History

A Brief and Questionably Accurate Explanation of Carbon and Stainless Steel Razor Blades

You have probably never asked yourself whether you use a carbon or stainless steel razor blade (perhaps because normality abounds in your life).  It’s not a question that gets asked often, and because nearly all razor blades are made out of stainless steel, whether in a cartridge or double-edge, it’s a question with an easy answer.  But that wasn’t always the case.

The exact history is somewhat murky, but here is what I’ve been able to learn…

When Gillette introduced the double-edge safety razor in 1904 all blades were made out of carbon steel, and this continued for almost 60 years.  Using carbon steel created a significant problem though: because of the water involved in shaving there was significant risk that a blade would become rusty even over just a few days use, requiring either close care or frequent replacement.

To combat this Gillette turned to metallurgists to do science-y things.  By 1945 they began experimenting with coating the blades with a thin layer of other material to protect them, and in short order they turned to polytetraflouroethylne (PTFE), better known as Teflon.  They discovered that they could create a blade which, though initially slightly inferior than an untreated razor, would break in after a shave or two and then provide a sharper, longer lasting edge (for those of you interested in details of this, which go over my head, check out the above link).

This all came to a head in the 1960’s, when stainless steel was introduced.  Depending on who you ask it was either Gillette or Wilkinson Sword who was the first to bring stainless steel to market, but by the mid-sixties it was conquering the market.  The blades, often coated with PTFE as well, would last far longer than carbon steel resulting in much reduced need to purchase replacements.  With patents expiring, fierce competition, and emerging products that required less purchases, it is little surprise that within a decade of stainless steel blades hitting the market that Gillette introduced the first cartridge razor blade, setting the course of modern shaving.

So if during that brief window stainless steel so thoroughly stomped on carbon steel, why use them?  Stainless is so preferred, after all, that there are only a handful of brands that use carbon and most of these can be tough to come by (and only one that I know of that doesn’t use PTFE, a Treet brand nicknamed “black beauty”). 

The edge. Carbon steel hasn’t completely died off because they offer a great edge.  There is some debate over whether stainless steel or carbon steel blades are harder, and which one degrades faster, but most seem to agree that carbon steel offers an unusually sharp edge at the very beginning.  While some say that the carbon steel dulls faster, others contend that the material allows for the edge to be kept far longer than with stainless, and even stropped for longer use.

At the same time, while carbon steel razors are comparable to stainless steel blades, their relative price has plummeted over the decades.  Even if the blades are not cared for closely and require more frequent replacement, the cost is still so low that it is not economically prohibitive.  If you use twice as many blades, replacing them more frequently, the cost difference amounts to just a few dollars a year (if that).  The economic incentive of stainless, while still there, has been greatly reduced.

While the benefits of the two can be debated, what can’t be dismissed is that stainless steel remains the dominant force on the market.  It is ironic that a method which draws so heavily on heritage and use of techniques and designs that have been around for a century primarily uses blades that appeared within the last few decades. 

But if you want to try the type of razor blade that safety razors were originally built for you’ve still got options.  Not many, but they’re out there. 

Advertisements

Washington Monument Re-Opening

Few monuments are as iconic of Washington, DC as the Washington Monument.  Built over several decades in the mid 1800’s, it stood as the tallest structure on earth for four years (surpassed by the Eiffel Tower) and remains the world’s tallest free-standing masonry structure.

IMAG1743

The obelisk towers over the National Mall, dominating the other monuments.

It was damaged in the 2011 Virginia earthquake, and has been closed for almost three years now.  Yesterday the monument re-opened, and we managed to get in on the second tour!

Oooh, fancy!

Oooh, fancy!

While tickets are normally reserved online, for the re-opening they were available on a first-come-first-served basis.  We got down there nice and early, lining up at the monument kiosk/center.  Half an hour later we had tickets in hand for 1:30, and several hours to kill.

Located just east of the monument, I have no idea what's in this building aside from restrooms.

Located just east of the monument, I have no idea what’s in this building aside from restrooms.

We first headed down to the Lincoln Memorial.  Located about a mile west of the Washington Monument, with the WWII memorial and reflecting pool directly in between, it’s a pleasant walk in good weather.  The Lincoln Memorial itself is extremely impressive, and the massive amount of stone creates for a naturally cool interior where you can see the famous statue.

The National Parks Police officer there also had a chair, but Lincoln's is far more impressive.

The National Parks Police officer there also had a chair, but Lincoln’s is far more impressive.

Even from there, the Washington Monument looms across the reflecting pool.

Jenny!

Jenny!

We visited the National History Museum, the Smithsonian Castle, and got some lunch at Good Stuff (by the capitol building).  After that it was time to head back for the tour, and after some security checks and ranger instructions we were inside!  While you used to walk all the way to the top (if this is still offered, I want to do it sometime), you now take an elevator up the middle of the column.

It was one of the most impressive elevators I've seen.

It was one of the most impressive elevators I’ve seen.

The view from the top was spectacular.  In an area where you normally can’t see for any great distance, we were able to spot buildings and landmarks over ten miles away (nothing compared to Arizona or Utah distances, but for the East coast it’s a long way).

Looking to the west, WWII memorial and Lincoln on the line, Arlington Cemetery  across the bridge.

Looking to the west, WWII memorial and Lincoln on the line, Arlington Cemetery across the bridge.

