• Conversation with Obie

    In recent years, the traditional straight razor has exploded in popularity around the world. Vintage razors, new productions, and even straight razors with replaceable blades, all have awakened a new passion in those still holding onto the wet shaving tradition. This rise in popularity also has sparked a new demand for custom-made straight razors that sometimes become works of functional art. Max Sprecher is one of a number of master craftsmen producing exceptional custom straight razors. I spoke with Max about his work.

    OBIE: You come from the Belgian world of art and culture, a long way from the Max Sprecher custom made razor in Las Vegas. Connect the dots.

    MAX: Iíve been straight shaving on and off for quit some time, 32 years to be exact. I bought my first razor at the age of 18 at a hunting store in Antwerp, where I was living at the time.

    OBIE: What was the razor?

    MAX: Puma.

    OBIE: How did you learn to use the straight?

    MAX: I had to master everything myself. And a local barber guided me through it. In a way, itís always been a hobby and a passion of mine. It was not something I could easily share in my years growing up, because social media and the Internet did not exist. Itís only when I was living in the US, and later in Las Vegas, that I found the shaving forums on the Internet.

    OBIE: SRP was in its formative period then.

    MAX: I joined SRP in 2008. And here I am, nearly 9 years later, making custom straight razors. My whole life has been a ride and Iíve really been blessed with being able to travel the world, learn different cultures and histories and, most important, always achieve my goals.

    OBIE: How does the essence of Madaspen, a purveyor of fine textiles and linens for the home, your store in Las Vegas, influence your custom straight razor philosophy? Do these two elements have anything in common?

    MAX: Not really. My ex-wife was a designer for textile and fine linens and ran a wholesale business. I started Madaspen home so that I could offer her fine products retail. Down the road I ended up adding other linen products. I also designed my own line of linen embroidered throw pillows.

    OBIE: From textiles and fine linen to the custom straight razor. It has an ironic tone to it.

    MAX: My journey into the restoration and customs started when we moved from South Pasadena, California, to Vegas, in 2006. I slowly worked on improving my skills and building a solid reputation for myself.

    OBIE: Recently someone asked me to teach him how to hone straight razors. He had never shaved with the straight razor. I told him he had to learn how to shave first, to feel the blade on his face, before attempting to hone one. Youíve been straight razor shaving for more than 30 years. What led you to making your own straight razors?

    MAX: Never in a million years had I ever thought that one day I would be making custom straight razors. But itís mostly the encouragement from my loyal customers that made me step up from restoring razors.

    OBIE: You had been doing restoration work for while, no?

    MAX: I started restoring and re-scaling at least 4 years before, which I used to perfect my knowledge and skills. Always trying to improve and learn.

    OBIE: When did you feel time had come for your custom razors?

    MAX: At one point, my customers kept telling me I should venture into making my own razors. I started digging into the metallurgic part of it and began reading up and studying as much as I could. I asked questions from the experienced and the most knowledgeable in the world of metallurgy and knife making.

    OBIE: Did you also have interest in making knives?

    MAX: I say knife making because at the time those were the few craftsmen actually making custom straight razors.

    OBIE: And one thing led to another, I assume, and here you are, a master straight razor maker.

    MAX: That was the progression, more or less.

    OBIE: The Max Sprecher straight razor has a distinctly measured style. Nothing outlandish. It is economical in design, like Scandinavian furnishings, with clean and sweeping lines. I think you blend well the traditional and the new. I have also noticed that the scales always taper thin at the pivot. How close am I in my assessment of the Max Sprecher style?

    MAX: I am a classic guy. Have always been. Classic never goes out of style. I emphasize functionality and perfection first, because, after all, I am half German from my fatherís side. No sense having an outlandish design thatís gorgeous to look at but a nightmare to use.

    OBIE: I have seen some custom-made straight razors that I could never even strop let alone shave with. Way, way out of this world.

    MAX: I consider my style formal and functional, utilitarian, elegant, timeless, stylish, European avant-garde with an eye for detail. A perfect wedge should always slightly taper the scales toward the pivot, although itís easier done with a more flexible scale material as opposed to a rigid one. Peening is very important to me. It is also one of my pet peeves, if not done correctly. As you can tell, Iím a perfectionist at heart, so true craftsmanship is very important.

