[Updated 3 May 2016] A slant-bar razor (“slant” for short) is a double-edged (DE) safety razor whose blade is mounted to strike the stubble at a slant, since a slanted blade cuts more easily than a straight-on chop—thus the slanted blade of the guillotine and of many mandolines, such as the Swissmar Borner V-Slicer. The slant razor, patented on 6 February 1915 by Thomas Wild (thus approaching its centennial), brought a slanted blade to shaving. [Patent date and holder corrected, thanks to comment below. – LG]
The efficiency of slants
Because slants remove stubble easily and efficiently, they are especially popular with men who have thick, tough, coarse, wiry beards, which make the improved ease of cutting quite noticeable. And when that beard grows from sensitive skin, the slant is doubly appreciated because it is so gentle on the skin. My own beard is normal, but even for me a slant shaves more easily and smoothly than a regular razor.
The slant’s mildness on the skin is due to a marked reduction in pressure in two directions. First, when using a slant the pressure directly against the skin is extremely light (thus my standard suggestion that a slant be a man’s second razor). Second, because the slant cuts so easily, cutting resistance is greatly reduced, so the razor’s pressure against the stubble is also noticeably less—and because the razor does not push so hard against the stubble, the stubble in turn does not push so hard against the skin, a big improvement when the skin is sensitive. Some men have found that a slant totally solves shaving problems on the neck, for example, where the skin is soft and often sensitive so that the slant’s ease of cutting is a significant help.
Once a man routinely gets smooth and trouble-free shaves with a regular DE, the transition to a slant is just a matter of doing some renewed blade exploration (as for any new razor: the best brand in one razor may not be the best in another) and “breaking in” the razor over a few shaves—that is, using it carefully while you learn (mostly unconsciously) the best angle and pressure. (I call it “breaking in” because it seems as though the new razor gradually starts working better, but the change is in your technique, not in the razor.)
You wield a slant exactly as though it were a regular razor (though with less pressure), so no new skills are required. By “less pressure,” I mean the same degree of pressure you’d use if you had a really bad sunburn and the razor were an uncomfortably hot rod: rather than “pressing” the skin, the razor just (barely) touches it—that sort of pressure.
Cartridge razors have nothing comparable to the slant, but of course cartridge razors don’t even offer an adjustable razor.
Slants now in current production
The only slant razor head on the market when I wrote the most recent edition of the Guide was made by Merkur. It was available in two models, the 37C and the 39C, the only difference being the handle. (The Merkur slants are two-piece razors, with handle attached to baseplate, so you cannot swap out the handle.) Two razors but each having the same head: not a great range of choices. Hoffritz razors were to be found as vintage razors, but those were rebranded Merkurs—though it’s interesting that Hoffritz, which positioned itself as selling top-notch merchandise, chose the slant as its razor.
The lack of choice was not seen as an issue at the time, because among DE shavers those using a slant were viewed as a fringe group. Most DE shavers back then never seriously considered using a slant: in photos, the razor looked weird and “broken.” Indeed, DE shavers looked at slant razors in much the same way that cartridge shavers looked at DE razors: they’re okay for weirdos.
But now the range of slant choices has increased substantially, with several new slants on the market. All these new slants use the three-piece design, so it’s easy to swap handles, and most recently, with the iKon Shavecraft #102 slant and the Above the Tie slant, the razor is sold unbundled: head and handle are purchased separately (which allows you to use a handle you already own). Unbundling the head makes sense with vendors now commonly selling handles separately—Above the Tie, Elite Razors, iKon, Pens of the Forest, Weber, and others offer razor handles, which are, of course, much easier to make than razor heads—thus I anticipate that artisanal razor handles will become more common.
