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Razor Grinding, Glazing And Polishing, How The Americans Did It (Long Post)

One of the appealing dimensions of shaving with an open razor is the sense of history associated with such objects, and the appreciation of hand craftsmanship that has withered awful much in modern America. There are many things we can never know about the past, those men of old didn't ever think to write down those repetitive tasks which were imbued in their hands like a second nature. One can however, after plumbing the depths of the internet, get brief glimpses into the working lives of those who went before us, and in some cases, stumble upon an incredible trove of information, especially useful to those of us today who would like to revive the techniques of working from an age gone by.

This is as brief a summary I can give, to those interested in restoring razors to authentic finishes, or those who make their own razors, on how things were done at the Geneva Finger Lakes Razor and Cutlery Co. in 1924, gleaned from the pages of "Our Journal", a monthly publication of the Metal Polishers International Union. The article was written by Patrick F. Garvey.

To preface, when I started to make my own razors and knives, I was using all modern abrasive techniques, I am the owner of a 2x72 grinder, and as such, my initial investment was in belts of all grits and types, ceramics, AlOx, 3M Trizact, felt polishing belts, etc. But I was always unhappy with the results. It isn't that modern abrasives don't finish well, aren't uniform or consistent, no, they absolutely excel in all fields. But grit for grit, if one compares a razor made with modern abrasives, and an original condition vintage razor, there is definitely a different look to the old stuff. There is a iridescent, fine grain, "short" quality to the scratches which is impossible to obtain with modern methods. To my eye, these older finishes are much more pleasing and bright to look at, and as such I have been pursuing methods and materials to replicate.

Back to Geneva:

First order of the day is the inital grinding, which takes place after all the heat treating operations have been completed. The heat treat at this particular factory was a traditional hot lead austenizing, the blades are placed, a dozen at a time, into a bath of molten lead and once heated through to the correct temperature are quenched in oil. Geneva Lakes uses a steel of 1.2% carbon for their blades.

The first grinding operation is the faces of the blade, also known as concaving. Depending on the grind, full hollow, half hollw, etc, different diameters of wheels are used, sometimes wheels of multiple diameters on the same blade. As the blade progresses through the various stages of grinding, the workman checks either with a gage shaped to the specific grind, also with a metal ring he wears on his thumb, he presses the edge of the blade onto this ring and watches for the shadow as the metal flexes. The evenness of this flex along the edge of the blade tells him that he has achieved an even grind with the right amount of thickness left.

After this, the "bow" of the tang is ground to shape (the bow being the semi-circular cut-out at the end of the tang where ones pinkie finger rests). This is achieved using an emery wheel of 24" diameter! The wheel profiled to a rounded surface.

Next, the sides and bottom of the tang are ground on a 12" diameter emery wheel.

There are no grits given for these grinding wheels, but after some perusal of various old catalogs from the same time period (Abrasive Company, Philadelphia. American Emery Wheel Work, Rhode Island) some numbers come up. The American Emery Wheel Works has recommendations in the front of their 1920 Catalog for the grinding of razors, concaving specifically, with wheels of an abrasive grain of 60-100, corundum with a silicate bond. Abrasive Company, Philadelphia in their 1919 Catalog recommend abrasive grains made of Borolon (Aluminum Oxide), between 46-100 in a vitrified bond wheel, again, specifically naming razor concaving and grinding.

Once all the surfaces are ground the blade are passed on to another worker who performs what is called roughing in the text, what in Sheffield would be rough glazing. This is performed using felt wheels by the time we get to 1924, before this it would have been wooden wheels that had a leather rim placed around the circumference. In another article in this publication, there is an extensive dissertation on the types of wheels used for glazing and polishing operations as well as their pros and cons. Felt was becoming the most highly favored material due to its ease of maintenance and ability to be balanced quickly and simply. For the rough glazing, the felt wheels, of which again there may be multiple diameters, are dressed with a head of glue and No. 120 Emery. The glue used at this time was an animal based glue, a hot hide glue which was occasionally mixed with a substance called C-Gum. I have been unable to discern what C-Gum is, but when I worked for a large dental instrument maker, I heard old timers talk about a compound that they called simply "C".

