The Value Question: Razor Blades

Posted: November 6, 2016 in Shaving Articles
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It is not uncommon to hear of people who arrive at the idea of going back to safety razors (or straight razors) because they are exasperated with the price of razor cartridges or electric razors.

I won’t argue with anyone in regard to the shocking price that is charged for a razor cartridges. When one looks at the cost associated with purchasing high quality razor cartridges, it can be a bit shocking. As with anything, the cash on the barrel-head is not the whole story, however. I will, just for a moment, relate my experiences with this phenomenon.

As a young man, my father gave me a basic rundown of how one shaves. “Always go downward first, then up to get closer.” Such was the lesson, and it did get me through for a few decades there. I can’t say that I really delved into it more than that. The unexamined life, as it were.

I had a devil of a time finding a cartridge razor that I liked. I tried disposables. They cut the crap out of me. I tried other disposables with a varying number of blades. All clogged up like mad and tended to leave me bloody and irritated. I learned to cope with it. I used the trusty styptic stick frequently, and figured out how often I had to shave to remain basically socially acceptable. I finally found a cartridge razor I could get along with when they came out with the Mach 3. Clogged much less, cut pretty clean. I kept on with the Mach 3 until it was superseded by the Fusion. I didn’t care about the extra blades, but I did like the free-floating design that allowed the blades not to clog as much.

Blade shaving still beat all other methods in terms of actually cutting the hair off the face. It was part of being an adult male. I vaguely knew about safety razors, as my father had used them here and there when I was a kid. Mug of soap, brush, loading in the blade. I didn’t know that continuing on with safety razor shaving was still a possibility. Like a lot of people, I thought it was lost to time, and had no real grasp on if it would be better than what I was currently using. Cartridge razors were part of my life.

Were the cartridges expensive? Oh…yeah. I got a lot of mileage out of them, though. I would usually blade shave for good closeness on Monday morning, then do a few shaves with an electric to get me through, finally doing a quick pass on perhaps Thursday (or not) to knock down the neck hair that the electric wouldn’t touch. At the very most, maybe three shaves in a week. Usually one or two. I could get several weeks of shaves per cartridge, and I wouldn’t toss it until it was really rough and tuggy.

Thus, I didn’t really feel the sting, except about once per year, when I had to go and buy some more. It wasn’t a big deal, all things considered. If the amount you spend on your razor cartridges is a compelling thing to consider for you, you’re really close to the point of financial insolvency, it seems to me. What do I know? Likely, you spend more on lunches every few weeks, or on some other small daily expenditure. Phone bills. Coffee shops. That nasty habit of buying too many computer games. Whatever. Just sayin’.

Can you, in reality, save money by using a safety razor?

Yes, yes you can. (here comes the “but”)

Provided you buy a fairly inexpensive razor, blades in bulk, and don’t get carried away with the soaps and aftershaves, yes. I’ve satisfied myself that you can get started with a full kit for as little as $43 or so, American Money (2016). The razor won’t readily wear out with some reasonable care. Most soaps have very high yield, and you get tons of shaves per ounce. Any decent blade will give you at least three good shaves, and few cost more than 30 cents per. I find the Rite-Aid version of Aqua Velva to be perfectly useful as an aftershave. It’s about 4 bucks. This is nothing I haven’t said before. It doesn’t take a bunch of dough. In the course of a year of shaving, you can probably recoup your initial investment and go into profit on this.

That said, the value argument only works if…if you’re able to control your urge to become a collector or a hobbyist. This is something that I haven’t been able to do. Not at all. Not even a bit. For me, another hobby, another set of odd bric-a-brac to find a place for around the house.

No, I think that the more compelling rationale for becoming a “traditional wet shaver” is for a better shave in the qualitative sense. Some of this is due to the tool being employed, and just as much is due to the technique and peripherals. Better soap, better understanding of how to shave – more than the one sentence directive we got from dad. We move past being complete amateurs at something we do…every damned week. Imagine that. It’s like playing the guitar your whole life and never knowing more than the A, D, and G chords. Kinda crazy. But it happens all the time.

All right. Enough blather and dithering. The topic at hand. Is there a through-line in regard to what one pays for a razor blade versus the quality of the shave? It is, after all, the part that makes the most different, the active element in the whole process. The literal cutting edge. Yes, that sentence hurt me, too. I apologize. Let us never speak of it again.

