I Didn’t Know What Approach to This Post I Should Take…..
At first, I wanted to show the evolution of double edge razor blades using a historical approach. That seemed more than appropriate.
Then I got to thinking……. many wet shavers do not understand the basic differences between steel quality and blade coating technologies to be informed enough to select a blade that they have not tried just yet. So in this post we will look at some of the many of the technologies involved in finding your potentially perfect blade.
Where to Start?
First let’s see how basic double edge razor blades are manufactured.
Isn’t it incredible that there can be so many steps for a finished product that costs only pennies to buy! And, that is after the manufacturer takes their markup, the distributor takes a markup as well, and finally the retailer adds theirs.
So let’s go through some of the steps explained in the video and try to understand what is going on.
Section 1 – Choice of Steel
Bet you shaved this morning with Chinese Steel and You Didn’t Know It!
The type and quality of the steel used will dictate not only the longevity of the blade, but also its shaving characteristics. In this post we will only consider blades made of stainless steel.
Commercially produced steel has to meet some guidelines. For example, each steel grade has to have a maximum and minimum target carbon content, silicon content, nitrogen content and alloy content.
These are the top five countries that produce steel in the world……
- China (produces eight times more steel than #2 India. More than all the other 4 combined.)
- United States
Notice that Sweden is NOT on the list? In fact, it is only the 33rd largest producer of steel i n the world, and Swedish steel is not considered the best for making a sharp razor blade. I will explain below, Welcome to marketing 101!
Stainless steel is an alloy containing about 90–95 percent iron, 3–4 percent carbon, and traces of other elements such as manganese, silicon,and phosphorus depending on the ore used. Adding chromium in as an additional alloy makes the steel harden. But since the harder the steel is, the more difficult it is to sharpen, it is often used as a coating instead of as an alloy. We will explore this later on.
By the way, stainless steel absolutely rusts. Rust is your blade’s biggest enemy!
1 – China
In 2015, China produced 803.83 million metric tons of Crude Steel accounting for 50.3% of the world’s total production. Large scale production makes China’s steel cheaper and extremely competitive in the global market. (source: World Atlas.)
As far as making razor blades from Chinese steel is concerned, Chinese steel is actually very good! It is easy to sharpen because Chinese steel is softer than most. The iron ore that China uses to make its steel comes from Australia, which is no surprise because Australia has vast deposits, and supplies most of the rest of the world with the stuff.
So what are the characteristics of Chinese stainless steel with respect to making razor blades?
If made on good equipment, a blade made of Chinese steel should theoretically be sharper than blades made with many other country’s stainless.
But the draw back to Chinese steel as that Chinese steel can rust more easily than some other countries. This effects durability as microscopic rust particles will quickly degrade the blade sharpness. Also the steel is inherently soft. That will also affect the amount of shaves the blade will be used for. Many blades made of Chinese steel will give you 4 to 5 shaves (depending on other factors.)
Major Companies Using Chinese Steel are:
- Lord (all of their blades except the ones that are subcontracted such as Voskhod.)
- Treet all of their stainless blades.
- Gillette (Gillette Wilkinson Sword from China, and an obscure version of Gillette Ruby…)
- Many, though not all Chinese blades.
- Many smaller manufacturers with brand names such as Tiger, 7 am, etc.
- Timor – may be German, but their steel comes from China.
- Merkur (yes, true… but they do use chromium as a direct alloy in the steel to harden it…)
2 – India
Indian steel is almost ideal for making razor blades.
It is affordable and but slightly more expensive than Chinese steel. It is also somewhat harder than its Chinese counterpart. It handles rust very well because it has minimal porosity. This is because of its higher than average magnesium content. It sharpens easily because although it is harder than Chinese steel it is perhaps the perfect hardness to both sharpen, and hold its sharpness. Moreover, its quality is very consistent.
Major Companies Using India’s Steel Are:
- Gillette – Gillette Green, Gillette Yellow, Gillette Wilkinson Sword, Gillette Super Platinum (black), and Silver Blue made in India are made using Indian steel. Theoretically, since Indian steel is slightly inferior to Russian, these blades, get a bad rap. But blades Gillette manufactures in India will typically be better, because the plant is actually owned by Gillette themselves, and on the latest equipment. Gillette blades made in Russia do use a bit better steel, but the equipment that makes them is old, and the factory’s majority ownership is the Russian Government.
