There are some iconic tools in just about any hobby. Some are iconic because of their popularity, their formative influence, and large scale success. Others become known for other reasons, sometimes achieving notoriety by the calamity or mixed results that swirl in their wake.
In wet shaving, few razors have more mystique than the Muhle R41. When the first of them was introduced in 2011, they were lauded as likely the most aggressive safety razor ever made. Ever. Some debated whether the word “safety” should even be included in the name. The early version of the R41 was known to tear through whiskers with such manic vigor that it would simply laugh at a week’s worth of growth, even with the thickest of wiry beards. The book on it, additionally, was also that the slightest miscalculation or moment of inattention would result on large scale carnage, with blood splashing against the shaving mirror and you crying out for help before you succumbed to your injuries.
Buying or trying the R41 became something of a red badge of courage in the shaving world. Often not metaphorically, as you would be left bleeding from the adventure. For the right person and the right beard, however, the big Muhle was perfect, giving them close shaves when all else would fail.
For most, though, it was simply too much, too perilous. They might get good shaves, but they’d also get irritation, weepers, or outright cuts. Shaving with the R41 was the stuff of adrenaline junkies, or for the guys who would otherwise have to shave twice a day. It was like a big bore handgun, a 427 Cobra, or barbell loaded with five plates on each side. Not for everyone. Not for every day.
In 2013, Muhle re-engineered the R41, making subtle changes to the cap and baseplate to make the razor a little less likely to bite than the original. In doing this, however, they aimed to keep that same take-no-prisoners efficiency.
The consensus with the 2013 is that yes, it was slightly safer to shave with, but it was still very aggressive. It still would not suffer a fool. And, pointedly, it was still not for everyone.
In my tireless examination of all things pertaining to wet shaving, I felt that the time had come for me to try out an R41 and satisfy my curiosity about how it would be. That, and make sure my “man card” was safe for another week.
Because I didn’t have a razor with this type of “bling”, I ordered the Rose Gold handled version of the R41, in the contemporary, redesigned format. With a mixture of fear and enthusiasm, I loaded up a Dorco ST-301 blade and lathered up.
Now, I typically shave every day, or nearly so. I knew going in that the Muhle was likely not a razor I would want to do three passes every day with. I hoped, however, that it might prove to be a great “maintenance shave” tool. That is, a two pass shave that would be perfectly acceptable, and easy on the face.
For the first shave, I had one day’s growth, and did a two pass shave, with and across the grain of the beard. It was…fairly undramatic. I felt no pain during the shave. I finished the first pass and did find that it was one of the most effective razors I’d tried, right up there with the Merkur 39C and the Futur. If you’re not too picky, and just want a basic shave, one pass with a tool like this may well be all you need. The two pass technique, regardless of what razor you use, can only go so far. There will always be a bit of roughness lingering here and there on your face. The very efficient razors just leave less stubble than the rest.
I don’t believe that the R41 delivered a shave much, if any closer than a Gillette adjustable on “9”. Comfort during the shave? Hmm. Similar. Both require respect. It’s a very different feel. The Merkur Futur on setting “3”, for me, seems equally effective. Possibly more sense of the blade, but nothing really feels like a Futur. The Merkur Progress on the higher settings is also nearly as efficient, and perhaps a bit less intimidating. The Maggard V3A head feels smoother, but shaves at least as well as the first shave I got from the R41. None of those, in my experience, can shave as close over two passes as a Razorock Hawk with an Artist Club Pro blade. That thing is and efficiency phenomenon. It should be mentioned that, in my experience, the Progress and the Gilette adjustables like a sharper blade, while the Futur doesn’t seem to care.
After the shave, I had only minimal tingle/burn from the aftershave, but…but this is where the troubles began. Without having any negative sensations during the shave, I found that I ended up with rather pronounced irritation along my neckline with the R41. This, while only going with the grain in that area. The rest of the face was intact and fairly happy, but the neck did not like the attentions of the big Muhle. Not one bit. It was not the first time I’d had to dig out the hydrocortisone cream after a shave, but it was one of the more surprising, since the irritation did not immediately make itself apparent. I should mention that this was using proven products that I know that my skin tolerates, so it was not a false positive situation.
It’s one shave. I was being fairly careful, but not walking on eggshells. I had only one day of growth. Perhaps the Dorco blade wasn’t the best pick. Lots of possibilities. I’m not going to give up on the R41, but I’ll have to let my face heal up for a few days before taking another run at it.
So, I came back after my face was happy with me again. It took the better part of two weeks for all the irritation to subside, but I was shaving every day, so that’s an inflated figure, I suppose.
For the second try, I loaded in a Derby Extra blade, my go to if I feel like the aggressive nature of a razor needs to be taken down a notch.
How did it go?
Uh…it basically didn’t go. It only took me a few inches of my first pass to call it and bring in a relief razor. Yeah. I usually can get away with almost anything on my cheeks. The sensation the R41 was causing in my least sensitive facial zone was not at all okay, and not what I’m looking for in a shave. This, with the gentle Derby loaded in, and a really good soap lathered up. It felt like I was performing the shave with a belt sander. Just to be sure, I tried a range of angles, and neither decreasing or increasing my angle of attack improved the comfort.
When a shave suddenly goes pear-shaped on you, what do you do? My advice is to switch to something that works. Soap isn’t lathering? Go back to the puck, or rinse and try one that does. Brush doing something you can’t fathom? Go to a brush you know to be reliable. Blade is terrible? Pull it and load something you know to be a good match with your razor. And…if you’re trying out a razor that feels completely wrong, really uncomfortable…just punt on it and use something that works. Even if it’s a cartridge. Even if it’s a dreaded electric. This isn’t a “no pain, no gain” hobby. Yes, there’s a learning curve, but if you know how to shave, and are accustomed to doing so with good results, listen to your instincts if something feels off.
And that is what I did. I pulled the Derby and loaded it into a Gillette Slim, turned up to 9. Even on its maximum setting, the Slim felt like an old friend. The shave came off great, and all was well. It wasn’t a case of poor quality control at the Derby factory. It was just fine, perfectly capable of cutting the hair. You can’t really go further toward the “comfort” end of shaving than a Derby. They’re smooth. Not super sharp. With most of my other aggressive razors, they tend to work quite well. Not, perhaps, so much with the mild shavers (except, weirdly, the Feather AS-D2, but I have no explanation for that.)
What did I learn? I learned that the Muhle R41 is just not a good fit for me. Can I “tame the beast?” Evidently not. And I don’t need to. There are a lot of great razors around, and I’m not crestfallen that the R41 isn’t among those I can enjoy. My aim here was to try it and see what the fuss was all about. I’ve done that. Was it an expensive experiment? Yeah. A little. I knew it might be from the start. The razor is beautifully made, and it will likely be a great tool for someone out there. Just not for me. I’ll find a way to pass it along. Thus, there’s no remorse here. We have to be willing to gamble a little bit to do GREAT SCIENCE, right?
Cheers, and happy shaving.