Okay. The cheapest blades I’ve used are Dorco ST-300 and ST-301s. They can be had for less than eight cents per blade when purchased in bulk. Maybe even down in to six cents and change, if you look around and bide your time. They are very serviceable blades. Moderately sharp, quite smooth. I use them frequently, and with good results. Nothing to complain about. I’ve gotten killer shaves with them.

Next up: Derby Extras. Maybe nine cents a blade. Very smooth. Not real sharp. A divisive blade that some hate and some love. I quite like it in some razors. Especially my big Merkur slant. A great “test” blade when you don’t know what to expect with a razor, and think it might try and murder you.

Ah, now we have the good old eleven cents per blade spot. Wow. Astra Greens. Personna Lab Blues…

For me, the value versus quality nexus point is in the ten to fifteen cent per blades. I suppose that’s your answer. To me, nothing hits it harder on the nose than the Astra Superior Platinum at around 11 cents.

To me, the sweet spot is the Astra SP, as it is sharp, smooth, reliable, and can be had for such a good price. It works in every razor in my arsenal. Is it magical? No. In a mild razor, like my ’67 Superspeed, you get a killer shave on the first go, then two damn good ones. The out of the box edge mellows a bit. Still, in a more incisive razor, the later shaves would probably be just as good. It’s just the Superspeed needs that bite a bit more.

The Personna Lab Blue is one of the few blades that is U.S.A. made, and it’s good. It was my starter blade, and works with most of my razors just fine. I don’t like it quite as well as the Astra, but then again, I don’t like much of anything better than the Astra. For a lot of people and a lot of razors, though, it’s a great choice. Again, it hovers somewhere around 11 pennies a shot. Beyond lies the point of diminishing returns, surely.

But what about the more expensive blades? Are there returns, diminishing or otherwise?

Well, to me, there are few blades that perform better than the great blades around 10 to 15 cents per. I’ll talk about two, but there are others. I haven’t tried every blade, and my opinions are only valid within the limited framework of my own set of razors, running along my own face. You can get further info, of course, by looking back through my many blade reviews. Lots of good blades out there. Some I didn’t even like might be the bee’s knees for you.

The first, the Feather Hi-Stainless. The sharpness fan’s choice. If you just need the most cutting power possible, this is it. Not the kindest blade, not the most long-lived, but it does its one thing really well. It’s twice as expensive as a lot of other blades. It may be worth it, depending on your situation. If you prefer a mild razor, but need a little extra oomph, the Feather will give it to you. If your beard is much like extruded tungsten carbide wire, and nothing seems to cut cleanly, the Feather might save the day.

The second, and for me the one that moved me to the extent that I bought a large number at a high price, is the Polsilver Super Iridium. It’s expensive. Maybe three times what most other blades cost. It is, however, so smooth, so sharp, so good… The Polsilver has made every razor I’ve ever used it in one notch better. It’s a pair of rose colored glasses for your whole kit. I don’t know if it’s worth it. I don’t know your circumstance. For me, I doubt it’ll be a daily driver. I think I’ll save ’em for when I want to shave in the lap of luxury, or if I have a razor that needs that special something. Shrug. Who knows. I’m trying to grant some level of nobility to a purchase that was primarily driven by an emotional response. A fool’s game, most likely.

Which brings us around to the crux of the matter. What part does a  razor blade play in the value proposition of a shave? If we say that blades last three shaves, which is a reasonable assumption, then we’re talking anywhere from about 3 cents to about 12 cents per shave, low to high. The central point is about 4 cents a shave.

The big question is – if you find the shave to be much better, much more comfortable, and the difference is no more than about nine cents a shave…is that a worthwhile investment? That’s probably about the amount of tax you’re spending on local purchases at the store, depending on where you live. That’s out of a dollar, we’re talking. That’s the amount pocket change, low to high, between the cheapest and most expensive blade. For you, the best might be 3 cents. It might be 5. It might even be 12 pennies per shave. Worth it?

That’s a question I can’t answer for you. I can only break it down into the raw numbers. The numbers are broken now, and it’s up to you to make of it what you will.

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