- Malhotra – Which manufactures Supermax, Centwin, Topaz, Laser and Zorrik brands as well as others, is actually the largest manufacturer of blades in the world.
- GreatWhite Global Pvt. Ltd. – makers of V12 brand blades.
- Topaz – Makes any blade with the Topaz name.
3 – Japan
I firmly believe that any blade made with Japanese or USA steel has to be good. Both countries charge over the average world price.
Japanese steel may not be the best choice in blade making because it is quite expensive. But Japonese steel is really hard, making it difficult to sharpen, but if the best equipment is used to sharpen it, the results can be fantastic.
Major Companies Using Japanese Steel are:
- KAI – that makes sense.
- Feather – that also makes sense. including the Kai and Feather brands.
- German Personna – Persona White. (Surprise!)
- Bolzano – a case in point of a company using great steel with poor equipment.
- BIC – Yes BIC. Good quality blades
4 – Russia
Russian steel is ideal. It is just a touch harder than Indian steel but still easily sharpened. Russian steel also has a higher percentage of magnesium in it so it is more rust resistant. It is more expensive than Chinese or Indian steel. It also has good porosity which allows it to be plated very easily.
Companies That Use Russian Steel
- Gillette – (well the Gillette name anyway…) Gillette is a minority shareholder in the company that produces its Russian blades. The other shareholder? The Russian Government! except for Gillette Wilkinson Sword, all Gillette branded blades are made in Russia, some as stated above, are made in India, or China. Here is a complete list of Gillette’s blades that are made in St. Petersburg Russia.
-Gillette Silver Blue
-Gillette Rubie Platinum Plus
-Gillette Super Silver (out of production)
-Gillette 7 OC Green
-Gillette 7 OC Yellow
–Gillette Bleue Extra
-Gillette Stainless (Red Box)
- Prago Union – A Czechoslovakian company which manufactures double edge blades and twin blade systems sold under Tiger brand names. (Used to make ASTRA. Now owned by Gillette.)
- Leninets – Leninets mostly manufactures double edge blades, and with some systems blades, in its Leningrad factory. These blades are a domestic product and are not exported.
- Mostoglamesh – Another large manufacturer in the Soviet Union with an estimated capacity of about 700 million blades, mostly double edge for the domestic market. Their products include Rapira, Voskhod, Ladas, and Sharpstar.
- Permatik – Permatik’s headquarters are in Turkey where it manufactures double edge blades, single and twin disposable razors, about half of which were sold in Turkey and the remainder exported. Its major export market is the Soviet Union. Its 1989 sales volume is estimated at $30 million. It markets the Permasharp brand.
- Derby – All of its blades except Blue Bird which is made from Turkish steel.
5 – USA
Chock one up for the home team!
U.S. steel is absolutely the best steel for the purpose of making double edge razor blades. It features superior hardness, excellent rust resistance, and though hard, it is not so hard that it cannot be sharpened easily.
But U.S. steel is expensive, and while the commodity price for steel has dropped slightly worldwide, American steel hasn’t, thus making it more expensive. Case in point, Baili (a Chinese blade manufacturer,) makes blades out of Chinese steel, Indian steel, and U.S. steel. The Indian steel blades (now discontinued,) sold for 25% more than the Chinese steel blades. The U.S. steel blades were 100% more expensive. All three blades were made on the same equipment, with the same coatings.
Companies That Use U.S. Steel
- Baili – Only the green labeled blades. Meh…..
- Personna USA – One thing I can never understand is how Persona can make excellent DE blades at affordable prices, using U.S. steel, manufactured on world class equipment, and in the USA. Gillette are you listening??? Personna Lab Blues are one heck of a deal. Personna Med Preps are perhaps one of the sharpest and smothest blades you can get.
- Personna Israel – All Israeli lades including Personna, Crystal, and Edison are all made with U.S. steel.
- Wilkinson Sword – The garden variety of Wilkinson Sword blades (the ones in the black plastic dispensers,) are made with U.S. steel. They were also the world’s first commercially produced coated blades.
So What About Swedish Steel??
Sweden is not a large producer of steel at all (number 33 in world rankings…) Sweden does have the highest grade of iron ore in the world. This leeds to a rather unique steel. Its characteristics are superior hardness, and little porosity. Sounds great eh? Well…….
Swedish steel is hard to sharpen and hard to plate. There are really very few Swedish steel blades on the market…. (many Chinese companies say that they use it, but few actually do.)
