The Value Question: Safety Razors

Posted: November 16, 2016 in Shaving Articles
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The question here is this: what, if anything, do you get for your money when you’re purchasing a safety razor? Do the expensive ones really shave better? Are the cheap ones trash?

Well, okay, let’s launch into it.

Some thoughts on vintage gear: 

The first thing we must acknowledge here is that used or vintage gear throws everything into question. Because there is no standard price for used equipment, it muddies the water. Value is also relative. Great deals are there to be had, but you can also get scalped if you buy from the wrong merchant. I’ll go over used/vintage gear very quickly, then put it aside, as there are too many variables to easily account for it. It defies science. And dammit, we’re pseudo-serious about pseudoscience here.

Okay. Used gear, especially vintage, is available, viable, and, to me, pretty awesome. The really high quality gear of old can run with the very best of anything that’s being built today. No excuses have to be made for this stuff. It stands on its own merits (or fails, depending on the opinion, and the razor in question.

The least expensive razor I’ve purchased comes up to only $2.50. I bought two Schick Injectors for five bucks at an antique shop this summer. That’s right. Five bucks. They’re both viable, and were able to be restored to nearly-mint condition after some elbow grease. Although I have to say that Injectors tend to nip me on the neck when I use them, they are good razors. Certainly a wonderful value at the cost. For the right person, a little Type “I” Injector might be their dream come true. To put it into perspective, the pack of blades was more expensive than the two razors. Thus, their operating cost isn’t as low as the cost of entry. Sort of like a cheap inkjet printer.

The most expensive vintage razor I’ve purchased is the Gillette Slim Adjustable. It’s in really good shape, and the Slim is one of the all time great razors. I feel perfectly happy having payed what I did. The price equates to a moderate price razor of current manufacture. I could have probably found one for less, had I looked online, but I prefer to evaluate a vintage razor in person, rather than trusting to the photos. With a seller who knows what she’s got, you’re going to have to pay to get a really nice vintage razor. It can’t always be a windfall find, like with the Injectors. The big question is this: what does the Slim do better than the Schick Injector?

Well, let’s see. It is better at…everything. It’s one of the prettiest razors ever, it has the ability to go from very gentle to quite aggressive, it uses a cheaper and more commonly available type blade, and it is of higher quality manufacture, both in terms of materials and complexity. So, there’s that. It might not be better for everyone, though. Some shavers might prefer the Schick. This stuff is pretty subjective. The overwhelming judgement of history, though, says that the Slim is the cat’s whiskers. I wholeheartedly agree.

Okay, let’s set aside the vintage razors now. They’re great, but it’s a whole different world. In many respects, the price of an item has as much to do with demand, scarcity, and the “halo effect” of having tender, wistful feelings for the old days as it does on recouping the cost of building the device. After all, Gillette has long since spent the residuals on a razor from the ’60s.

On to new razors, then.

The least expensive new razors I’ve purchased are about ten dollars. The RazoRock Quick Change razor is the one I’ll use as exemplar. It is a good quality razor, very mild. It’s of Far Eastern build, and it’s made from chrome plated Zamak (a zinc alloy that is considered a “pot metal”). Provided that you don’t need an aggressive razor to get a decent shave, it’s pretty sweet. A perfect entry razor for all but a very coarse-bearded person. Nothing to complain about. I purchased several of them so that I could hand out razors to my friends, as part of my holy duty to spread the faith among the electric razor heathen. It fits the bill for that purpose, but also might be the very thing if your beard isn’t too tough, and you like a razor that doesn’t want to bite you.

The most expensive razor I have? The Feather Seki Edge AS-D2. It is made in Japan. The material is bead-blasted stainless steel. Without question, everything about the AS-D2 is perfectly machined and finished. It has the best knurling I’ve ever used on a razor. Blade play is non-existent. It provides a very gentle shave, but won’t chatter on several days growth, and will tolerate questionable technique on the shaver’s part without undo harm. It stands as my exemplar, the razor that I use to evaluate all others. If I’m having a week where my skin is messed up, and nothing makes sense, I use the AS-D2 to re-calibrate and get myself back on track.

Is it worth it? That’s the question. Well, that’s an interesting and difficult to answer question. It cost me about sixteen times what the little RazoRock did. It’s not sixteen times better. It couldn’t be. To my mind, though, it is a great razor, a tool you could use for your whole life and pass along to someone else. It is a razor that could easily be a “set it and forget it” purchase, ending your need to look for anything else. I’m not built that way. I like variety. If you just want it settled, something like the AS-D2 will allow you to close the books on the topic, knowing that it is about as high-precision as anything out there.

