Monday, July 7, 2014

Safety Redux: How to Inspect a DE Safety Razor Before 1st Use

[This is an updated re-post of the article from 22 March 2014.]

Many new double-edge (DE) safety razor users will get a new, often very inexpensive DE razor from an Internet seller.  Others will get a hand-me-down razor from a relative, or even purchase a vintage razor from a garage sale, estate sale, or from an on-line auction.

If second hand, they may take the time to clean and sterilize the razor (recommended).  In any case, the next step is generally putting a blade in the unit, lathering up, and giving it a go.

This is too often a mistake.

This explains why many Internet reviews of new DE razors are so polar;  that is, some of the reviewers will praise a given razor for giving a comfortable, close shave, while others will excoriate the razor for leaving them nicked, cut, and bleeding.

The root of the mistake mentioned above (and the contradictory reviews) is in one of three likely sources:

1)  The inexpensive razors sometimes come with a poor-quality blade.  Often, if the brand is not readily recognizable from the copious discussion on the Internet, the blade should probably be ignored and one should shave with a known name brand.  Even the generic drug-store DE blades are usually better. (Remember, however, blade preference is very personal.  The very best shaves with a given razor will be with a blade you have to find through trial and error.)

2)  The user has no DE shaving experience, and approaches his first DE shave as though he were using a multi-bladed-system razor.  (Though expensive and often giving just a mediocre shave, they are zip-zap fast: no skill or prior knowledge necessary.  For a DE shave, better is to first watch some DE how-to videos;  mantic59, the Sharpologist, has some good ones on YouTube as do several others.)

3) The razor is defective -- either from poor manufacturing quality control, or because it is damaged from being dropped or otherwise mishandled.  This third root issue is the subject of this article.

A DE razor that is new to you should be carefully inspected before use.  Here's the how and why (and all this assumes that you bought a straight-bar, not a slant-bar DE safety razor):

Cheap new razors may be durable over time or not;  that's a risk of buying cheap.  A bigger risk is to your skin in that the razor's blade edges are not straight, the safety bars (between the blade and the handle) are not parallel to the blade edges, or both.  It's also crucial to ensure that the blade edge is within the protective envelope of the safety bar.  Without such proper orientations, it can be pretty much guaranteed that the razor will give a harsh, uncomfortable shave at best, and may make you much more susceptible to unnecessary nicks an cuts -- even with good shaving technique and practices.

Two quick stories on this score:
My '63 Gillette Slim Adjustable (the same model with which
James Bond shaved in the movie, Goldfinger)

1) I acquired my dad's 1963 (year of manufacture -- from the date code, I-1, stamped under the head) Gillette Slim Adjustable DE -- acknowledged by most to be a fine razor. It's made of brass with nickel plating, and has the ability to adjust closeness of shave with a twist of the handle (not an essential feature, but a nice one), and it's the TTO (twist to open), butterfly-door design.  Yet apparently at some time in the past, someone probably dropped the razor, because the safety bar had a subtle bend under one of the blade corners, which can result in uneven performance including harshness and nicks.

2) I bought an inexpensive, all-aluminum, TTO  razor from China (not adjustable) -- just to try it out for recommendation to others or to use as a travel razor because it's light and cheap. This one was a generic look-alike for the vintage Gillette Super Speed razors. At a glance, the razor looked beautiful, and the TTO mechanism seemed to work fine.  Closer inspection (a much closer inspection!) revealed that the butterfly doors on the razor were made and assembled imperfectly such that they caused the razor-blade edges to be warped out of shape when the razor was closed up for shaving.  Both edges had an undesirable curve (they are supposed to be straight!);  one edge was higher (farther from the safety bar) in the middle, and lower on the ends;  the other edge of the blade was low in the middle and high on the ends!  A guaranteed harsh, uncomfortable shave at best.  (Fortunately, the seller is reputable, and I'm waiting for the replacement razor to arrive, and will give this one another close inspection!  Update:  it arrived and was better, but one edge still had a slight curve. See my review here.)

To check a DE safety razor for safety, you need to check a few details up close, so if your near vision isn't clear, pull out the magnifying glass, your reading glasses, or the magnifying goggles you use for work or hobbies.  Now here are the details to inspect:

1) Before you put a blade in the razor, assemble (for a two- or three-piece razor) or close it (TTO design) and inspect by eye and by feel the shaving surfaces.  These shaving surfaces are the safety bar and the straight, outside edges of the top -- that is, the surfaces that will rub against your face while shaving -- for any roughness or sharp burrs.  If present, these might be smoothed with a kitchen scouring pad, fine sandpaper, or a fine file or emery board, depending on what is actually needed.  This corrective action is likely to affect the finish, so choose your actions carefully.
Pic 1.  Lord brand, model L6, 3-piece design (not TTO),
with no blade.

