Collector's Corner: Straight Razor Collecting
By Bill Mancino
After having a heart attack, my wife suggested I take up a hobby instead of just resting in bed. I had always admired the carving done on duck decoys and thought I would try it. While shopping for the knives and carving tools I was going to need, I happened upon an old Wade and Butcher straight razor and purchased it. It proved not to be the best carving tool - however, I had been bitten by the straight razor collecting bug.
For the next few years I would always be on the lookout for straight razors to add to my collection. I'd buy most of the good makers if the razor was in good condition and would fit within my budget. After awhile I became more discriminating and was increasingly drawn to the more artistic razors - the ones with fancy handles or those made with exotic materials. The artwork on the blade and unique construction became of special interest to me.
To finance these new acquisitions, I started selling off my earlier purchases, and my collection started to take on a whole new dimension. Because good collectible straight razors are difficult to find, my hobby became much more interesting. It's the thrill of the hunt - you never know what you'll find at the next flea market, antique shop or auction.
If you think you might enjoy this unique area of collecting, I recommend the book Straight Razor Collecting by Roy Ritchie and Ron Stewart. I have found it to be an invaluable tool, and I go back to it frequently even though I've been collecting for many years now. In many ways it's timeless, especially the formula used to calculate the fair market value of a straight razor. This softcover book is small and easy to carry, and worth every penny.
For those new to collecting straight razors, I offer a few caveats that might help you avoid the errors I have made. Buying on the Internet can be especially tricky. Since you cannot see the item except through pictures, email any questions and ask for clarification on terms of sale or details not in the description. Find out what recourse you have if the item is not as described. Examine your purchase as soon as you receive it to make sure there are no surprises. Remember, you have all those emails with the seller to back you up.
Here are some areas where special attention should be paid, whether buying on the Internet or in person:
- Re-stamp: Since the straight razor maker is the fundamental component in determining value, if one is able to change the maker name and marks, one would be able to increase the perceived worth of a particular razor. This is done with varying degrees of expertise by grinding off the old unwanted marks and using a cold steel stamp to replicate the desired name and marks. The tang of the blade is polished and, voila!, we have a new razor seemingly worth considerably more than the original. So what do you do? Keep a 10x magnifier handy and examine every purchase for the tell-tail grind marks. Only the very good thief can clean up their dirty work, and remember, it's quite labor intensive. At some point, spending so much time making the phony Case or Winchester becomes unprofitable.
- Re-pin: It's not unreasonable to find an old straight razor that, because of use over many years, has had the pin that attaches the scales (handle) replaced. It's unreasonable, however, if the job's been done in such a way as to cause damage or to make an over-large pin appear out of place. The replacement is a simple task but does take some finesse. To apply too much pressure may cause the pin to swedge too broadly and look bad, or may even crack the handle material, substantially reducing its desirability. Examine the ends of the razor you are interested in for signs of replaced pins and determine if you can "live with them."
- Loose Blade: Many times you'll find a razor with a blade that wobbles in the handle. This is due to the pin not holding the blade between the scales properly. This condition may be corrected by carefully re-swedging both ends of the pin to tighten it, or if need be, to re-pin it altogether, with the former being the preferrable approach. Only use as much force as is needed to correct the problem. Using a jeweler's hammer, nail set and anvil will allow you to gently tap the end of the pin so it spreads out and becomes tight again.
- Cracks and Chips: These may be found in both the blade and on the scales. You should be able to see these with the naked eye. Unfortunately, these problems are, for the most part, not fixable. If you are in love with a particular razor and are willing to live with the defect, buy it. I have some razors in my collection with a chip in the blade, but with scales so beautiful, I would never give them up.
- Buffing/Polishing: Most collectors want razors as found, that is to say, not "cleaned up" by even the most well intentioned person. Blade artwork can easily be damaged by buffing, and hard buffing to remove black spots and rust can even remove maker names and marks. With a light touch, you can spruce up your collection if you must. Be wary when a razor is described as having a "bright, shiny" blade and is 50 to 100+ years old. Unless it's in the original box and never been used, you most likely have a "buff job."
- Marriage: Sometimes a barber might have his favorite razor "bite the dust: due to a scale breaking in half. In his parts drawer he would find a razor with a broken blade but with good scales. He would then resurrect his favorite razor by performing a "marriage" - taking his beloved blade and re-pinning it into another set of scales. In most cases these repairs were done as an alternative to buying a new razor and recovering some of the loss from the broken ones. For the collector the problem with this is that a certain maker might make a particular type of blade for a period of time. Also, certain types of scale materials were used at different times and the scale shapes also can be associated with particular makers and time periods. This category may be difficult to identify for the collector. There is very little written material except for some articles from members of straight razor collecting clubs. Descriptions of blade styles, scale materials, etc., used by manufacturers are, for the most part, difficult to come by. Here is where I really enjoy this hobby. I get to play straight razor detective. How does the maker mark jibe with the style of blade or scale material? Are the shape of the blade and scales consistent with the maker and the suggested age of the razor? Some marriages are so obvious that they're absurd. The blade may be only 3/4 the length of the scales or the blade is so thick at it's top edge that it wedges itself quarterway into the scale when closed.
I've learned a lot over the years through the research I've done, and, yes, through my mistakes. Collecting straight razors can be challenging. And because of the increasing scarcity of 19th century examples, your collection will almost surely increase in value over time. It doesn't take a lot of money to start! Go to your local library or bookstore and find Straight Razor Collecting and read it. Go get your feet wet, find the best $20.00 razor you can find, and you are now a collector!
About the author:
Bill Mancino owns and operates Hourglass Antiques & Collectibles with his wife Evelyn. They offer porcelain, pottery, art glass, depression glass, prints, costume & fine estate jewelry, dinnerware, ephemera, toys, perfume bottles, books, kitchenware, linens, barbershop items, and more. Bill has been collecting for over 25 years. He was a sales associate for NCR beginning in 1965 and had a 15-year career with Digital Equipment Corp. until he retired in 1991. Bill started his Barberiana collection about 12 years ago with a focus on 19th century straight razors, primarily with fancy handles or artistic blades. He does not use a straight razor for shaving, although many collectors do! You can visit Hourglass Antiques and read their blog at http://antiquesandsuch.blogspot.com
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