One blade that is 100% made with Swedish steel is the Rapira Swedish Supersteel. Like all true Swedish steel blades, it is uncoated and not really very sharp at all. But you can get many consistent shaves out of these blades. But Swedish steel blades are not for everyone.
Honorable Mention – South Korea
Similar in quality and hardness to Japonese steel, Korean steel is a lot less expensive. All Dorco products are made with Korean steel.
Section 2 – Manufacturing Equipment
I am not exactly an expert in this regard, but I have toured many plants that produce DE blades. After viewing several production lines, I decided that blade making technique is more important than the equipment that the blades are made on. So blade-making tradition and shop management is more important. Few DE blades are made in an ISO 9000 or better plant, so quality is largely a matter of tradition instead of documented policies and procedures. (I do want to point out however that 70% of all Chinese blade manufacturers plants are ISO 9000 or better. The same is true for Personna USA and all blades made in Israel.)
The Berger Blade Maker is a Fully Automated Single End-to-End Double Edge Blade Making Machine.
As far as manufacturing equipment is concerned there is a completely automated, modern, end to end blade making system that comes out of Germany. It is completely seamless. Steel goes in one end, finished, coated, and packaged blades come out the other. It is an end-to-end computerized process and makes excellent blades. There are three plants I know of that use this system. A Chinese company called Ying Jili. Personna of Germany. There is also a system in Israel that I know of, and possibly in Korea used by Dorco’s plant there, but not in their plant in Vietnam.
Section 3 – Coatings, Techniques and Misperceptions.
Most blades offered for sale are either stainless or coated in platinum. Others have a coating of teflon, chrome, titanium, or iridium. Some manufacturers use a process called “sputtering” to apply these coatings.
In general, coatings are applied for one of two reasons, either to extend the life of the blade, or to improve the comfort of shaving with them. However, coatings generally reduce blade sharpness.
A good case in point is the sharpness differential between Astra SP (coated with platinum…) and Astra SS (uncoated version of the same blade.) Both blades are made from the same steel, are produced on the same equipment, in the same factory, and made by the same workers.
Redefinedshave.com tests blades for sharpness, longevity, and overall performance over a series of shaves. The tests are objective although the authors commentary about the results are not. Although, I must admit that I really enjoy them.
A digital scale is used to hold a clip with a pre-tensioned piece of test media. The blade edge (in this case a razor blade) is then pushed against the test media until it is severed. The scale is programmed to record the maximum force required to cut the test media.
The logic is that the lower the force required, the sharper the blade. The grams required to sever the test media is then considered to be the sharpness value.
To be consistent, a jig has been fabricated to hold the razor blade. Brass strips are used to make sure there is no bend in the blade, and the blade itself is affixed to sliding rails to make sure all the blades sever the test media clip at exactly the same angle.
In the tests, the LOWER the values, the sharper and more durable the blade. For example, the sharpness of a Feather blade is 32. The sharpness of a Derby Extra is measured as 53. Quite a difference with the Feather blade being far sharper. No surprise there.
Astra SP Sharpness and Durability.
Here are the sharpness and durability results for Astra SP.
Initial Sharpness = 49
Average Sharpness = 46
Edge Retention = 0.90
Smoothness = 3/5
Overall Subjective Rating = 3/5
Platinum Coated. Made in Russia.
Astra SS Sharpness and Durability.
Here are the sharpness and durability results for Astra SS.
Initial Sharpness = 43
Average Sharpness = 40
Edge Retention = 0.93
Smoothness = 5/5
Overall Subjective Rating = 5/5
Stainless Steel. Made in Russia.
As you can see, the Astra SS, an uncoated version of the EXACT SAME BLADE is a lot sharper, more consistent, and smother too! It is obvious that by direct comparison, a well-made uncoated blade can be smoother and sharper than an coated one.
So the Question Becomes – Are Blade Coatings Actually Worth Anything in the Real World??
Well “yes” and no. For the most part “sort of”…….
Because the coatings of the modern DE blades will be so similar, what really matters more is the manufacturing process around how the blade is sharpened. That’s what’s going to account for a very large majority of its performance while you use it.
Until 1960, Double Edge razor blades were made of carbon steel. Carbon steel can produce extremely sharp blades. But carbon steel rusts quickly, so the blade sharpness degrades quickly as microscopic rust particles form on the blade.
