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Premium Maintenance for Razors and Blades

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Being thrifty with one’s gear also can have ecological benefits. These can be significant if a whole population of wet shavers gets maximum longevity from their shaving hardware.  Though one might often get by for a long time with minimal care of their shaving hardware, one can ensure maximum longevity of blades and both longevity and optimal appearance of razors via a few additional yearly and daily procedures.

I’m a middle-class guy with middle-class values. So I take care of my stuff to get long life from my tools and good value for the dollars that I spend. That includes my shaving hardware:

  • Adjustable double-edge (DE) razors
  • Two- and three-piece DE razors
  • Straight razors, which include:
  • Barber razors (with replaceable blades)
  • Traditional straights (that must be stropped and periodically honed)
  • Removable razor blades

Annual Precautions

Many of today’s razors have some or all parts that are cast in Zamak, a high-quality Zinc alloy. Zamak is often incorrectly identified by some as pot metal, which it is not. Pot metal is a generic term for low-quality, low-melting-point metals of no specific composition. Pot metals are melted down and cast as needed for generally lower-quality parts. Zamak, on the other hand is a very specific alloy that, when properly cast and cared for, makes for parts molded into precise, complex shapes that have acceptable toughness, strength and durability.

The drawback to Zamak is that it will degrade with long-term exposure to water. That is why manufacturers plate all Zamak razor parts – most commonly with chrome or nickel – to prevent the alloy from coming in contact with water. Any defect in plating over Zamak will likely be a point of eventual degradation.
In fact, even some undamaged plating may be an imperfect barrier between water and Zamak. I’ve seen 50-plus-year-old (1960s-era) Gillette Techs – the ones with the cast-Zamak top cap that was plated in nickel — that have the characteristic tiny, raised bumps that are evidence of slight Zamak degradation under intact, undisturbed plating. It’s a minor and slow-developing problem, but it can occur.

Further, some plating materials, nickel, as the prime example, will subtly oxidize over time. This isn’t the same as rusting, but oxidation on nickel will at minimum change the look of the finish, becoming duller and perhaps a slightly different hue.

So to slow or prevent the potential oxidizing of plating such as nickel and to add an additional barrier to water getting to the Zamak substrate of razor components, I put a layer of polymeric car wax on my razors when first acquired and about every year thereafter. The auto-polish formula that I use has the typical apply-with-damp-cloth-and-remove-with-clean-dry-cloth process, and is advertised as needing application only once per year. The chemistry of these products results in a tough invisible protective barrier to both water and air. If it’s good enough to stand up to road grit and the abuse of the weather, it’s probably tough enough to help protect a razor’s finish from the subtle wear and tear of normal shaving use.

Complex Razors

variantAdjustable DE razors are the most complex of wet-shaving instruments, obviously. Back in the day, Gillette advised that, prior to storage after a day’s shave, one should simply rinse under the tap then shake the excess water out of their assembled (razor and blade) adjustable razors. That’s still adequate advice regarding their vintage razors, but due to today’s razor materials as discussed above, it doesn’t necessarily go far enough for most modern adjustables.

Gillette’s adjustable razors were made of brass substrate (the material underneath the plating), and brass is very tolerant of water exposure. Most modern adjustables use Zamak to some extent. Because of the incompatibility of Zamak and water, for best preserving the quality and lifespan of Zamak parts, water exposure is best carefully controlled and minimized during storage between shaves. This additional attention to drying razor parts will also minimize risk from obscure plating defects created during manufacture or use.

As an additional note, one might consider non-adjustable one-piece razors (the butterfly-door, twist-to-open designs) as complex razors as well. This is because, well, their design is in fact complex and non-vintage models may possibly have a few parts cast of Zamak.

So rather than just using Gillette’s daily shake-the-water-out advice for their vintage brass razors, I take steps beyond that for my modern Zamak adjustable (and other complex) razors. These steps include the following:

  • Rinse off any soap or stubble from razor.
  • Disassemble the razor after use into its main components as you would when changing blades.
  • With a firm grip on the handle, shake the handle-baseplate assembly to initially remove excess water.
  • Dry the top cap and handle-baseplate assembly with a towel or dry washcloth.
  • Take a square of toilet tissue and gently re-dry the razor using special attention to get into as many nooks and crannies as possible.
  • Again with a firm grip on the handle, vigorously shake the handle-baseplate assembly.
  • Blow into the the handle-baseplate assembly to help release any remaining moisture and wipe again with the toilet tissue.
  • Store opened or disassembled to ensure best evaporation of any residual moisture.

