Open-Source Shaving, part 2

Back in 2009, I wrote about Open-Source Shaving, and the journey I’ve taken over the years to arrive at my current preferred shaving solution: the double-edged traditional safety razor pictured. It’s great: reasonably heavy, just aggressive enough, and far more… manly than anything made of plastic. It’s so manly, in fact, that merely using it results in a surge of testosterone sufficient to make you grow a bad-ass beard, which somewhat undermines the entire exercise.

That blog post attracted a lot of comments, both on and off the web, and since I wrote it I’ve tried a few other different approaches to shaving, too. Like this:

The Rolls Razor

A Rolls Razor with a chrome case, in its original box.

After reading my first Open-Source Shaving post, a friend delivered to me a Rolls Razor that they’d found in a charity shop. I’ll admit that it took me far longer than it ought to have just to open the case, but when I did, I was thoroughly impressed.

The Rolls is a self-contained,  self-sharpening, safety razor, in a sleek portable case. That’s right: it’s a safety razor… that you can reuse like a straight razor! The last one was made in the 1950s, and I’m pretty sure that mine was made in the mid-1940s, but these things were built to last and the one I was given is still in perfect working order despite being older than my parents (who aren’t).

The open case of a Rolls Razor, with the "sharpening" side removed and the "stropping" side ready to use.

The case can be opened from either side, and under each “lid” is a different surface: a sharpening stone under one and a leather stop under the other. A lever arm mechanism folds down and attaches to the blade, such that moving the lever backwards and forwards sharpens or strops the blade, depending on whichever side you didn’t remove. It’s tucked into the most remarkably small space, and yet still manages a wonderful feat of trickery: as is correct, the blade grinds forwards when it’s against the stone, and draws backwards when it’s against the strop – a remarkable feat of engineering.

A rolls razor, assembled and ready to use.

When you’re ready to use it, a clip-on handle (which also fits neatly inside the case) is attached to the blade. The fit is snug, and it’s not always easy to push the blade into position, but that’s far better I suppose than a loose and wobbly blade.

The shave is raw and basic. Despite the fact that it looks no more-sophisticated than a straight edge, it’s almost as easy to shave with as a disposable-blade safety razor. The blade feels a little bit narrow, and it takes more strokes than would be ideal, but it’s perfectly usable. On the scale of things, it’s certainly preferable to an electric shaver or a plastic disposable razor, but it’s not quite as good as a cartridge razor or – still my personal favourite – a double-edged safety razor with disposable blades.

Nonetheless, it’s a wonderful piece of engineering and I’m proud to own one. There’s a great guru-page about the Rolls Razor, if you’re interested to learn more.

The Shavette

Here’s where things get scary.

A shavette (or 'injector razor'), armed with half a razorblade and ready to go. Vicious-looking, isn't it?

I’ve always wanted to try a straight edge – you know, a proper razor blade: a strip of metal sharpened on one side. I’ve been told that it’s an incredibly close shave, a wonderfully tactile experience, and a challenge to dexterity to challenge even the handiest of men. But there’s an overhead: you need a strop, and a sharpening stone, and there’s a whole suite of skills that you need to learn about care and maintenance before you even get close to putting a blade near a face.

A shavette – or “injector razor” – is a simpler alternative. It’s functionally a straight razor, but instead of having a blade it has a pair of closely aligned grips and a clip to hold them in place. You take a traditional double-edged razor blade (which I have about a million of anyway), snap it – carefully! – in half, and insert one half into the grips, then clip it into place. Ta-da: you have a piece of metal shaped like a straight razor, but holding a disposable sharp edge.

The challenge is learning how to use it. It turns out that there’s a reason that you have a barber do this for you: it’s actually really quite hard!

Finding a suitable angle of attack isn’t hard so long as you’re used to using a safety razor already: that same 30° or so angle that words for a safety works when you don’t have a guard in place too. You’ve got to remember to maintain the angle, of course, because the tactile feedback is subtler and more gentle, and it’s easy to slip up. It’s also challenging because – unlike a real straight edge – razor blades have corners, and those corners can catch if you’re not taking care in more-rugged terrain such as around the jawline.

How to hold a straight razor.

The grip used for a straight razor looks unwieldy, but it’s actually quite comfortable and gives a great deal of control over the motion of the blade. It’s possible to perform strokes that just aren’t feasible with any other kind of shaving equipment, like scything, where a rotation is applied such that the tip of the blade moves further than the end closest to your fingers. It’s challenging, but effective.

But the biggest difficulty with shaving yourself with a straight razor or shavette, for me, has to be that you have to be ambidextrous! I’d read this fact online even before I got my razor, but I’d somehow glossed over it: somehow in my mind I thought that I’d have no problem with just using my right hand. But the first time I tried to shave with a shavette, I realised my mistake: if you try to shave the left-hand side of your face with your right hand… your arm is in front of your eyes! The angle is just about achievable, but without being able to see the mirror you’re quickly going to find yourself in pain.