Pic 2.  The Lord L6 again, no blade.
2) Inspect the gaps between the safety bars and the razor top/butterfly-doors.  (Pic 1)  The gap should be even and the same on both sides.  You can also check this gap (and the straightness of the top and safety bars) by sighting down the side of the razor. (Pic 2) If the gap is uniform, this means that the outside edges of the top or butterfly doors are straight, the safety bars are straight as well, and both top and safety bars are parallel to each other.

3) Mount a blade (any blade, quality doesn't matter; you won't be shaving now) in the razor.  Before you close it up, check to see if the blade wobbles on the center posts or center tab [UPDATE: For two- or three-piece razors, hold the razor upside down so the blade settles into the top cap. Then check for blade movement; generally, this design of razor is best assembled in this orientation to help the blade self center.]  It should fit with little movement prior to being closed up for shaving.  Too much movement means that the razor could be closed with the blade edges not parallel to the safety bars, and you would have to eyeball the alignment to try to get the blade aligned properly every time you open and close the razor.  Or worse, it might misalign and you don't notice, which could give you an ugly shave.  So obviously too much play in the blade alignment prior to buttoning it up for shaving is not a good thing.

Pic 3.  The Merkur 33C, with blade.
Then close up the razor with the blade in and repeat step 2 above.  (Pics 3 & 4.)  In addition to those simple tests, you should hold the razor in front of you, handle down, a cutting edge facing you.  Then rotate the handle toward you, tipping the razor back a little. (Pic 5.) This will visually close the gap between the safety bar and the cutting edge of the blade. You should reach a point where the safety bar and the blade align with no visible gap.  If this occurs on both sides of the razor, you can be fairly confident that the blade edges are straight and parallel with the safety bar, which will help ensure a comfortable shave as long as there is no pilot error.  Do this inspection for both cutting edges of the razor.
Pic 4.  Merkur again, with blade, sighting along blade edge.

4) Finally, inspect the razor by looking straight at the top (no pic shown);  the handle should be pointing away from you, hidden from view by the top of the razor.  Look at both blade edges for exposure in relation to the top and safety bars.  Both blade edges should have the same, uniform, parallel reveal in relation to the top and safety bars.

Pic 5.  Merkur again.
Checking blade edge alignment with safety bar.
If you find defects, there are possible remedies.  A new razor should probably be returned to the seller for replacement or refund.  (A new razor with a defect doesn't mean that they all will be flawed, so you might consider at least one replacement try.)  A used razor can sometimes be repaired.  Search the Internet for solutions.  My family-heirloom razor, the Gillette Slim Adjustable, had a slightly-bent, slightly-out-of-alignment safety bar, as I said.  I found the repair procedure for that at this URL.

It actually took longer to find the procedure and find the best tool (a flat screwdriver, actually) than to complete the repair.

So good luck with your new razor.  If you follow these inspection steps before use, you are much more likely to enjoy that first shave.

Happy, safe shaving!


  1. Step 3. Please define "little". Without anything else to go on, little is an extremely imprecise word to try and judge. I'm looking down at the top of a disassembled 3 piece razor with a blade on it. It sticks out 1 millimeter if pushed 1 direction, and 2 millimeters if pushed the other direction. Is that "little" because it's a single millimeter, or "not little" because one end is 100% further out than the other end of the same edge? I have no idea whatsoever.

    1. What I was trying to convey is that even razors that routinely self center the blade will have some blade wiggle when inverted (handle up) without being snugged tight.

      Razors that don't self center well will have more blade play when not snugged tight -- indicating perhaps that they can misalign the blade even when tightened up using the best practice for blade insertion. To my knowledge, there is no "precise" judgement here. Razors with poor blade self centering will likely have too much play in the blade prior to snugging up; razors that self center well will have less play.

      Of course, the best way to verify that a razor self centers is to insert the blade using the best-practice method (that is, inverted) a number of times (either all at once or over a number of days), and then by that experience verify that the blade does, in fact, center properly.

      I, personally, always with a glace prior to shaving verify that my blade is appropriately centered -- even though I only use razors that have previously proven this capability to my satisfaction. (I avoid razor heads that don't self center.) As a result, I, personally, essentially never manually adjust a blade. On the rare occasion that a blade goes in off kilter, I simply invert the razor, let the blade re-settle in from gravity, press the baseplate down, and snug the razor up once again. I can't recall having to do this twice.