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Thiers-Issard - pre-production new steel test razor forging

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Thiers-Issard - pre-production new steel test razor forging

A Christmas gift in July? You must be kidding!? :w00t: But there it was in my hands: a special delivery from Father Christmas. No, not the fabled Father Christmas from the North Pole. I’m talking about a very special French Santa (Père Noël de Rasoirs) who makes his home somewhere down in the industrial regions of the Auvergne in France. The little gift that ended up in my stocking was the latest straight-razor steel blade forging from the factories of Thiers-Issard.

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So how does a guy like me rate such an honor? Well, to tell the truth, I’m not sure, and I regard this as an unexpected privilege, to say the least. I’m an average sort of guy, but with an infatuation for finicky hobbies, computers, woodworking, cooking, machinery and gadgets of all sorts and… (you guessed it)… a passion for using shiny, sharp little objects to shear the whiskers from my face and neck. And where that last passion is concerned, a venerable Thiers-Issard “Eagle” straight-razor has been serving as the main work horse of my shaving rotation group for the last five or six years. This has given me quite some respect for the TI razors and I would have to admit that I’ve become rather a fan of their products.

This enthusiasm inspired me such a degree that, when my wife and I took a vacation trip down into France some few years ago, I managed to wangle my own private visit to the factories of Thiers-Issard. The folks at TI produce not only razors, but also fine kitchen knives and cutlery in all shapes and sizes, and I spent a pleasant few hours being guided through the works, nosing about the place, meeting some of the employees, snapping photos, asking questions about the machines, the production techniques, the materials, the sharpening and polishing methods.… and on and on… feeling generally as happy as a pig in… the brown stuff.

Well, I guess I must have impressed someone down there during my visit (I wore a clean shirt, you know), since my contact at the factory phoned me not so very long ago to inquire whether I would be willing to be part of a small, select number of people who would assist them by testing their newest steel razor-blade forging. No need to guess my answer.

Truth to tell, during my visit to TI they had shown me some of the previous generation of new forgings which were being processed, the ones that have been used in their line of “Fox & Rooster” 6/8 razors. Now the form and appearance of that blade made such an impression on me, that later that day, when my visit to TI had concluded, while my wife and I were taking in some of the tourist sights in the downtown area of the nearby city of Thiers, I stopped in at one of the many cutlery shops in the area and plunked down some spare vacation cash to make one of those “Fox & Rooster” 6/8 razors my very own. That “Fox & Rooster” (which uses the first generation of this ‘new’ forging) has been one sweet shaver and struck me as a major improvement over anything TI had manufactured in the recent past. So you can imagine my curiosity in regard to what they could possibly have changed for the better in the new razor I was to receive.

In fact, what I actually received is not a finished, branded razor, per se, but rather a pre-production second-generation test blade-forging using a new steel mix that hasn’t found its way into the production lines quite yet.

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My first viewing of this second-generation forging didn’t reveal many dramatic changes. This is evidently a refinement of the forging found in the F&R that I already have. These two are both 6/8 blades that are nearly the same in terms of size, weight and surface finish, but there are two small differences, apparent to the eye, that set the blades apart. The new forging sports a slightly longer tail sweep (+4.5mm = +5/32”) to better accommodate large pinky fingers and give improved shaving control. Sharp eyes will also notice two forged-in grooves on either side of the tang which add a nice design touch. Besides the addition of these decorative grooves, the ‘steps’ at the rear of the hollow-ground portion of the blade are now more deeply stamped into the metal during the forging process: something which drastically reduces the amount of metal to be removed in the grinding process (thus diminishing the levels of grind-induced stress) and imparts a better crystalline structure to that portion of the blade. At the same time, this increases production speed and cuts down on the amount of blade breakage during manufacture.

