume of hair with the possibility of low irritation.
  • An oblique stroke, in which the
    stroke direction is not perpendicular
    to the blade edge.
  • Mild straight-bar razors can be used with oblique strokes to increase the effective blade gap and the effective sharpness of the blade, while still maintaining a mild-shaving character.

So Let's Get to It

If you are a damn-the-torpedoes-type newbie, then you should probably get a mild, unscrew-to-open, starter razor to avoid potential irritation and blood loss. However, if your are the look-before-you-leap-type newbie, then follow the available, consensus guidelines for good shaving as well as razor selection (in this article) and get a razor to match your skin and beard.

If you have tougher skin that doesn't irritate easily as discussed yesterday, your choices are fairly simple.

Yesterday's article listed four categories of razor-type suggestions for those with tougher skin, and four suggestions for those with sensitive skin. The following will help you translate those general suggestions into specific razor choices.

Relevant Razor-Design Aspects 

The two things one might be most concerned with in choosing a double-edge razor is capacity (volume and length of hair it can handle) and harshness (likelihood of encouraging skin irritation).

Determining Razor Capacity

The primary design characteristics that affect razor capacity follow:
  1. Blade-bar span(for straight-bar and slant razors). The larger the span between the blade edge and the safety bar [measured along the shave plane], the more hair the razor can mow. (Since open-comb razors have no bar, open-comb razor have virtually unlimited capacity!
  2. Safety-bar design or open comb. Since the safety bar precedes the blade in a razor stroke, the more the whiskers are allowed to stand tall as the blade approaches, the better they can be cut down. So open-comb razors or safety bars with larger scallops or teeth will tend to support larger razor capacity. 
Exposure and span in combination can offset or increase one another. A razor with negative exposure but a large span can still be moderately-high capability. Negative exposure with a small span would be low capacity. Large span and exposure would be very high capability.

Determining Razor Harshness

Exaggerated blade angles: angle at left will be less harsh;
at right will be more scraping, more harsh. 
The primary design characteristics that affect razor harshness follow:
  1. Blade exposure. The top cap or butterfly doors of a razor combined with the safety bar or open comb form a shaving plane, between which sits the blade edge. How much the edge sits below or above that plane is a key factor that influences aggressiveness of the razor design. An aggressive razor will shave closely more easily, but also poses more risk for nicks, cuts, weepers, and irritation.  
  2. Blade-bar span. The larger the span the greater the capability, but also the more likely that a bump or wave of skin can get in front of the blade edge causing irritation or blood loss.
  3. Blade angle. The more the blade is aligned with the shaving plane, the more it will tend cut more, scrape less. (The actual blade bend is irrelevant; what matters is the blade angle in relation to the top cap and base plate.) 
  4. Blade reveal. When you look down onto the top cap or butterfly doors of a double-edge razor, the amount of blade that is exposed is the blade reveal. The more the blades are not covered by the razor top, the more chance they may vibrate (as subtle micro-vibrations) while shaving, which may contribute to shave harshness.
  5. Edge slant. This is only seen in slant-bar razors and can get complicated. Suffice it to say that in a slant-bar razor, the twist in the blade gives the edge a varied blade angle along its length, thus giving varied harshness long the edge as well. This is offset to some degree by a varying blade span -- at least in the Merkur-brand slants -- as well as the edge slant itself. Bottom line is that the slant-head razors might be categorized as moderate harshness (when properly used: light pressure and direct strokes) -- despite their high capacity.
  6. Safety-bar design or open comb. As stated above, the safety bar or comb precedes the blade in the razor stroke. Either will, to some degree, remove some protective lather from the face. Larger gaps (between the scallops or the spaces between teeth) in a safety bar or comb allow more protecting lather to remain on the skin as the blade edge arrives. Therefore bigger scallops or space between comb teeth may encourage slightly less harshness.

But Which Specific Razor?

This writer hasn't seen or shaved with all available razors (obviously), so you will have to take the information from this entire article of yesterday and today, and use that to sleuth out the objective truth about various razors of interest to you. User reviews are not reliable, though they will offer clues as to the true design characteristics of a razor. Seller reviews and product descriptions are similarly lacking sufficient objective data and are too often subject to the same myth perpetuation, misunderstanding, and exaggeration of user reviews, but can be interpreted in the light of objective knowledge to be helpful in understanding the true character of a given razor. Photos can be helpful as well -- especially if they show close ups of the blade in the razor head.

Here are some example analyses of razors with which I am familiar. These comments are geared toward those users with sensitive skin (and if in doubt, assume your skin is or will be sensitive), since those folk have to be the most careful and selective. None of these comments should be taken as a recommendation -- especially because there are other factors of quality control, reliability of blade positioning without additional adjustment, razor-material composition, price, durability, handle length, razor weight, and so on. Also, these comments focus exclusively on the characteristics of the shaving head, disregarding the handle as much as possible.

Merkur 37C, 39C slant-bar razors. High capability, moderate harshness. Good first-pass razor especially with heavy beards or several day's growth, but be careful on subsequent passes -- light pressure and always strictly direct strokes -- especially if you have sensitive skin. Also a good pairing for a heavy-growth beard as a first-pass razor followed by a very face-friendly, mildly-shaving razor for subsequent passes. As a daily shaver, with this razor I can often get a reasonably-close shave in a single pass.

