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Stainless Steel vs. Rust

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Getting into we shaving has a learning curve–you’re taking a step back in history to before the world went mad and decided everything had to be disposable as an infinite marketing maneuver! Let’s assume you started out as I did with your first DE (double edge) razor and you got your first great shave. It’s a good bet you had whats called a POT metal razor that was cast and then coated for durability. Pot metal—also known as monkey metal, white-metal, or die-cast zinc—is a colloquial term that refers to alloys of low-melting point metals that manufacturers use to make fast, inexpensive castings. I discovered this the hard way when my Parker 26C screw/stem simply broke off, rendering my razor useless until it was replaced, as you can’t repair or re-coat POT/cast metal. The upside is these razors are cheap and its what you get for around the US$20 mark and up.

All Stainless Steel Is Not The Same!

So then I eyed my first Stainless Steel (SS) ‘grail’ DE razor and it came as a shock to me when (after i forgot to remove a DE blade and it started to get some surface rust on the blade) the razor got ‘tea stains’ or light surface rust (as i caught it early enough). Then I noticed some of my razors were more prone to this than others and I wondered why; all were branded and sold as Stainless Steel after all, was there a difference?  So I checked the website, emailed for spec’s or discreetly asked what grade of Stainless they were using to make these razors from and was surprised at the answer to discover that for my big purchase i bought the lowest grade stainless steel!

The invention STEEL is very old, its been use since the dawn of the Iron Age in about 1300BC and its been used to make everything, from tools to armour to knives and that’s where I started my education on ‘what is steel’?  In about 250AD in Japan, sword makers began to experiment with steel and produce ever better versions for weapons. They added other refined materials and used heating and cooling as well as folding to eventual make the pinnacle of Japanese swords, the samurai sword!

Wikipedia defines Stainless Steel as, “In metallurgy, stainless steel, also known as inox steel or inox from French inoxydable, is a steel alloy with a minimum of 10.5% chromium content by mass.” It comes in grades, the basic grades are 303, 304, 316/316L and the addition of highly refined chromium and other metals for a stronger, more rust resistant metal. It was envisioned in 1911 into a standard after much debate over its earliest experiments in the late 1880’s (where it was a trade secret as a military advantage by French, German and Polish claimants on its ‘discovery’).  So, let’s just say by the mid 1938-45 it was refined to the basic substance we all rely on in daily life today!

  • ISO 303 SS Austenitic stainless steel offers the best machinability for stainless steel. It is mainly used when production involves extensive machining.
  • ISO 304 SS Is the most versatile, and the most widely austenitic, commonly known as 18/8 Stainless Steel.
  • ISO 316 SS Is dual certificated (316/316L) Austenitic chromium nickel molybdenum steel.

Aluminum does not rust, but rather because of its makeup easily corrodes and so for longevity (for the purposes of shaving razors) is coated and if it wasn’t for these coatings it would corrode even faster than even base SS 303 would rust! But properly coated they will outlive most un-coated stainless steel!

The Problem

So back to my problem, why were some of my growing razor collection more prone to rust than others? Well it turns out when H2O and dissolved salts (anything for the ocean to tap water) come in contact with stainless steel a chemical/electrical reaction takes place that results in what we see as rust. The biggest culprit is sulfur content and the content goes down in higher grade stainless steel and are hence, more and rust resistant. Now lets be clear, all metals will rust if not coated or kept from this chemical/electrical reaction, its JUST A QUESTION OF SPEED OVER TIME.

Now even the cheapest of watches are machined from 316L SS and I’ve never had a problem swimming with any of my watches in the ocean (the springs at either end of a watch that holds the watch band is another story though, I replace mine in my dive watch every few months because I swim a lot as I live on the great barrier reef, in Australia).  Rolex use 904SS and its ever so slightly even better than 316L but it way more expensive to work with than 316L. And here is the problem. Some manufactures to save money and lower costs are making razors from the cheaper 303 steel and its more prone to rust faster, than 304 or 316L. 303 is cheaper, easier to machine and not so hard on equipment, but its also the lowest grade of what is ISO certified as stainless steel too!

One other thing we have down under is an abundance of Iron Ore, we have mountain ranges of it in Western Australia and they glow dark ochre red in the afternoon sun as they rust naturally over 1000’s of kilometers. We mine it and export it and we can alone supply the world with the highest grade ores in existence for a millennia or more. Japan and China take it and refine it into both raw materials and products that I bet you have around your home today and its also cheap! That’s a two edge sword, as they say.  Import tariffs, quota limits and the desire to use the ‘local product’ means that compromises are made if prices and margins are to maintained.

Alas the razor that first alerted me to the problem, my beloved Above The Tie is 303 stainless steel and as I got replies back I discovered that the new single edge razors, some were also 303 SS and if its un-coated your fancy new razor might well get its self a dose of rust if you mistakenly rust the razor blade in one by mistake.

Razors that use the higher quality 316L stainless are the Rockwell razor, the Rocnel razor and the OneBlade. iKon use DLC coated stainless steel or aluminum &  the Standard razor is made of coated aluminum too and I’ve had no problems with any of these.

What To Do?

So to be clear, its the blades that usually cause the rust in the first instance as they are usually made from the cheapest stainless steel and some are more prone than others (DE or SE) to rust, depending themselves on the quality of coatings applied. Why’s that?  They were just used in a shave & so are wet with the dissolved salts from the water, starting the inevitable reaction that will be transmitted to the stainless steel razor over time. So it’s advisable to remove used blades, dry blades (yes, lots of warnings on every razor box saying not to, so do at your own risk) and your razor after use. Also fish oil, the main ingredient in WD40 is a great way to protect and stop rust in its tracks or prevent it entirely!

