Vintage Gear Exploration: Gillette “Old” Open Comb Razor

Posted: June 26, 2016 in Shaving Articles
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Gillette came out with the first safety razors in 1903. Gillette’s new invention  was the first to ever use thin, disposable, double edged blades. Thus, the element that was durable in the process could be kept, while the blade, the fallible and temporary element in the process, could be discarded. Shaving, prior to that, had been achieved by a straight razor. To be sure, straight razors function, and can function very well. They require a great deal more expertise to employ and maintain, however. And the only safety mechanism they feature is the steady hand of the person holding them.

The early models of the safety razor were open comb devices with both the cap and the baseplate being arched at an equal angle. They were three piece units, with the handle, baseplate, and cap all coming apart. The blade fit between the cap and the baseplate, and was biased to the correct angle when the whole assembly was screwed together. Such razors are still made today, and still deemed to be a fine and functional design. There were a few iterations of this initial design, of course, as the years went on. No well-run business rests upon the bed of laurel leaves from past successes, after all. It’s my understanding that the real point where the safety razor boom began was when every U.S. serviceman sent over to World War I was given a Gillette shaving kit that featured a razor of this “Old” type.

The razor that I was able to find at a local antique store turned out to be one of these military models. This is not altogether amazing, as there were 3.5 million of them produced in 1918 (the year of my razor). The veterans were allowed to keep their shaving kits when they returned home from the war, and the way the whole thing worked out, Gillette managed to introduce a whole generation of guys to the idea that his was the name to expect on a shaving product. An empire was thus built.

But this isn’t a history lesson or a Wikipedia article. It’s a talk about a piece of equipment that cuts the hairs off your face.

The model I found, the 1918 military version of the Gillette razor, was in very nice condition. No rust, no pitting, no loss of the finish. It doesn’t appear to be brand new, but it’s in fine shape. All the teeth on the comb are straight, the blade aligns nicely, and it looked to be up to the task, spry for it’s 98 years. I have a suspicion that it may have a handle that was sourced from another donor razor, as I believe the original handles on these razors had a somewhat different profile. I believe that the handle is likely from a 1930’s era “Ball End Tech” razor. Nonetheless, that razor is very similar in design to mine, and the handle is perfectly fitting and functional.

I let the razor stand in a jar of alcohol and lemon oil for a few hours, just assuring myself that everything was antiseptic, and that the lemon oil could get in there and dislodge any lurking yuckiness. It came up gleaming like a new nickle.

Loading in the blade, a Rapira Swedish Supersteel with three shaves already on the clock, I checked myself in the mirror, memorizing how my face looked, in case of a massive bloodbath.

Being a little careful, I applied some Proraso pre-shave and let it sit in for a few minutes while I made final preparations. You can never be too careful with a razor you’ve never met. Especially if it’s old and possibly a death machine of face wreckage.

I swirled up some Palmolive Classic and leaped in. Very carefully, because going to the emergency room wasn’t in the plan.

First Pass: The Gillette is a small, almost dainty razor. It makes the Merkur 34c look a bit chubby. It isn’t a lightweight, however, as it is a full metal unit. I find that balancing the butt end of the razor on my smallest finger gives me great control. The knurling is good – better than most of the new razors you’ll find. Not as good as the Feather AS-D2, but what is? For mass produced product, it’s uncannily high quality.

I’d never shaved with an open comb, let alone the oldest open comb iteration. I wasn’t sure what to expect. When contending with stubble, the razor gives very nice audible feedback. You can hear the blade cutting. The feel against the face, to me, does not encourage big, bold strokes. No, it’s much better to let this old fellow go at its own pace. I imagine that you’d be unhappy if you pushed it.

To err on the side of caution, I swiped a little extra lather on my face when I was going back over an area. I took short, very gentle strokes, chipping away at the growth. This proved to give an excellent, very close first pass. It’s only that it took somewhat longer. If you’re in a hurry, perhaps you’ll want to go with some other razor. This razor is about focusing on the task at hand, and doing it with your full attention. With respect, it is fairly gentle.

Second and Third Passes: Yes, I went for a full three pass shave with this razor. As the growth came down, I got more and more confident. While it requires care when it’s really cutting through growth, the longer, faster passes come as the beard is reduced down to nil.

I ended up, with an 98 year old razor and a blade that was somewhat less than it’s sharpest, getting one of the best shaves I’ve had. No irritation, no nicks, no cuts. Reference level closeness.

Frankly, I’m a little blown away. Is it as easy to shave with as a few of my more modern DE razors? No. It takes a bit of finesse. That said, it’s not a radical departure. If you know how to shave with a safety razor, you can shave with this. You have to respect it, or it’ll get you, but that’s true of any aggressive razor.

The effectiveness, quality, and amazing longevity of this old razor just knocks me out. It makes me wonder how far we’ve really come. This, literally the first design of this type, will outshave any electric on the planet. Easily. A hundred times out of a hundred. It’ll put most cartridge razors to shame with ultimate closeness, if you have the patience and a light touch. And, so long as it’s cared for, there’s no reason to think that, provided a blade could be found, this razor wouldn’t still shave just as well in another 98 years. There’s nothing to go bad.

Of the little forays into vintage gear I’ve done thus far, this one is the item that has impressed me the most. In his day, that King Gillette fellow designed a hell of a razor.

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