Looking to the South, the Jefferson Memorial and Reagan National Airport.

Looking to the South, the Jefferson Memorial and Reagan National Airport.

Looking to the north.  The White House, Treasury, OEOB, etc.  In the distance, on the horizon, is a white building: the Mormon temple, over 10 miles away.

Looking to the north. The White House, Treasury, OEOB, etc. In the distance, on the horizon, is a white building: the Mormon temple, over 10 miles away.

Looking to the east.  The capitol building and most of the Smithsonians visible.

Looking to the east. The capitol building and most of the Smithsonians visible.

It was a really incredible experience, if you’re ever in DC I recommend you get some tickets.  It was my first time, but I hope it won’t be my last.

Marine Corps Museum

You can see the peak from the I-95 looming over the trees, it's very imposing.

You can see the peak from the I-95 looming over the trees, it’s very imposing.

My wife and I took a trip down to Quantico this last weekend to see the National Marine Corps Museum, and let me just say, if you’re ever in the DC area it’s a place worth seeing. 

My family doesn’t have ties to the Corps, we’ve always been Army and more recently Navy, and so the Marines were always the rivals.  But, I’ve got respect for what they do, they do their job well, and the museum is an amazing experience for anyone with a healthy respect for the services. 

Basically, it is a giant museum full of guns, bombs, knives, swords, tanks, boats, and aircraft.  Things every red blooded American can appreciate.

Aircraft, such as this Corsair, hang throughout the museum.

Aircraft, such as this Corsair, hang throughout the museum.

The museum starts out pretty family friendly, with costumes for the kids and a place where they can practice marine knot tying.

The Mrs. looking great in a hat.

The Mrs. looking great in a hat.

Oddly, the kid oriented exhibits drop off extremely quickly, and pretty soon you’re headed into guns, machines, and life sized depictions of some of the Marine’s defining battles.

A nock volley gun, circa Revolutionary War period.  Contrary to widely popularized belief, the founders didn't have just single shot low power guns when they wrote the 2nd amendment.  This could fire up to seven barrels at once.

A nock volley gun, circa Revolutionary War period. Contrary to widely popularized belief, the founders didn’t have just single shot low power guns when they wrote the 2nd amendment. This could fire up to seven barrels at once.

Early Browning .45 caliber pistols.

Early Browning .45 caliber pistols.

So much fun stuff!

So much fun stuff!

I’ll admit to being a kid in a candy store, except without the ability to buy anything.  Two of my favorite exhibits came late in the museum, an A-4 Skyhawk (my favorite airplane) and a M-50 Ontos, one of the most intimidating machines I’ve ever seen in person.

They project a movie about A-4s on the belly of an A-4, pretty much the best thing ever.

They project a movie about A-4s on the belly of an A-4, pretty much the best thing ever.

Not something you want to meet in a dark ally.

Not something you want to meet in a dark ally.

And, there was shaving stuff!  Marines throughout the years have had to shave in some tough conditions, and there were a couple of examples of what they used.  First, this slick straight razor from WWI with “USMC” stamped on the tang:

I can't imagine shaving with a straight razor in the trenches.

I can’t imagine shaving with a straight razor in the trenches.

Later, in the Vietnam section, a period advertisement for double-edge safety razors was playing on a television:

Cudos to Amanda, who promptly said "it's a butterfly design, I KNOW that!"

Kudos to Amanda, who promptly said “it’s a butterfly design, I KNOW that!”

The absolute best part of the experience though was meeting Frank Matthews at the Iwo Jima section.  Mr. Matthews was a PFC in the Marine 4th Division, and one of the last survivors of Iwo Jima.  He landed on the first day of the battle, due to issues with the landings his craft landed on the far left side of the beachhead when it was supposed to be on the right.  Those in his boat then had to cross laterally across the beachhead, under fire, to get to their assigned position.  After 28 days of fighting his unit was relieved.  Of the 36 men in his platoon, he was the only one who walked off the island.  The rest were either dead or medically evacuated.  He now works as a volunteer at the museum, still working and serving after seven decades.

LEGO flag raising statute on display there.

LEGO flag raising statute on display there.

Really, an incredible place to visit.  I recommend it highly.

A Cut Above the Rest

Yesterday my wife and I checked out the Iwo Jima Marine Memorial for the first time.  It’s an incredibly cool place, with a beautiful view out over the Potomac into the capital.  While specifically modeled on the second flag raising over Mt. Suribachi, it is dedicated to all Marines who’ve served, with wars and battles they’ve fought in carved along the base.

The statute is absolutely massive, a full size adult could walk around between the legs.

The statute is absolutely massive, a full size adult could walk around between the legs.

It got me wondering:  I’ve seen soldiers, sailors, and Marines shaving in various WWII films or tv shows (Dirty Dozen, Band of Brothers, Saving Private Ryan, etc), what were they actually using?

Turns out there isn’t a simple answer.  From what I’ve been able to find the military issued several different brands of razors, presumably as multiple sources were needed to meet demand.  The generally seemed to be of a plastic/bakelite double-edge design, such as this Gillette or the Federal Simplex.

Perhaps it’s fitting that there isn’t one source, just as the men and women who serve come from all over sometimes their equipment does too.  The military no longer issues razors that I’m aware of, but they continue to serve selflessly as they always have.

To those in uniform, past of present, thank you.