There are few things in life as satisfying as that final swipe.
A rich lather, the foam so dense, the bubbles are all but invisible. The glint of the blade as it catches the light, and the promise of a warm, perfectly absorbent Egyptian cotton towel to greet you on the other end. Knowing that the reflection looking back at you is going to look pretty damn good. This is just part of the appeal of an expertly-executed shave with a straight razor.
There was a time when shaving with a straight razor was a cherished ritual. But the popularization of the safety razor during World War I and its successor, the multi-blade razor, drove the straight razor to the margins of the grooming universe. That is, until recently. The Portland Razor Company set out to restore the shaving process to its former glory, and observing the lengthy waiting list for their perfectly crafted collection of razors, it’s clear that they are doing just that.
“We do feel that there are a lot of people in our generation who are like-minded in wanting to feel a connection with a ritual or practice,” says Alex Pletcher, co-founder of the company. “A lot of that’s been eliminated from our day-to-day lives… Straight razor shaving [offers] that connection of doing something analog in a very digital world.”
The design of the tool has not changed much over hundreds of years. Although companies in Europe are still producing the blades, they lack the human touch that comes standard with a Portland Razor, specifically the company’s willingness to “make a razor for just as long as it takes to make a razor,” says co-founder Scott Miyako. You can’t rush perfection.
“When I got into straight razors, the only way to get [one] was to basically buy it from overseas. Germany or France are pretty much the only countries that are still producing them, and in very low quantities,” says Scott. “There was one small American maker at the time, so I thought well, there’s enough room for one more person making straight razors.”
In many ways, a razor-centric enterprise was a natural fit for Portland, a city so supportive of beard culture, it has spawned competitive bearding competitions. But rather than focusing on the beard, the primary mission of Portland Razor Company is centered on the ideas of heritage and sustainability, and ultimately, of reviving a lost art.
“I really fell in love with the fact that you don’t dispose of anything after you’re done shaving with it, and I also just like the process of learning the new skill. It was something that took me time. I actually had to practice it. It was something I had to sit down and actually learn how to do, and (ask for) direct feedback at getting better at the skill,” says Scott. “It’s nice to keep those things alive and not just lose them, because you can, so easily.”
Scott’s initial passion for straight razors developed as an eco-friendly alternative to the waste created by modern shaving. As he grew more interested in the artistry of shaving, he realized that just engaging in the process wasn’t enough to satisfy his curiosity. His background in knife making inspired him to begin restoring vintage razors, and shortly thereafter, he set out to make new ones of his very own.
Initially, each Portland Razor blade was hand cut on a band saw. The first hundred units “had a lot of character,” says lead bladesmith Hunter Lea. Once their efforts caught the attention of the press, overnight, the company went from making a couple of razors a week to having dozens on back order. With the introduction of a water jet, the company has been able to reduce inconsistency, while taking care to hand shape and file each blade after the initial cut.
The team hand-treats each razor at temperatures spanning 1500 degrees, which allows the steel to harden and be sharpened to its finest point. After the blade has been perfected, the craftsmen carefully shape the scale, using materials ranging from acrylic to bone to the more exotic Arizona Ironwood and fossilized mammoth ivory. For customized razors, Portland Razor Company teams up with a local artisan who specializes in Damascus steel. Regardless of where the blade’s components originated, each razor is locally crafted in Portland.
Given the complexities involved with learning how to use the tools, customer support also plays a major role in the company’s operations. Scott actually got his start watching shaving videos online, so he understands firsthand the ways in which the Internet falls short in guiding new straight razor users. To that end, Hunter keeps a blog serving up regular tidbits of information designed to educate and encourage the community of new shavers, such as the anatomy of the tool itself and an in-depth guide to stropping, the process of preserving the blade.
“If you’ve ever seen an old Western movie, where a guy is dragging his knife on his belt, that kind of thing, that’s stropping, technically,” says Hunter. “Stropping with a straight razor is a pretty specific skill that you really have to learn if you’re going to get into straight shaving. It maintains the edge, keeps it keen and clean.”
Much like the blades the team is teaching people to care for, Scott is in this for the long run. It was vintage razors that got him into the practice in the first place, and Scott is hoping that 100 or 200 years from now, other young people might be able to find and restore a Portland Razor Company razor of their own — possibly even one passed down through their family.
“I like that aspect that it’s kind of a lifetime product and could be an heirloom,” adds Scott. There’s something to “the skill, taking pride and taking care of your tools, taking care of yourself,” that resonates with this generation.
And with such attention to detail and consideration for craftsmanship, the prospect of their creations living on doesn’t seem too far-fetched.
“It’s kind of the ultimate tool, right? It’s a single blade,” says Hunter. “It’s maybe the absolute best thing at its job that’s ever been created.”
We met Scott and the team at Portland Razor Company while traveling through the Pacific Northwest in the Lincoln Navigator. To learn more, read here.