I received a question wondering why no one has made a ceramic straight razor, and as I was responding I realized that a thorough answer was quite involved, and I thought I would make my answer available to everyone.
The question posed to me was as follows:
Tom, I was very impressed with your ceramic knife shaving video. I have been wondering for years, as have many others based on web forum chatter, why nobody makes a ceramic disposable razor. sharper and last longer. with all the advances in this technology it would stand to reason that some enterprising group would love a crack at revolutionizing the shaving industry. I have found blades on the web for industrial applications, they are expensive. If they lasted 10 x longer than steel it would be worth the price. Heck, those atra blades are expensive. Any thought on this subject?
Before answering, it should be known that ceramic knives have been around for quite some time, and while they are easily sharpened enough to cut through food, getting one refined enough to shave facial hair is an entirely different challenge. Serious players from 2 major straight razor forums (SRP and Badger and Blade) were unsuccessful in their attempts to hone a ceramic blade to shave ready. As far as I know, this video published in August 2012 is the first documented head and face shave with a ceramic knife, followed by this second video in November 2012 of the very same knife obliterating a 6+ month old viking beard in one swoop, and that same knife in a third video documenting a head shave just a couple of weeks later. There was also another video with this knife of some crazy Belgian Sharpener shaving while blindfolded!
Now on to the answer. :)
There are a lot of dynamics involved with a ceramic razor for shaving. We all know shaving forum politics can easily make, break, or ban ideas. Politics aside, most of the resistance on the net generally stems from the difficulty of honing a ceramic blade to shave ready and the kind of equipment needed.
If you do a search, all of the forums with threads on ceramic straight razors show a lot of promise, but end in failure – prior to my video (but a big shout out has to go to Seraphim, who continues to blaze trails). Unlike Steel, there’s no burr or other indicators along the way other than to look under magnification as you hone. Being able to interpret what is seen under the scope is one thing, but on a steel razor, you should be able to cut hairs with only slight resistance at the 1K-2K levels (16 – 8 microns), but on the ceramic there are no real physical indicators until you hit about 6 micron, when there is a sudden change in the way the ceramic blade reacts (you can read about my ceramic knife sharpening progression here).
The next issue revolves around the costs and types of equipment needed to hone a ceramic razor to shave ready. There is really no question about what equipment is needed to do this. Since the ceramic material is very hard (9+ on the Mohs scale) diamonds are one of the only abrasives that will effectively abrade the ceramic material. I recommend diamond films over diamond plates for the majority of the work, and diamond pastes or sprays for the finest levels of refinement (1 micron and finer) . (Not all films are created equal, BTW)
It should be noted that diamond films can cut through every steel type, making them universal. But if you’ve followed some of the forum threads on abrasive films, there is an overall resistance to - or fear of – them. On one side, the idea and promotion of diamond films is politically charged because the people who profit most from the commercial side of the forums simply don’t sell them. On the other side, most guys are often already (heavily) invested in sharpening stones – which are ineffective on the ceramic blades - and the added cost of purchasing a separate, all-diamond progression is often vocalized as a detractor. In reality, the only down side to using diamonds is that the paper thin abrasive medium is not renewable, and will wear and eventually need to be replaced more often than 1inch thick stones. :)
With that all said, looking past the forums, the indicators and the honing equipment, the major question is whether a ceramic edge will hold up longer than a steel edge.
By definition, it will because the ceramic material is exponentially harder than the usual steel used in razors (9+ for ceramics vs. 5~6 for steel on the Mohs) and it will not fold or bend like metal, and therefore will hold its edge longer. In terms of a razor, we’ve seen a very comfortable head and face shave without stropping in between. Before that particular shave, the razor had sliced newspaper several times – which is usually enough to quickly kill a shave ready steel razor edge, and had been dry tested on a few spots on my face. During the shave itself, there were at least 2 newspaper cuts made between the head and face shave to see if the edge was holding up without stropping. After the shave, the edge endured a couple more newspaper cuttings and was minimally stropped on plain canvas and clean horse leather about 10 times each (my normal routine) before performing 2 more two pass face shaves. At that point, the edge was starting to degrade to a point where I felt it needed touching up.
The second question is whether or not the longer edge holding capabilities of the ceramic blade translates into more shaves between touch-ups than a steel blade.
The idea that a ceramic blade will never degrade or need maintenance in the form of stropping or touching up between shaves is simply out of the question. But given the limited data available so far, I would say that a ceramic blade will yield more shaves than a steel blade of the same dimensions and refinement before needing touching up.
That is because, in general, the more refined an edge, the closer the shave, but the more fragile the edge becomes. This inevitably holds true to ceramic edges – the more refined it becomes (along with the effects of the geometry), the more prone it is to chipping out as it approaches zero width at the edge of the edge. While the rate of degradation is slower on the ceramic blade, the process cannot be stopped.
One of the biggest issues here, as with all things razor related, is that there is a huge range of subjectivity when defining what is acceptably sharp/comfortable enough for shaving (not to mention the effects of techniques of the honers and shavers!) Since refinement affects longevity, this opens the debate to just how refined an edge “needs” to be, and the expense of the time and equipment of maintaining that level – which we will not get into here!
Overall, I would say that I do think a ceramic straight razor and/or a DE blade are certainly possible to make. With the recent advancements in abrasive technology and with the availability of ceramic tools, it’s been proven that it is quite possible despite the standard apprehensions of costs and power resistance. Moreover, I feel that questions like this one will help ceramic blades become more common, even if they still find their place amongst the more specialized part of the already specialized shaving sport.
And if anyone is interested in finding out for themselves, just contact me and I’d be happy to hone a ceramic knife to shave ready – it can be done!
Tags: Badger and Blade, Belgian Sharpening, CBN spray, ceramic knife, ceramic razor, Diamond film, Diamond sharpening, jende industries, Ken Schwartz, Kyocera Ceramic Knife, Nanocloth, Poly diamond spray, Shellac Scales, Straight Razor, Straight Razor Honing, straight razor place, Straight razor shaving