I got the hang of working left-handed, eventually, but it was a struggle. And while the shave isn’t much cleaner than a safety razor, it is possible to get a great deal of control. I still use my shavette from time to time, particularly if I want to get a very sharp, tidy finish around the edges of my beard or to straighten my mustache, but from a standpoint of speed and convenience alone, my safety razor is still the first thing I reach for.

The Glass Hone

A glass hone, which can allegedly keep razor blades sharp for hundreds of shaves.

I was recently given a glass hone: a small piece of slightly curved glass that can be used to hone (align) plain old razor blades. The theory is sound – it’s well known that blades require honing far sooner than they actually require sharpening. It’s not possible to strop a double-edged razor blade, but if this mechanism works then it would provide a means to dramatically extend the lifespan of each blade.

I’ve not used it yet: I’m naturally skeptical of claims of such a magnitude, and I’d like to put together a good double-blind test to see if it actually works as well as it should. I’m thinking I’ll run down a pair of blades, store them, label them, and have somebody else hone one (of their choice) without telling me which. I’ll then try to re-shave with both, try to identify the honed one, and then re-run the whole experiment a few more times before asking my assistant to identify which blades were the honed ones.

Maybe I take these things too seriously.

In any case, I can’t report back to you on how useful such a tool is until I actually get the chance to do so, and as I don’t bother to shave every day, it’d take me a while to get any results. Perhaps others would like to volunteer to participate in my experiment, too? Is there anybody out there who shaves with a double-edged safety razor who’s willing to buy one of these things and provide feedback? We could even have our assistants liaise with one another behind our backs and agree not to hone either blade for one or the other of us, to act as a control group…

Okay: way too seriously.

× × × × × ×

Open-Source Shaving

Recently I saw a Basic Instructions comic in which the author/protagonist, Scott, weighs up his shaving options. You can read the full comic here, assuming you don’t read Basic Instructions already (and you should).

As the folks leaving comments on that comic quite rightly note, the comic covers only two of a number of different solutions to shaving: disposable razors, and cartridge razors, neglecting at least three other alternatives (even if you don’t count “just let it grow” as an option). Thanks in part of many of these comments, he’s now going to experiment with a few different options.

I’ve tried more different approaches than most gents, I suspect, so I thought I’d share with you a brief history of my shaving experience:

Electric Shaver

Surely I can’t be the only person who’s found these to be quite so useless as they appear. I’ve owned two in my time: a basic one that my dad gave me during my teen years in lieu of the iconic father-son bonding experience that I’m lead to believe that many other boys found in learning to shave from their dads; and a second, more-fancy one given to me in a gift box which also contained other male grooming tools (some of which are actually really quite useful: it’s just a pity that the shaver itself isn’t up to much).

I don’t hear anybody else complaining, so I’m probably in a minority: perhaps it’s the the softness of my skin… or the prickliness of my hair… or maybe I’m just “doing it wrong.” The net result is much the same: if I use an electric shaver it cuts my facial hair down just enough to still be slightly stubbly, it’s near-impossible to make a good effort of the area under my jaw, and there isn’t the control to be able to work around the outlines of a partial beard, as I have nowadays. Perhaps worse yet, it always feels like they “pluck” almost as much as they “cut”. The first few times I used one I took it apart to try to work out if I’d perhaps missed a crucial set-up step, like pulling out some kind of secret pin that actually engaged the razor blades. I hadn’t.

Disposable Razors

So I ended up using disposable razors. They’re cheap and simple and they work, right? They’re not the easiest things in the world, with their flimsy little plasticky handles and their strange shape… Although there is the fact that they’re not actually very sharp.

You know how they say that you’re more likely to cut yourself with a blunt blade than a sharp one, because of the increased pressure you have to use? Well there’s a limit to that logic, and the limit is when the blade is so dull that you’d be hard-pressed to cut yourself if you were trying. I don’t know if it’s an anti-suicide measure by the Bic company, but wow are their blades ineffective. Sometimes you feel like you’d be better using the edge of the shitty plastic handle than the metal blade edge.

Cartridge Safety Razor

One day, back in in my first year at University, an unexpected parcel arrived for me. It turned out to be from Gillette, and contained a Gillette Mach3 (which had been launched a year-and-a-bit earlier). Their thinking, of course, was that as they’d given me a free razor I’d use it and then continue to buy the blades. “The fools,” I thought, “I’m perfectly happy with my twice-a-week-if-I-can-be-bothered shaves with these throwaway plasic things!” I planned to use the new razor ’til I’d blunted (all three of) it’s blades, then I’d just throw it away. No problem.

It turns out that giving away free razors like this might have been one of the smartest marketing promotions that Gillette has ever done, because, for me at least, it worked. A three-blade cartridge razor is a fabulous way to shave, and it’s a huge improvement on disposables. I’m sure that over the nine years or so I used my Mach3 – even if you don’t count the extra one I bought when I lost one – Gillette more-than made their money back in all of the cartridges I bought.