Simple DE Razors

CIMG1068Simple DE razors include traditional two- and three-piece razors, both safety-bar and open-comb designs. Generally if not made from plastic, brass or stainless steel, these razors (their top caps certainly and baseplates most often) are cast from Zamak. (Do not mistake chrome plating over Zamak for stainless steel, which some on-line reviewers do.) The steps to help ensure long-term durability of these simple-design razors is less complex but still involves disassembly and drying:

  • After use and normal rinsing, disassemble the razor as you would when changing blades.
  • Further rinse lather and stubble from the individual parts as necessary. (Stubborn lather in the comb of an open-comb design may need to be gently removed with an old toothbrush.)
  • Dry with a towel.
  • Re-dry with a square of toilet tissue.
  • Blow out the combed areas to ensure maximal moisture removal.
  • Store the components disassembled to ensure best evaporation of any residual moisture.

Barber Straight Razors

IMG_2005bBarber razors have replaceable blades and are generally made from plastic (the scales) and steel (the blade holder). If not made from stainless steel, any non-stainless steel parts will typically be plated or painted to discourage rust.
During a shave with these barber razors, lather and stubble may be rinsed off rather than wiped off because of the materials or coating used on these razors. On the other hand, one can use the barbers’ tradition of wiping lather onto a towel, or, as I personally prefer, onto a strip of toilet tissue (doubled or tripled depending on the toughness of the tissue). This is a good practice because undetected defects in plating or paint may exist or occur over time, which renders the steel susceptible to water damage over the long term. Also, if the razor as wood scales rather than plastic, water avoidance is a good idea as well.

Stainless steel and plastic razor components require no attention beyond post-shave drying. The reason for removing as much moiture as possible is to keep the humidity lower if you store your razors in an enclosed area such as a bathroom drawer. Humidity can affect other shaving gear as well as the removable blade that may be stored in the barber razor itself. Here are my steps:

  • Disassemble the razor after use – primarily to remove the blade for post-shave care (described below), but also to ensure that excess moisture can be removed from the razor parts.
  • Shake the razor to remove excess water as appropriate.
  • Dry with towel or toilet tissue (the latter is my preference because it more easily conforms to razor contours and can therefore get into smaller spaces).
  • Blow out parts to release otherwise-inaccessible moisture.
  • Store appropriately to ensure best evaporation of any residual moisture.

Traditional Straight Razors

str8sTraditional straight razors, which must be stropped before use and periodically re-sharpened, are made from made from either stainless or un-coated high-carbon steel, which is too often incorrectly referred to as just carbon steel. (Steel without carbon content is simply iron.) The reason high-carbon steel is often used is because it’s tough and durable though relatively soft compared to stainless steel, which makes its edge easier to maintain. However, high-carbon steel is readily susceptible to rust. So an important part of maintaining this material is to avoid all unnecessary exposure to water, which can get into the pivot joint of the scales and other nooks and surfaces – all of which can quickly cause rust damage.

Avoiding unnecessary water exposure means not rinsing lather off the blade during the shave – instead wipe on a dry towel or tissue. It also means having dry hands during a shave. So one should always have a clean towel on hand to dry one’s hands when they get wet, and one should have a dry towel (or, my preference as described above, toilet tissue) to wipe lather and stubble off the blade during the shave.
If the straight razor is made from stainless steel, then one doesn’t have to be as obsessed about water damage. However, the reality is that stainless steel, though resistant to rust, isn’t rustproof – particularly at the microscopic level of the blade edge. Besides, it’s generally a prudent practice to keep hands dry to avoid the razor slipping in your grip.

My care of traditional straights includes the following steps:

  • During and after the shave, wipe the razor on a dry towel or tissue to remove any residual lather or moisture. Do not rinse under running water.
  • Ensure that the slot of the scales is also dry. If you have any doubt about this, then run a strip of toilet tissue through the slot.
  • After the shave, strop the razor on the linen or webbed portion of your strop to ensure the blade is clean and dry.
  • If used frequently, simply store the clean, dry razor in a low-humidity area. For long-term storage – particularly for high-carbon-steel razors, coat all metal surfaces with oil or petroleum jelly – but if the razor has plastic scales, be very careful to keep petroleum-based coatings off the plastic, which can be degraded by petroleum-based substances. When thorougly water free, the razor may also be put into a leather or synthtic-material sleeve to act as an additional moisture barrier.

