• Conversation with Robert Williams

    A custom razor by Robert Williams is like that dazzling Lamborghini that circles the neighborhood like a sweet recurring dream, or that elegant Rolls Royce once sported by the stars from the golden age of Hollywood. The custom razor world has an impressive, although small, group of masters who create magnificent razors. Robert Williams is one of them with a corner seat all his own. He is an articulate and an unassuming craftsman always ready for an in-depth conversation about his art: the custom straight razor.

    Obie: I canít help but think of you as an alchemist of sorts, one who takes a piece of metal and turns it into gold. The gold in this case is a dazzling Robert Williams custom straight razor. Do you ever think of yourself as a straight razor alchemist?

    Robert: I must admit that I've never really thought about it as alchemy, per se, but there is certainly science involved. Creating a fine straight razor from an annealed billet of steel is a sort of alchemy as the steel must go through a series of transformations that alter its very structure in a precise and controlled fashion. Getting that right is critical in order to make a great shaver. The rest of the work is centered around delivering this superior edge in the most artistic and ergonomic way possible.

    Obie: In creating your custom razors do you find yourself paying tribute to a particular great name in straight razor history, say Wade & Butcher, Frederick Reynolds, William Greaves, or others? Put another way, do you feel a particular influence from them? Or are you drawn to a specific great name?

    Robert: Funny you should mention Wade and Butcher and Frederick Reynolds, because they were two of my favorite makers. From the perspective of style, flowing lines and creative angles, they have strongly influenced my work. Joseph Rogers and Greaves are a couple of the others that caught my eye. My stepfather's razor, which I restored and have shaved with, is a Greaves.

    Obie: I often can recognize a Robert Williams custom straight razor. Donít ask me how, but thereís something about your razors that gives them distinction. If I were to explain your signature to myself, how would I do so? What would I say about the Robert Williams style of custom straight razor?

    Robert: I design my razors to look natural. I like clean lines and elegant curves. When customer specifications allow, I also strive for really excellent ergonomics with a good grip and a comfortable feel in the hand in a variety of positions. If my razors were art in a museum, I'd like to think of them as Da Vincis rather than Picassos or Monets or even Rembrandts, with a sense of strength and balance and sculpted elegance. I donít fancy myself as a modern day Leonardo Da Vinci, but I think those characterizations explain what I aspire to in aesthetics.

    Obie: All this did not happen overnight. I doubt anyone with your talent and creative mind would get up one morning and decide to make straight razors. What led you into the straight razor world? For starters, you had great interest in making hunting knives.

    Robert: I've been crazy about sharp steel since I was 11 years old. I got my first pen knife and an Arkansas pocket stone for sharpening at that age.

    Obie: How did that lead into the straight razor world?

    Robert: I naturally took to straight razor shaving in Germany, where I got my first straight razor at 18. I didn't know enough to get the best out of it and it wasn't my regular means of shaving. Fast forward to maybe 8 years ago, when I was looking for a good tool for making clean cuts in bowstring material and remembered my straight razor.

    Obie: You had kept it all that time?

    Robert: No, it was long gone. I found a few razors on eBay and decided I might as well clean one up for shaving, since I loved honing and sharpening steel. Most of my hunting knives I didn't get to use but once in awhile, whereas a straight razor was something else. The idea of using a blade I maintained to my own satisfaction was appealing. After that, well, let's just say after that there was no turning back. It wasn't long before I was experimenting with making my own razors.

    Obie: Knife making was your hobby. At the same time you were pursuing a career in computer science. Iím trying to find a connection between knife making and computer science. To a degree, was there one for you?

    Robert: Good luck finding a connection there. I can't think of one, either. Computer sciences and bladesmithing ó the former a vocation and the latter an avocation.

    Obie: Good way of putting it.

    Robert: Yes, well, computer programming paid the bills and bladesmithing gave me some sanity while I paid the bills. So, if anything, I guess that would be the connection ó a lifeline to sanity. But I have to say that strong analytical skills have served me well in bladesmithing, so that's something.

