[Updated April, 2019] The availability of the adjustable safety razor, once relegated to a niche’ within a niche’, has recently expanded, with a number of new products coming in a fairly short time. How do they work, who is making them, and how well do they perform? I bought a bunch to find out which one is best.
How Does An Adjustable Safety Razor Work?
What does an adjustable safety razor adjust? There are a number of specifications that go into the design of a razor’s head, but two important ones are probably blade gap (the distance between the blade and base plate of the razor, between the “A” and “C” points of the image above) and blade exposure (the blade sticking out and touching the skin from the top cap of the razor, between points “A” and “B” above). An adjustable safety razor can vary the blade gap to some degree.
The blade gap interacts with the blade exposure to create a milder or a more aggressive shave.
Back In The Day…
The history of the adjustable safety razor is interesting, but ultimately considered a minor aspect of the over-all market. There were very few examples of an adjustable safety razor over the years. Gillette had an adjustable razor that morphed into different models over the years. Schick (and later PAL) had a single adjustable model for the Injector blade in the 1960’s and 1970’s. Merkur produced the Progress beginning in the 1950’s, the Futur beginning in the 1980’s (more on those two below), and the ridiculously over-engineered (yet surprisingly delicate) Vision for a short time around the year 2000.
And that was about it.
Recent Continuously Adjustable Safety Razors
However, more recently there has been renewed interest in the adjustable safety razor. There are new razors that can be continuously adjusted within a range of settings, and some others that I consider “semi adjustable” by virtue of either multiple base plates or by taking advantage of subtle design features. Let’s take a look at razors you can purchase right now (note that Amazon and West Coast Shaving links are affiliate).
The Merkur Progress adjustable safety razor design has been around since 1955 and is largely unchanged, at least visually, though there have been a few minor internal engineering tweaks over the years. It was my first adjustable safety razor and in fact became my pry-it-out-of-my-cold-dead-hands favorite for many years. You can find many reviews with a simple query of your favorite search engine.
The Progress has its quirks: the handle is too smooth for my preference and the look of the adjustment dial seems incongruous to many. But the razor’s performance far outweighed the ugly duckling looks for me.
The Merkur Futur adjustable safety razor was launched in 1985. It boasts a sleek, modern look and an unusual “pop off” head design. Personally, I think a lot of the Futur’s popularity comes from the fact that it is (reasonably) widely available and it looks cool. This is another razor you can find many reviews of with a simple search engine query.
I have some problems with the design, though. The untextured handle can make holding the razor awkward. The the razor’s large(-ish) head can make getting into tight areas like under the nose a challenge. And the “window” of the adjustment range is biased a bit high for me: I wish the low end of the range was even lower/milder.
However it is well built and a lot of Futur users find it gives them many years of great shaves.
Introduced in 2016, the Parker Variant adjustable razor addressed the ergonomic shortcomings that many (including myself) found in the Merkur Progress. Check out my original Parker Variant review on Sharpologist for a complete run-down. But basically the Variant has a slightly longer, much better-textured handle, and a better-looking adjustment dial.
The Variant replaced the Progress as my preferred adjustable razor.
But more importantly, I think it also opened the minds of other artisans and manufacturers to the possibility that the adjustable safety razor market was one worth considering.
Ming Shi 2000S (Qshave Adjustable)
A year after the Parker Variant was launched, Far-East manufacturer Ming Shi launched the Ming Shi 2000S adjustable safety razor. Qshave re-branded the 2000S as the Qshave Adjustable, making it a clone of a copy. The Ming Shi/Qshave clearly takes its inspiration from the Merkur Futur:
Although visually quite similar there are some aspects of the 2000S that set it apart from the Futur. The major one in my opinion is a wider range of adjustment compared to the Futur, especially at the low end. And as you might expect at the price point, the Ming Shi/Qshave does “cut a few corners” in manufacturing. For example, the dial markings are painted on instead of etched in like the Futur. I have read several reports of dial numbers wearing off after extended use.
But my experience with the Qshave is actually quite positive–I think it shaves me better than the Futur! Although the handle is still smooth its smaller diameter seems to help me keep a more secure grip. And while the razor’s head is still relatively large, the wider adjustment range (vs. the Futur, especially at the mild end) gives it better performance for me. The razor’s quality control reputation is still a cause for concern to me though. Pay a bit more for the Qshave version which as gone through some additional QC checks if build quality is a concern; buy the Ming Shi version for a lower price.