The Merkur 37C and 39C are still available, though the 37G (the gold version of the 37C) seems to have fallen by the wayside.
iKon came out with a solid stainless steel slant (pictured) a couple of years ago, and now that same head is available also with a DLC (Diamond-Like Carbon) coating and with a B1 coating. These iKon slants seem to me more comfortable than the Merkur slants, but are somewhat picky about the brand of blade and about loading the razor. Moreover, one cannot use “just the weight of the razor” with the iKon stainless slants since the razor is heavy and a slant requires light pressure. Several have noticed that the razor gives a flawless shave initially (because they are being careful of the pressure), but then after a few shaves it starts to give occasional nicks (because they have become careless about pressure and are letting the razor’s full weight be applied). Once they pay attention once more to making sure the razor barely touches the skin, the nicks vanish. That in fact happened to me.
Italian Barber found a large cache of Merkur white bakelite slants from the 1930’s, and those proved extremely popular: the light weight was no problem (they were slants, so light pressure works well—and these were light enough that the shaver could control pressure directly, just as DE shavers control blade angle directly). Since the supply was limited, it was soon exhausted, but IB made some tweaks to the design and has come out with the Stealth slant, an exceptionally forgiving slant and the only slant I can recommend as a first razor for a DE novice. The Stealth is made in aluminum and also in stainless steel. Production is still ramping up, but in general the Stealth has proved popular.
iKon’s Shavecraft #102 slant was the next to appear on the market. It has a cast aluminum head and uses a humpback design (with the blade not twisted) similar to that used back in the day by Walbusch. I have a Walbusch bakelite humpback slant, and it gives a wonderfully comfortable and smooth shave. (And who would not welcome the gift of a Walbusch B5 this holiday season? There are a couple on eBay as I write.) Like the Walbusch the #102 shaves wonderfully. Indeed, I think the #102, like the Stealth, might work as a novice’s first razor, provided he can use light pressure. The only drawback of the humpback design is an asymmetrical appearance: with a twisted blade, the blade’s slant (say, from upper left to lower right) is the same on both sides; with the humpback design the blade slants upper left to lower right on one side, upper right to lower left on the other. While the appearance is odd, the shave is fine and the asymmetry turns out not to matter—and the untwisted blade finesses any loading problems. (iKon has a history of asymmetric razors—open comb on one side, straight-bar on the other, beginning with the iKon OSS and in various models since—so it seems appropriate that it was iKon that introduced a modern asymmetric slant.)
Above the Tie now offers a machined stainless steel slant. This slant, like all but the #102, uses a twisted-blade design and, like all slants, is both comfortable and efficient. Though the blade’s slant in the ATT looks somewhat less, the razor’s performance is excellent.
Maggard Razors has mentioned plans to augment its current line-up of razors with a slant. A $25-$30 slant that’s reasonably good would greatly accelerate the migration to slants.
Most find that the newer slants are more comfortable than the Merkur 37C/39C and equally efficient—but of course one of the primary design goals for the new slants would have been to improve on the Merkur slants. Why try to come out with a slant no better than the slant already on the market? That would make no sense. (For much the same reason, the relatively recent Edwin Jagger/Mühle conventional razor head shaves better for most than the Merkur Classic head that EJ and Mühle previously used: if they were going to design a new head, they would certainly want to work on the design until it was better than the old head.)
Why the surge in slants?
Within a very short period, we have gone from one slant head to eight. What’s going on?
Take a look at the Sharpologist article I wrote three years ago, when the Weber was first introduced. The entire article is relevant to the slant situation today, but let me quote just one passage:
This phenomenon of niche markets exploding due to the shifting economics of communication (the Internet) and commerce (globalization from containerization and cheap fuel) is discussed in detail in Chris Anderson’s book The Long Tail: Why the Future of Business is Selling Less of More, but the traditional shaving movement differs somewhat from other niche markets: traditional shaving has a ratchet-like effect. Let me explain, drawing on some statistics I just made up. (I’m sure you’ve heard that 89% of statistics are simply made up on the spot.)
Let’s say that in the US, Canada, and Europe about 85% of men shave their beards. And when men actually try traditional wetshaving, something like 85% stick with it—mainly because it’s so enjoyable, but other factors—better shaves, kinder to skin, much lower expense once the initial kit is in hand—certainly add weight to the decision to continue—and those also are reasons that resonate well with, say, one’s Significant Other. So traditional wetshaving is, on the whole, a room with a one-way door: guys once in want to stay. And, guys being guys and competitive by nature, they want to brag to their buddies about how their shaves are now much better (“than yours” implied), and in that context offer additional reasons (gadget appeal, the bad-ass factor), playing to the male audience.