    OBIE: How do you conceive any given custom razor style? Does something spark inside you or do you have a methodical approach to it?

    MAX: I just let my mind and imagination do the work. I always say a true artist is someone whose mind just thinks differently. Sometimes Iíll dream about a design and the next thing I know Iím in the shop the next day working on it.

    OBIE: Now that I have known you for a few years, I see your work as genuine Max. Quintessential Max. No copying anyone.

    MAX: I never copy anyone, although I see plenty throughout the years that have copied me or stolen some of my ideas, from customs to re-scaling. In the early stages, I might have looked around to get some basic ideas, but I slowly worked on my own designs and put my own signature behind my work.

    OBIE: Do you see any influences in your work? Mastro Livi, Robert Williams, Butch Harner, and others maybe?

    MAX: Iíve always had a soft spot for Joe Chandler. Still think Joe was one of the greatest makers of all time. But I donít feel that any other maker has really influenced me. Iíve tried to make my own style and be different from the next guy. When you look at the work from the makers you mentioned, youíll notice they all have their own distinctive style.

    OBIE: How does the Max Sprecher straight razor take shape from start to finish?

    MAX: You start with a piece of steel, which can either be forged or come from precision ground bar stock. Profiling and getting your initial grind ready before the heat treat are the basics. Youíll also add any file work or other embellishments before the heat treat. After the heat treat the razor gets quenched and is tempered.

    OBIE: Do different steels change some of these basic requirements?

    MAX: Depending on the steel choice, this can involve different temperatures and or procedures, which you follow in order to get the best and maximum potential from your chosen steel.

    OBIE: Sometimes we pilgrims forget how much work goes into making a custom straight razor.

    MAX: Well, yes. The last step involves cleaning up the razor and the final grind, all the way up to whatever finish you desire. Another step involves making the razor scales.

    OBIE: Do you prefer a specific method in making scales?

    MAX: I donít use any templates or drawings. I just start profiling around the razorís final design. When the scales are done, they get assembled and the razor gets inspected and honed.

    OBIE: Whatís your honing method?

    MAX: It really depends on the razor you are honing, but for most razors, I like the progression method: set the bevel at the 1K and then try to double up. I personally like to move up from the 1K to 4, 8, 16 and 30K. Back and front circles, pyramid honing, X-Stroke, just to name a few, are all great ways to hone, depending the condition and geometry of the razor.

    OBIE: Like any other aspect of traditional shaving, especially with the straight razor, everyone has his own style and method. It all depends on what works best for the individual.

    MAX: There are several ways to do it, but I firmly believe less is better, especially when moving up in the higher grits. Setting your bevel is the most important and thatís where you should really focus your strokes. As you move up, you start to slowly diminish your honing strokes. Learn the properties of the stones youíre using.

    OBIE: With honing comes stropping. What strop do you fancy?

    MAX: English Bridle is one of the best and most affordable strops to use.

    OBIE: The question of shell cordovan often comes up. Any thoughts on that?

    MAX: Sure, shell cordovan is nice to own, but itís an expensive investment. I do own one and itís for those special occasions. Nicking a three-hundred-dollar strop would hurt, especially for beginners who still need to learn how to properly strop.

    OBIE: Latigo is another popular strop.

    MAX: The red latigo is also a very popular and decent strop that does the job and doesnít cost an arm and a leg.

    OBIE: Personal preference is the hallmark of traditional shaving. That includes strops. Make mine one with a light and silky draw.

    MAX: It mostly comes down to personal preference in regards to the draw the strop will give you, yes. Some like a heavy draw, while others, like you, prefer a slick one. Also, different grinds will do better with one strop than another.

    OBIE: What are some of the challenges facing you as a custom straight razor maker? Take a smiling 7/8 with a barberís notch, for instance, and pit it against a 7/8 with decorated spine and French point. At what juncture do you say this style point will work better for this specific razor than the other?

    MAX: The challenge lies more in getting a perfectly harmonious looking razor. A true artist can balance those. Itís all about vision and being artistic. On the other hand, the geometry and the balance of the razor for proper handling are as important.

    OBIE: I imagine thatís a challenge on its own.

    MAX: Yes, it is, because you have to work around the request of the customer. Thatís also where you advise your customer to either make a change or explain the pros and the cons to him.