It’s got a proper handle with grips that work even when it’s wet, a funky button-release to let go of spent cartridges (and for me, at least, the blades would last a reasonable amount of time, presumably aided by the fact that the work was shared amongst three cutting surfaces), it tilts gently to work around hard-to-reach spots… it’s just a really well-designed bit of technology.

Traditional “Double-Edged” Safety Razor

Back in the early years of the 20th century, the removable-blade safety razor appeared to fill the demand for a razor that was easier than straight razors, which required such care and attention to both use and maintenance that many men just said “fuck it” and went to the barber’s instead. For decades, the double-edged razor was king, until it started to give way in the 1970s to cartridge razors and electric shavers. There are two major reasons for this change: firstly, cartridge razors are easier to use than double-edged razors – you can use them even if you’re tired, or drunk, or stupid. Secondly, cartridge razors (and, to a lesser extent, except approaching Christmas, electric shavers) have been very heavily marketed for years and years: this makes sense from the perspective of the manufacturer, because of the principle of vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in, more often discussed in the context of electronic goods and computer software, is about forcing the users of your product to continue to use your product: to remove from them the freedom to go elsewhere. It’s particularly obvious in the marketplace of cartridge razors, because each manufacturer can manufacture blade cartridges which fit only it’s own products. An entire marketing strategy, the razor-and-blades business model, is named after this approach.

At the tail end of this hundred-year history of razors is now, 2009. I’ve gotten good use out of my Mach3, but there are a few things over the last year or so that have really put me off continuing to use it:

  • Actual good-old Mach3 blades became harder and harder to find as the manufacturer began to focus production on Mach3 Turbo and M3Power cartridges, both of which cost more.
  • Mach3 Turbo is basically the same thing as Mach3, only a little more expensive for the privilege of “anti-friction blades”, which seems like a marketing gimmick – I certainly can’t tell the difference, and if there’s anything to learn from this blog post it’s that I’m reasonably picky
  • M3Power blades are identical to Mach3 Turbo, only more expensive still(!). What do you get for your money is “even more lubrication” (yeah, right) and blades that are compatible with the micropulse (i.e. vibrating) feature of the M3Power handle, which virtually everybody says is a scam.
  • Seriously, the marketing is bullshit. It was proven in court.
  • As the Onion predicted back in 2004, we’re starting to see the first five-blade razors getting serious marketing treatment: the “Gillette Fusion Power Stealth” (presumably targeted at men who like awesome-sounding buzzwords: seriously, what do any of those words have to do with removing hair?) have five blades and a sixth “precision trimmer”. That’s six blades every time you buy a cartridge: how much does that cost? I don’t even want to know. And someday, they’ll stop selling Mach3 blades entirely and they’ll try to force me to switch to an even more profitable razor, probably with seven blades and a lubricating, vibrating strip that sings the blues.
  • Gillette’s razor blades are sold at 4750% profit. Four fucking thousand seven fucking hundred and fifty fucking per cent. That’s like me going to Sainsburys and buying a loaf of bread (85p), a small pack of margarine (44p), and a medium-sized pack of cooked ham (£1.64), making ten ham sandwiches, and then selling them for £14 each. For a ham sandwich. £14.

So, a month and a bit ago, I decided to escape from this trap, and go open-source with an old-school double-edged razor.

Going Open Source

Sick of the marketing nonsense and the overinflated (and rising) costs of cartridges, I bought myself a traditional style safety razor (it looks a lot like the one in the photo in the last section), brush, soap, and a sackload of blades: and wow, blades are cheap.

It turns out that learning to use a double-edged safety razor is just a little bit like learning to shave all over again, with plenty of opportunity for self-injury along the way: although it doesn’t take so long – despite managing to clip myself the first few times I used it (nothing that a quick application of titanium dioxide couldn’t fix, albeit in an ouchy-ouchy way). It also takes quite a bit longer than shaving with a cartridge razor: rather than the eight minutes or so I’d spend shaving with my Mach3, I spend about 18 minutes in the bathroom with my double-edged safety razor. That’s not the end of the world, because I only bother to shave about one day in three anyway, and adding ten minutes to the time it takes to do something so infrequent isn’t going to kill me.

It’s actually remarkably good for the extra time it takes, though: I’m suddenly all remarkably-smooth, having shaved with this scary-looking implement: better than I’d ever managed with a cartridge or with a disposable, and far, far better than I ever got out of an electric.

So: cheap as chips to get blades for, and a better shave, at the expense of taking longer to actually have a shave. It’s a good deal in my book, and I’d recommend giving it a try, gents, if you haven’t already. Plus, you get the same kind of fuzzy feeling you get from using Linux or because it’s just a little bit more like using something that’s genuinely free of vendor lock-in.

Plus, it looks cool.

(I’m considering trying a proper straight razor at some point – or, more likely, one which takes snapped razor-blades in an injector, because I don’t particularly feel like having to learn how to sharpen and hone a true razor – anybody got any experience of them?)