A few years ago I posted some thoughts on artisans who serve the shaving community: how they provide products that often are of exceptional quality at modest prices. Things have progressed over the years since, with the ranks of those using traditional tools—shaving brush and a shaving soap or cream for lather, a double-edge razor for shaving—growing rapidly.
That growth is evidenced by the rapid growth of shaving forums (for example, Reddit’s Wicked_Edge subreddit did not even exist at the time, but today has over 73,000 subscribers), by the increased visibility of double-edge razors (with, for example, articles in Forbes), and by the number of new shaving-related artisans who form companies and enter the market to respond to the growing demand for traditional wetshaving products: the artisan as entrepreneur.
Since artisanal products are created by hand and generally by one artisan (or two working together), production capacity is necessarily limited. As demand increases beyond an artisan’s capacity, the excess demand, unsatisfied because the artisan cannot produce enough to meet it, creates the opportunity for new artisans to enter the market, so that the aggregate of production by multiple artisans is able to meet market demand. Thus one sees a rapid increase in the number of artisanal shaving-soap makers.
Of course, a successful artisan can decide to make the capital investment to move to large-scale commercial production, but that step is not so easily done, and in many cases the artisan may prefer making the product to managing a company whose employees make the product. Both roles naturally require solving problems, but the nature of the problems differ markedly. The issue for the artisan is whether s/he prefers to make things or to manage people.
Morgan Spurlock has a new 25-minute documentary Crafted on five artisans. The film explores the appeal and practice of artisanal work by looking at the work of two knifemakers, two cooks, and a potter who directs a pottery operation (a cooperative effort involving many artisans working under his direction—pretty much the limit of artisanal production). It’s well worth watching (and free to Amazon Prime members).
In the world of artisans involved in traditional shaving, there’s one major group that I will acknowledge but not investigate: the artisans who make straight razors. My focus, in the Guide and in this article, is the world of shaving with a double-edge safety razor. I do admire the work and the products of artisanal straight-razor makers, who are akin to knife makers (straight razors being akin to knives), whereas those who make double-edge safety razors are in effect making small instruments for holding blades. We are indeed seeing new artisans arising to make straight razors, to take their place along with seasoned veterans like Mastro Livi. But I’ll leave that discussion to those who shave with straight razors.
There now are artisans for products for the entire range of the shave. Some are still part-time hobbyists, but increasingly they now operate full-fledged businesses. Forbes recently looked at several of these recent shaving businesses—and that article, of course, adds to the visibility of the movement, thus informing more men and leading to more growth.
Naturally enough, new artisans arise continually and older artisans leave the field, a slow ferment of change that makes any discussion such as this a mere snapshot of a moment in time—and a partial snapshot at that.
In the time since the 6th edition of the Guide and the new 7th edition, several new artisanal brushmakers have new (and interesting) offerings, and the number of artisanal soapmakers has increased greatly, helped in part by the decline in quality of some major commercial shaving soap makers because of their decision to reformulate the soap and/or outsource soap production. In effect, the recent growing demand for high-quality shaving soaps has occurred simultaneously with a declining supply of excellent shaving soaps from the usual commercial sources, creating a gap that artisanal soapmakers have been quick to exploit.
To meet the demand, the number of shaving soap makers has increased markedly. In the current edition of the Guide, I list more than forty, and more appear monthly. Search Etsy on “shaving soap” and you will see even more. (Note, however, that not all artisanal shaving soaps work well. I list soaps I know are good, but some artisans provide what are, in effect, bath soaps with clay added to mix: not really a shaving soap.)
Even so, the shaver today has a choice of an enormous range of excellent shaving soaps: vegan soaps, tallow (and tallow plus lanolin) soaps, glycerin soaps, and more, with excellent soaps in each category.
To take a closer look at one category, consider the double-edged safety razor. The big players, grown even bigger, are Edwin Jagger, Merkur, Mühle, and Parker. But along with smaller commercial makers, we see the rise of new entrepreneurs and artisans.
“Artisan,” in the case of DE razors, is somewhat of a stretch. An artisanal product is usually understood as being made by hand, though some tools and machines are used—a potter’s wheel, a mixer, a hammer and anvil. But no one seriously contemplates the task of, say, using a hand file to shape a DE head.