    OBIE: What particular razor style, and material, do you yourself prefer to work with: blade size, grind, scale material, and so on? What really fires up your creative juices?

    MAX: I prefer the classic style myself. Less is better. File work on the spine is nice but itíll be tougher on your strop. It is also harder to keep clean. Even the jimps I prefer to a bare minimum. As to material, itís either carbon or stainless steel.

    OBIE: Which do you prefer to work with?

    MAX: Working either steel choice doesn't make much difference to me; however, I favor carbon to shave with. Stainless steel does involve a much longer and more detailed heat treat compared to carbon.

    OBIE: What about blade size and preference? What do you prefer to work with?

    MAX: I find the ideal size of a razor to be 13/16, or 7/8, combined with a quarter hollow blade.

    OBIE: And scale material?

    MAX: Thatís really a personal preference, but a solid acrylic, or abalone and paua, are still my favorite materials. I tend to avoid natural materials as they have a tendency to warp, de-laminate, show cracks or dry out. Also, many wood choices that look beautiful are very soft or weak, making it very difficult to keep a tight pivot, resulting in loose and flopping scales. My creative juices mostly get fired up when I envision something new or get some new tooling to work with on new designs or ideas. It is the challenge that always sparks new motivation and energy in the workshop.

    OBIE: Whatís the most desired Max Sprecher custom razor?

    MAX: Occasionally Iíll get the extreme custom request, but the vast majority of custom orders always tend to be the classic and traditional style with either file work or inlays. I also get a lot of requests for my mini razor, sometimes made as a set with a standard sized razor. It really depends as I get so many different request, but I do have my distinct signature in my style that customers are drawn too regardless of what they are after.

    OBIE: What are the most popular grinds requested by your clients?

    MAX: No doubt the heavier grinds from quarter hollow to near wedge.

    OBIE: Do you ever come across a custom order that just does not make sense in various ways?

    MAX: Mostly from customers that are new and need some guidance as to what actually makes sense. Most of the time they ignore the functionality and are totally blinded by looks alone.

    OBIE: A newbie friend kept showing me photos of a parade of razors and commenting on the fancy scales. In the end, I had to tell him that the scales donít shave you. Look at the blade. What do you think of the blade? Sometimes beauty can blind.

    MAX: Yes, of course. Once I explain to them the pros and the cons, though, they suddenly realize that there is more involved than just looks. This is true especially in the early stages when they get hooked on straight shaving and are bitten by what we call RAD: razor acquisition disorder. Giving them the correct information and guiding them is the real key here.

    OBIE: What advice do you have for someone asking for one of your custom straight razors?

    MAX: I get many requests for a custom razor from people that have never even used a straight razor. My first advice is always to start with an entry-level razor first. Dovo, Boker, Ralf Aust. See if straight shaving is really for you.

    OBIE: Youíre right: tastes do change. I know through the years I have floated back and forth many times. Still do.

    MAX: This also gives those starting out more time to learn what they might eventually prefer in a custom razor. I always try to verbally communicate with anyone contacting me for a custom razor. The best way to advise them is to ask questions and guide them in their quest. Sure, I love the business, but Iím also very honest. Newbies can easily be confused by the wrong answers or the wrong advice. We actually lose a lot of beginners, because they got burned a few times by the wrong advice or the bad guidance, and they end up wasting money and buying the wrong items.

    OBIE: Where is the custom straight razor world headed?

    MAX: Weíve definitely come a long way from the handful of custom makers from a decade ago. The wet shaving market as a whole has grown tremendously. Unfortunately, it brings the good with the bad.

    OBIE: Suddenly it seems a custom razor maker jumps out of every corner. Sadly, some straight razor shavers fall for inferior products.

    MAX: Many custom razor makers jump the wagon to make a quick buck with no regard to quality or even customer service. They all want to skip the extensive learning part, and nobody wants to pay their dues anymore.

    OBIE: There is a flood of uninspiring custom razor on the Internet. They sometimes go by intriguing names, but youíre right, junk is junk.

    MAX: Copycats everywhere. Itís a shame really, because Iím already seeing the market being flooded with sub par work and sometimes at a steep price. The market always corrects itself as rotten apples always end up falling from the tree. Thereís a flavor for anyone. True craftsmanship and quality, however, always come at a price. Thereís no free lunch, regardless of how tasty it might look.