In a previous blog post we considered the potential benefits associated with buying a new straight razor versus buying a vintage one. In general you get the most longevity and the most peace of mind when you buy new, but let's assume you don't want new. Let's assume that you found a guy who is selling a wide selection of vintage razors for a very reasonable price and most importantly, let's assume that you are going to buy one. Then the question is which one do you buy? In this post I am going to try and help you out by going over a few things to look for and a couple of things that need to be avoided when trying to navigate the mine-field that is the vintage razor market. Please keep in mind that even if you follow every step and do your due diligence that you may still end up with a fancy looking pocketknife rather than a razor.
Step One: Look at The Brand
It might seem strange that the first thing you should look at when buying a vintage razor is not the condition of the blade or the scales, but rather the brand of the razor itself. Really though it's not that strange. You see, people have been buying and shaving with vintage straight razors for awhile and needless to say they have ended up buying some pretty major duds. Luckily for us, there is a list that 'names names', and point fingers at the less than good razor brands out there.
From Straight Razor Place we have a list of brands to avoid. Needless to say if the razors being offered are on this list, you should move on.
Instead look for brands (and this is not a comprehensive list) like: Waterville, Wester Bros, Imperial, Anchor, Case (W.R. Case & Sons), Winchester, Sta-Sharp, Dorko, Dubl Duck, Dovo, Boker, or Theirs Issard. With these brands you at least know that the razor started as one that was shave worthy and well made, which is half the battle.
It is important to note that if the razor has no name, no make, and no origin mark than you should not buy it. It's better to be safe than ripped off.
Step Two: Look at The Blade
I may not be a churchgoer, but I know that rust is the devil. Ideally, the razor you buy should be free of rust. Granted, this is kind of hard to come by, so instead of trying to find a pristine peace of razor history, focus on the cutting edge of the blade. Razors are very thin and with this thinness a few problems can arise. Pitting and rust can quickly penetrate the interior of a blade, weakening the steel and making it impossible to shave with. For this reason, there should be nothing marking or marring the edge of the blade, nor should there be any large chips or pits any where near the blade's edge. A small chip (and I mean really small) isn't that bad, but remember it will have to be ground out which means the whole blade will have to be ground down.
As a general rule, look for a blade that is free of pitting/rust to at least 3mm above the cutting edge. This should ensure that at least a few re-sharpenings could be done on the blade.
If there are more than a few dots of rust I would recommend moving on to another razor. Not that it couldn't be fixed, but why put yourself through the cost and potential hassle? There are plenty of old razors out there. You don't need to buy one that is rusted.
Step Three: Look at The Blade Size
This one is easy. The bigger the blade: the better. Seriously, the more steel a honemeister has to work with the better. That's it, pretty simple stuff.
Step Four: The Scales
The scales or handle of a vintage razor can get pretty cool. Bone, ivory, gold and even precious stone has been used to make razors pop. Though on the secondary market you’re commonly going to find plastic, acrylic, or wood.
There really are only two major things to consider when looking at the scales of a vintage razor:
Firstly, make sure the blade edge does not touch the scales at all.
Secondly, if the scales are made of untreated/unsealed wood then replace them. I will not go into the science of how untreated wood in warm and damp environments can release acids which can corrode metals so your going to have to trust me here. Untreated wood and cellulose is bad in the long run.
If you want to know more about the corrosive effects that wood can have on metals please check out this paper written by Nick Umney, who is the Senior Conservator within the Furniture & Woodwork Section of the Victoria and Albert museum. It’s a very interesting read.
Step Five: Buy it & Bring it in
Congratulations! You have found a razor that seems to be good to go. Buy it and bring it to a pro. It’s a good idea to invest in some supplies to go along with your razor. Remember you will need to strop the blade every time before you shave and you will need to protect it from rust. A strop is absolutely necessary to straight razor maintenance and some blade oil isn’t a bad idea.
It's a good idea to have the razor looked over by a professional honemeister just to be sure that the blade is shaving sharp and ready to use. If you don't happen to live in a city with a Kent of Inglewood (Calgary, Edmonton or Ottawa) we also give the option of mailing your razor to us for professional honing.
Hopefully, they will find no problems with the blade and you will be ready to shave. Just remember to disinfect the blade before you bring it for sharpening or restoration. It's the classy thing to do.