Reasons to try Double Edge Safety Razors

Giving an old design due consideration


Updated: 2022-04-17 Sun 14:11

If a man shave off another's beard let him make amends with twenty shillings. If he bind him first and then shave him like a priest (hine to preoste bescire) let him make amends with sixty shillings. - Law of King Alfred the Great (899)


1. Introduction

All of the below is subject to the peculiarities of your skin sensitivity and hair qualities; the growth rate, the hair strand thickness and toughness of what God gave you.

2. A. Disposable razor (plastic safety razor)

It's in the name. It gets the job done, but is inferior for a couple of reasons. The first is the tendency to cut hair below the skin. Disposable razors typically will have multiple blades, ranging from 3 to 7. Given the inadequate spacing between blades or the lack of any real pass-through for hair, what will often happen is that the leading blade will merely tug on the hair. The following blades will then cut the hair below the surface of the skin. This can result in ingrown hairs, razor bumps, and skin irritation. More traditional razors offer greater control through the choices of duplicating this effect by shaving against the grain in areas where necessary and smoother options in other areas.

The following is my biggest gripe about the design. Barbarians may have looked upon the smooth-faced Romans with disdain and even today most men will only shave facial hair (with perhaps a little trimming down there, as per the request of your better half), but doing competitive swimming growing up meant that when coach says you shave, you shave. All of it. Here, as well as shaving a couple days' beard growth, the disposable razor does not perform well. This use case exaggerates an inherent weakness of the design. To prevent the clogging of your disposable razor you can,

  • Run it backwards over your palm
  • Use an old toothbrush
  • Bang it against the sink, thereby breaking the plastic and having to…
  • Buy a new one. The razors may be cheap, but we'll get to the total cost of ownership down below.

The quality of your shave will suffer and the length of time for full body shaves will increase. For a ritual most men perform their entire life, the disposable razor is a subpar option, no matter the snazzy advertising. It is not unlike a plastic fork. It does not aim to, and cannot compare to heirloom wristwatches or fine china. The abuse of a thing does not prevent its proper use, but there are better tools out there. And what's to come between a man and his tools?

3. B. Electric razor

This is by far the easiest (safest) way to shave. The increase in complexity does mean replacement parts are very expensive to manufacture or outright do not exist depending on design constraints. Parts are also not standardized in any meaningful way. And an electric razor does not save you from buying replacement heads, for both straight blades and rotary blades dull eventually. In addition, you will have to assume access to electricity. What then of camping trips or exercises in the woods? For the very simple task of removing hair, electric razors are over-engineered and serve as a poor all-in-one solution. Certainly more of a luxury.

The quality and cutting efficiency are also middling. As any man who has used one will tell you, the resultant shave is dependent on a new variable: the power draw. A low battery will mean a tortuous experience. If your whiskers are a tad long, there is the expectation that a few of them may be yanked out. Speed and dry shaving are areas where electric razors shine. I know some men who will do a first pass with an electric razor and then follow up with a double edge razor. That's not to detract from the electric razor being a poor all-in-one option. You'll want a backup; two is one and one is none.

4. C. Camping knife/pocket knife/Rambo knife

We've all thought about it. However the principles of geometry show up to ruin our fun here. The bevel angle and steel composition must be taken into account. A typical knife edge might have a bevel angle of roughly 20 degrees whereas a straight razor is usually around 16 degrees. Some steel may not be able to support such an acute bevel. Another characteristic is refining and polishing of the edge. A straight razor can go upwards of 10000 grit during the honing process. The conclusion is the qualities/compromises that make a good razor do not necessarily translate to a good knife.

Shaving with a knife falls under the same category as shaving with a hatchet/axe/machete: stunt shaving. Cool to settle a beer bet, but you've been fairly warned. I disclaim responsibility for any cut up mugs.

5. D. Double edge (DE) safety razor

Wikipedia tells me these only came onto the scene in any real force during the 1900's, when they were issued to US Army troops during the Great war. Prior to this, shaving belonged to the trade of straight-razor-wielding professional barbers. And prior to that option C. may have been the only choice for the men present in the army of Alexander the Great. Of interesting note is shifting of grooming standards throughout history.

Despite modern man's insistence to remake himself in his own image, facial grooming is a problem our pampered visage have failed to completely escape from. Universal as the practice is, it pays to know why razors dull in the first place. "Razor blades dull due to corrosion of steel, formation of evaporites due to inadequate drying and micro-chipping from contact with whiskers." Indeed, what can be shown empirically is that drying off your razor blades to reduce buildup of calcium carbonate is the strongest factor in increasing the lifespan (1 week to many months) of your blades. The design of DE razors make trivial to do so, although the author in the above link saw benefits even with cartridge razors.

