Trying to figure out a gift for your father, a partner, a masc bestie, or maybe a groomsman or other wedding party member? How about a vintage shaving razor! They’re eco-friendly, economical (both for you to buy and for the recipient purchase blades for), built-to-last, and damn cool.
Since my man is a huge shaving aficionado, I interviewed him to make a little guide for anyone who wants some pointers on buying a razor. I hope it’s helpful…
If someone wants to get a vintage razor, should they go for a straight razor or a safety razor?
Safety razor. Unfortunately, straight razors are extremely high maintenance. They require special (usually professional) sharpening, they’re not quick and easy to use (and therefore, probably not something that will get daily use), and somewhat surprisingly, they don’t offer the closest or smoothest shave. They are badass, it’s true, but in the end, a vintage safety razor is probably your best bet as a gift for all but the most dedicated shaving nerds. They are fairly inexpensive, relatively easy to use, and offer a very nice shaving experience.
Do vintage razors work as well as modern razors?
Yes. In fact, they’re often better than modern razors if the person you’re buying for suffers from ingrown hairs or irritation when using normal razors. Modern razors rely on the first blade pulling the hair (and subsequent blades cutting the hair afterwards) which can lead to infection of the hair follicle. Vintage, double-edge razors have a single blade that cuts the hair, which is less irritating to the follicle. While vintage razors are generally high quality, as with most things, there are good and bad brands and models.
What are the good production years/brands/models?
The best vintage razors were produced by Gillette from the 1940s to the 1970s. To figure out the year of production, look under (or inside) the head of the razor for a letter and a number. Then look up that code on this page, and you can find the production year. Models before the 1940s are quality make, but are mostly screw-on heads, which don’t work as well. Some models have no date code — notably the 1948-1949 Gillette SuperSpeed, which is my favorite razor.
Gillette is the only really good vintage brand. Other brands such as GEM and Schick were produced, but Gillette held several important patents, and produced the butterfly-opening razors which are the most desirable.
Other best models are the butterfly-opening type, and the nicest to start with are the adjustable models. The butterfly models are preferable because while the screw-on types of razors can deliver a nice shave, the ease of access to the blade area in butterflies is excellent for rinsing out detritus during and after shaving as well as for changing out blades.
The adjustables are great because they have a do-dad on the handle that adjusts the distance of the safety bars from the blade, which allows the shaver to adjust for the task at hand; are they chopping off a thick beard, or are they trying to get a close shave on a delicate area of skin?
Where do I get one? What is a reasonable price to pay?
You can get them on Etsy, through internet shaving forums, and at antique shops. The highest quality one I have (a rhodium plated Presidente in perfect condition) I got at an antique shop for $3. There are tons of great razors laying neglected in antique shops! If you do go to an antique store, go armed with information about models, years, and styles of razors. You don’t want just any vintage razor!
A reasonable price range is between $10-40. Fifty bucks for a razor is the tops I would pay for a really, really nice one with the original case. Often you can find them for much less, sitting on the shelf of an antique store, covered in soap scum but otherwise fully functional. Back then, they were designed to be used for a lifetime at least, not thrown out when the next model became available.
What blades should I get?
Get several sample packs from different brands. The “right” blade brand seems to vary for different people, so give them a variety and they can find out what they like. Finding the right blade brand might take some persistence, but many online retailers offer a variety pack of five blades from different manufacturers, and there will be a noticeable difference for the shaver once a good one is found. Some good blades to try include Derby, Feather, Israeli-made Personna, Bic, Astra, and Wilkinson-Sword.
Are there any necessary accessories?
A nice soap is good — it doesn’t need to be $7 a bar (I use $1.19 sandalwood soap from Vitamin Cottage), but don’t use Irish Spring or similar. Clear glycerine soaps provide nice lubrication; either way avoid very strongly scented soaps which can irritate the skin.
Using a modern shaving cream can work, but the convenience of an already formed foam can lead to rushing the job and the result in razor burn. Instead, it’s best to use bar soap and take the time to massage a lather into the beard for a couple minutes prior to shaving. Shaving brushes and bowls are awesome, but not necessary.
If you want to get a brush, don’t buy a vintage brush — often these are worn out and the glues are deteriorating. Instead, Crabtree and Evelyn offers a “Best Badger” brush which is a great compromise between quality and cost, if you really want to get one.
If the recipient(s) want pointers on use, where can they look for instructions?
How do I clean an old razor?
Don’t be afraid to buy a really scummy old razor! They’re simple to clean; just scrub the bejesus out of them with a toothbrush and dish soap. Let dry, then soak in mineral oil bath. Remove from bath and wipe off the oil with a cloth and ta-da! Good as new.
Will vintage razors work for shaving body hair?
Certainly people used these kinds of razors back in the day for shaving body hair, but are they preferable to modern models? In my opinion, maybe. I have a BEAUTIFUL early 1900s razor that practically eats my legs. It is lovely, but not functional. I have used my guy’s mini vintage razor on my armpits, and I like it.
I have also tried his razors on my legs and they’re so-so for me. They get a little razor burn-y, but then, I like to shave quickly, so I’m not as patient as I probably should be. You could certainly give it a try!