Vintage Gear Exploration: Gillette “Ball End” Tech Razor

Posted: July 14, 2016 in Shaving Articles
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The original safety razor was conceived of by King Gillette (King was the dude’s name. He wasn’t an actual royal, to my knowledge.) just as the 20th century began. It was first brought to market in 1903, though it is typically called the 1904 “Old” Gillette Open Comb. One of my other vintage razors is of this basic type, but not quite that old. The initial design persevered unchanged until after World War I. Razors of this kind are quite viable shaving tools, and provide a close shave to anyone willing to employ them with a bit of care and technique.

As the years went on, Gillette changed the design here and there, coming up with the “Improved” and the “New” open comb razors. All of the razors mentioned are comprised of three pieces. The cap (top), the baseplate (mates up to the cap, with the razor held firmly between), and finally the handle, which threads onto a spine that comes down from the cap, through the baseplate, and serves to hold the whole machine together.

The open comb style excels at mowing through thick stubble quickly, and they offer a fairly clear avenue for the razor blade itself to touch your face. They don’t necessarily suffer fools or hasty shavers kindly.

When Gillette wanted to create a new model, they went in the direction of a razor that was a bit milder, a bit less exacting in its requirement of technique on the shaver’s part. While retaining the three piece style, the “Tech” razor had a slightly more rounded, taller cap than the original design. It also featured a solid safety bar. The family resemblance is there, but the Tech razor veered toward a less aggressive, less perilous design.

The idea with the Gillette Tech was to create a good quality, no-frills razor for the average workingman. The three piece design is easy to produce, easy to care for, and would last forever, provided basic care were given to it. Other than damaging the razor with abuse, neglect, or accident, there was simply nothing to break.

Being inexpensive, functional, and robust, the Tech razor enjoyed a very long run, being sold from 1939 to 1973. Yeah. That’s a correct figure. One can infer that there may have been something to commend such an item.

One would be correct in that inference.

I found a Tech razor with the “Ball End” handle and a gold finish. Being a razor that has no date code, I can only narrow its production to the era between 1939 and 1951. I suppose it really doesn’t matter that much, but I wish I could be more specific, since I’ve been able to determine the year (or thereabouts) of production for all the other vintage Gillettes thus far.

In any case, I believe that the very slight changes that were made throughout the production run were not terribly impactful. There were several handle styles, a few differences in the blade location slots, and the like, but I haven’t read of any substantive differences in shaving dynamics. I’m sure that, as is often the case, the lighter handles may have been gentler shavers than the heavy ones. I suppose the “Ball End” handle was probably right in the middle of the road in that regard.

After cleaning the razor up and shining it to the best of my ability, I gave it a go. The first shave was utilizing a Personna Blue blade on its third shave. I was struck quickly by the fact that the razor was both smooth and effective. As with a lot of vintage Gillettes, it gets this right (for me, in any case). It does the job, giving you a close shave without any drama.

In fact, the Tech razor gave me a reference level shave, even with a middle-of-the-road sharpeness blade…that wasn’t new…on the first go ’round. Curious.

There was something…something oddly familiar about the razor. No, it wasn’t reminding me of the Open Comb Military model, though they have the same dimensions and handle type. It reminded me of the Feather AS-D2. A lot.

I held the two up next to each other. Boy, they were shaped a lot the same. Not perfectly the same, but not so far apart. Same basic design, similar arching forces against the blade. Hmm. They both had an effective but gentle feel against the face. Not a lot of “blade on skin” feel. The old Gillette was able to match the Feather razor in a lot of capacities. On the first shave, it felt like an old friend. In fact, I ended up getting a little irritation, simply because I became a bit cavalier, and overshaved a bit.

Closeness? Perhaps only behind the best shaves I’ve had by the smallest of margins. That, with a blade beginning to dull out, and in the hands of shaver that let his inner “excitable boy” come out a bit.

Second shave? I put in an Astra SP blade and went for a two pass shave. For a quite gentle shaver, it did a superb job after two passes. There was no hint that it was skating over the stubble. I think that the Astra blade, as it seems to do in a number of my razors, brought out the best in a mild razor, letting it do its task quickly and smoothly.

I would say that the Tech’s “aggression” is probably a little more than my lightweight Superspeed. Similar to the AS-D2 in feel, it might “feel” slightly less aggressive than the Merkur 34c, but not much.

Just as Gillette intended, this is all the razor you’d need. Even after all these years, it holds its own. It isn’t quite as mild as my Superspeed, nor is it as miraculous as the Aristocrat. I can’t look at my beloved Feather razor without seeing that they based the design upon a Tech.

If you’re getting into wet shaving, and you wonder what might be a good first razor, I can recommend an old Tech if you can find one in good shape. I suppose the only counter-indication would be if you have a really coarse and wiry beard. Even then, I think the Tech would acquit itself well, especially with a very sharp blade.

I’ve been wonderfully fortunate to be able to try all of these vintage razors. The more I use them, the more I come to the conclusion that anything they’re building today can only hope to match the prowess of these old designs. Out-dueling them? Good luck with that.

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