    Obie: Somewhere along you found your way into the straight razor world heavily. How did that happen? Might I assume that by then you shaved with the straight razor regularly?

    Robert: Actually, I was shaving with a straight razor for some time before I started making razors. Frankly, I wasn't happy with the quality of the vintage razors in general, not even in many of my favorites like the W&B, Joseph Rogers and Reynolds razors. Way back in 1978, I had a beautiful 8/8 pearl handle extra hollow and a couple smaller razors that I bought in Germany. I can't remember their brands, but I'm pretty sure the 8/8 was a Henckels.

    Obie: Despite your dissatisfaction with the quality of vintage razors you still couldnít keep away from them, though.

    Robert: Initially, I was just buying, cleaning up and honing straight razors, much to my delight and much to my ex-wife's dismay. I'm pretty sure I coined the now frequently heard acronym "RAD" on SRP about the time it occurred to me that I had Razor Acquisition Disorder. I couldn't get enough of them. I probably have 250 or 300 vintage razors still.

    Obie: It was a long process before you started to make straight razors. That was in 2006. In the meantime, though, you had done extensive research into metals and straight razors. What was some of this research?

    Robert: I sent a number of razors off to a metallurgist for analysis. I wanted to find out details on hardness, steel composition, steel type, grain structure, etc. The three I remember paying most attention to were a Wade and Butcher, a Case razor and a Puma razor. The Wade and Butcher was the softest at around 58HRC, the Puma the hardest at around 61HRC, and the Case was in the middle with 60/61 HRC. The W&B also had the most issues with retained Austenite ó and all this confirmed my suspicions from shaving with them.

    Obie: I imagine youíre not one to stop half way. You had to know everything about the blade.

    Robert: I also got metallurgical microscopy equipment and hardness testers to experiment with grain and hardness with different heat treating-quenching-tempering formulas. I feel that razors are much, much more critical than knives, because a good sharp knife will do the job, but a good razor must be perfect. A knife can have an edge that's less than perfect and still do the job and the imperfection will likely go completely unnoticed, but a razor will tell on you the instant you start to shave. There's no hiding it and there's no real idea of "good enough." It's got to be just right. So I did a lot more studying of metallurgy and heat treating theory than I did for knife-making.

    Obie: You especially concentrated on the metallurgical analysis of vintage razors. Why vintage razor and not some of the new models coming out at time, say Dovo or Thiers-Issard? What especially drew you to these old razors?

    Robert: I wanted to start with tried and true razors. Pumas are about as good as it gets with vintage razors. I've got a couple of T-I razors and they're top-shelf, too, but I didn't think they were any better than Pumas. So I went with razors that really appealed to me. I was also very curious about the Case brand. They didn't make razors for long, but they've had a well-deserved reputation for fine steel. I thought their razors deserved some attention, so one of the Case razors made it into my analysis project.

    Obie: At the same time, were you also analyzing razors stylistically?

    Robert: I've been analyzing razor styles since I've been shaving with them, which has been quite some time. Having had a collection that probably went up to four or five hundred razors, I had a lot of "style analysis" going on. There's something that really draws me to sharp steel. Maybe it's a man thing.

    Obie: What do you mean?

    Robert: Waking up and starting your day by scraping your face with a sharp piece of steel and then rubbing spicy alcohol all over it is an experience women never get to savor.

    Obie: Expanding my earlier question, did you feel a specific influence in design from some of the great brands?

    Robert: There's no question that I have been influenced by the Sheffield designs more than any others. I think I already mentioned Wade and Butcher and Joseph Rodgers as two that I found particularly appealing.

    Obie: How does a Robert Williams custom razor begin? Do you work with a drawing?

    Robert: It depends on the razor. Most don't start out as a drawing. Most start out as a blank that I work until it feels right and looks right. I've developed some standard templates for the rough-out work and geometry, but the rest is done by touch and feel and eye. If a customer wants something unusual, I'll start out with drawings to make sure we're on the same page with the design.

    Obie: Do you fancy a certain type of a look for a straight razor coming out of your shop?