In contrast to the Ming Shi/Qshave adjustable above, the Qshave Parthenon adjustable safety razor (all chrome version. There is a chrome/black version as well) is a different animal altogether…a dangerous, fanged animal.
The Parthenon, Viking’s Blade Crusader, and Weishi Nostalgic razors (see the Crusader and Nostalgic comments below), all launched in 2018, appear to be based on the same basic twist-to-open (TTO) head design. However each has their own “personality.” The Parthenon’s distinction is its aggressiveness. At its mildest (HA!) setting the Parthenon is quite aggressive in my opinion. At the high end it’s positively ludicrous.
Viking’s Blade Crusader
As I mentioned previously, the Viking’s Blade Crusader adjustable safety razor appears to me to be based on the same general design as the Parthenon and the Nostalgic, but each has their own tweak. The Crusader’s distinction is an “asymmetrical head” with a standard safety bar on one side and a scalloped safety bar on the other. The optimist in me thinks the different head side design could provide additional, subtle variables in the shave in addition to simply adjusting the blade gap. The cynic in me thinks the design could “cover up” uneven blade alignment due to poor engineering or manufacturing.
And unlike other adjustable safety razor adjustment dials, the Crusader does not have any numeric markings. Just arrows pointing ‘this way for more gap’.
In my own use, this lack of numeric ‘signposts’ makes it more difficult for me to dial into the best settings for my shave compared to other adjustable razors. I don’t notice any difference in the shave based on the “asymmetrical head.” The low end of the adjustment razor was not low enough for my personal preference (but it is probably fine for most people).
However, despite these details I did not personally care for, I found the over-all shave experience to be good.
Viking’s Blade Emperor (And Augustus)
According to the Viking’s Blade website the Emperor is their “most technical” safety razor. It’s a relatively large, heavy razor, coming in at 134 grams and 110 mm in length.
There are two cosmetic versions, the standard Emperor in a “Frosted Chrome” color and the Emperor Augustus edition in “vintage bronze and cognac” colors (both use the relatively common brass/Zamak construction underneath). I received the Augustus edition. Viking’s Blade notes to “[t]horoughly towel-dry the razor after use to maintain the cognac plating.”
Engineering-wise, there have been a few tweaks compared to the earlier Crusader model. “Special ANTI-Misalignment mechanism which TRAPS the doors if users mis-align the blade to prevent uneven cuts. Hold razor upright while loading blade and closing razor to ensure doors won’t be trapped.“
The Crusader’s dual comb head design continues on the Emperor: one side has a scalloped safety bar, while the other side has a smooth safety bar.
I can’t help but compare the shaves I have with the Emperor razor to the shaves I have with the Crusader razor. First, it appears that the low end of the adjustment range of the Emperor is milder than the Crusader but the top end is about the same to me, so the adjustable window seems to be wider. I like mild razors (and adjustable razors in general!) so this is a good thing for me. Unlike the Crusader, the adjustment settings on the Emperor are printed (though not etched like a Merkur Futur) so it was easy for me to lock in the correct setting for each pass of my shave (see: How To Use An Adjustable Razor Most Effectively).
Next, I couldn’t detect any difference between the sides of the dual head head design on the Crusader but I can definitely feel a difference with the Emperor. The smooth safety bar gives me a smoother-feeling shave with less blade feel, while I get noticeably more blade feel using the scalloped side, given the same adjustment setting. However I couldn’t tell any actual difference in the amount of stubble reduction from either side–it’s more of a feedback kind of thing to me.
The handle texturing is nicely “grippy” and I don’t have any problems with the razor slipping through my fingers.
Finally, the head design of the Emperor has been tweaked for easier rinsing and less clogging. Blade alignment has not been an issue for me.
Overall I get nice shaves from the Emperor.
Weishi Nostalgic Adjustable
The Weishi Nostalgic Adjustable safety razor is the third of the triplets mentioned here, and easily my favorite of the three. (note that there is a non-adjustable “Weishi Nostalgic” as well, so be sure to read product descriptions carefully). It seems to me that more thought was put into the design details this razor features.