Still, the razors made by Wolfman Razors (some of which are sold via LA Shaving Soap Company) and Above the Tie (discussed in the Forbes article on entrepreneurship), although created by CNC machining, do have one maker and designer. And the RazoRock Stealth and Baby Smooth are driven by the vision of one man, who works in collaboration with a machine shop. (The RazoRock line seems to be an on-going development project in which works in progress are occasionally offered for sale, but a sustained supply has not yet been established.)
It is the individual vision and the piece-by-piece creation of the objects that give them the sort of attention and craftsmanlike care that marks an artisanal product. Weber razors, when they were being made, fit into this category. (The Mongoose single-edge razor designed to use Artist Club blades seems to belong in this quasi-artisanal category, though it is not a DE razor.)
iKon razors (discussed in the Forbes article mentioned above) more resembles the potter’s shop in Crafted: one artisan/maker directing the work and judging the efforts. Not mass produced, but also not crafted individually by hand, these razors are artisanesque.
Razors such as the Standard and the Phoenix Artisans Double-Open-Comb razor are not quite artisanal, it seems to me. Good razors, but delivered in a mass-market spirit without the individual attention given to Wolfman Razors and Above the Tie razors.
Similar in spirit are the DE razors shown on Kickstarter: reflecting one person’s ideas, but designed for mass production (though on a relatively small scale).
- Baron Shave Kit – project canceled; redesign pending.
- Blackbird Stainless Razor – funding campaign still underway
- Hone Safety Razor – did not achieve liftoff
- Rockwell Razor – razors released with serious quality control issues; company is attempting to resolve those and fulfill orders with usable baseplates. (Apparently there were issues in casting stainless steel.)
We do see an increasing variety of razors available or contemplated—again suggesting a response to a strong demand.
Of course the smaller artisans, particularly those offering products that require precision machining, produce in small volumes, so wait lists are the norm for those. And out-of-stock conditions periodically emerge for all of the above as the demand outstrips supply. With soaps, when demand grows beyond an artisan’s productive capacity, the result has been the emergence of more soapmakers: the growing demand is thus satisfied by the aggregate output of a growing number of artisans, each contributing to the overall supply. But soap is easier to make than are razors, so the number of razor manufacturers does not increase so easily (or rapidly) as the number of soap makers. Despite this challenge, the evidence shows that making DE safety razors is indeed attracting new interest and new players. Because razors are difficult, not all succeed, but more now are trying.
Age induces absent-mindedness, and on reading the article I was struck by two categories of artisans I omitted: razor handles and shaving brushes.
Short of making an entire DE safety razor, an artisan can simply make the handle: with the popular three-piece design, it’s easy to swap handles, and often a heavier handle seems to improve the feel of the razor, moving the center of mass away from the head and into the handle.
UFO Razor Handles (http://uforazorhandles.com/) in Spain makes superb handles, but production is quite limited and they are hard to get. The razor makers listed above—Above the Tie, iKon, Weber Razors (http://weberrazors.com/), and Wolfman Razors—sell handles separately. The Above the Tie Kronos, the iKon Bulldog, and the Wolfman WRH-3 handles are examples.
And metal is not the only option for handles: Pens of the Forest (http://www.pensoftheforest.co.uk/shaving/) offers handles in wood and stone, as does Elite Razors (http://www.eliterazor.com/), which has a considerable range of handles. Wood handles have the disadvantage of being relatively light, which moves the center of the mass toward the head of the razor and can make the razor feel head-heavy unless the handle is weighted. Stone handles are heavier but can be fragile if dropped.
We see a growing number of artisanal brushmakers, and with the availability of brush knots sold separately, those with a lathe can indeed make their own brush by turning a handle. Knots are available from Blankety Blanks (http://www.blankity-blanks.com/brushes.htmiI) (at the bottom of the page) and the Golden Nib (http://thegoldennib.com/wet-shaving.html) offer brush knots, brush handle blanks, and also materials for making your own razor handle. Also look at Envyshave (https://www.etsy.com/shop/EnvyShave), Penchetta (http://penchetta.com/), Whipped Dog (http://whippeddog.com/products/find/brushes-knots), and probably others.
In the US, Brent’s Brushes (http://brentmjohnson.net/brushes), Brushguy (http://brushguy.com/), Elite Razor (http://eliterazor.com/), and Wolf Whiskers (http://wolfwhiskers.com/) offer a range of brushes.
Shaving brushes, particularly with ready-made knots available, are relatively easy to make, so having good designs and using unusual or particularly attractive materials are important facts for artisans. And for the DIYer, making shaving brushes is relatively easy.