The sharp edge: razors and rituals

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Four razorsSince I switched to using a safety razor, as I wrote about last spring, I’ve continued to pursue my explorations into razors, blades, technologies and techniques about shaving. I’ve learned much, but still want more hands-on experience. Nothing teaches like hands-on.

I followed up that post with another one on shaving, a month later, about what I’d learned since that first piece. Now, four months later, I come back to the topic with new discoveries to relate. And some new razors to describe.

But let me interject a comment on why this matters. Shaving is something I do if not daily, then almost every day, and I’ve been doing it since I was in my late teens. Ablutions are not neutral acts: they are personal rituals which in some cultures and religions are actually sacred acts. They should not be performed unthinkingly, but rather with focused intention and attention. Something which, I admit, I never appreciated when I was younger. I don’t think it’s a silly obsession to pay some attention to it now.

Ablutions should be done with a sense of reverence. These rituals have a deep symbolic meaning and help validate our lives. As Sigal Samuel wrote in The Atlantic last May:

Although there is no single agreed-upon definition, a ritual is typically a deliberate action performed in a set sequence that improves our emotional state, by reframing an experience in a way that feels meaningful.

Rituals help keep us connected to our daily lives – important in an age when we are increasingly disconnected from real life by the virtual life within technology. Even for a secularist such as myself, there should be a sense of awe and thankfulness at simply being alive and able to perform these acts. And I increasingly believe that as our societies become more and more secularized, we are losing our sense of connectedness and community that religious rituals helped create.

Recognizing the ritual in shaving helps me appreciate that what I’m doing isn’t just about myself: it’s bigger, much bigger than me. I am only the recipient of the end result of generations of effort to get to this point. And I try to recognize that.

When I turn on the tap, I can give silent thanks to the engineers and technicians and workers who worked for the previous century to provide the pipes and the the facilities so I could get easy access to clean water every day. I can thank the designers, the manufacturers, the sellers of the products I use – razors, soaps, brushes, toothpaste, shampoo – who make my ablutions convenient and efficient. I can thank architects and builders for the house, for the very bathroom in which I stand. I can marvel at the ingenuity of everything I use, from a simple toothbrush to the gears and springs of my razor.

I can sip from my tea and think of the workers who picked and dried the leaves, of the centuries of planters and growers and merchants who make it possible for me to drink a brew from leaves grown half a world away. Or of the farmers and herders who produce the milk that softens the tea. Everything we use, we touch, we throw away is the result of the efforts of thousands of others.

I can think of the towels and the cotton growers and pickers and cloth dyers and manufacturers – and even of Susan, who washed them and hung them on the racks for us to use. There are creators and designers and sellers involved in everything around me. I should not take them for granted or simply conduct my life as a consumer alienated from the things I use. As I get older, having a sense of community matters more.

I can also think of my parents and grandparents and the family lineage that stretches back into the haze of time who lived and worked all their lives so that I could stand here, wrapped in a towel, leaning towards the mirror, shaving or brushing my teeth in the latter part of my life.

And if I focus, if I pay attention and practice mindfulness, in all this I can glimpse a sense of the connectedness of everything. We are, none of us, an island. And if shaving helps me remember that, if making it a personal, daily ritual that means a bit more than just the act itself, then it’s worth being thought of as an obsessive crackpot.

As Anthony Ware wrote:

The two similarities that I’ve found between meditation and shaving are that they are your “practice” not an interpretation of your practice by someone else and both require you to be present in the moment.

Four razors, side viewBut let me return from my digression with this final comment: if ritual is important to add meaning to our lives, then the implements of those rituals should also be important, too. Hence my interest in the hardware.

 At present I have five safety razors: two German Merkurs (closed comb 23C and open-comb 25C but otherwise identical), two Rockwell (the R1 – “butterfly” head model and the 6C adjustable), plus a Chinese-made knock-off the the Merkur Futur (various models are sold online, including one labelled as QShave). Four of the five have knurled handles, which I prefer (see photo).

I plan to get some other razors, too, but that’s another post (perhaps one of the English Edwin Jagger razors or a Weishi…). 

Right now, I don’t use the Merkur 25C (open comb) enough to warrant it space on the counter, but the other four are in sight (although I may retire the R1 to save space). You can see them in the top photo, the Merkur, the R1, the R6C and the knock-off. In the second image, a side-view shot, the Merkur and the R1 exchange positions on the left. You can see the R6C head plates at the bottom of picture one, too.

The differences in design of each are quite evident in both photos: the length and diameter of the barrel, the width and depth of the head, finishing, material – plus the weights all vary.

Futur-ish, setting oneThe Rockwell 6C and the knock-off are both ‘adjustable’ razors, but with very different approached to technology. I became intrigued about what I read about adjustable razors. The idea of being able to customize the shave was very appealling because sometimes I let my beard grow for a few days, so the conditions are not identical to those in a daily shave.