The result is that more and more men will be drawn into traditional wetshaving over time, with a likely market size of 85% (the proportion of men who stick with it after trying it) of 85% (the proportion of men who shave) of the total number of men in the US, Canada, and Europe. Do the math and you will see that traditional wetshavers could eventually amount to about 75% of that male population. And, of course, as more men join in and talk it up, traditional wetshaving becomes more visible and prominent, which will induce more to try it. And if newbies get good guidance for the transition (and sources of such guidance increase steadily), they will (a) adopt the method permanently and (b) brag to their buddies, which brings them into the fold, whereupon they become traditional-wetshaving missionaries.
You see how quickly this is building. No wonder we once again are seeing innovation in double-edged safety razors.
As noted, one key factor in the rapid growth of DE shaving is the Internet, which supports word-of-mouth (through shaving forums and blogs) and also, along with containerization and globalization, accommodates a dispersed customer base. Equally important is the high retention rate for those who try a DE razor: most who try a DE stick with it rather than return to cartridges (and thus add their voice to the word of mouth): here’s a recent example.
The Internet’s support (and amplification) of word-of-mouth undermines the power of mass-market advertising and does that at substantially lower costs to the manufacturer—and, as RazoRock points out in comments, because the manufacturer’s costs are lower, the price to the consumer can be lower as well.
DE razors don’t get the kind of mass marketing campaigns used to push cartridge razors. Of course, cartridge razors require a lot of marketing because they are so expensive—and that creates a positive feedback loop: cartridge sales must pay for all that marketing, so the marketing costs (along with manufacturing costs and profits) must be covered by the price, and that higher price requires more intensive marketing with higher marketing costs—and profits also must always increase. Another snowball effect, and one that will not end well.
The Sharpologist article quoted above was written shortly after the first Weber came to market, and since then we’ve seen numerous new DE razors: several iKon models, the Tradere, the Standard, several models from Above the Tie, and I recently shaved with the latest entry, the BBS-1 from the Los Angeles Shaving Company (and of course I’m hoping the BBS-2 will be a slant).
Note that these new razors are NOT coming from traditional razor companies like Procter & Gamble: we see a new wave of razor manufacturers, responding to new demand. Procter & Gamble is working to protect its existing market, a response typical of established companies that once were innovators: they become resistant to change and innovation. (Cf. AT&T before the breakup of the Bell telephone monopoly.)
The driving forces for the DE movement have been better performance of the razor, high retention rate of those who try, word of mouth via the Internet, and easy availability of razors via the Internet. As the number of DE shavers increase, and as more new razors become available, the visibility of DE shaving increases, which leads to more men trying it—and most who try it stick with it.
The result: a rapidly growing snowball effect toward DE razors as men shift away from cartridge razors. (And that movement in itself results in more visibility: another example of positive feedback.)
Slants are driven by the same dynamic as DE razors
Consider now the slant: better performance than a regular DE, high retention rate for those who try a slant (around 70%), word of mouth via the Internet, and easy availability via the Internet: the same dynamic that drove growth of the regular DE razor.
That 70% figure comes from an informal unscientific poll: it’s the percentage of those who had tried a slant and found they “love” it. (The poll indicated that a slant did not work for about 7%—and about 23% (almost ¼) found that the slant shaved about the same as a regular razor. For that group, the cutting resistance their beard offered to a regular razor was low enough that the improvement from a slant was negligible.)
A 70% retention rate is enough to ensure steady and even rapid growth. And while the figure may not be totally accurate, it is indeed based on actual responses. The 85% retention rate cited for DE razors is merely a general impression from a self-selected sample, but the 70% figure for slants is much more jelled. For both slants and DEs, it seems clear that those who try it are more likely to stick with it than revert to their earlier razor.