To continue, the felt wheels are given multiple coats of glue and emery (between 5 and 7) and are then "turned down" to fit exactly into the various concavities of the razor. We are informed that a blade glazer and polisher will have as many as 18 different wheels to complete these processes. Between every step of the process the blade is cleaned (elsewhere we learn blades are cleaned in Naptha) and then dried in sawdust.

After the use of these rouging, glue based wheels, other felt wheels are used for "Fine Glazing", the same size of emery is used but this time the emery is mixed with oil. A pan of this mixture is placed under the wheel so the operator can smear some of the mixture onto the blade before every application of the wheel. This creates a finer finish than the glue wheels since the emery can "soak" into the felt.

Once all these roughing and fining operations are complete, the blade is cleaned and then goes onto what is called "Blue Coloring". Some of you may be familiar with this term if you have ever seen the excellent documentary on YouTube called "Der Blaupliester" which documents the work of a man who is maybe the last blue polisher in Germany. This is done with wheels coated with glue and "XX Turkish Emery". I have been unable to determine the exact grit of this emery, I looked into the old ANSI abrasive grades but once you get into the very fine grades known as emery flours, they use a system such as 1/0, 2/0, 3/0, etc,not a lettered system at all. Thinking about sensible grit progressions however, imo "XX" emery is likely to be in the 240-320 grit range.

The glue and emery head on the wheel is cracked up, I would imagine with blows from a hammer, and fat (in this instance, lard oil) is rubbed into the head to soften the surface, along with the use of a stone to smooth the wheel down as it runs. There is again, mention of using emery and oil but it seems that this is applied to the glued wheel and not used on a separate felt.

This will be the final stage of polishing unless the blade goes on to be crocus polished.

The crocus polishing some of us may have heard of is the old Sheffield method of using a wooden wheel faced with lead acting as a lap, as well as leather covered wheels coated in crocus of iron oxide.

However, in our case, we are informed that crocus polishing is achieved with the use of a brush wheel, cake lime and "crocus emery".

Brush wheels are basically exactly what they sound like, usually a wooden hub with bristles radiating out from the center. I did a little digging into what bristles were used at the time and it seems that they were made from something called Tampico, what we today would call sisal, which are fibers derived from a type of cactus. Cake Lime was a compound made from Dolomitic Lime (sometimes called Vienna Lime) and tallow fat. Dolomitic Lime is a high magnesia content lime derived from Dolomite, a mineral crystal which is processed with heat and pulverized to create a fine polishing powder. "Crocus emery" is a bit of a contradiction since crocus is a form of iron oxide and emery is a form of aluminum oxide. My theory is that they are simply using an even finer grade of emery. Emery flours in the old ANSI standard start at 320 grit, so I would imagine we are looking at an abrasive for this operation in the 400-600 range which was about the upper limit of how accurately and finely they could grade abrasives at the time.

At this point the blade will be cleaned and inspected for rogue scratches or too dull of a finish. If there are any flaws they are sent back to the appropriate operation. If they move on they are sent for honing.

The honing is quite intriguing. The blades are set into automatic honing machines, going through a total of 3 machines before they hit a stone for the final strokes. In the third honing machine the writer tells us that brushes are used. I can only imagine that these are wheel brushes loaded with a fine abrasive that passes right along the edge of the blade. After this the razor goes to a dual sided hand hone, one rough side one fine side. The razor is layed flat on the hone, lather being used as the lubricant, x-strokes. 6-8 strokes is all we are told is necessary. Interestingly here we learn about what @Slash McCoy calls a "pull stroke". If a wire is formed on the edge the honer lays the razor on the stone and drags the blade in a straight line right off the edge of the stone with no forwards or backwards motion. The razor is always given the "hair test" (HHT?) and if it is satisfactory it is then stropped.

If you made it this far, thanks for reading and I hope you gleaned something useful here. But more importantly, let us appreciate even more the craftsmanship and artistry every time we pick up our razors to shave.
 
Thank you for the long and detailed synopsis. I have been wondering about American razor production recently, and this provides a window into it. I am curious about how the honing machines worked. Does it go into more detail about their operation? Any accompanying illustrations?
 
