Razor Review: Merkur 45 Bakelite

Posted: December 17, 2016 in Shaving Articles

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Typically, safety razors are made of metal. The classic choices are brass and stainless steel, while aluminum and pot metal are frequently use in more modern razors. That said, various formulations of plastic have a storied history in razors, as well. The razor that was sent along with the soldiers in World War II (for the Americans, in any case), was built of plastic.

From the time of the earliest plastics, people have tried to implement them in shaving. Sometimes just the handles, sometimes the whole razor. The most “classic” plastic formulation is Bakelite, which came to market in the ’30s. It is a phenolic resin that is reinforced, if I understand the chemistry, by wood pulp.

As time went by, thermoplastics changed. By the end of the ’60s, Bakelite had largely been displaced by other plastic formulations that were more easily molded. Fast forward to the modern day, and plastic technology is pretty amazing. The modern polymer is tough, temperature-stable, shock resistant…

All that said, there’s something about the old formulations, like Bakelite. In situations where impact-resistance or ease of production isn’t that important, using the old stuff might be fun.

Wet shaving is, by its very nature, something that looks back to old ways, and has an element of reminiscence. There is a niche in the market for plastic razors. There aren’t that many, but I became intrigued with the idea, and I’ve purchased a few of the most popular among them to test out.

The first in the test cycle is the Merkur 45. Among the plastic designs (of current production), it was the first I discovered, and got to market prior to the other two I have to test.

The Merkur is a short handled razor, made entirely of Bakelite, except for the brass screw on the top cap. It is a solid safety bar design, with no slant or bias built into the razor. I should note that the brass screw that holds the razor together runs directly on the Bakelite threads, so a careless or foolish user could theoretically damage the threads and even ruin the razor by applying too much force.

To my way of thinking, this is the prettiest of the Bakelite razors. The mottled red with the black baseplate is quite attractive. Beauty being in the eye of the beholder, this is, of course, subjective.

There seems to be a large number of shavers who prefer a heavy razor, an aggressive razor, a macho death machine of face destruction. While I can certainly appreciate a reassuring weight, and I don’t disagree that there is a place for highly efficient designs, there is also a place for a gentle shaver that does its work with relative safety. That is, if we remember, the first word in the name of the implement. As to the weight, one can’t very well buy a razor made of a substance called Bakelite and frown because it doesn’t weigh very much. If we’re sane and reasonable. That, given the nature of hobbyists, may be too great an assumption.

So, after all that, it’s probably about time to actually get down to the test itself.

First shave: I shaved with a Dorco ST-300 (my last one!). It loaded in without any trouble, perfectly even. The razor assembles nicely and feels well manufactured. No burrs, sprue, or other cosmetic flaws were present. Although light, I didn’t find it flimsy in hand.

With Proraso Blue lathered, I went into the shave. The first impression of the Merkur 45 is that of a very safe, easy shaver. It feels quite mild, and I never had the slightest hint of danger, irritation, or “bite”. I could feel the hair come off, but the sense of blade-to-skin was negligible with this, a moderate blade.

I did a two pass shave, as that has been my typical maintenance shave. Especially on the neck, I was free to shave with a casual abandon, and emboldened to use angles that some of my more perilous razors would make rather foolhardy. The end result was good shave, well within the range I find acceptable. While it didn’t get quite as close as my previous shave, which was a Slim Adjustable on “9” with a Polsilver Super Iridium, the Merkur had nothing to hang its head about.

I have appreciated Merkurs in the past, but not unreservedly so. The 39c is a bit too long and doesn’t quite have the handle knurling I wish it had. It tends to nip when going against the grain. The 34C, while it should be one of my go-to razors on paper, has always kind of left me uninspired. It’s good. It works. For some reason, I just don’t feel moved to use it very often. Upon first experience, I feel like I might be getting along with the 45 better than both of them.

Something I wasn’t totally sold on with the other Merkurs I’ve used was the handle. They’re both two-piece razors, and that makes it impossible to switch to another handle that suits you better. I have found the grip to be a little marginal on the 39, and not tons better on the 34, which has very shallow knurling that isn’t as effective as it could be.

