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One Man’s Unusual Straight Razor Journey

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2-Thistle New
I made the switch from shaving with an electric razor to wet shaving about a year and a half ago.  I did so because I was bored with shaving and sick of all the racket.  I also thought wet shaving might make the morning experience a little more enjoyable and interesting.   I was certainly right on that point!  Through references from the Sharpologist and a variety of shaving forums, I successfully and quickly made the transition to wet shaving.  I was very happy with my approach of using a DE razor, soap/cremes, and brush and was getting what I thought were excellent BBS shaves.  My whole shaving experience was now enjoyable and a great relaxing way to start my day.  Life was good.

Enter A Straight Razor

Then a friend of my wife’s who was moving turned up her father’s old straight razor.  She passed it on to me thinking I might be interested in it.  Though I hadn’t considered shaving with a straight, getting a free one got me considering it.  The blade was an old 5/8″ blade made in the early 1900’s by the Thistle Cutlery Company of New York:
My research indicated they made decent blades so I figured I’d invest in getting the blade sharpened and honed to try to eliminate the blade as a source of problems as I learned how to shave again with a radically different tool.  So it was that I embarked on my own straight razor journey that had an unexpected and very happy ending.

I cleaned, sanded, and polished my new straight razor to bring it back to cosmetic greatness.

I then sent off to a honemeister (Lynn Abrams).  When I got my shave-ready blade back, I just worked on one cheek (WTG only) to develop my technique.  The shave was smooth and pretty comfortable but the result was not a BBS shave.  I knew the blade was in good order so I was obviously dealing with a technique issue.  Periodically, I’d shave one side of my face with the straight and the other with my DE for comparison.  The DE was still clearly the winner, but the straight shave was showing continued improvement.

By the way, it is really important to start conservatively to build your shaving technique so you won’t be blaming the blade when it is user error causing a problem.   As I noted, I started by just shaving one cheek WTG the first day.  I then  added XTG and ATG over several days as I developed my skills.  No matter what I did though, the shave was a little bit uncomfortable and not very close.

Another important point is that I knew this was something that required patience.  I’d read from multiple sources that one should expect it to take 90-100 shaves before you achieve proficiency with a straight.  I was willing to take three months to build my skills, so I wasn’t rushing the process. I had a good razor in hand, so continued my journey undaunted.

I was encouraged as I did see improvements as I progressed.  Blade not cutting?  Check the angle at which I was holding the blade.  Face irritated?  Check the angle and pressure.  More nicks? Pay attention to pressure and angle.  Seeing the pattern here?  As with any other situation where fine skills are involved, the devil’s in the details.  The learning curve with a straight is clearly much steeper than with a DE.  And of course, the damage I could do was also greater!  However, I never did nick my self more than what my nick stick or a few moments of direct pressure could handle, and the latter only occurred 2-3 times during my whole journey.  Part of the reason for this latter success was that I never rushed the process.  On a morning where I was behind schedule, I picked up my DE rather than rush the straight.  I like the analogy I read somewhere that straight shaving should be more of a zen experience in that you should be 100% focused on the task at hand and should be enjoying, not rushing it.   That’s what I do and it has paid off in no serious wounds.

 A Rolls Razor

About a month into my journey, I ran across something that sparked a memory from my childhood – a Rolls Razor:
3-Rolls in Case
This device can best be described as a straight razor on a stick.  The blade is a full hollow design but is only about as long/wide as a DE blade.  It comes with a handle to which you attach it so you then have what at first glance looks like a single edge safety razor:
4-Rolls Razor
In fact, it is a straight razor with all the benefits and hazards of a straight.  The other cool thing about the device is it comes in an ingenious case that includes both a honing stone (my research indicates is about a 4K-6K grit) and a leather strop and a built in mechanism enabling you to hone/strop the blade in the case”
5-Rolls Opened
To do that, you place the blade on a special handle attached to a mechanism on the sides of the case.  The flat case can be opened from either side and the lids have either a honing stone or a leather strop on the inside.  The mechanism to which you attach the blade is geared so if you remove the strop lid, when you push/pull the handle the blade is pushed across the honing stone on the inside of the opposite attached lid.  Once honed, you replace the strop lid, flip the case over, remove the honing lid and the blade is now resting on the strop at the bottom of the case.  Pushing/pulling the case handle now drags the blade across the strop.  Very neat engineering.  This site provides a good over view and some background on Rolls Razors:

When I saw a picture of a Rolls it sparked that childhood memory I mentioned..  My Dad had a Rolls for a while when I was young.  I remember being fascinated by the “whack-whack-whacking” sound of the blade on the hone followed by the deeper “whop-whop-whopping” of the stropping process very well.  It was with this fond memory that I went on eBay and purchased a Rolls.  I tend to get “all in” on such projects so I did my homework and found some great information on how to restore a Rolls to excellent condition.