Doesn't mention anything about it. Just that there are three machines used sequentially and that the third machine uses brushes. I’ve been looking at some copies of the old Norton publication “Grits and Grinds” as well as some grinding machine manufacturers catalogs from the period so if I find anything I’ll post it here. Anyway here are the actual pages from “Our Journal” about honing at the Geneva Factory:

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That's really wild. Wish there was a high-res image to make out details of the machine. At the top I see what looks like two pairings of diagonally positioned (honing) wheels. For "stage one" and "stage two" of honing? In each pairing, one belt seems to follow the diagonal orientation whereas the other appears to run straight up and down. Very strange.
 
Superb. Thank you for sharing!

Interesting they’ve got the old thumb nail test in there. I’m not sure how many people use this now, but once you’ve got a feel for it - it’s just about the most reliable test I know for easily gauging the state of a blade’s edge. I do this every time I sharpen anything.

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Superb. Thank you for sharing!

Interesting they’ve got the old thumb nail test in there. I’m not sure how many people use this now, but once you’ve got a feel for it - it’s just about the most reliable test I know for easily gauging the state of a blade’s edge. I do this every time I sharpen anything.

View attachment 1442310

I very much like the thumbnail test also, sometimes while I'm honing I do it exactly as above but when I get closer to the finish I just lay the blade on the nail at a few points and test to see it doesn't slip sideways if that makes sense.

HHT is good too but I know that I can "game" that test in a way I can't with the thumbnail.

Some folks worry about it damaging the edge but I've never found that and in any case, after the test simply lay down a few strokes and you'll clean the very apex right back up.
 
One of the nice things when doing research is when corroborating information comes up in another source. This time we have a couple pages from what was an internal company publication of Norton Abrasives called "Grits and Grinds". Just a few pages talking about polishing but it matches up fairly close with what was mentioned in the "Our Journal" article about the types of wheels, grades of abrasives used and the different stages of glazing and polishing.

I'll also post some more articles from "Our Journal", where they have very precise instructions for the creation of glue based polishing wheels.

Note the term "Sea Horse", which in this instance I believe is Walrus Hide.

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Heimerdinger....I dig unique names . I'm going to try to remember that one

The company is still in existence:

 
One of the nice things when doing research is when corroborating information comes up in another source. This time we have a couple pages from what was an internal company publication of Norton Abrasives called "Grits and Grinds". Just a few pages talking about polishing but it matches up fairly close with what was mentioned in the "Our Journal" article about the types of wheels, grades of abrasives used and the different stages of glazing and polishing.

I'll also post some more articles from "Our Journal", where they have very precise instructions for the creation of glue based polishing wheels.

Note the term "Sea Horse", which in this instance I believe is Walrus Hide.

View attachment 1442359

View attachment 1442360

Thanks for that... now all I want in the world is a Walrus leather strop! ;).
 
Really interesting information. Thanks for posting!

When I started restoring blades, I thought finer was better, but my tastes have changed. For old Sheffields, I now use [100], 240, 480, 800 and 1200 grit wet/dry, finishing with one round of Mothers polish. Not too far from what you research indicates - with the caveat that your research is for Geneva razors.
 
Really interesting information. Thanks for posting!

When I started restoring blades, I thought finer was better, but my tastes have changed. For old Sheffields, I now use [100], 240, 480, 800 and 1200 grit wet/dry, finishing with one round of Mothers polish. Not too far from what you research indicates - with the caveat that your research is for Geneva razors.

I think one of the kind of pitfalls is definitely wanting to go too fine or even go to a mirror. Yes, a mirror is nice, but very few razors are/were really a true mirror, and if one is trying to replicate the authentic crocus finish of the old blades, modern abrasive equipment just doesn't look the same. Buffing wheels don't keep the crispness of the lines and even the flatter surfaces take on a kind of distortion to the reflections that are absent on the old blades, where you have this incredibly flat field quality to the polish, like one would get on the hand polished parts of a fine watch.

One day I will get round to making a lead lap and trying to re-create the crocus finish but I just do not have space right now.

