Straight razors - sometimes called cut-throat, flat or open razors - were the only choice for men wanting to tame their stubble for hundreds of years before King Gillette invented the modern 'safety' razor.
Straight razors then fell into decline, and quite a few urban myths were born about them - some true, some false. Here are a few to mull over:
1. 'A straight razor blade will cut at a touch.' True! But only if sliced across the skin - and any sharp knife will do that. A straight razor is basically a 'push-cutter' - that is, the edge is pushed against the stubble and cuts through it. In this it is the same as the modern safety razor, although the blades of a safety razor are pre-set at an 'optimum' cutting angle and closely guarded.
2. 'The blade of a straight razor must be aligned with the Earth's magnetic field when not in use.' False. The theory behind this was that, as the blade of a straight razor is so fine - just a few molecules thick - aligning it North-South when not in use would allow the magnetic field of the Earth to restore the edge.
In truth, a straight razor is whetted on a leather belt called a strop prior to, and sometimes during, use. This does in fact restore the microscopically thin edge to near-perfection giving, in effect, a brand-new edge for every shave.
3. 'You have to wrap your face in steaming hot towels before you shave with a straight razor.' False. Although this is often done by professional barbers it's not essential. The hot towel treatment merely softens the stubble, making the barber's job easier - and blunting the razor less!
It's also quite a pleasant experience that adds to the overall satisfaction of having a shave in a barber shop. Remember also that mens' facial skin was probably a good bit tougher in days gone by due to the fact that many more worked outdoors - and skincare was virtually unheard of for men in those days!
4. 'Straight razors are just downright dangerous.' True. Then again, so is a machine gun, or a dump truck, or a frying pan. It depends on what's being done with them!
Straight razors got their fearsome reputation from legends like Sweeney Todd, the Demon Barber of Fleet Street, or books like 'Murders in the Rue Morgue' (which didn't do much for the reputation of the Orang-Utang either!).
Certainly you can cause terrible damage with a straight razor, but then you can do even worse with a machete, a sword or an axe. In fact, as a weapon the straight razor is a one-hitter - the blade isn't designed for strength and the edge would probably break on the first stroke.
Really, though, the straight razor is only like any other piece of sharp steel - treat it with respect and you're fine. Mess around with it and the consequences can be sudden, painful and messy. A straight razor is designed to do one job only - shave your face - so keep it for that!
5. 'Using a straight razor takes years of practice.' False. Like any manual tool, a straight razor does take patience and practice if you are going to get a really close shave, but it's surprising just how quickly you get the knack of it.
There's also something satisfying in using a straight razor for your morning shave - it's not a task you can rush, even if you're an expert, so it has the effect of slowing you down a bit and stopping that rush-rush-gotta-get-ready-for-work frenzy that seems to affect more and more men these days.
It concentrates and focuses the mind, too - tasks that require this level of skill and dexterity often do - and I've always found it leaves me calmer and more ready for my day.
So - maybe it is for reasons of economy, being fed-up of the 'throwaway' mindset of today, that men are throwing their safety razor in the bin and returning to an almost-forgotten skill. Or maybe it's just that they want the machismo of saying they scrape their stubble off with a fearsome legend - in any event, the popularity of the straight razor is most definitely on the upswing. Why not give it a go?
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Steve Dempster regularly attacks his stubble with a straight razor and has lived to tell the tale. For more information and advice about straight razors, have a look at his website The Invisible Edge
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