What do you get, then, for your razor-purchasing dollar?

Typically, the least expensive razors are built in China, India, or Pakistan. As you go up into the thirty dollar range, you’ll begin to see them built in other places. Italy. Germany, Japan. It’s tough to find a U.S.A. built razor for less than a hundred dollars. There are, on the other hand, only a few on the far side of a hundred that are NOT built in America. Ascribe whatever meaning to that you choose. There are examples of very well built razors coming from all of the listed manufacturing locations.

Materials tend to skew toward pot metal of some kind at the low end of things, with plastic making an appearance as well. From there, we’re talking brass, then stainless steel. There are a few titanium razors around, but not many. You’ll see aluminum, as well, and some Bakelite. These tend to be moderate priced razors. Without brass or stainless inserts, both Bakelite and aluminum can suffer from thread damage if you over-tighten the parts. Stainless Steel, while not being an expensive material, is much more difficult to machine, being harder and requiring more machining time to finish. It is also heavy and durable. It doesn’t require a plating material, as Zamak and Brass typically do. Plated finishes can crack under stress or upon impact. When water can get underneath plating, corrosion typically follows, and that tends to ruin the razor. When you deal with an item like a razor, you’ll have wet, soapy hands. There will be the odd fumble. A very fragile material or finish can be a drawback.

Machine work also tends to increase in complexity and quality as cost goes up, but a razor that goes for, say, fifty to eighty bucks is going to be a nice razor. Shoot, many that go for under twenty are just fine. As long as the razor presents the blade in a symmetrical fashion and provides useful handling dynamics, that’s all that is required. The rest speaks more to joy of ownership and appreciation of a well crafted device than pure necessity.

Where is the “tipping point”?

Under twenty bucks, you’re taking a gamble. Might be pretty good, might be crap. There are really terrible razors out there. They don’t hold the blade steady or present even exposure/angle. They’re just poorly made, and pose a danger to your face. If in doubt, ask yourself, “What is my face worth? Do I want it whole and basically intact? Am I in the market for a permanent scar?” If you go cheap, really watch the reviews, and make sure EXPERIENCED SHAVERS are chiming in. Some guy that did his first double edge shave two weeks ago doesn’t have enough wisdom yet to make a useful comment.

From $20 to about $35, you do have some good gear out there. Perfectly serviceable razors are available. Parker, for instance, makes a number of well-liked razors in this range. My first razor was a Parker 99R. I’ve since found razors I like better, learning my own preferences, but that’s perfectly normal. There is nothing at all wrong with a Parker razor, and many people get great shaves with them. Lots of dedicate shaving shops have entry level models in this price range. Many of them are based around a successful design, like the Edwin Jagger DE89, but made to a lower price point. You’re beginning to get into the realm of some of the Merkur models at this price, as well.

From about $40 to about $80, you’re looking at a lot of good quality razors from Merkur, Muhle, and Edwin Jagger. Many smaller brands also offer interesting razors in this range. It is very likely that you can find a great, comfortable, workable razor below $80. Popular models include the actual Edwin Jagger DE-89, The Merkur 34C, and many others. There are a handful of adjustable razors available at this price grouping, but I feel that adjustables are not ideal first razors, as there are too many distractions and confounding variables for a newbie already. They don’t need to be worried about which setting they should use on their razor until they have the basics down.

Above a C-note, you go into the realm of things you want, rather than need. The pursuit of “the one” is probably how to best understand this level of investment. In my view, entry into the luxury land where the truth and beauty of wonderful objects can be pursued comes cheap in wet shaving. The most expensive razor I can readily think of is about $400. There may well be a few semi-customs that go for more, but you’re welcome to do the research on that, should the mood strike you.

So. Yeah. Four hundred bones. For a razor.

It’s kinda nuts. But, all things considered, it’s not a big expenditure, if you look at other weird hobbies and collectibles. Certainly a lot cheaper than that ’58 Gibson Les Paul. A lot less than that Auburn Boat-Tail Speedster. I’m not going to bend over backward playing the justification game, though. It either makes sense to you, or not.

The act of removing hair from your face (or other locales, as you desire) is a simple enough task. It’s pretty easy to get to “good”. As with anything, the journey to “great” is a harder path. For some, you’ll be lucky enough to find what works great for you in the shallow end of the money pit. Others, perhaps not so much. I hope I’ve helped you, in some small way, at least see ahead a few turns on that long and winding road.

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