I have however totally transitioned all my post-grinding work (60/80 grit belt) over to the glue and emery wheel system and it is totally different look of finish for the same grit compared to a belt. I just started re-finishing an old razor that had a lot of pitting and the 150 grit emery wheel has scratches I'd say at least as fine as a 320 belt equivalent. I think the glue gives a bit of cushion for the abrasive. I then smoothed down the face of the wheel with a chunk of quartz and had a little 150 grit with oil mixed up and went over the same area again which made the whole thing much brighter.

They couldn't grade abrasive as accurately back then so the idea of this kind of ascending ladder of finer and finer grit didn't work. Most abrasive was simply sieved, but once you get to something like 220-320 grit range you could no longer sieve. After that are the "flours" which in an old Carborundum catalog are simply put into 3 grades, F, FF and FFF which were separated by basically dropping the particles into a vat of water, it could take up to an hour for it to sink out of suspension, where after you could go in and scrape off the top third as the finest since it took the longest to settle, then the next third, then the next. A far cry from being able to have micron precise grading of abrasive grains with tight PSD's.

Working the same abrasive multiple ways was the modus operandi.

The Geneva system isn't too far away from the Sheffield one. From my own research in Sheffield you went from a grinding wheel to a "tumbler" or rough glazing wheel which would be about 120-180 grit, then to a fine glazer which was 320-400 grit. If the blade was going to be mirror polished it when to a lead faced wheel or lap which had flour emery/emery cake embedded into the lead and used with oil. After that a leather wheel (hard bullneck leather or sole leather) with crocus of iron. The only difference is that there was no use of the lead lap in Geneva where they substituted it for the brush wheel with the lime and crocus which wouldn't actually give a true, scratch free mirror. Incidentally I have yet to come across a US made razor with a true mirror (sure there are some out there though), the closest is an extremely bright and fine glaze with very small scratches which gives an iridescent quality to the surface of the steel. I think as time went on, efficiency, utility made those very high end, labor intensive finishes less cost effective.
 
This is such an interesting thread, thanks. I had for a while my grandfather's Geneva which I had dated to the late 20s due to the naming. It had a very bright crocus finish but as you say, it wasn't exactly a mirror, like my Koraat for instance. I never really looked at the finish under magnification and I don't even think I took any photos.

I gave it to my nephew who's been using it ever since. There were some rogue scratches on the face and he decided to sand them out carefully with fine lapping film. Apparently he actually got the hamon to appear though that wasn't his goal...haven't seen pictures but he's pretty tickled about it.
 
Couple images, first razor is that refinish I’m going on an old, pitted Torrey, scratches are from a 150 grit emery wheel. Second image is from a razor I made a couple years back that was finished on a 400 grit cork belt. Not much difference despite the large difference in grit.

Torrey:

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Second razor:

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It sounds like the older finishes are the result of the mixture of different grits. Kim from Dan's told me that they reuse 90-grit SI from the soft and hard Arks plus fresh 90-grit SI for the black and translucent Arks. I wonder if you could apply this same principle to finishing blades.
 
It sounds like the older finishes are the result of the mixture of different grits. Kim from Dan's told me that they reuse 90-grit SI from the soft and hard Arks plus fresh 90-grit SI for the black and translucent Arks. I wonder if you could apply this same principle to finishing blades.

I think there are a couple of mechanisms at play which give the unique finish you see on older blades, not just on razors but also pen knives and such where they used the same methods.

One is definitely the more crude methods of separating out the grits, especially the fine grades where one is bound to have a wider distribution of particle sizes.

Second is that when you glue up a wheel, there are areas where some abrasive is going to be more below the surface of the glue than above as well as areas where the particles are protruding more above the glue than below. I think this is what creates that regular line interval effect you see on a lot of old razors where you can imagine the grinder slowly passing the blade along the surface of the wheel. Example below on a Case pocket knife:

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Before synthetic grains came along they were using emery that was mined from the earth which is not as pure as manufactured abrasives and is much more friable/fracturable. I imagine breaking of grains in grinding also gives that mixed grit effect. One might be able to simulate this by using silicon carbide instead of aluminum oxide, the former being more friable than the latter. Or even mixing SiC and AlOx of the same grit to get a variety of particle shape, size and friability.
 
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