I believe that the burst of new slants is the result of increasing demand. It’s demand that drives the economy. On the supply side, entrepreneurs like to talk about being “job creators,” but in fact most jobs are created in order to respond to demand. No business can long survive without a demand for its products or services, and when the demand must constantly be pumped up (with marketing dollars), the cost per item soars, requiring more marketing dollars: a feedback loop that leads to a vicious circle of spiraling costs.
Because a DE razor produces excellent results (new DE users are surprised that the DE shave is better than a cartridge shave) and because it’s actually enjoyable to use, customers are drawn to it rather than pushed toward it: thus marketing dollars are not required to drive demand. (And I believe that it’s the enjoyment that accounts for the high retention rate: it’s unusual nowadays to enjoy a necessary task, so novelty augments enjoyment.) The slant, for most, offers the same step up in performance and enjoyment from the DE that the DE offered to cartridge shavers—which of course accounts for the 70% who love a slant once they try it.
The DE was fringe to the mainstream of cartridge razors, but now is growing rapidly into the mainstream, on the verge of crossing over; similarly, the slant was fringe to DE razors, but now the slant razor is rapidly growing, driven by the same mechanisms that drives the growth of the DE into the mainstream.
The numbers may still be relatively small (compared to the now-faltering cartridge juggernaut), but the dynamics are clear and the trend is visible—cf. the seven new slants now available. (Soon to be eight? or nine?)
And just as the flowering of new DE razors drew attention (leading to more men trying them), so also the burst of new slants attracts attention. With slants having greater visibility, more will try them (based on the “where there’s smoke, there’s fire” theory).
And just as the DE razor is about to burst out into mainstream shaving, I bet that slants are about to burst out into DE shaving.
Indeed, one now frequently sees forum posts from slant newbies, reporting on the excellence of their experience. With more choices of slants, the question moves from “Slant or not?” to “Which slant?”, and the existence of more models makes the phenomenon more visible in on-line catalogs, which begin to include a section devoted to slant razors. More visibility means more will be inclined to try it—thus the snowball.
Certainly something is driving this burst of new slant models, and that seems to be demand. And when you experience a slant’s shaving performance, the demand makes sense.
I have no business connection with any maker of slants. If anything, I’m probably sort of a PITA to them. But I do think I see slants as starting to take off rapidly, replicating within the DE movement the same dynamic as the DE movement itself has demonstrated within shaving in general.
The familiar route of cross-over phenomena
It occurs to me that one can visualize this dynamic in terms of Markov chains, which consist of various states along with the probabilities of moving from one state to another. The probability of a change of state in one direction—moving from cartridge to DE (as well as from DE to slant)—is now rising sharply, while the probability of a change of state in the other direction—from DE back to cartridge (or from slant back to DE)—remains low. The sharp rise in the probability of the first change of state is a social-media thing: the more that move to the new state, the more the communications to those who have yet to try (either directly from those who have made the change, or indirectly, through seeing articles, forum posts and comments, Facebook mentions, and the like). The movement simply becomes more and more visible, resulting in more deciding to give it a try, and so on.
It seems to be akin to the way crystals form in a supersaturated solution: no crystals form for a while as the solution becomes increasingly supersaturated, but once crystal formation starts, it happens quickly. Cartridge razors “supersaturated” the razor solution by becoming increasingly expensive and hard on the skin. Thus the re-introduction of DE razors hit a supersaturated solution and the movement to DEs, once started, grew quickly. And, analogously, the slant’s better performance among DEs (particularly noticeable in men with thick beards) meant that once the slant began to be adopted and more men heard how good a shave the slant did, things started moving quickly (cf. the list above of seven new slants).
Somewhat the same dynamic can be observed in many trends—sous vide cooking, for example. Cooking obviously goes through waves of trends—memes competing and evolving—and the current break-out cooking method is sous vide. And when you look at it, you see a dynamic similar the DE break-out:
- Initially, it’s done experimentally by some intensely involved aficionados—fanatics, in effect. For sous vide, these were the experimentally minded chefs and cooking enthusiasts, repurposing lab equipment to cook meat. They worked out the kinks and established the methods. In DE shaving there was the core group that started the first shaving forums: the Microsoft groups and ShaveMyFace.com. Active human culture consists of constant interaction and competition among memes, following the Darwinian model as described by Richard Dawkins. Right now, sous vide and DE shaving are proving to be successful memes.