I started by purchasing a Rolls that looked to be in good shape to begin with.  I started by disassembling, de-greasing, cleaning, and drying the case mechanisms. I lubricated the gears with petroleum jelly rather than some greasy product intended for automobiles.  I also took apart what is called the friction pad assembly (FPA) that ensures the appropriate amount of pressure is applied to the blade during honing/stropping.  That required cleaning and de-greasing the FPA parts and I was able to return the device to perfect working order.  I then got a flattening stone and lapped the Rolls hone which was not cracked (a not uncommon flaw in a vintage Rolls), but did have some wear marks on it.  A little Fromm’s dressing on the strop and I had a vintage, beautiful and well functioning Rolls Razor:
6-Rolls Traveler

7-Rolls Hone-Strop
I could now turn my attention to business end of the device – the blade.

There were some black tarnish spots in the blade that I sanded out with a progression of 320-3500 grit papers followed by polishing compound.  The blade was gleaming but the shallow etching the company used to put on the blade (“Best Sheffield Steel”, patent numbers, etc.) was gone.  That was no problem for me as I wasn’t looking for a nasty looking vintage device, but a nice looking operational razor. At this point, I tracked down a honemeister with experience with Rolls blades – Larry Andreassen of Whipped Dog.  It was with great anticipation that I awaited by newly honed razor blade back from Larry.

hile  the Rolls saga was unfolding, I kept up my straight razor training.  I got the angle right first, but keeping light pressure took a while longer to control.  The real challenge for me was the unusual gymnastics I had to perform to shave my face.  Of course a straight blade is longer and held entirely differently than a DE.  Your hand is off to the side of the direction of stroke, and the blade is much longer.  What results are situations where I found myself wrestling with seeing what I was doing.  I was training myself to handle the blade with both hands which you really have to do to get a proper shave from a straight without dislocating a joint!

Nonetheless, I was making great progress.  I was to the point where when I did a DE/Straight comparison shave, I could tell no difference between the cheek shaved with the DE and the one shaved with the straight.  However, I was continuing to have problems getting my chin and especially my neck as close as the DE shave and I still routinely was getting minor nicks and some weepers from the straight.   However, I was only about 45 days into my journey at this point so was still happy with my progress.  Then my shave-ready Rolls Razor blade came back to me.

Though a Rolls Razor looks like a safety razor and is held like one, the technique is definitely that of a straight razor.  In other words, instead of using an angle of about 30 degrees to shave, you hold the blade almost flat against your face.  However, the way the handle attaches to the blade creates a fairly steep angle between the blade and handle to begin with so holding the blade at the proper very shallow angle to your face is quite comfortable to do.

Rolls Razor blades have what the manufacturer called a safety bar, but it is clearly intended to protect the blade from damage – it offers no protection from slicing yourself.  That said, my very first shave with the Rolls was awesome!  All the skills I had developed with the straight carried over: attention to shallow angle, light pressure being the key points along with keeping the skin taught, and using short strokes.  That first shave resulted in no nicks, no weepers, no irritation.  The shave was not as close as with my DE, but hey, this was day one with a new tool so I forged ahead immensely encouraged.

I continued to alternate between the Rolls and the straight for about two more weeks, but the results I was getting with the Rolls made me drop the straight and go exclusively with my Rolls straight razor.  Why?  In just two weeks of using the Rolls off and on, I was getting shaves that surpassed the best I’d ever gotten with my DE or the straight.  Best of all, it produced these great results over my entire face.