Apart from the minor external modifications, there have also been a number of important changes the user will not be able to see, but which are to his benefit nevertheless. While both blades are forged from high-carbon surgical steel, the total carbon content of the new steel has been increased up to a massive 1.35 % rather than the previous, already high level of 1.2 %. To put this in perspective, you must be aware that so-called ‘normal’ tool steel has a carbon content of around 0.48 %. Stepping up to what is deemed ‘good quality’ tool steel the carbon content rises up to 0.75 %. Very hard tool steel, which is produced for specialty purposes has 1.0 % carbon content, already considered an elevated level.

The previous forgings could lay claim to an average hardness of 62 Rockwell, but with the new higher carbon-content steel, TI has managed to boost the steel hardness up to between 63-65 Rockwell. This delivers not only fantastic edge-holding ability, but a steel that takes a brilliant mirror polish. (For those interested, please see note regarding surgical steel at end of article)

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Naturally, consistency of hardness and temper has become a number one priority at TI for these new forgings. The blades are heat-treated in batches of 300, from which samples are tested to ascertain that the correct hardness level has been attained. A complete report of temperatures, cycle times and hardness levels for each given batch is then recorded. On the back side of every blade tang is found a letter of the alphabet, corresponding to the group in which it was heat-treated and tempered, thus allowing for better tracking of blade hardness and performance.

Without going into details, it’s worth mentioning that the heat-treatment process TI uses for this line of blades has been re-examined and improved, allowing very high hardness levels to be realized at the cutting edge, while at the same time giving some extra flexibility to the blade back, thus minimizing to some degree the extreme brittleness that would normally accompany such high hardness levels. But, hey, this is still extremely hard steel and just like any other razor, it can still be induced to shatter if subjected to sudden force or impact.

Extra attention is given to the blade forgings even before they reach the hardening and tempering stage. The pivot holes in the forgings are now drilled out rather than stamped through, providing a pivot hole that’s smaller (about 1.8 mm), cleaner and more precise than was previously possible. The pivot pin (1.6 – 1.7mm in diameter) fits this drilled hole very snugly, resulting in smoother opening and closing of the razor and less tendency of the blade to pull or **** over to one side or the other within the scales.

Also prior to hardening, each blade receives an individual inspection and calibration to ascertain if it is straight and free from forge-induced distortions. Those blades presenting any defects of geometry are hand-hammered and adjusted along blade and tang to bring them true. But the attention doesn’t stop there. After all of this careful preparatory work, the razors are not simply tossed into the furnace and then dumped in the quench tank, willy-nilly. Instead, every single blade to be heat-treated is threaded on special heat-resistant wire and individually suspended within special baskets, each one hanging away from its 299 neighbors. When these baskets go into the furnace, this special hanging arrangement permits all the blades to enjoy equal and even exposure to both the heat of the furnace as well as the fluid of the quenching tank, drastically reducing hardening-cycle distortions. This extra care produces a series of razors that are straighter, with greater uniformity of form and performance than in the past.

Although this is not a standard production unit, I can at least give you my overall impressions of this test razor. This new blade has been mated with a pair of blond cow horn scales that are sleek, rich and elegant in the hand. There are absolutely no manufacturing defects to be found and the polish and finish of these scales is excellent… even on the inside. The action of the blade is smooth and positive, with the blade cleanly centered within the scales.

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The mirror polish on this blade is so good that you could be forgiven for thinking that it had been chrome plated. It is amazingly attractive even without any added decoration, and I trust that my photographs do it justice. High polish is not merely pleasing to the eye; such a smooth surface is also easier to keep clean and offers better resistance to rust than blades of a lesser surface-finish.

Of course, attractive as it is, this razor wasn’t sent to me simply to serve as pretty wall decoration. The whole point was that I should shave with it and provide performance feedback to the factory. This shave-testing was to be carried out in two stages:

My instructions for step number one were to shave with the new razor in exactly the condition in which it arrived by post. This meant absolutely no honing, no pasted strops and no edge touch-ups at all, except for a few passes on clean leather.

