...SO WHAT DO WE MEAN BY "HANDMADE" ANYWAY?
The first few months of Portland Razor Co. had left us deflated while answering the happy hour staple, "what do you do?". Setting aside that making straight razors is almost certainly unanticipated by any enquirer this century, what actually left us feeling this way was the misunderstanding of the word "make". On more than one occasion after discussing our work for 10 minutes or more, we were confronted by the following question:
"...so, where do you get the blades from?"
The more we discuss this with clients and fellow makers, the less surprising such a response feels. The well-known reality is that the United States does not manufacture THINGS anymore, so the fact that we start each straight razor with a sheet of steel, some pieces of wood or acrylic, and a teaspoon of hardware IS surprising.
Here is a look into how we "make" a straight razor from start to finish at our shop in Portland, OR.
STEP 1. Gather Materials
Portland Razor Co. starts every straight razor with the highest quality materials that you see here:
1. A piece of O1 Tool Steel for the blade of the straight razor.
2. A sheet of wood or acrylic for the scales of the straight razor. A piece of walnut is pictured here.
3. A length of brass rod and washers for pinning the blade into the scales.
STEP 2. Waterjetting / Tracing & Bandsawing the Blade
Our standard-production razors begin at Portland Waterjet, where our O1 steel stock is cut with a high-pressure stream of water and abrasive to define each straight razor's overall profile, including the jimps. These individual pieces are called the straight razor "blanks." This process reduces material waste and increases overall consistency within the standard product line.
For custom straight razor shapes, we start by tracing a handmade template onto our piece of steel. Then we cut out that basic straight razor shape on a bandsaw.
STEP 3. Initial Grinding
Once our blank is prepared, we perform initial grinding. This is done on a belt grinder equipped with a coarse-grit ceramic belt. As you can see in the photo, the contact wheel of the grinder forms the "hollow grind" of this straight razor. All Portland Razor Co. straight razors are finished with a "quarter-hollow" grind.
STEP 4. Filing
The last step before heat treating is filing the details into the straight razor. This may include decorative file work, notches near the heel and the point of the blade, as well as jimps along the tang and the spine.
STEP 5. Heat Treating
Heat treating is one of the most crucial steps in making a good straight razor.
Using a knife kiln, the straight razor is slowly ramped up to critical temperature, and then allowed to cool in air. This normalizing process helps to reduce stress and grain size in the steel.
Next, the razor is slowly ramped up to critical temperature again. This time it is held at critical temperature for 20 minutes. This soaking process ensures all parts of the blade are evenly heated.
The razor is then quickly moved from the kiln to a preheated oil quench bath and allowed to cool. During this quenching process, the razor becomes hardened.
After quenching, the razor is moved to the tempering oven. It then undergoes two tempering cycles and reaches a final hardness of 62HRC.
STEP 6. Surface Grinding
After heat treating, the razor is ready for final grinding. The decarburized metal is removed from the outside of the razor until the blade is nearly sharp. Finer and finer grit belts are used until the desired polish is achieved. Extra care is taken to make sure that the razor stays cools during grinding, so that the temper of the blade is not compromised.
STEP 7. Branding and Custom Markings
What is a product without a brand? To make our mark on the razor, we use Thermark. The Thermark paste is applied to the blade and a CO2 laser burns a very accurate, high contrast, abrasion resistant marking onto all of our straight razors. The result is an incredibly durable marking that will last for generations. This new technology allows us to create more intricate markings and open up more possibilities for razor personalization. As always, we strive to constantly improve our product and stay on the cutting edge of antiquity!
STEP 8. Final Polish
It is time to give the straight razor a high polish with some time on soft muslin buffing wheels. Once again, extra care is taken to make sure the temper of the razor is not compromised.
STEP 9. Assembly
It is time to put the blade into the scales! Before this point, the scales have been cut out, glued together, shaped and polished. In the case of hardwood scales, we have also sealed them with an oil & urethane finish. The pin is inserted into a pre-drilled hole in the scales and the tang of the razor to form the hinge. We use a small ball peen hammer to secure the washers and the pin. It sounds like this:
"tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap
tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap tap
tap tap tap...."
STEP 10. Sharpening and Honing
Now it's time to put a shave ready edge on the razor!
The bevel is initially set on a coarse diamond stone. We move the razor through finer and finer grit waterstones to refine the edge. The last stone the edge touches is a 12,000 grit Japanese waterstone.
Lastly, the razor is stropped on leather. We then perform a hanging hair test across the entire length of the blade to ensure even sharpness.