As I pointed out, the hone in a Rolls device is somewhere between a 4K-6K grit.  Along the way, I learned a bit about honing from a variety of web sources, most notable of which was Lynn Abrams’ Straight Razor Place Forum.  I got a set of honing stones (Norton 220-8K grit stones plus a 12K Shapton for polishing).  I taped the blades before honing as I did some tests and found that even when pressure is applied to the handle in the Rolls case to hone/strop the blade, the spine of the blade doesn’t quite contact the surface.  One layer of electrical tape made up the difference so I was sure to be setting the bevel at the correct angle.  I was successful in making my blade(s) shave-ready and was getting great shaves every day.

So why, with the cool Rolls Razor honing machine, do I go through the trouble of hand honing when I could not only strop but hone the blade in the device?  First, I have the time and it’s fun.  Second, I wanted to start this journey knowing I had a properly honed and polished blade for optimal performance so I didn’t want to rely solely on the less refined Rolls hone.  At this point, I see Rolls honing as more of a “make do” procedure to quickly repair a damaged blade or to re-hone if I’m on the road.  I don’t think it can produce a blade as refined and smooth-shaving as I can produce by hand.  However, this is all theoretical at this point.  I’m picking up some spare Rolls blades and intend to actually do a head to head comparison of shaving with a hand-honed blade (through 12K polishing) versus a Rolls honed blade.  That should get me a real world answer on how well the Rolls honing system works.  A Rolls honed blade may not approach the comfort of a hand honed edge, but is it good enough in a fix?  We’ll see, but that’s another story for a later date…

So in the end, my straight razor journey was completed in just about two months.  I was shaving with a Rolls Razor straight blade and getting the closest shaves I’d ever experienced with no nicks or weepers.  And I have another toy to play with.  Life is good.

I don’t see me returning to a classic straight razor for the simple reason that they aren’t nearly as easy to work with on my face.  I figured the reason I wasn’t getting BBS results under my chin was because of the size of a straight blade and the grain of my particular beard.  Under my chin, an ATG stroke is almost left/right as opposed to up/down motion.  My neck is on the skinny side with crests and hollows along the way when moving in that direction which poses a challenge for a straight blade.  More importantly, it puts the tip of the blade running across a crook near the base of my throat no matter how I contort my neck, skin, or arm.  That’s asking for trouble! The Rolls, with its much shorter/narrower DE-like shape can easily shave ATG on my face without any problem.  I can easily stretch the skin to eliminate ridges/valleys over a relatively narrow area that is sufficiently wide for my Rolls (but not a straight) to pass over without a nick.  The narrower Rolls also never puts me in the position of swiping a tip of its straight blade at an angle that might result in a slice of my neck.
One last note from someone who is admittedly developing into a Rolls Razor fan boy (I’ve purchased a couple of extras and am restoring them).  I’ve read posts from straight razor folks trying the Rolls system who just used the Rolls device to hone the blade.  This may not be the best test of what a Rolls Razor blade can deliver.  As I mentioned, I’ve yet to do a head-to-head comparison of a Rolls vs hand honed blade, but know that hand honed Rolls blades deliver a superbly smooth and close shave.  It is likely that the 4K-6K grit of the Rolls stone cannot result in nearly as smooth a shave as a hand honed blade.  That would explain the bad impression some straight razor users have gotten from Rolls Razors.  However, a hand honed Rolls blade can deliver just as close and comfortable a shave as a classic straight.  So if you assume you’d hand hone a Rolls, you would get a great straight shave with the advantage of a blade/handle system that is more maneuverable in small areas (e.g.,hollows around throat) than a longer blade is and that takes advantage of the ‘muscle memory’ a DE user already possesses.  From my point of view, the handling and maneuverability of the Rolls is well worth my potentially having to hand hone the blade.  In any event, I’d still have the option to use the Rolls hone to repair an edge damaged while away from home.  All that said, there is no issue with the effectiveness of the Rolls stropping system so I always use it to great advantage.

