When I was nineteen, my dad gave me a pair of extra hollow-ground straight razors in a small box marked “Gentleman’s Companion”. Having been brought up with an appreciation for the finer rituals a man performs (shoe shining, woodworking, shaving, etc.), I knew immediately what they were. I did not, however, know how to use these razors, how to sharpen them, how to properly run them across a strop. Basically, I was unsure on how to not slit my own throat during my first shave attempt. I took the razors to my barber, who showed me how to hone, how to strop, and how to glide the razor across my skin, leaving behind nothing but silken bliss. I remember standing in the barbershop saying impatiently, “Okay, I get it. Now let me try.” The second the razor touched my skin, I cut my damn face. And I mean I cut it abominably. My barber, after shoving styptic powder into my cut (I cried), smiled and said, “The first rule of straight shaving is that you learn to respect the blade, or it’ll cut you.”
For the past eight years I’ve been developing my skill in straight shaving, which encompasses everything from blade maintenance to skin preparation to post-shave skincare. I’ve also added to my collection of razors, learning which blades are worth buying, which can be restored to a “shave-ready” condition and which are better left in the glass case at the antique shop (which, unfortunately, is most of them).
Over time I’ve found that straight shaving isn’t for everyone. If you prefer to shave quickly in the shower with your anti-fog mirror and aerosol shaving cream, then you’re not ready for this. No offense, but you won’t respect the blade, and it’ll cut you. But if you’re the kind of man who’s willing to wake up ten minutes earlier each day so that you can enjoy the art of making yourself presentable to the world, then straight shaving may be worth a look. I fall into the latter camp, and I’m not leaving. Here are the blades I’ve collected — and learned to respect — over the years.
J. R. Torrey
The J.R. Torrey Razor Company was in business from the late 1850s to 1963. After 20 years of importing their blades from Sweden and England the company began making their own blades right here in America in the 1870s. Unfortunately the Torrey family put too much faith in the straight razor, and by the end of World War I, most of America had moved on to safety blades; the company never recovered. This blade dates right around the early 1920s and is by far the sharpest blade I’ve ever owned; not bad for a 95-year-old piece of American steel that cost $10 at an antique shop.
Not much is known about T. Hessenbruch razors — just that it was a Philadelphia-based tool company that imported fine German tools and blades from the early 1870s to the late 1920s. The “T” stamp indicates that it was probably produced before 1890, when the founder’s son took over and changed the “T” to an “H”. When I go to the barber, I take this blade for him to use on the back of my neck. Why? Because my blade is sharper than his, and I feel like a 1920s gangster with it in my pocket.
Wade and Butcher, Sheffield
W & S Butcher Co. was founded in Sheffield, England (the blade mecca of the world) in the late 1820s by Samuel and William Butcher. Soon after making a name for themselves in England, the brothers teamed up with Robert Wade, who became their U.S. blade importer; in time, Wade bought a piece of the company. Wade and Butcher Sheffield continued to produce their blades in England; however, in a move of clever marketing, they marked their blades for specific countries. This blade is the “American Razor” engraved with an eagle spreading its wings. It’s heavy, it’s thick, and, like America, it’ll kick your ass.
George Wostenholm & Son, Sheffield
George Wostenholm was granted the coveted “I*XL” mark of cutlery in 1826. The mark was to be pronounced phonetically, as in “I Excel”, and it meant the blade’s crafter knew how to make a blade sing. Wostenholm created one of the finest razor companies in England from 1809-1848. The company was acquired by Washington Works from 1848-1978, but a German Bomb destroyed all of Washington Works’s records during WWII, making this blade very difficult to date. Whoever owned it first carved their name into the scales with a knife, which was a common practice during WWI, so that’s where I’m going to date it.
This is the duo that my dad gave me when I was nineteen. The blades have no maker’s mark whatsoever. In fact, the only marks say “Carter 17 Fleet Street” which means that these blades were probably custom made for a lucky cat whose last name was Carter. I’ve never seen another pair of blades like this; they’re not very sharp, and I don’t think they’re worth much money. But my dad gave them to me, which means they’re my favorite. You get it.
After my barber gave me a few tips (and shoved that damn styptic into my cut), he recommended that I pick up a disposable blade straight razor. He said it would help me learn the motions without cutting myself every time. While my first response was to balk at this (after all, I’m not a poser), I only needed to cut myself one more time before heeding his advice. When it comes to straight shaving, DOVO is the name. If you’re serious about straight shaving, starting with one of these is a great way to learn. If I’m in a hurry, I reach for this blade.