Delusions About Shaving (Jan, 1933) (Jan, 1933)

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Delusions About Shaving

By J. G. Pratt

The author of this article has gained an international reputation for his remarkable work in high-powered microscopic photography, as Scientific Photographer for the Bureau of Entomology, U. S. Department of Agriculture, Washington, D. C. This article was prepared by special arrangement with the editors of this publication.

AMONG countless thousands of men who shave every morning before breakfast, probably few phases of the process equal in importance the factor of one’s own imagination.

In the following paragraphs it is not my intention to criticise any one’s personal habits, but merely to present a few scientific facts to help the man who does his own shaving, and perhaps guide him in the purchase of new razor accessories.

Many men continue to run a worn-out blade through a decrepit stropping device which, in its palmy days, had a negligible effect in the matter of improving the edge; and they imagine that they are thereby getting a first-class shave.

One man of my acquaintance, and a scientist at that, allows his used blades to collect in a bathroom receptacle for two years; and then pays his small boy thirty-five cents to rejuvenate them on about the least efficient stropping device I know of. And he is all set, he tells me, for another two years of comfortable shaving.

After a blade has been used and the pores in the steel are exposed to ordinary bathroom moisture rust and erosion (Fig. 1) in less than a month will so eat away the edge that little short of professional honing will enable that blade to mow again into a stubborn beard. And so this scientist’s claim will have to remain just another be-lieve-it-or-not.

If you wish to test the efficiency of your stropper (and there is nothing much better than a ten-cent holder and the old-fashioned razor strop), start with two new blades which you know should give a certain number of comfortable shaves. Use only one edge of each; you can mark them with a file if necessary. Use one on one side of the face without stropping; on the other side, strop the blade after each shave. If both blades begin to pull about the same time, you may know that the stropping is having little or no effect.

I hear many men, who claim to be razorwise, say that stropping the blade on the palm of the hand is all that is necessary to insure another smooth shave.

If there is any virtue in this process at all, it lies in its tendency to dry the blade; and perhaps the natural oil in the skin may tend to prevent the blade from rusting and becoming worse. But as far as sharpening it is concerned, Bah! The stropping devices have rollers of hard leather, in which-is incorporated an abrasive material; and, even with these, unless there is proper tension and a slicing motion, they have little effect in the matter of sharpening the edge.

I often hear it said that dipping the blade in hot water adds materially to the keenness of the edge; and advocates of this procedure cite the fact that it is followed by the professional barber.

It is true that the barber who adheres to the tenets of modern sanitation dips his blade in hot water —boiling water in fact—not to sharpen it however, but to sterilize it against possible germs. If there were any appreciable effect from the hot water, it would be in an adverse direction; for heat expands, and the edge of a blade enlarged a billion diameters would approximate in sharpness the blunt prow of a battleship.

Hot water on the face instead of the razor, however, tends to soften the beard and permits the razor to cut with greater ease.

A few years ago someone discovered that rubbing a safety blade around, inside a tumbler of water, sharpened it; and this idea has spread so rapidly that it is doubtless making considerable inroads into the business of the legitimate stropping machines. (Fig. 2.)

From the dawn of the razor industry it has been believed that the edge of the blade was endowed with microscopic teeth; that these became bent over; and that stropping brought them back into alignment, permitting further comfortable shaving —and drubbing on the concave surface of the tumbler would seem to accomplish the same result.

I have shown in a preceding article (January, 1932, issue) that the teeth on a razor blade are in the same category with the “hoopsnake” and the bunnies which lay our Easter eggs.

Under a microscope magnifying 1,000 diameters (Fig. 3), the edge appears perfectly straight; at 2,000 diameters and beyond, the edge appears wavy or scalloped (Fig. 4) according to the nature of the steel and the processes employed in its manufacture.

There are no teeth to straighten up, although the edge is bent over and blunted by shaving, as seen in Fig. 5; and there are two ways in which this can be corrected.

The blunted fibers can be worn down on a hone; or else, as with the stropping devices, they can be pushed

back into place toward the edge, as seen in Fig. 6.

It is these bent-over and blunted fibers which cause the blade to pull, and to merely compress them, by rubbing on a SMOOTH surface, would tend to leave a ridge where there should be a clean sharp edge. The process could not be expected to have a very beneficial effect.

In some cases, however, the tumbler actually does tend to sharpen the blade, but to a very mild degree; and I would venture a guess that the vast majority who are resorting to this practice are receiving no benefit from it at all.

With heavy blades, sufficient pressure can be exerted upon the edge to compress the bulged fibers a little and with such blades (the Gem, Metro, etc.) I have noted sufficient improvement to give me an extra shave; although further use of the tumbler proved futile.

With thin blades (such as Gillette, Probak, etc.) if there has been any improvement in the edge from the tumbler trick it has been too slight for me to be sure of it; and the reason is apparent from Fig. 7. The slightest pressure tends to bend the blade and throw the cutting edge out of contact with the glass; and, if it is bent to the contour of the tumbler, as seen in Fig. 8, it might just as well be rubbed on a flat surface.