Removable Blades

bladePretty much all modern removable blades are made from stainless steel. However, as mentioned previously, stainless doesn’t mean rust proof. This is especially true at the blade edge, which is susceptible to moisture-enhanced oxidative degradation. In simple terms, this means that if you keep your blade edge clean and dry between shaves, you are likely to get more and better shaves from it before you have to recycle it (and recycle, don’t throw in the trash!).
Therefore disassembly of the razor after each shave facilitates not only better razor care, but allows for better blade maintenance as well. My steps for removable-blade care are as follows:

  • Disassemble the razor after use to remove the blade.
  • Rinse lather and stubble from the blade as necessary. (Stubbornly-clinging lather may need to be gently wiped off with your thumb under running water.)
  • Using a towel or wash cloth on a flat surface, gently press dry both sides of the blade. (I lay the blade on the cloth, fold the cloth over on top of the upper-blade surface, and lightly press dry both sides at once.)
  • Using a square of toilet tissue and a flat, dry surface, gently press dry both sides of the blade. (I lay the blade on a dry area of the cloth, and gently press the toilet tissue on the upper side of the blade. I then flip the blade onto another dry section of the cloth and repeat the toilet-tissue press drying of the exposed side of the blade.)
  • I then palm strop each side of each edge. (Yes, I do this with half-DE blades as well. I hold the long, contoured, non-edge part of the blade between my thumb and forefinger, and gently, lightly draw the edge backward against the fleshy part of my palm that is opposite the thumb.)
  • I then install the blade into the (dry!) razor that will be used for its next shave, and I store it in a low-humidity environment – which in my case is a drawer in my bathroom cabinet.

In the Big Picture….

Do you have to go through these procedures? Of course not. However, if not, then there is likely a price to pay and a potential risk. The price to pay is, at minimum, you will use more blades per year than you need to (or have to hone your traditional straight more frequently). This can have costs that are monetary, ecological or both.

Also, your razors may last longer and look better in the long run if you maintain them well. The difference in longevity may be minimal if your razor’s plating is well done and remains defect free. If not, the longevity difference may be significant.

As I said above, I’m a middle-class guy and want to maximize the utility of, and my investment in, my tools including those used for my daily shaves. So I perform these steps as part of my daily ritual. Your choices are certainly up to you.
Happy shaving!

Doug Hansford

Doug Hansford

4 thoughts on “Premium Maintenance for Razors and Blades”

  1. I have a small nalgene jar full of rubbing alcohol. I rinse my razor and dunk the head assembly into the jar for a minute or so. This really helps drying all the the parts afterwards.

  2. Good post. I would add that 303 stainless is also suseptible to rust. 303 is used because it is tough, machines easily and doesn’t muck up milling machines. Those readers who own and love Above-The-Tie razors should wipe the razor dry after each use and coat all the parts with light vegetable oil if you are planning to not use it for a while.

  3. I wonder how my FB and Slim that I bought new about 50 years ago since all I ever did was rinse under warm water! Now all I do after rinsing the razor with the blade in it is to dip it in rubbing alcohol.
    By the way, your advice to wipe the blade is contrary to the advice on the blade wrappers not to wipe the blade. I saw a post on a shaving forum some time ago that had language on the blade wrapper that wiping the blade damages the coating on the blade.

    1. Thanks for the opportunity to clarify a couple of things:
      1) The 195 (Fatboy) and the Slim that you mention are both vintage Gillette razors that are nickel plated over a brass substrate. So water won’t degrade the materials themselves, though the original plating luster may be diminished by oxidation and deposits. Gillette recommended shaking the razors out after rinsing. Though you may not have seen any problems from NOT shaking out after shaving, many of these razors get gummed up by internal deposits over time which diminish their TTO functionality.
      My 1963 Slim, for example, when I acquired it needed a thorough boiling out and lubrication to restore like-new TTO operation.
      2) I would suggest that wiping isn’t exactly the same as light stropping. Though your alcohol immersion slows edge oxidation similar to thorough drying, it has no chance to improve the edge post shave. I, personally, have seen many blades improve after a number of shave and post-shave stroppings. I have also had excellent blade longevity following the process recommended in this article.
      I, too, have read blade-wrapper warnings about not wiping. Is this similar to the old shampoo recommendation of “lather, rinse, REPEAT”? (Emphasis mine.) I find it hard to believe that coatings — especially Teflon — remain on the edge after the first shave anyway. I strop my vintage straight razor for good reasons, and I believe that those same reasons apply to DE edges as well.

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