- From the fanatics, the meme is taken up disciples who closely follow the fanatics. For sous vide, this was the move to regular production cooking in restaurant kitchens.
- From disciples, the meme then spreads to mere fans, who are closer to the mass public than disciples, but more involved in the activity than most people. These are the foodies, the early adopters of new foods, cooking tools, and cooking methods. For sous vide, this was the move from commercial kitchens to the homes of those with interest and money to explore this new cooking meme, even though the equipment was still costly and/or cumbersome.
- The final step is the meme moving from fans to the general public. This is happening now as sous vide is more often mentioned and the requisite equipment becomes less expensive and more available—things like the Anova and similar sous vide appliances—in response to the increasing demand. This step is the breakout into the mass market, completing the move from the fringe to the center.
That path seems to be a standard pattern of meme evolution: from fanatics to disciples to fans to the mass market. It’s such a common sequence—does it have a name? Ernest Hemingway captures the essence of the sequence in describing how you go bankrupt: “Gradually, and then suddenly.”
Recently two new slants have come onto the market and the Stealth slant has gone out of production, so an update seems appropriate.
Let me note three important pointers for first-time slant users—and in fact the three pointers apply to any new razor you get:
- Do some blade exploration. A brand of blade that’s best in one razor may not be best (or even good) in another. Try 3-4 different brands, then stick with the best of those for a month or two to work out your technique without the distraction of varying the blade. A razor can go from harsh to smooth, or from inefficient to efficient, just by changing the brand of blade—and NO brand works well for everyone. A brand that’s great for one may be terrible for another: that’s why there are blade sampler packs.
- Find the optimal angle. Move the handle of the razor farther from your face (toward perpendicular to the skin being shaved) until you hear/feel the cutting stop; then move it closer until the cutting sound/feel just resumes. Right around there is the optimal angle. Experiment judiciously. It will be easier to find/remember the angle if you focus on making sure the cap is touching your skin. (Forget about the guard—it’s there if needed—and focus instead on the cap.) You may find the razor’s best angle has the handle a little farther from your face than you expect, but the focus on the cap makes the angle easy to maintain.
- Use extremely light pressure, barely enough to keep the razor in contact with your skin. Use the same pressure you’d use if you had a sunburn and the razor were an uncomfortably warm metal rod: still touch the skin, but barely. This is particularly import for slant razors, which cut easily: that virtue can turn against you if you press the razor against your skin.
The Holy Black SR-71 Slant http://theholyblack.com/collections/grooming-shaving/products/sr-71-safety-razor: Currently $40, The Holy Black’s slant has a hefty large-diameter brass handle. The head looks a lot like the Merkur 37C head, and the handle is the same length as the 37C handle, but the additional heft of the handle gives the razor a different feel. It’s smooth cutting and quite comfortable and is priced lower than any other metal slant now being offered.
Fine Accoutrements Superlite Slant https://www.fineaccoutrements.com/ProductDetails.asp?ProductCode=SLSR: This slant is a replica in ABS plastic of the Merkur white bakelite slant, which also inspired the Stealth slant. However, the Stealth slant tweaked that design a bit, while the Fine slant is faithful to the original. ABS plastic is much tougher and less brittle than bakelite, so the Fine slant is unlikely to break if dropped. The threaded parts—the threaded stud from the cap and the tapped handle—are, like those of the white bakelite slant, made of metal rather than plastic, so they will not fail.
The light weight is disconcerting at first, especially to those accustomed to letting the weight of the razor do the cutting. This razor’s weight is not enough for that technique, so you do apply pressure, but just enough to get the razor to cut, and that turns out to be very little pressure. By requiring you to focus on finding the minimum pressure needed, the Fine slant ends up encouraging the very light pressure a slant requires. This slant encourages direct control of pressure, much as DE razors in general provide direct control of the angle.
The shave is smooth and easy, and the $30 price makes this the most affordable new slant.