While the Weishi is the same general size as the Qshave and the Viking’s, I think it is the most user friendly design, with a “grippier” handle, contrasting color scheme (for higher-visibility numbers on the adjustment dial), better balance, and a wider range of adjustment (particularly at the low end of the scale–this razor can get very mild indeed).
I have found that the Weishi’s head may clog a bit when used with a thick lather. And the razor’s long-term durability is a concern to me…time will tell. But my shaves with the Weishi have been very good–about equal that of the other adjustable razors I use regularly that cost much more.
The Rex Ambassador adjustable safety razor is a premium, artisan-made razor. Although physically a bit smaller than some other razors in this roundup, it is a high-end, stainless steel, individually serial-numbered (following the old Gillette manufacturing code, no less) razor. See my review of the Rex Ambassador on Sharpologist for more detail.
Rockwell Model T
After a multi-year wait from a crowdfunding campaign, the Rockwell Model T adjustable safety razor is just now making its way into backer’s hands (I did manage to try a prototype several years ago). Initial reviews have been quite mixed. I will update this article when I can get one to try myself.
A “Semi Adjustable” Safety Razor?
All of the razors above are fully adjustable safety razor designs. They are continuously variable to some wide degree. There are also some razors that I like to call “semi adjustable” in that they may offer adjustable elements without a continuously variable design or to a narrower degree.
The Feather Adjustable is brand new to the market (and currently difficult to find. I bought one from Amazon. It is a relatively inexpensive razor with two settings, “1” and “2.” Setting “1” is extremely mild while setting “2” is more middle-of-the-road. Like the Feather Popular and Feather AS-D2 razors, I find that the Feather Adjustable pairs very well with a Feather blade: the very mild setting needs a high-efficiency blade to perform well.
Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements recently launched their “Ascension Twist” razor line, including the original aluminum version, an open comb aluminum version, and a stainless steel version. The Ascension razors adjust by slightly turning the handle (less than one-quarter turn), which subtly changes the blade’s angle in the razor head.
I have the original Ascension. After a little experimentation to find the right twist point (like the Crusader above, there are no markings on the razor to act as an adjustment signpost) this razor gives me surprisingly good shaves.
However note that *any* DE razor with a head that bows the blade enough, with a long enough threaded head screw, can work this way. Even the all-plastic, very inexpensive Dorco PL-602 razor.
Multi-Base Plate Razors
Rockwell started the “semi adjustable” razor trend with a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign in 2014 by offering a set of base plates, each with a different blade gap design. The 6S is stainless steel while the 6C is the more common and lower-cost “chrome” (pot metal). Here is my review of the Rockwell 6S I wrote for Sharpologist a couple years ago.
Other razor producers have applied Rockwell’s multi-plate concept by offering additional base plates to their razors. Above The Tie has offered different plates for most of their razors. The Karve Christopher Bradley razor can be purchased with one or more plates made for that razor (check out my recent article about the Christopher Bradley razor for more detail). Italian Barber offers their MJ90 “Speciale” razor with two base plates. I’m sure there are more examples extant!
Supply took the multi-base plate concept of the Rockwell and applied it to an Injector-style single edge razor. Read my article about the latest model Supply Single Edge razor on Sharpologist for more detail. This razor is built like a tank and should easily hold up to many years of use. It’s my favorite Injector-style razor.
What Is The Best Adjustable Safety Razor?
Of course everyone has their preferences, but I’ve used quite a few razors in my time and I definitely have some favorites for “best” adjustable safety razor.
For pure performance, regardless of price, I have to go with the Rex Ambassador. As you should expect from an artisan-made, premium-priced razor the Ambassador is exceptionally well engineered, well-built, and well-balanced.
For a lower-cost adjustable safety razor that still gives good performance I would consider the Weishi Nostalgic Adjustable the one to look at.
The best “semi adjustable” is going to be a tie between the Rockwell 6S and the Supply Single Edge for me–they’re both excellent but each one has a different “vibe” in that the Rockwell is a DE and the Supply is a single edge Injector.
What do you think about adjustable razors? Be sure to share this article and leave a comment below!