Here one can do his own research on the total cost of owning either of the three options. That the double edge replacement razor comes out the cheapest to manufacture and buy is of no great surprise, but it wins out by a magnitude of 5-10x. The fixed cost of the materials is not the only difference, for I'd also hazard a guess standardization of double edge razor blades helped contribute to its inelastic pricing. And this is without taking into account the fact that the three piece design addresses my pet peeve of disposable razors quite nicely; unscrew or loosen the handle to remove any excess hair.

Shave quality of DE razors is only really outdone by straight razors skilfully wielded. Should you desire a close shave, you may look up the traditional three pass method: with the grain, across the grain, and against the grain. I find one pass most mornings is acceptable for myself.

I fear replacement blades – in whatever form – will stay with us as long as most people rightly decide to specialize their labour and forgo learning how to sharpen a blade. Niche hobbyists excluded of course. I'd imagine double edge razors are easier to recycle than mixed cartridges. Now you can prove to your hot date just how prudent and caring of a steward you are, in both environmental and other matters.

6. Seeking durability in double edge safety razors

After this brief survey I wish to testify to my journey for a razor to last until the end of my days. My dear mother has related to me of how clearly she remembers her father, whom I've never met, shaving with one razor his entire life. Such stories are not uncommon. The US Army supplier mentioned above was in fact Gillette (owned currently by Procter and Gamble), and old Gillette razors retain a following to this day for reasons I'll mention below.

I figure most men want their shaving tools to be like good software or any good abstractions. Functional yet out of sight, out of mind. In this case, the trade off one pays for far greater durability, performance, and lower economic cost is ever so slightly increased operational complexity. It's a rational price to pay, as shaving with a DE razor is one step above brain-dead, and testosterone (byproducts) takes away the hair on my head, not my face, so I've got plenty of chances to practice. It stays true to the 'safety' in 'safety razor'. Durability is the quality most sought after by myself. A razor to last the centuries!

My first DE razor was the Edwin Jagger DE89. It satisfied the criteria of being the cheapest model on Amazon with good reviews. From my teenage years to young adulthood, it gave me five years of faithful service before falling prey to thread corrosion. I knew I would come to regret not paying attention during my materials lectures, but not this soon. The internet is gracious enough to inform me that chromium is used to treat steel to enhance resistance to oxidation and rust. The razor used by my late grandpa and early Gillette models were made of brass, so by forgoing iron content it remains durable, although brass can still corrode.

Manufactures of modern DE razors sometimes prefer zinc alloy (Zamak is the trade name) for its cheap cost and ease of molding. They then plate the outer layer in chromium. It's not a inherently bad thing, for a good Zamak that is used as a daily driver can last up to a decade. Beware of Zamak with impurities such as lead. The impurity will hasten the rotting effect once the outer protective plating wears off. There are also reports concerning the head of Zamak razors snapping off due to being dropped from a bathroom counter. This is not to disparage Edwin Jagger, nor is it unique to this particular brand and their track record of offering repairs/replacement for this material deficiency is excellent. I haven't bothered. I know I got my money's worth. But for my future purchase of a lifetime, I would look to different materials.

The only friction really in the three piece design is the metal on metal contact when screwing on the handle. Trawling through dedicated forums does turn up the usual home remedies: lubrication through food-grade mineral oil, teflon tape wrapped around the threads, o-rings for a watertight seal, avoidance of over-tightening etc. In what other ways can one avoid cross-threading? A general look at the hardness of the commonly used materials nudged me in the right direction.

Material Property (Brinell Hardness)
Zamak 3 90
Aluminum 95
Brass 55-73
316L Stainless Steel 146

Modern DE stainless steel razors are often expensive in price ($100-150 USD). Stainless steel is harder to work with and we would do well to note it's weight when compared with the above table. The advent of CNC machining does lower the price, and I was pleasantly surprised to find the budget option was manufactured by a Canadian company. I myself purchased the Razorock Gamechanger 0.84-P ($54.99 USD). I have no affiliation with the company.

The key takeaway I wish to share is that certain materials (stainless steel, brass) stand a far better chance at achieving lifetime longevity than others. A far better investment for the long term. Many different models exist, with varying levels of blade aggression, to suit your particular hair and skin profile.

In other aspects of my setup I use, in order of availability, shaving cream (look for high concentration of lipids), soap, water as lather. In the case of a shaving nick, cold water, ice cubes, aluminum chloride (anti-perspirants), lip balm, and petroleum jelly work in a pinch. I have yet to bother with aftershave, alum blocks or styptic pencils. At least those are the remedies offered online that I wish to write down somewhere. Forgive me, this blog also serves as/is derived from my notes. Cuts rarely happen, and I've never needed more than a square of toilet paper.

Will it stand the test of time? I'll have to report back within a decade or two I suppose. Though you can safely assume no news is good news. So the next time you head to the store for shaving supplies, consider the DE razor option. What is old is new again.