"He then donned his waistcoat, and taking up a piece of hard soap on the wash-stand centre table, dipped it into water and commenced lathering his face. I was watching to see where he kept his razor, when lo and behold, he takes the harpoon from the bed corner, slips out the long wooden stock, unsheathes the head, whets it a little on his boot, and striding up to the bit of mirror against the wall, begins a vigorous scraping, or rather harpooning of his cheeks. Thinks I, Queequeg, this is using Rogers's best cutlery with a vengeance." [Hermann Melville, "Moby Dick, or: The Whale."]
Now, we don't know what steel the ship's blacksmith had available to him to produce Queequeg's harpoon. The obvious sharpness of the blade leads us to conclude that it must have been a carbonated steel of some kind. Thanks to a special hardening process, this steel reaches a value of 63 Rockwell (the famous Swiss Army Knife achieves "only" 55 Rockwell). Extreme hardness as a pre-requisite for extreme sharpness.
The relationship between hardness and sharpness is also used by the manufacturers of A.P. Donovan straight razors. The Japanese steel that they use has a high carbon content and allows enormously sharp blades to be manufactured. But how does a piece of steel get transformed into the high-quality straight razors in our store? To answer this question, we take a "sharp" look behind the scenes of the manufacturing process of our straight razors.
The raw material for the grip - mahogany
Carving the grip
Blank grips with stainless steel inserts
The manufacture of a straight razor begins with skilful work on heavy machines. Using a lathe, blanks are cut from long strips of steel. They are about the size of a straight razor blade, but apart from that, they bear no resemblance to the end product. After being heated in a furnace, the red-hot blanks are formed into the approximate shape of a blade using an extremely heavy die. After the blanks have cooled, the excess metal must be removed with extreme precision. Even at this stage, strict quality control applies in order to remove any faulty stampings.
This stage in the process defines the maximum sharpness of the finished blade. As a reminder: the harder the steel, the sharper the edge. The blank is dipped into graphite powder and then spends four minutes in a bath of molten lead. The graphite powder prevents the lead, which is heated to over 850 °C, from adhering to the blank. The steel then receives its extreme hardness and resistance in the next stage in the process, when it is dipped into a bath with a special, cold oil. This sudden drop in temperature often causes slight warping in the steel. Before grinding, all blanks are therefore checked by hand and realigned using a hammer.
Grinding the grips
Blank grips with stainless steel inserts
Grinding the groove
Hardening the straight razor blade
Re-heating a cooled, rinsed straight razor blade
Sharpening the blade
At this stage, the process switches from heavy work to fine detailing. After the sweaty effort of forging and hardening the steel comes the finely detailed grinding process. From this moment onward, the only factor affecting the quality of the finished product is the experience of the craftsman who grinds the blade. Firstly, the tip and the back of the blade are shaped. Afterwards, the grinder turns his attention to the tang and the tail. The razor can be opened later using the narrow, tapering tail. In addition, it acts as a support for one or more fingers when shaving with the razor. The tang serves as a link between the blade and the tail. The high-quality razors from A.P. Donovan's straight razor store feature the steel's hardness value and the "Hand Made" quality label on the tang of the blade. The tang also provides support for the fingers during shaving.
The initial grinding phase involves the craftsman preparing the blade to allow the final edge to be formed. The grind is a technical term for the part of the razor blade that will eventually form the cutting edge. At this stage, however, the blade is nonetheless far removed from being literally "razor sharp."
The next stage in the process creates the definitive difference between a straight razor blade and a normal knife blade: hollow grinding. While normal knife blades have a flat surface, razor blades are distinguished by their shape, which curves inwards. This unique quality gives the razor blade the highest possible degree of elasticity and suppleness, which are the key elements for a first-class shave. While blade grinders used to use natural sandstone as a grindstone, nowadays the hollow grinding machine features two small, synthetic emery stones made from magnesite. Depending on the required grinding strengths, grinding stones of various diameters can be used. After hollow grinding, the ridge that forms between the main part of the blade and the cutting edge must be filed down.
The straight razor blade is then sharpened slowly and gradually. The so-called thinning process involves the steel of the cutting edge being gradually ground down, resulting in a pronounced ridge on the blade. The blade grinder continually checks the sharpness of the blades by running his thumbs across the surface of the blade. Experienced grinders can recognize from the sound that is produced whether the desired sharpness has been achieved.
After thinning, any imperfections in the structure of the metal in the tang or tail are removed on the grinding or polishing machine. The straight razor blade then receives its finish. The tang and the tail are polished on the sisal disc, then grinding paste is applied and the blade is buffed to a mirror finish. A finishing touch is applied when the spine and cutting edge are polished to a blue or clear finish by adding chalk to the leather polishing disc.
The blade is now ready to be attached to the grip . Successfully attaching the blade requires extreme precision. In no circumstances must the blade touch the outside of the grip when it is attached. The grips of our straight razors are absolutely equal to the blades in terms of quality. In the first instance, African mahogany and Indian sandalwood are used. Just like our razor blades, they are prepared using complex craftsmanship and emphasize the individual character of each A.P. Donovan straight razor.
The final step of the manufacturing process is the strict quality control that each finished razor undergoes, before being stropped on the leather belt.
Strop the blade over the leather belt
Attaching the blade to the grip
Finished A.P. Donovan straight razor