Maggard razor head on the MR#B handle.
Maggard-brand shaving heads. Maggard three-piece razors all use the same shaving head paired with different handles. Their heads are reputed to be patterned after Edwin Jagger 89-style heads. My Maggard example (MR3B, which has a fat, heavy handle on the standard Maggard razor head) is moderate capacity and moderate harshness. This is due to the combination of neutral-to-slightly-positive edge exposure, larger blade reveal, moderate blade-bar span, scalloped safety bar, and blade angle. Like the Merkur slants, though not as high capacity, this can be good for heavier beards or a couple day's growth, but if you have sensitive skin, be especially careful on subsequent passes, or use a milder razor for second and later passes.

Merkur 33C razor head showing blade exposure.
Merkur 33C and related three-piece, unscrew-to-open razors. Merkur straight-bar razors are noted for being moderately-low capacity and face friendly. The blade exposure is slightly negative (below the shaving plane); the span is modest but not the smallest, and the reveal is also rather small, which limits edge vibration. The safety bar is scalloped. If you shave daily, this design should be a comfortable one-razor choice when paired with the proper blade to suit your hair and skin. 

However, if your beard grows exceptionally fast or you skip days between shaves, the capacity of these razors may at some point require more passes, and once again, to minimize skin irritation, you might be inclined to add a more capable first-pass razor to reduce the total daily razor strokes against sensitive skin. Then use the Merkur 33C et al as a second-pass-and-beyond razor.
The LP1822L shave head.

Lord LP1822L (formerly model L6). The shave head on this is similar to but different than the Merkur 3-piece straight-bar designs. The net outcome, though, is they have similar shaving characteristics. 

Merkur 15C open-comb razor. Like other Merkurs, a face-friendly shave, but offers larger capacity than their safety-bar razors due to the open comb. Also, again due to the open comb, may keep more protective lather present which might make the shave a little gentler on skin. Still, the blade exposure is limited, meaning a very mild shave when compared to other open-comb razors. A fine daily shaver, and if you skip shaving on some days or your beard grows exceptionally fast, may also be a good choice because the open comb tends to allow high capacity despite its mild nature. 

Gillette Slim set to 1.
The most common open comb that I see discussed on the Internet is the Muhle R41, which by comparison is a much more aggressive razor but much higher risk to sensitive skin. Other Merkur open-comb razors may use the same head (I'm not sure, but wouldn't be surprised), thus would have the same shaving characteristics, but paired with a different handle to suit varying customer preferences in that regard.

Gillette Slim set to 9.
Vintage Gillette Slim Adjustable. A twist-to-open, butterfly-door-style razor that has varying capability due to its adjustable blade-bar span. [UPDATE: This adjustment may also change the blade exposure to some degree (it difficult to precisely tell by eyeballing); but if so, the larger the span, the greater the exposure.] It has fairly small blade reveal. However, possibly because of the blade angle, I find it to give a more harsh shave no matter what the span setting, and keep this family heirloom in the closet most of the time. Like virtually all butterfly-door-style razors, the safety bars have tiny slits, thus wiping away most lather before the blade, which may also
be a contributing factor to the slight additional harshness of these butterfly-door designs.

Weishi 9306-F. The top is fully closed; the asymmetrical door closure is due
to a characteristic of its manufacture. Note the remarkably small blade reveal
and exposure, which gives the razor its small shaving capability.  Despite that,
I still find the shave rather harsh, likely due to the blade angle in relation to
the shaving plane of the top cap and safety bar. 

Weishi 9306 series of razors. A twist-to-open, butterfly-door-style razor, with small blade reveal, exposure, and blade-bar span. A low capacity razor but can give a harsh shave, again possibly due to blade angle. Like virtually all butterfly-door-style razors, the safety bars have tiny slits, thus wiping away most lather before the blade, which may also be a contributing factor to the slight additional harshness of these butterfly-door designs.
Weishi 2003-M.

Weishi 2003 series of razors. A twist-to-open, butterfly-door-style razor, with small blade reveal, exposure, and moderate blade-bar span. More capacity than its 9306 cousins, but likewise, not the most face-friendly shave possibly due to blade angle. Like virtually all butterfly-door-style razors, the safety bars have tiny slits, thus wiping away most lather before the blade, which may also be a contributing factor to the slight additional harshness of these butterfly-door designs.

Wilkinson Sword Classic.

Wilkinson Sword Classic. A unscrew-to-open, two-piece razor. Small blade reveal, span, and negative exposure. Face friendly but small capacity. Paired with the right blade for beard and face, probably adequate for daily shaves for just about anybody if extreme closeness isn't a requirement. A very close daily shave may require additional passes that, day after day, might take its toll on sensitive skin. Could be a nice finishing razor following a more capable instrument for the first pass. A drawback to this razor's design is the safety bar, which is lacking teeth or scallops of any kind. This may tend to squeegee away more lather from the skin just prior to the blade pass, perhaps making the shave slightly more harsh than otherwise.


I have tried to give enough information in this two-part article to make you independently able to evaluate many if not most razors for suitability. If you have questions, feel free to post them in comments and we can take it from there.

Happy shaving!

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