Adjustable razors are, in a lot of ways, the stuff that dreams are made of. You have one implement that can adapt to a variety of shavers, with a whole complex of different needs and usage patterns. They are, or hope to be, the answer to the old chestnut of what razor you’d take to a desert island.
The interesting thing is – not many brands have managed to bring an adjustable razor to market, at least in a viable way. Really, Gillette has always been the name of the game in terms of adjustable razors. The Fat Boy. The Slim. The Super Adjustable. I own them all, and love them dearly. They’re absolutely wonderful devices. But they haven’t been produced since the 80’s. You can love an old ’51 Mercury as much as you want, but the world has moved on. The Gillette adjustable razors remain totally viable, but they’re a commodity that is gradually disappearing. Shaving nerds are buying them all up, and they’re getting expensive and rare.
In terms of adjustable razors that are of current manufacture, Merkur is almost the sole purveyor (other than knock-offs, copies, and the Rockwell…which is really “configurable”, rather than adjustable).
Merkur have made three adjustable models. The Futur, the Progress, and the Vision 2000. To my knowledge, the Vision is not being produced any more. I may have to find one someday, just because it’s an even bigger, even weirder razor than the Future, if you can sustain your disbelief long enough to process that bit of information.
Of the remaining two razors, the Progress is by far the more traditional in appearance, while the Futur is wholly its own animal, too complex and unusual to quickly describe here.
For this test, I chose the normal, short handled Progress, though there is a longer handled version available. This razor design is a two piece, with the beige dial at the bottom serving both as the rentention screw and the adjustment knob. (More on this later) It is a heavy razor for its size, with a thick, grooved handle and a somewhat massive baseplate.
Adjustment of the razor goes over a range from 1 to 5, with ticks in between each number. The level of aggression increases as the numbers ascend. The methodology the razor’s design uses to change the behavior is to increase the gap between the blade and the safety bar. This has been the way all adjustable razors have worked, to my knowledge. Rather than having an under-slung tray that lifts the blade away from the baseplate, Merkur designed the baseplate to have this adjustable platform inside it.
A complaint I have come across with regard to the Progress is that they can “lose center” in such a way as to have the numbers on the dial no longer accurately represent how the razor is set. I have not seen this happen, but it is important to remember that the top cap of the razor is directional. One must line up the small tick mark with the arrow on one side of the head in order for the razor to go back to where it needs to be when tightened back up.
Another concern that some have voiced is for the durability and aesthetic nature of the plastic control dial. While the beauty of the razor is up for debate, I suspect that the plastic knob should not be a pressing concern. It is of solid construction, and should be sufficiently sturdy for anyone’s use in a single lifespan, if not more. Remember that there are Bakelite razors from the 1930s that are still perfectly functional. Plastics, as they tell us, last forever. If you don’t like the looks of the plastic, or feel that a metal part would make a paradigm shift in your ability to enjoy owning the razor, there is an aftermarket channel for acquiring a modified version people call the “Mergress” that replaces the bottom dial with a stainless steel piece. I have not used one of these, so I can’t comment upon the difference the hot-rodding has on the performance. I can tell you that a razor so modified is twice as expensive as the standard version, if not more.
I was initially drawn to the Progress over the Futur, when it came to Merkur adjustables. The reason is likely rooted in the fact that the Progress looks a lot more familiar. It’s basically shaped like a Merkur 34C, and of a similar size. Because of the mechanism’s further complexity and beefier baseplate, it is much heavier, but the balance is such that this is not a problem.
For my first shave, I used the Dorco ST-301 blade, as has been my recent custom. It is a moderate blade that I would liken to the Personna Lab Blue. Of Korean manufacture, they are very inexpensive, and have proven to be consistent thus far. They have been sufficiently useful that I have left off my juvenile giggling about their brand name, even.
My test started with the Progress set on “3”, which is the same setting I tend to use on the Gillette adjustables for 3 pass shaves, and also the setting I used when testing the Merkur Futur.
The “book” on the Progress is that it is less aggressive than the Futur, setting for setting. Percieved aggression is such a complex and weird thing to gauge, however. They are very different razors with different handling charactaristics. For me, I think that the Progress felt just a bit more incisive on “3” than that Futur did. Not dangerous, not uncomfortable, but I felt a little more blade-on-face while using the same supporting equipment.
That said, it was in no way difficult to use, and I got a great shave with no blood or major irritation on the first go ’round. It felt, to me, that the Progress was asking for a sharper blade. It didn’t chatter, skate, or tug, but it didn’t cut on the first pass with the level of gusto that the Futur did under the same circumstances. Not that it failed to reduce the growth, but it seemed to have a bit of resistance. The Progress might just need a different blade to perform its best. I went on, of course, to test this theory.
The Progress and Futur do not share much in the way of similarities. Not in looks, not in mechanism, and not in how they feel on the face. That’s actually good. What would the point of having two different designs be, if they felt just the same?
After a shave with the Dorco, I determined that it didn’t feel like a perfect match with the Progress. I felt like it needed a sharper blade. For this, I went with a Polsilver Super Iridium. To me, this is the best blade out there. Very sharp, but very smooth. Like an Astra SP, but a little better in every category. And three times as expensive. Oh, my!