Also, ever the experimenter, I wanted to be able to test some notions about blade aggressiveness and how it evidences itself. That term usually relates to two factors: how much blade is exposed and the gap below the blade’s edge. An adjustable can change one or both of those dimensions. Generally speaking, more blade and/or a greater gap equates to more aggressiveness. But that’s complicated by the design of the razor’s head – the slope and thickness of the top make a difference.

The Rockwell achieves its design with interchangeable base plates. Each plate has a numbered side from one to six. Each side has a different blade gap, although the difference are very small between any two:

  1. 0.20 mm,
  2. 0.35 mm,
  3. 0.48 mm,
  4. 0.61 mm,
  5. 0.69 mm,
  6. 0.79 mm.

It’s a fairly subtle difference. As a comparison, normal hair is 0.06-0.08 mm in diameter, so the difference between adjacent numbers is roughly the thickness of two hairs, reduced to just over one hair at the upper end (just to clarify: the number on the plate is the setting of the opposite side, so the setting can be read when the plate is in use). 

I’ve used plates with numbers three to six, and found my comfort level is four, with a closer but still comfy shave at five. This site says the gap on the Merkur 23C is 64mm, which is between plates four and five on the Rockwell.

The plates are quite heavy compared to other brands I’ve tried, giving the Rockwell a solid heft which I really like. However, the handle is shorter and thicker than the Merkur’s, and I prefer the latter’s length, although the diamater of the Rockwell is fine. The Rockwell heads can be screwed into the Merkur head and handle, but the screw length is a tad short and that gives me concerns about stability in another barrel.

The only disadvantage of this system is that to change plates, you need to disassemble and reassemble the razor. And if you travel, you might end up carrying more than one plate.

The Merkur Futur uses a dial system that moves the top and blade up and down, thus increasing or decreasing the gap between the blade and the bottom plate. It’s a screw system: you can make many small increments, but the dial has marked settings from one to six, with half-steps indicated so it actually reaches 6.5. These are, I expect, the same as the clone’s (but, according to this reviewer, the Merkur is a superior build). According to the above-linked site, the gaps are:

  1. 1.12 mm,
  2. 1.19 mm,
  3. 1.35 mm,
  4. 1.47 mm,
  5. 1.60 mm,
  6. 1.65 mm,
  7. 1.75 mm (actually setting 6.5).

All of which are considerably higher than the gap indicated for the 23C or the 6C. I checked other sites and found similar figures. Badger and Blade for example shows the same numbers. This suggests the Futur is a much more aggressive razor than the Rockwell, even using its highest-numbered plate. Yet I didn’t find the clone particularly menacing at any setting. Mayhap the gap on the clone is lesser than on the original (lacking a micrometer to do such measurements, I cannot be certain…).

But, as the B&B article notes, gap is but one factor in aggressiveness:

…blade gap, angle, weight, and blade exposure collectively influence the aggressiveness of a razor. Each individual factors may contribute relatively more or less for each person based on an his/her skin, hair, prep, choice of blades, or technique.

And on Prim and Prep, it notes:

There are three primary factors that dictate how aggressive a safety razor is. The first factor is the angle at which the blades sits in the head of the safety razor. This is also the angle at which the blade glides across your skin while you’re shaving. The second factor is how big the blade gap is. The blade gap is the distance from the safety bar to the edge of your double-edged blade. The last factor is how much of the double-edged safety blade is being exposed. For example: open combed safety razors are in general more aggressive because they reveal much more of the blade.

I’d suggest a fourth factor: yourself. How the user holds the razor, strokes, changes the angle during shaving can affect the apparent aggressiveness. And perhaps perception plays a role (what some perceive as mild others see as aggressive, and vice versa).

Top of the Futur clone, with head removedI think the rounded and thick top of the Futur  (and its clone) somewhat mitigates any aggressiveness. It affects the angle at which the razor is held.

To change the blades on the clone, you have to remove the top. It’s held in place by two small wires that act as springs (see photo). I’m not sure how long they will last with frequent blade changes. Also, on the clone, the top doesn’t sit exactly level, which means the blade can wobble a bit up or down on either side – not enough to make an appreciable difference to the shave, as far as I’ve been able to tell. Still, it suggests less-than-attentive quality control.

However, the top’s size and shape make it a bit more awkward for getting the blade into tight areas, like under the nose. This has been noted by others on various shaving forums. The Rockwell, however, performs as any standard safety razor and I have no difficulties using it in tight areas. And it has that heft…

It’s really about how much or how close a shave you want at any particular time. If you’ve gone a few days without shaving, you might want a more aggressive razor setting.

For now, the Rockwell 6C with the five plate is my go-to razor, with the R1 and Merkur 23C as my less-aggressive backups. The Futur clone will take some use to get used to its quirks, but it holds promise enough for me to consider buying the original. Maybe after I’ve tried an Edwin Jagger…

But wait there’s more: brushes and bowls and shaving creams. Okay, that’s another lengthy subject and I’ve reached the end of your patience by this point. So let’s hold that off for a future post.

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