In spite of what I consider ample proof to the contrary, I can point you out a dozen men of merely my own acquaintance who will declare that a turn or two in the tumbler is all that is necessary to insure a great number of perfect shaves.

If you want a better shave, throw away the tumbler and take a new blade; or else invest in a ten-cent holder, and strop your used blades, as you used to do the old straight razor.

One reason why I have dwelt at length upon the tumbler trick is that, at the present time, there are being put on the market devices which work upon the same principle; and, if you wish to spend good money for them, it will only go to show that the famous utterance is as true today as it was in the days of Barnum.

The above remarks about the tumbler, however, do not apply to certain various honing devices, which are of similar shape, and are also making their appearance in ever increasing numbers.

Although with these the average person will bend the blade to the concave surface, and therefore secure no results, they really have considerable merit if used properly.

With a heavy blade it is possible to perform a certain amount of grinding; but the blade should afterward be smoothed up on a regular stropper. With thin blades, even the slight pressure necessary to move the blade back and forth is generally sufficient to bend the edge out of contact, with the result that no improvement can be expected.

This difficulty can be overcome, however, by placing on top of the thin blade a flat plate of proper size, so that pressure upon the hone will be exerted upon the outside edges, Fig. 9.

With even greater rapidity than the tumbler trick, the notion has spread that a blade can be sharpened by drawing it between two steel balls.

A blade pressed up snug between the balls and looked at through a binocular microscope shows clearly, as seen in Fig. 10, that the cutting edge does not touch anything; whether the supposed sharpening is performed by magic or otherwise, I have not been able to learn. I have tried all the abracadabras in my limited collection, and have yet to find one that will cause this contraption to give me an extra shave.

Point “C” jams into the contours of the balls before edge “B” gets down into crotch “A.” Pressed with sufficient force, as seen in Fig. 11, contact at “C” separates the balls ; opening up a channel through which the edge “B” travels without hindrance.

If these balls were made about the size of BB-shot, the device might have a chance to do something ; but whether or not it would improve the blade to any great extent, is highly problematical.

Devices similar to the above are being sold by the million, the vendors cluttering vacant-store entrances wherever you go; and, whether the marvelous wood and hair cutting feats performed on a single blade before the gullible public are on the up-and-up, I will have to refer you again to Ripley.

Regarding these demonstrations which we have all watched with interest—to slice into a piece of paper with a new blade would ruin it for shaving purposes; to cut a match stem would so mutilate the edge that nothing short of honing would rectify it; and to hack into a stick of wood, or cut shavings from a piece of lead, and even hope that any treatment whatsoever could ever repair the damage, would be the height of folly.

Yet this is the demonstration used to sell certain abrasive dope for the razor strop ; and the legerdemain, which permits the agent to slice off a single hair after the blade has been thus abused, I have never been able to solve. If some reader will enlighten me, I will be greatly obliged.

I will say this for their product, however, that to an intelligent public such high-power salesmanship should not be necessary; for the blade holder and the little strop which accompany the stick of dope are well worth a quarter, and are all that is necessary to insure perfect reconditioning of used blades.

One fact that I should like to bring out, in closing, is that there are probably few things in life as variable as men’s whiskers ; and, although they all seem to fall before the straight blade of the barber, such is not the case with the modern safety razor.

A razor that will give smooth and comfortable shaving to one person may be entirely inadequate on a beard and skin of different texture.

Doubtless seeking a way out of the depression, new firms are springing up almost over night and are flooding the market with blades whose names are legion. But I am glad to say that their products are getting better all the time; and, instead of two or three shaves as heretofore, the tendency is to produce blades that will give many times that number; but you must find the one which suits your individual needs.

The man whom I employ to conduct most of my shaving experiments—on account of his tender skin and bristles which would do justice to a modern Moses—came to me recently highly elated with the fact that he had just gotten fifteen perfect shaves, without stropping from the Whoosis Razor, which had just come out.

Of course I secured one, to add to my collection if nothing more, but one shave showed that it was not for me. I drew blood in three places, besides nipping off a slice of my lip.

Although I have a cabinet full of razors, all the modern ones, and ancient ones dating back to the Roman days, I must confess that, when shaving for comfort and not for some scientific test, I use probably the cheapest blade on the market (as it retails four for a dime at the ten-cent stores). With this blade shaving is such a quick and pleasant procedure that I have tried to interest some of my friends ; but, more often than not, after a single trial, they return it with an adverse report.

  1. hip2b2 says: July 25, 20069:00 pm

    I have a collection on about a dozen sharpeners of different design. It is interesting to me (having grown up in an era of disposable everything) that people were at one time reluctant to dispose of something that was DESIGNED to be thrown out.

  2. Unstropped vs Stropped Edge says: December 15, 20124:46 pm

    […] some more old, related pics. (DE […]

  3. More information | Later On says: February 15, 20164:45 pm

    […] article (from Jan 1933 Popular Mechanix) on the futility of honing DE blades. Worth reading, since the delusion that it works is perennial. (The magazine at the time was called Science and […]

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