If you discover rust, relax, all’s not lost as basic surface rust is often easily removed with just a non-scratch scratchy and some white vinegar and a gently rub with a cloth, then finished up with some oil coating over it to protect it. But if its allowed to grow too much, you may need to sand back to base metal and coat with oil or even get it plated with a permanent coating like Rhodium plated or Ceracoating (Cerakote) ceramic coating as affordable options.  We already do this when we restore 100 year old razors already but it is an extra expense that I didn’t think I would have to consider buying a new, expensive razor!

Remember, the higher grade stainless will rust slower than lower grade stainless steels, but its also a natural & inevitable process of nature and with a little care of any razor should eliminate the problem and its possible to even restore a razor that’s been effected by the weakest link, the razor blade. I just want to spare you the biggest grief that occurs, when you remove it from your razor and see the damage even a few days can make to your pride and joy!
To be clear, I left a blade by accident in my razor and forgot about it, its easily done. It was the blade that rusted and effected my stainless steel razor and as i caught it early enough, i could clean it back to near new again. This was my fault & ALL stainless steel will rust under this same conditions! Its just SLOWER on higher quality stainless steel like 316L stainless steel.
About the author, Steve Hardy:
A bit about me, I was a recent convert to traditional wet-shaving in early 2015, I soon wanted to share my new found ‘hobby’ as friends & family kindly referred to my enthusiastic plans to mod, house and customize my growing bathroom collection. Youtube provided an easy way to share my musings as Steve, thedailyshaver and it wasn’t  long before I decided to convert my small following into a community on Facebook called, Real Men Shave. A change in location from the city of Brisbane, back to my hometown in Bundaberg, Queensland Australia has afforded me the opportunity to pursue my new passion with the vengeance, between swimming and hand feeding tropical fish on the great barrier reef at at Bagara beach, not 10km away. This is a long way from my early career in IT with Apple, IBM, Toshiba and then Microsoft, before going back to University to study Multimedia, then professional photography at college on the Sunshine Coast.

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10 thoughts on “Stainless Steel vs. Rust”

  1. Removing the blade to dry it is, as the author points out, a very bad idea, with plenty of warnings not to do it. So: don’t do it. (Australians, I’ve read, are prone to ignore instructions and restrictions… 🙂
    If you use carbon-steel blades, some of which I like a lot, you absolutely must dry the blade: carbon steel rusts instantly. But do NOT remove and wipe the blade. Instead, swish the razor’s head (with blade inside) in high-proof rubbing alcohol. (I use 99% but 90% is fine.) The alcohol displaces the water and then will evaporate immediately, leaving the blade dry.
    Removing and wiping the blade is bad idea. I’m surprised the author suggests it.

    1. A clarification, Steve suggests “drying” the blade, not “wiping” specifically. There are other ways of drying a blade besides wiping it. 🙂

      1. Brian Fiori (AKA T he Dean)

        My very thoughts. I have NEVER seen a warning to not “dry” a blade. Some say “Do not wipe”. If there are some that say “Do not dry”, then my apologies.
        There are some competing explanations on why blades have “Do not wipe” on them. Some think it is for legal protection, should you get cut. Others argue it may wipe off the coating. I think I’ve read one or two other explanations. Wiping the blade shouldn’t have any impact on the edge, if you are just wiping the flat surface.
        For what it’s worth, I remove the blade immediately after every shave and put the blade on the corner/edge of a towel. Then I simply fold the towel over and pat the blade–I do not wipe it. I have never had a blade (or a razor) rust or stain, no matter how long it has stayed in the razor.
        That isn’t that important, these days. Lately I’ve been shaving only every three-four days (maybe more). My blade is getting a pretty good workout on every shave. So, I’ve been using my blades for only one shave (some blades get two shaves.) I’m fairly poor these days, but at less than 20 cents a blade, why put up with a sub standard-shave? Now, if I’m shaving every day, then I get three-to-five shaves per blade. That’s when drying the blade becomes pretty important, to me.

      2. Can some one explain in simple terms the reason removing (but not wiping) a blade is a bad idea? maybe the position of the blade changes for a subsequent shaves? I don’t know, I am trying to understand it.

        1. I think the idea is that the less you handle the blade, the better. Handling the blade risks harming yourself and/or harming the blade’s cutting edge.
          That’s why I suggest a drying method (the alcohol rinse) that does not involve handling the blade (that is, removing the blade from the razor). Another option is to use a hair dryer but that seems to me to be less convenient, more time-consuming, and likely to leave undried places in the inner recesses of the head.

          1. Thanks, I get that. What about guys like me who rotate a blade in 3 different razors on 3 subsequent days of my rotation, before discarding it. Leaves me little choice.

      3. Good point. But the blade need not be removed or handled to dry it. The alcohol rinse dries the blade in place and would be faster and less likely to damage the blade’s cutting edge.

  2. Good read, thanks. I was always taught to disassemble metal tools after use, towel and air dry them, before reassembly. This makes me a bit of a heretic in the wet shavers club where some people leave a wet blade in, or use an alcohol soak to drive water out etc. My way I remove the blade and let it air dry in a safe place. I own stainless, aluminum, ABS,and plated Zamak razors and NONE of them ever developed a tea stain. You wouldn’t put garden shears away wet, why would you do that with your razor? For the record I don’t touch the blade edge ever, just the tabs.

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