    Robert: I am more drawn to mirror finishes on my razors than a satin finish, but a really nice satin finish can be hard to beat, too. Neither one is easily done and I spend an inordinate amount of time on the finish work. The result is the most rewarding, but the work is the most painstaking.

    Obie: And beyond esthetics?

    Robert: I do like to have the razors coming out of my shop to look practical, sleek, tough and beautiful. I want them to look like very finely crafted tools, because that's essentially what they are. They're tools, and very well made tools always look good and deserve to have a great finish. They'll be used for a long time. The owner should enjoy the full experience of the tool. Not just how it works, but also how it feels.

    Obie: I am intrigued by those long tangs on your razors? I prefer the tang shorter just a little bit. Nevertheless I am curious. Is this an original idea?

    Robert: I can't say it's original, as there was a long-tang DePew razor with a similar monkey tail design. It's not exactly the same as mine, but it's close and that's not surprising. I went for an ergonomic feel, and I think that's how they arrived at their design. Having all four fingers on the blade while shaving gives exceptional control. Iíll make a short tang three-finger razor for anyone that prefers that, but I donít think Iíve ever had a customer receive one with my standard tang and request a short tail on a subsequent razor from me, and Iíve had quite a few customers order more than one razor.

    Obie: Do you favor a certain type of a blade design? And size? And what about a certain type of point?

    Robert: I'm partial to 7/8 blades, and my own razor is a 7/8 with a modified spike rounded slightly to give a good compromise between precision and friendliness. Too much spike makes it really easy to lift the heel during a shave and wind up with the dreaded thin red line across the cheek.

    Obie: Are you partial to any type of steel or does the specific razor on which youíre working dictate the materials to be used, from the blade to the scales to the pins to the wedge material?

    Robert: I'm definitely partial to really good high carbon steel. I've not been satisfied with stainless steel, and I've tried a few different types of cutlery steels, and even a variety of stainless steel razors from the Friodurs to Hess razors. I'm a high carbon steel guy. The stain resistance imparted by the alloys simply isn't worth the sacrifice in edge quality the alloys compromise. I use wedge material that works well in balance and look with the razors and scales. I try to make all the elements of the razors work together both in look and feel.

    Obie: Finally, at what point do you stop and say, ďThis razorís finishedĒ? Are there particular signposts you look for, rules you follow?

    Robert: Theyíre just not finished until theyíre finished. I have to use reading glasses to examine them, because highly polished steel reveals everything and Iíve had stuff leave my shop with flaws in the finish I couldnít see without the reading glasses. I try to avoid that sort of thing completely, so I took to using reading glasses for a lot of the finish work and all the final inspection.

    Obie: So then it must be perfect before it leaves your hands.

    Robert: The blade has to have the right geometry and be free of tooling marks to the greatest degree possible. At some level of magnification flaws will always show, but with the addition of magnification I can eliminate almost anything that can be picked up by the naked eye. I want my customers to have their pupils expand when they first look at their razor. Theyíve waited for it, and paid a fair price for it, and I try to exceed their expectations.

    Obie: How long does it usually take you to finish a razor, from conception to the final stamp of approval?

    Robert: Iím really lousy at precisely calculating how much time itís going to take to finish a razor, because inevitably it takes longer than I thought it would. If it isnít just right, I might have to go back to the grinding and wipe out hours of polishing work. If itís got to be done, thereís no other way to get it right, and sometimes you canít spot a geometry flaw until youíve got a lot of polishing work already done.

    Obie: Obviously these custom razors leave your shop honed and shave-ready. What is your method? And what stones do you use?

    Robert: I've got a lot of stones. My HAD (Hone Acquisition Disorder) is almost as bad as my RAD. I've got several Nortons, half a dozen barber hones, Japanese Naturals, ceramic hones, diamond hones, Coticules, Arkansas stones, etc. etc. etc. You can't have too many hones.

    Obie: I assume you donít use all of them and that you have preferences.