Of course, we have all heard of (or experienced) sharpness problems with so-called ‘shave-ready’ straight-razors and so it was with some trepidation that I brought this razor to my lathered chin. To my delight, it proved more than shave-ready and every bit as sharp as my usual razor. The shave this blade gave me was excellent… and this rather astonished me, as I am quite unused to razors performing properly right off the shelf. Suspecting that the razor had been given some sort of ‘specialty treatment’ prior to shipment, I grabbed the telephone and placed a call to my contact at Thiers-Issard.

“How was your shave?”, was his immediate question.

“Very fine, indeed.”, I replied, “So tell me, how much special sharpening was performed on that blade?”

“None whatsoever.”, he laughed, “It was given the standard three-minutes’ of attention and shoved in the box.”

Well, it still seemed a bit too good to be true, but casting my suspicions aside, I made ready to proceed to the second phase of the shaving test.

For the second phase of the shaving test I was allowed – nay, ‘ordered’ – to hone and strop the blade in whatever manner was normal for me. Following this I was to shave with the blade for two weeks without honing or stropping it on any pastes. Again, only a few passes on clean leather being permitted and nothing else.

That said, I put on my ‘junior honemeister’ cap’ and set to work to give the blade a proper honing. ‘Proper’ for me means beginning with a series of Japanese water-stones up to 8000-grit, from which I step over to a few strokes on a Belgian coticle, then green stropping-paste on leather (equivalent to 10,000-grit), followed by white stropping-paste on leather (equivalent to 12,000-grit) and then subsequent passes on .5 micron diamond paste and finally .25 micron diamond paste. Yes, I’m a fan of ‘scary sharp’! With a tough beard like mine, one has to be!

The following shave day, I lathered up once again and put the newly-honed blade to the test. What a pleasant surprise! ‘Out of the box’ the shave had been excellent, but now that I had given it my own honing, the shave was really quite brilliant. My contact at Thiers-Issard had clearly been telling me the absolute truth - this blade had, indeed, only received the ‘standard factory sharpening’. This doesn’t mean that I am forgetting what other users have said in the past about difficulties with the sharpness of TI blades, but if this sample blade is anything to go by, then I would venture to say that the factory has pushed the quality of their in-house honing way, way up.

I’ve been shaving for slightly longer than two weeks with this test razor and I’m happy to report that this blade continues to give superb performance and is doing that without any attention beyond a few swipes on a clean leather strop (which I do for every razor I shave with, every time). The steel in this blade really takes and holds a keen edge. And I’m getting consistently smooth, easy shaving… even on this face full of wire that I call whiskers.

The people at Thiers-Issard are not certain exactly how and when the new forging and steel will be phased in. They also have no idea of price and, at this moment, this new forging-steel combination doesn’t even have a name.

There is a bright note, however. My contact did confide that, owing to the overwhelmingly positive feedback from the testers (myself included), Thiers-Issard is contemplating using the first pieces of these new forgings to create a special limited-edition razor. When (or if) that will happen, what such a special edition might be named and what the price would be, well, I have no idea. Over time, of course, I’m told that this steel will find its way into almost the entire line of TI razors with the exception of their line of Damascus and historic razors.

As I said earlier in this article, I’ve always been enthusiastic about the razors from Thiers-Issard and this little adventure has elevated my spirits yet again. This razor has good balance, sharpens easily, holds an outstanding edge and is just darned handsome. It’s bound to be a winner.

- Ignatz


Note: I wish to express my appreciation to the fine people at Thiers-Issard who provided additional technical information for this review and who most generously allowed me to share my experiences with the members of B&B

Note concerning surgical steel: A true examination of the history of the use of steel in medical instruments is outside the scope of this article, but I feel it only correct to make a few points which may help to clear up any misconception in the mind of the reader, most especially where it applies to the usage of the term ‘surgical steel’ relating to the recent Thiers-Issard razor forgings.