The Bakelite handle is lined in ridges going parallel with the handle, and has a built-up ring at the bottom. It doesn’t scream “traction” to me, but I’ll be darned if it didn’t feel perfectly secure during the shave. No slip, no twist. Nice. The 45 is really impressing me early on.

One shave, however, does not a review make. I sense your fear. Yep, I’m going on and on, in depth, into extra innings, and on beyond the third sudden death overtime.

For the second shave, I used the Proraso Blue cream once again, carrying on with the Dorco ST-300 blade. I’ve found that blade, despite some people’s scathing indictments, to be very similar to the ST-301. Both are of a similar sharpness/smoothness matrix to a Personna Lab Blue, at least in my opinion. Thus, they’re in what I consider to be the sweet spot of moderate razors, and tend to be my first outing with a new acquisition (unless said razor is known to be homicidal in nature…I use a Derby in those cases!)

I decided to go for a full three pass shave, to see what sort of closeness the Merkur Bakelite was capable of. With the Dorco, I found that against the grain, in a few of my densest hair growth areas, yielded a razor that slowed down just a little. Not much, but a little. This light razor can float a bit against the grain, if you have very dense lather on your face. This is not particularly different from, say, the 1967 Gillette Superspeed with the anodized handle. Light razors, especially if they don’t have a super sharp blade, will sometimes need a few extra strokes to get everything done.

The three pass did nothing to dissuade me from my sense that this was a gentle, mild shaver, but one that could get the job accomplished. Because the razor doesn’t weigh anything, you can, provided you’re able to use a little finesse, add a little pressure here and there. A very light pressure, mind you.

When I say “mild” in this case, I mean to say that there is no real sense of danger, nor is there any sense of roughness or harshness. On across the grain and against the grain passes, you can feel the blade, but in a non-threatening way.

In the end, I had a very comfortable three pass, and it resulted in a very, very close shave. Even in areas where I tend to have a little temporary redness, I was good to go. None of the places where I can often feel the razor to be vaguely uncomfortable proved to be a problem. I’m calling the result a baby smooth one, which is often sought after but not always achieved, at least comfortably.

I’m calling it. I like the Merkur 45 Bakelite better than the 34C and the 39C. It’s more comfortable for me, and I think it is capable of closer shaves. But…but we’re not done.

The second blade I tried in the Merkur 45 was the Rapira Platinum Lux. With this razor blade loaded, the Merkur acted more incisive, not quite as comfortable or mild in aspect. It delivered very close shaves with no cuts or weepers, but it didn’t give the same relaxation that the Dorco blade did. I finished with the run with the Rapira feeling that, for this razor and my particular tastes, I was perfectly fine with a blade that leaned toward the moderate sharpness/high smoothness end of the spectrum. That, as they say, is why you play the game. I would not have anticipated that as the result. I assumed that I might have to load in a sharp-end blade to get reasonable cutting power.

While light, the Merkur Bakelite has a lot of blade exposure. That makes it capable of more cutting power than you might think. I would say that it can feel like a very mild shaver, but its actual cutting performance is much more that of a moderate razor. I was able to get baby smooth results in three passes each time. With the Dorco blade, it was every bit as comfortable as an old Gillette. The Rapira was not quite as simpatico, but that’s okay. Every razor has its favorite blades.

To continue the test, I did a few shaves with a Derby Extra, which is far over toward the smooth/gentle side of the spectrum. The blade still cut cleanly and comfortably, and I found that, as with the previous go around, this razor respons well and is the most comfortable with a less aggressive blade. With the three passes, it achieved great results, and with two, it provided a good, decent shave with excellent comfort.

With this one, I don’t feel that the highest sharpness level in a blade would be any benefit, at least for me. Final verdict on the Merkur 45 is that it works best with smooth and gentle or moderate blades.

In my first foray into “the plastics”, I’m quite impressed. The Merkur 45 could easily be a daily driver.

Next up: The Fine Slant razor

Cheers, and happy shaving.

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