Almost all DE blades today are made of stainless steel. Coatings are the super duper thin layers of… well, “coatings” that are on top of the stainless steel itself. Coatings are added to reduce corrosion, improve smoothness (reduce tugging or skipping of the blade), and improve hardness (longevity).
Coatings That May Prolong Blade Life.
1 – Chromium – Good quality stainless steel will have chromium as an alloy in the steel itself. The chromium in the steel forms a very thin layer of oxide that prevents the iron from rusting. Because microscopic rust is the mortal enemy of blade sharpness, chromium is very important to blade manufacture as it extends the life of the blade.
Chromium plating should not be necessary if the steel used is good in the first place because it inhibits rust.
Chromium plating is durable however, and adheres easily to more porous steel such as Chinese steel. However, Chromium is a difficult alloy to apply. Blades should not need to plated with chromium, but if they are, there is a benefit but mostly if a poorer quality stainless steel is used.
2 – Titanium – is perhaps the answer to a question that nobody asked. Steel is harder than titanium.
Blades made from high grade steel last for longer than blades made out of titanium itself, so why use it to “harden” the steel? This is because steel often takes longer to deform than titanium. A titanium coated blade however, even if it has softer, high carbon stainless 440C steel underneath, will be almost impossible to break.
So, contrary to the popular misconception, titanium will not harden the blade edge so that it stays sharp. It will however, make the blade less brittle. That lowers the reject rate of the blades themselves, which only benefits the manufacturer.
Coatings That May Improve the Smoothness of Your Shave.
3 – Teflon – First of all Teflon was invented in 1938. So it is not the byproduct of the space age as many have been led to believe. Teflon’s actual chemical name is Polytetrafluoroethylene which is abbreviated to PTFE. So when a manufacturer says “PTFE Coated” please don’t think that it refers to some sort of elaborate secret formula of many eloborate things. Its just plain old Teflon!
Teflon may be the bees knees of blade coatings. Teflon is the plastic with the lowest coefficient of friction. It forms a weak bond with stainless steel, so it does wear off easily. It can easily be washed or wiped off, hence the warning not to wipe a razor blade.
It is applied in an extremely thin layer, so it doesn’t effect blade sharpness very much.
ALL DE STAINLESS STEEL BLADES MUST BE COATED WITH TEFLON! The steel edge itself needs a thin layer of Teflon to be smooth enough to use.
Some people maintain that Teflon is toxic. Untrue.
It is only its fumes that are slightly toxic. This would only be a problem if you were exposed to its manufacturing process, or heated it above 800 degrees. I don’t think that this concern is well founded.
Thumbs up to Teflon!
4 – Platinum – is a popular coating used in razor blade manufacture. It is actually extremely rare, yet it is used in about 20% of all consumer products. Platinum bonds well with steel. However there are a couple of concerns with Platinum.
First Platinum is quite expensive. For that reason Platinum may actually not be Platinum. The term “platinum” is sometimes used to refer to all of a group of five metallic elements that appear together on the periodic table and have similar physical and chemical properties. These platinum-group metals, or PGMs, include:
The upside of Platinum is that it makes the blade smoother to shave with and Like Chromium, it also protects the blade from rust.
But the second downside of Platinum is that it is usually coated in a layer of between two and five microns. This significantly dulls the blade, with one exception – Feather. They have a process that is unique to them and their Platinum coating is only .05 microns thick.
Section 4 – Summary and Conclusions:
There are so many variables in traditional shaving, these being:
- Skin type.
- Beard type.
- Direction of beard growth on different parts of the face.
- The prep that went into the shave.
- The type of soap, cream, or gel used for the shave.
- The various features and qualities of the razor including the blade gap, the balance point, the head geometry, and weight.
- Finally the blade that is used.
Double-edge safety razors are only as good in performance as the blade used. When you throw in a dull blade, do not expect jaw-dropping results. It is, as they say, garbage in, garbage out. Safety razor blades are not designed equally. They each have their distinguishing features. Some will work best with a certain type of safety razor or are best for beginners.
We all have so called “go to” blades. Blades that we favor and we are used to. But blades have personalities and so do razors. Sometimes our “go to” blade may not work well with our “go to” razor.
Never stop experimenting. Isn’t that part of the fun of traditional shaving in the first place? But when you find a razor / blade combination that works well for you, stick to it.
I did a ton of research to produce this post and I learned a lot in the process. As a manufacturer, I have seen blades being made, and have tried a ton.
Pro or con your comments are whole-heartedly appreciated.
Happy Shaving – Sheldon