Sep/Oct 2012





Staff Writer

Blowin' Smoke



STRAIGHT RAZORS - where they came from

Back in the days in which we are interested, people seemed to retain a lot of facial hair. Many men of the laboring class, and some who were of the upper class as well, shaved regularly, but mostly once a week. Judging by that, it could be supposed that using a straight razor was a real chore. From my own experience I know that sharpening with a hone and stropping with a leather strap is not an onerous task. In fact I have rather enjoyed that job. The shaving, though, can be a different matter entirely depending on the skill of the shaver, the patience of the shavee, and the grade of the razor.

The manufacturing of straight razors was not a simple matter. The tradesmen who made them, usually in a factory, was termed a Cutler. The process he used for razors was initially the same as for making knives. They could be made of steel or iron. He began with a bar of the finest iron, the Swedish being preferred. It is covered with powdered charcoal and heated to a white color protected from exposure to air for several days. This resulted in a hard, white, crystalline texture that is blistered on the surface. By either binding several of these together or by melting them and pouring the melt called cast steel, into molds of the desired size, they were prepared for use.

The work proceeded from one small room to another, each having a fireplace, a trough of water and another for specially prepared coke. There were also an anvil, hammers and other tools of the trade, and two people to work each room; one the forger, the other the striker. The forger put the (now steel) bar in the forge and heated it to the desired requirement. This act required lots of knowledge. Too much heat and the metal overheated, or burned, and became unfit for use for cutting.  But. . .it had to be heated enough so that it would possess the necessary softness to be worked.

After it was heated sufficiently, the striker put it on an anvil and hit it a few licks to get it to the desired shape. Then the rough blade was cut off from the bar. Next, iron was welded to the rough knife for a bolster. To form the bolster the iron was put into a die and with a swage in place given a few hits with a hammer. The tang (of iron) was likewise welded on. Both the bolster and tang were roughly finished.

Now to consolidate the steel and make it brighter, the blade was heated again and hammered some more. It was then heated to a dull red and the company’s trademark made by use of a punch-die and hammer.  After that the most important part of work began: hardening and tempering of the blade. On this would depend the actual value of the product. The blade was hardened by heating it to a bright red and plunged it perpendicularly into cold water. That made it very hard but also brittle. That was taken care of by tempering. The hard blade was scoured with a very fine sand to remove all scales, then placed on a tray of steel and put into the fire until they had turned a bright blue color. This was important and the workman had only his eyes and experience by which to judge. The blades, now hardened and tempered, were then inspected by a manager who tested them in several rigorous ways.

If the blade passed inspection, it was sent to the grinding mill (known as the wheel). The grinding was done on stones of various qualities and sizes. There were rough grit stones, and finer and smoother grained stones and also whitning stones. This process deserves a bit of explanation. The wheels sat just above a tank of water so that they are always a bit wet. A flat stick was used to hold the blade to the stone and when they were done they were ground on a glazer, a four foot diameter wheel of wood covered with leather and prepared with a mixture of beeswax, tallow, and emery.

In forging the razor was worked on an anvil with rounded edges, thus gaining its concavity.  Instead of welding on a bolster and tang, (the razor not having a bolster) the tang was drawn out. Finally it went to grinding. Higher priced blades got special treatment. The wheels used for them were much smaller and took a lot more labor. The razors that were ground on the larger, coarser, wheels were of a much cheaper grade─you got what you paid for. Once it was glazed to a fine shine and passed a final inspection it was ready for market.

The next time you shave consider why the characters in our time of interest may have eschewed the chore of shaving.


Bill Cunningham

NAF #006


 Page 9     


This website may not be reproduced in part or in whole without the written permission of the North American Frontiersmen. All Rights Reserved, Copyrighted 2005-2013.