You know, it occurred to me recently, while visiting the local barbershop for a haircut and a real, honest-to-goodness straight razor shave, that companies like Schick and Gillette must really make a killing on the sale of "disposable" razor blades. Considering that the basis of the "scam," started pre-1920, was to "...give away the razor and charge for the blades..." (a lot like current inkjet technology, huh?) the sheer insanity of the price of these blades must guarantee that the aforementioned companies net a tidy profit off of these "consumables."
I also find it interesting that, all over the Internet, there are banner ads trying to sell you the "secret" of never having to spend <$100/year on razor blades again. Could I have stumbled on their "secret?" If so, I'm about to share it with all of you.
First of all, let me clarify that when I refer to "razor blades" I am most likely referring to "razor cartridges"--which have several individual metal blades, springs, and a blade frame in common--all held together by adhesive or, in most cases, sonic welding. These cartridges are made to be almost hyper-proprietary so they will only "fit" onto a specific razor handle. I hope that I do not confuse you by indiscriminately mis-naming things. Except when I am mentioning an old-fashioned barber's straight razor I am talking about "razor blade cartridges" in this writeup. Now that that's a bit clearer, I'll begin.
Well, knowing a bit about metallurgy, I decided to see if there might be a way for the "everyday Man" (or Woman) to get around spending on average of $20/mo on "disposable" blades. Here's what I found--with the help of the laboratory and the electron microscope of ABC Metals, a very kind company who let me use their facilities for this purpose:
Most importantly, the great enemy of all razor blades is undoubtedly oxidation--what "normal" humans like to call "rust." Because of the environment in which blades are used, rust is endemic. I found that simply drying the blade with a hair dryer after use prolonged its life by a factor of three. But we're not going to stop there!
Like any metal, razor blades are made with certain trade-offs. Blades must be ductile (soft) enough to flex and to be given an edge to begin with, yet tempered (hard) enough to hold an edge. Let's not forget that the steel used in disposable razors has one MAJOR requirement to the manufacturers also--cheapness. Hence oxidation resistance is very low on the list of requirements for the steel stock these companies use. For them, the "trick" is to make this low-carbon steel hard (and sharp) enough to make one exclaim something akin to "WOW! I have never had a better shave in my life!" upon a first shave but not hard enough to hold that sharp edge for TOO long, hence slowing the sale of their staple product.
It must be a fine line--the "bleeding edge" if you'll excuse the cheap pun--to pull this off in a mass-production environment...or so we'd be led to think to justify paying $16 for six (6) razor blades that likely cost pennies per unit to stamp out.
The same is true of the barber's straight razor--it's composition is also a trade-off...but less so since the barber uses a leather strap (the "strop") to hone the edge of the blade before each use. This ensures a keen shave, time after time. Stropping also removes surface oxidation, which dulls the blade tremendously. Thus, the barber's straight razor can be used time and again for a period of decades...after all, it is always being sharpened. Most good straight razors also have the advantage of being made with the best high-carbon steel money can reasonably buy--hence their steep price tag yet amazing quality. It is my opinion that all men should, at least once in their lives, accumulate a few days of beard growth and have it shaved by an old, experienced barber with a straight razor--the results are nothing short of amazing.
My idea came to me while watching the barber thoroughly strop his razor before shaving me. I thought to myself, "...is there ANY reason why cartridge-type razor blades cannot be honed (stropped) like this man's trusty straight razor?"
Turns out, there is no reason whatsoever that they cannot be! Using electron microscopy and much trial and error I found out the best way to do it, and the best material to do it with (so far). As I continue to test, I will update this writeup.
I will not bore you with my various experimentations but, as it turns out, a disposable razor cartridge (I use a Gillette Mach 5) can be made to last many times longer than "normal" if you hone it and assiduously dry it after use. I have now used one blade for nearly seven months by simply drying and re-honing.
The honing procedure is simple and can be done in seconds. I do it like so:
After making sure that there are no clumps of whiskers stuck between the blades--which there should not be if you thoroughly cleaned and dried your razor after its last use--I put on a pair of denim jeans. The cheaper brands tend to work better as the denim has more of a nap to it. Now, pretend that your leg is your cheek and "shave" the stretched denim towards you using the same angle of cut you use on your face 15-20 times with the blade to be sharpened attached to the "handle." Now repeat this process at the same angle as before but push the razor away from you 15-20 times. Be sure to clean any lint that may have gathered on the blade off before attempting to use it! Well-used denim will almost never leave much lint and the results only appear to differ by >10% (favoring the less-used fabric).
Your razor blade(s) are now honed. Don't forget to think of me when your next shave is comfortable and close--as will be the next few months of shaves--with the same blade!
This process seems to work best with three to five-blade cartridges as honing angles do not make as much of a difference. It seems the "extra" blades act as guides of a sort making it far less challenging to get honing angles correct.
While this process works pretty darn good with disposable (all-plastic) RAZORS you will notice the best results by far employing this method with good-quality disposable CARTRIDGES. Disposable razors use steel that is often obtained as scrap from the steel-slitting industry and it is fraught with microscopic cracks, burrs, and sometimes chemical impurities such as fluorocarbon/hydrocarbon-based cutting lubricants. Its best to avoid those beasts altogether in my opinion.
Finally, remember that, as always, all good things must come to an end. The steel used in these blades is, as we discussed earlier, not very good to begin with--and after losing their initial keen tempered edge you are simply re-honing them for use over and over again. Eventually you run out of steel to hone--but long before this happens angles are changed, the cartridge's "presentation spring" (the leaf spring that pushes the individual blades up to your skin) wears so the individual blades can no longer contact the skin evenly (or at all), and the heat generated from rubbing them against the denim causes them to molecularly soften at the edge--meaning that eventually a hone may not last through an entire shaving session anymore. You reach the point of trade-off--for the more you re-hone the softer the edge becomes. Soft steel can be honed, but will not "hold" it's honed edge for very long. When any of the aforementioned "symptoms" are even hinted at its time for a "factory fresh" cartridge.
That's fine with me though...I'd rather spend $16 per YEAR than $16 every 2-3 weeks any day.