The first test was on setting 3 again, and the razor was a whole different beast with the Polsilver. Smoother, faster on the face, and cutting more efficiently. Altogether, a more comfortable and better shave. The Polsilver is a much better match. Which, basically, has always been my experience. This blade just elevates a shave. The inference, however, is that the Polsilver’s success will mean that a shave nearly as good is going to happen with an Astra or a Rapira Platinum Lux.
The next one, I had to put the pedal to the metal. With a once-used Polsilver, I went to setting 5 and did another three pass shave. Very smooth, very comfortable, and it felt quite safe. The Progress feels less harsh at full tilt with the Polsilver than it did at 3 with the Dorco. That being said, the Progress does have pretty impressive efficiency when using a sharp blade and at maximum blade gap.
In the ongoing compare/contrast cycle with the Futur, I think that the blade gap at 5 looks commensurate to the blade gap on 3 with the Futur. That’s mark-one eyeball, so I can’t attest to the accuracy of that measurement. The efficiency seems to roughly line up at those mentioned settings. A certain level of care is required at Futur 3/Progress 5, but a practiced, unhurried hand should find it easy enough.
How does the Progress compare to the old Gillette Adjustables? Hmm. I want to say that the 5 on the Progress feels like maybe 7 or so. The head shape and dynamics are different. The Progress certainly doesn’t have the blade gap that the Gilletes have on 9. My experience with that setting is that it’s fine for the “safe” directions (with the grain and the less incisive across the grain), but a little more aggressive than I need when going against the grain. I was able to use the Progress “dimed” for a full shave without any difficulty (one light weeper, didn’t even need intervention).
Doing a consecutive shave on the Progress’s top setting of 5 proved to be another great, close shave, but I believe that it might be a little more than is ideal for me for every day shaves. The end result is not a lot different than on setting 3 in terms of closeness over three passes. The main difference is that the higher setting can accumulate a bit more damage and irritation if you’re shaving frequently. I found that I needed to take a few more steps to settle my skin down after the shave. I think that, if I carried on with that trend, I’d end up getting to the point where I’d need to take several days off to allow my sking to heal up. Rather than doing that, I’m going to gear down to a lower setting for the next shave, to see how that treats me.
It is not uncommon for any implement to have a particular range of “useful” settings, and then some slop outside of that, where there are meaningless adjustments on the dial.
The Progress, however, is functional at all settings. Having found that setting 5 worked great, but was perhaps a bit more than I needed, I flipped the script and turned it down to 1, the minimum setting. I shaved with the same Polsilver blade, this its fourth outing. What does the Merkur feel like on 1?
I would say that it is similar in percieved gentleness to my Feather AS-D2. Milder than a Merkur 34C by a bit, but still capable of a really close shave, at least for me, in the context of shaving every day. Absolutely as close as the max-power setting? Hmm. Not quite, but pretty darn close. That last iota of closeness is often bought at great cost, and it really isn’t very realistic to chase if you shave daily. Your skin simply won’t have it after a certain number of consecutive shaves.
If you had five days of growth, you would likely want to turn the Progress up a bit, but if you are shaving every day, and don’t have a mutant ability to grow hair on your face, 1 or 2 may be all the blade gap that you need. I didn’t notice that the razor had any greater propensity to jam up with soap at a low setting than at a mid range or high setting. Final tidbit is that, to me, the Progress on 1 is easily as efficient as a Gillette Superspeed or an Adjustable Gillette on 3 or so.
The promise of an adjustable razor is to be all things to all people. This, of course, is an impossible mission. If it can be most things to most people, however, then we can call it a great effort. I will declare that the Merkur Progress is such an effort. All the settings are functional, and cover the range of efficiencies that a large percentage of the shavers will need. No, it can’t be geared down to “safe as milk” or up to “do you have a living will?”, but it has plenty of range to adjust to different blade choices and most skin/stubble obstacles.
Though I would likely have made a few small alterations to the razor’s design, had I been in charge (standard handle knurling, bottom dial made of a different material, nickel plated brass construction), it still works well. I’ve had no sense of a learning curve. It shaves as one would expect a short handled safety razor to shave. The registration of the settings has not changed or wandered thus far. Grip has not been a problem. Maintenance and cleaning has been no more difficult than any two or three piece in my stable. I have not had a sub-par shave, and the only negative issue has been brought about by my own inability to take a day off to let my skin heal.
I don’t know if the Progress is the razor to rule them all, but it is really good. If you like the idea of a new-made adjustable, but the Merkur Futur is simply too unconventional for you, (or if you just like a more compact razor), it is one of the few games in town.
Cheers, and happy shaving!
Postscript: I’ve become aware over the last few days that there are a few new adjustables on the market, or about to come out. Parker has basically created a close copy of the Progress, just instituting the changes…well the ones I indicated that I would make in my comments above. Rockwell, a new company that is known for their stainless steel razor that comes with 6 baseplate configurations, is about to come to market with a modern interpretation of the Gillette-style adjustable, featuring a twist-to-open mechanism. I can’t give you any hands-on information on these razors, but they may prove to be viable alternatives or even preferred options to the Merkurs.