Making your mark (without leaving a mark)

The following photograph says a lot about razor restoration.  It was taken by accident in my workshop, when trying to take a photograph with my tablet of a razor I was working on.  Being technically oblivious, I had somehow switched the camera and, unbeknown to me, it pointed it's digital eye on my weary face.
 

How does this bad photo relate to razor restoration? Read on....

 

As you can see, the photograph shows a bit of me, but I am not the main focus of the picture.  That, dear reader, sums up razor restoration.  Actually, it says a lot about restoring anything. The main focus of restoration should be the razor.  The focus should be the character of the razor and not the restorer.

 

A good restoration shows the razor at its best, but shouldn't draw attention to the restorer.

 

Now, you may think me crazy for saying what I'm about to say, but it needs saying. Vintage razors have a character, they feel different, feel unique.  The restorer must work with this character. Improving it, perhaps, resurrecting its original personality.  In fact, a friend of mine, Eric, who is blessed with an eye for fine antique razors, agrees on this point. The razor restoration must be sympathetic to the blade, it must be true to the razor's heritage.

Of course, the saying that beauty is the eye of the beholder is true.  So, I am not trying to belittle anyone's efforts, nor am I intending to pass remarks on what others see as beautiful. I am not trying to insist on some standard of acceptability.  These are just my opinions; other opinions are available.

So, how can a restorer imprint his or her personality on a razor?

Well, here are some thoughts.

Shiny, shiny.

Ruin your razor's appearance with shine?  Yes, most razors loose their looks and authenticity through careless application of shine.  The degree of shine can be really problematic.  A glossy shine can make the most lovely razor look like a cheap bit of scrap metal or a child's aluminium foil school project. If you want proof, here's the King of Rock 'n' Roll.  Get my point?

 

 
Usually, glitzy shine is caused by using poor quality polish, or over-polishing.  After all, polish is caused by polishing the polish, layer on layer. Do too much, or don't cut it back and it looks like it.

Personally, I like a razor to have a matt reflective surface. I think that it looks good and natural.  Ok, here's an area where I recognise that I am imposing my preferences and personality on the razor.  However, in this regard, I don't think that it detracts from the razor.

 

 A matte mirror

 

 

Scary scales

Thinking about it, scales can be scary things.  Scales of Justice or the bathroom scales can leave people in a cold sweat.

 

With straight razors too, the matter of scales provides the restorer with tremendous potential to screw up.  Scales, it should be explained, are the name for the straight razor's handle.  The razor's scales are a very clever piece of engineering.  The razor blade folds into them when not in use; when it's used, the scales provide balance and control.  The whole thing is held together by pins and friction.

Going back to what I've just stated above. A razor's scales provide balance and control. Not many people realise this. That's not a problem, until you decide to make scales. So, we have stumbled on issue number one. Scales must not be too thick or heavy, they should be just right.  The scales can make the razor blade imbalanced, taking away the natural feel of the blade.

Scales should also reflect something about the razor's inherent quality of dignity and character.  

A restorer has to think about a lot when it comes to scales.  What materials? What colour? What thickness should they be? How long should they be? How should the scales be pinned?

Here's a razor that I have restored. It looks just like it did when the maker last saw it.  It's at the stage when it needs scales to be functional once more.  This requires the restorer to think about the questions raised above.  The choice of materials is wide: synthetics and natural materials, perhaps a combination of both? 

The majority of straight razors that have survived into our century have plastic scales. Horn or bone are in a minority.  Plastic, of whatever type, was, on the whole cheap to produce, reasonably tough and resistant to warping and rot. Plastic does also shine beautifully.

I have worked with wood, but it's not my preferred material.  I love horn.  I buy it in sheets like the ones shown below.  The sharp eyed reader will spot that the sheets are too thick for scales; steps are required to produce scales of the right thickness. 

However, many scales available on the market are way too thick and bulky. After all, you're going to shave your face with the razor, not fight off Zombies. Why shouldn't scales be as delicate as the razor they house?

 

 Ok, once I've decided on the material, all that's left is to choose a shape. Shape is important. If it's done wrong, it's just plain wrong. You may have noticed that most scales have a slight curve and rounded ends.  The earliest scales were more straight and pencil like.  Shape is, I suppose a matter of preference, but the late Victorian style, still popular today beats all the others hands down.

Important factors to consider when making scales is to ensure that the blade edge is hidden within the scales when closed.  It's important to consider how much of the blade you want showing when the razor is shut too.

 Here's what I normally do.  I sketch:

 

After sketching, I put the design on the horn and get to work. At this stage, not only are the scales cut to shape and shaped, but the desired thickness is also achieved.

I forgot to mention spacers. They're important. The spacer adds balance and also contributes to how high the razor blade sits in the scales.  The Victorians loved to use lead; it is heavy and malleable. I also love lead spacers, they add balance and a sense of poise.  The Victorians also loved using plastic spacers, especially if it enabled a contrast in colour; black scales look great with a white spacer.

This is one of the last stages before pinning. Deciding where to drill the pin holes is always best done after a cup of tea; you can't rush these things!  Besides, the pin hole where the razor blade's pivot sits influences how much of the monkey's tail shows at the end of the scales.  

 

I always insert a pivot washer between the inside of the scales and the razor's tang.  It protects the razor.  Of course, this was rarely done in Britain, except for the most expensive razors.  I make my own washers because that way, I can make sure that the hole suits the width of rod I use as a pin.

Below are a few images of the pinned razor.  On the topic of pinning, I am a traditionalist. I cannot abide the modern fashion for big 'n' bold pin-fittings.  These awful fittings are sold in kits with convenient lengths of brass pins.  Sadly, few manage to learn this skill before attacking a razor.  Peining involves knocking a rod into a mushroom shaped, rounded dome over a washer.  It's a skill that's worth learning to do. It's traditional.  This is not how it's done.

 

Nasty fittings, nastily done.

 

Worse, some are using micro bolts and nuts for fixing their blades in the scales. They say that this enables the razor to be tightened in the scales easily, that it enables the razor to be removed easily.  Nonsense. If you step onto this pitch, you've got to play the game.

So, here's my latest restore.  

 That's a 1/16ths rod, peined old style over a washer.  Same as it always was.

 

 

 

 

Do the scales look Victorian? No, I don't think they do. Do the scales suit the razor? I hope they do.  I also hope that the razor is left to tell its own story.  Restoring a razor is about adding to the razor's story.  That's what restoration aims to achieve.

That's how one makes a mark, without leaving a mark.

 

Thanks for reading. What are your thoughts on the topic?

 


1 comment

  • Huw, very informative & in depth. Fascinating what thought goes into restoring & consideration for its history. Keep up the good work.

    Shaun Wistow

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