Most readers who read or hear the term “surgical grade steel” will automatically think of “stainless steel” where this applies to the medical profession. This is perhaps because of the influence of the American medical system where the term ‘surgical steel’ has come to refer almost exclusively to a group of high grade stainless steel alloys that conform to the many stringent requirements of the operating theatre, amongst which are high strength, ability to take repeated high-temperature sterilization cycles, corrosion-resistance and being of such composition that they provoke neither auto-immune nor rejection responses when/if used as orthopaedic implants within a patient’s body. Over the years this requirement to use nothing but “stainless steel” has spread to almost all areas of the operating theatre, and doctors’ offices, so that almost all implements (scalpels, tweezers, etc.) are now made from this same group of stainless steel alloys.

Here in Europe the situation is slightly different. This is not to imply that European doctors do not use stainless steel, which, of course, they absolutely do, and for the very same, sound medical reasons whenever these apply. But there are also many applications in the medical world for pre-packaged, pre-sterilized, single-use scalpels, blades, needles, tweezers, etc. In these short-duration single-use applications, high quality regular surgical grade steel is more economical and gives equal or better performance. Having said that, I must emphasize that what in this article is termed high-carbon content surgical steel, as found in these most recent blades produced by Thiers-Issard is at the time of this writing being used in other factories elsewhere on the European Continent for the production of the kinds of medical equipment I have mentioned.

In truth, it is only this existing production of medical instruments, demanding this extremely high quality high-carbon content surgical steel, that permits Thiers-Issard to create these latest forgings, as otherwise the economics of trying to obtain that same quality of steel would make this quite impossible. Let me illustrate this for you.

To produce a razor, the factory needs to start out with about 100 grams of steel (3.5 oz) to end up with a finished straight razor blade. An average run of straight-razors at TI requires some 500 kilograms of steel (about 1100 pounds worth) to allow them to produce in the area of 5000 razors. This is really not very much steel at all, being considerably less by weight than would be found in the average mid-sized automobile. Consider then that any company contemplating the purchase of a special mix of steel from a foundry will be looking at a minimum order of at least 20 tons of steel. I hasten to add that even those 20 tons of steel would strike most foundry administrators as too little to be worth their time. Be that as it may, that minimum run of 20 tons of steel would produce on the order of 180,000 razors and would represent approximately twenty years’ production of shaving implements. Of course, paying in advance for a twenty-year supply of steel and then providing storage space for same is beyond the means of most small companies. However, Thiers-Issard has been extremely fortunate in that they have located a foundry that already produces this very high grade of steel for a larger customer who produces medical equipment. TI is then able to ‘piggyback’ their steel order onto that of the larger customer (whose larger volume needs have met the minimum requirements for the foundry to make up the mix). In the past, securing steel of the proper quality had been something of a catch-as-catch-can state of affairs for TI, but having found this new supply source, TI can now arrange to buy job lots of this same high-carbon content surgical steel on an ongoing basis, thus assuring their supplies – and thus a line of top quality straight razors – for a long time to come.

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Great review! That is one fine looking razor!
OK - I'll jump in here, too. I remember reading this review many moons ago and thinking that it was really well done. Some months after that, I bought a 6/8 C135 with the horn scales and I have to agree with most of what has been reviewed. Beautifully made razor and the edge has been very long-lasting (I touched it up with some TI paste on a paddle strop once, I think...). Mine came honed by the vendor 'wicked sharp' as they say around here - I mean really sharp - and it was a little 'crisp' as they say, but it has smoothed out nicely just with stropping and normal use. Aesthetically very pleasing and dern efficient razor.

One afterthought: the more I look at the scales, and particularly in comparison to many other razors, I don't really consider them to be unusually long at all. They work for me just fine.
I just got my first TI today too. It's a 7/8 Le Canadien C135 Carbonsteel Singing razor with faux mother of pearl scales. It's a massive blade! From what I can tell the factory edge seems to be very nice and sharp! I'll test tonight and update!

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