    Robert: No, I don't use most of them. I typically use the diamond hones and ceramic hones the most. The diamond hones get me to a quick bevel and then the ceramic hones with lapping compounds do great work finishing ó and that's really all there is to it. Hone to a clean bevel and then polish the bevel ó it's all about the geometry. Great steel and just the right geometry down to the microscopic level result in a superior shave. It's not nearly as mysterious as it's often thought to be.

    Obie: In your creations, do you do some things now that you didnít do back then?

    Robert: You mean back when I started?

    Obie: In the early years, yes.

    Robert: Then the answer is yes. I use optics a lot more than I did then, and my designs have been refined. I do hand engraving and inlay work in the steel and have developed some artistic techniques that are much more advanced than they were when I started. The work has been evolving and still is. I think there is an infinite amount of room for improvement in artistry, at least.

    Obie: How did you then evolve as an artist and craftsman?

    Robert: No doubt the artistry has evolved. Iíve got a much better feel for things, and at every stage in development Iíve kept an eye on things Iíd like to do better and Iíve worked on them. I pay attention to details now that I didnít even think about in the earlier days.

    Obie: I see you as an artist whose mind never stops, then.

    Robert: Every day I work in the shop I always keep thinking about how to do better and more creative and more effective work. I spend a lot of time when Iím not in the shop envisioning designs and processes and new ideas to experiment with. Iíve spent a lot of money trying new things and not all of them worked out well, but itís always great when you hit on something that really works and adds a new dimension to what you can offer.

    Obie: So then in which direction do you see yourself going?

    Robert: I expect to be doing more higher end work as time goes on and maybe offer some less expensive designs, as well. That will make it possible to get a very reasonably priced handmade razor with superb quality. It will take some streamlining and standardization, but it would result in a superior quality razor at a relatively low price.

    Obie: How long for all this?

    Robert: Iím not there yet and still have too much of a backlog to dwell on it, but I would definitely like to go two-tier. Iím probably going to be moving the shop back to the Midwest, too, so I donít have the high cost of living I have here to slow down growth.

    Obie: Iím sure youíre aware of other custom razor makers. Do you see any rising stars?

    Robert: Every one is a rising star with virtually unlimited potential. Those that work the hardest will end up invariably doing the best. I just know that thereís a good bit of talent working to provide really nice custom razors for the community and itís enough talent that the only real limits will be self-imposed. Itís not easy work, but the artistic process is very rewarding for those that love it, and the people that love their work tend to get very good at it.

    Obie: How does one acquire a Robert Williams custom razor? Do you work on commission? And whatís the process? Say I want one of your razors, do I come to you with my idea, or design, or do you come up with the design, or is it a joint venture between you and the client?

    Robert: The vast majority of my work is commissioned one razor at a time. Customers contact me with ideas and we discuss and work out the details. Itís very interactive and it can sometimes take a lot of time with customers in communications via e-mail and phone to put a design together.

    Obie: Do those who come to you usually have a clear idea of what they want? I know the world of straight razors has its own fickle tendencies.

    Robert: Some take a lot longer than others, of course. It just depends on the complexity and how clear and practical the designs are. For the most part, itís a joint effort. But there are also cases where the customer gives me a general idea and tells me to just run with it and do as I please. Those can be some of the hardest to design, but they can also be the most fun.

    Obie: By the way, what razors do you shave with?

    Robert: I shave with two razors. What I shave with primarily is a blade that I made for myself and intentionally left too ugly to be tempted to sell. I canít escape my own bias, I suppose, but I canít seem to get as good and close and comfortable a shave with any other razor of any sort. Iíve been using the same razor almost daily for nearly 2 years. I think Iíve only touched it up on the hone once since I started using it.

    Obie: And your second razor, another of your ďuglyĒ designs?

    Robert: The other razor that I grab if Iím truly pressed for time is an old double-edge that I run across my face in 30 seconds if Iím late getting out the door. But Iíve got to be pretty hard pressed for time to skip my normal shave.

    Obie: I think for many of us the daily shave is sacred.

    Robert: Yes, it is. Itís just a great way to start the day.