I consider my journey to straight razor shaving very successful.  I expected it to take at least three months to reach proficiency but I did so in just two months.  I really think that if I’d done all the same research, but started with the Rolls, I would have succeeded in as little as one month.  I’m getting what I now realize is a true BBS straight razor shave.  But wait, I said I was getting a BBS DE shave, so what’s the difference?  For me, the difference is in how long the BBS feeling lasts and the length of my beard each morning.  With my DE, the shave seemed BBS right afterwards and by the next morning, my beard was back to its normal morning length.  With a Rolls or classic straight razor shave, I get a BBS shave that remains BBS longer into the morning and my beard length the next morning is never quite as long as it was when I was shaving with a DE.  So the straight razor is clearly providing a closer shave with no attendant irritation or nicks.
If you have the time and inclination, I highly recommend considering setting out on your own straight razor journey.  If you’d like to try a Rolls, they can be found on eBay, but you’ll have some work to do to ensure the device and blade are in optimal shaving condition.  If you’d like some advice/assistance in restoring one, contact me (atnbirdie in The Straight Razor Place or Badger & Blade Forums) and I’ll help you.  If you want to try a classic straight, visit Larry Andreassen’s Whipped Dog site for extremely inexpensive options on blades and strops to get you started on your own straight razor journey.

Steve Berté

Steve Berté

7 thoughts on “One Man’s Unusual Straight Razor Journey”

  1. Steve,
    Thank you for your lucid description of tending to the Rolls Razor’s blade.
    You have re-ignitede my enthusiasm and I will try sharpening it again.
    I am 83 years old and have tried just about every kind of shaving method I could find.
    All my life shaving was a daily, yes daily chore. About 3 years ago I got serious. I am retired and have the time to devote. I purchased a Rolls on eBay, restored it and had the blade sharpened by a professional. At last, I discovered joy in shaving.
    I have tried double edge and found it excellent but not as pleasurable as the rolls.
    I have tried cutthroat but could never get it quite right and was running out of blood.
    I have recently tried a 103 year old GEM 1912 single edge. It handles much like a rolls but each blade gives one excellent shave and 1 or 2 just so shaves. I like it but still prefer the Rolls.
    All my efforts at sharpening the blade myself have given only fair results. I want BBS!
    My latest attempt started with a 200 then 1000 grit stone with 2 layers of electrician’s vinyl tape on the spine. Then the tape was removed and I went to a Norton 4000 and 8000 grit. Then to an Arkansas Translucent 13000 grit for a final polish. Result? Nothing to rave about. So I carried it through to the Rolls built in hone and strop. Not nearly as good as the professional job but acceptable. I want better.
    I now have 14 rolls, various models but have called a halt to buying more.
    Along the road in this adventure I found how to make cracked and broken Rolls hones as good as new without much trouble or skill.
    One of the many shaving sites I visited recommended the back of a ceramic floor tile for a lapping stone. It works!
    I am open to and would welcome any and all suggestions for sharpening my sharpening skills..

    1. Mickey, I think it likely removing the tape is causing the less than ideal edge you are getting. You certainly have all the right grits, but when you start with tape then remove it in the middle of the process, you mess up the bevel. As I stated in my article, I find 1 layer of tape is the right amount to match the bevel the Rolls would give (at least in the two units it tested it in). So I tape it, set the bevel, then keep the tape on the spine through all the following steps until it is polished.
      If you don’t want to use the Rolls to sharpen, then whether you use tape or not is irrelevant. However, no matter how much or little tape you use, you have to be consistent throughout your sharpening process.

      1. Thank you very much, Steve.
        I will start as you suggest tomorrow morning.
        Perhaps a new day will dawn in my shaving world.

  2. I use a Feather Artist Club SS folder, after the first downward pass I do an XTG on my cheeks and ATG on my neck. Even after more than a couple of weeks of shaving with the SS, the sight in the mirror of me holding the straight against my neck gets ALL of my attention and wakes me fully if I am not already there.
    One heck of an adrenaline ride the first couple times, now just a reminder to not let my attention wander.

  3. Excellent piece. You have reinforced my fear of the cut throat razor and free hand shaving. Sticking with a DE Thanks!

    1. Sorry to hear that 😉 What has drawn me to the Rolls is a straight razor close shave that I find to be closer than I get with my DE. The other key advantage in this context is the shave technique is so close to the DE experience, that it is easier to transition to a Rolls straight than a standard straight where the muscle movements are all different. Whatever works for you though!

    2. not at all. Don’t fear the straight razor shave. It is way less intemidating than the picture you have in mind of it. I have used shavettes and DEs and still do but a straight razor is paradoxically more comfortable but the challenge is the angle. It is worth it. I have been using a straight twice a week as in so far I cannot shave daily and I can see improvement in results and more pleasure.

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