Rating custom razors with Bill Ellis...
The following article is a compilation of "reviews" based on the different custom razors Bill and I discussed. We spent several hours going over and handling these razors - going over them with a fine tooth comb - and discussing the pro's, con's design, ergonomics, weighting, quality, value - etc. There is no razor with all pros, or all cons - this is meant as a guide to the quality, craftsmanship, and detail of each razor based on the examples we had in hand.
Well - let me start with a disclaimer before I jump into this. The following observations are those of which Bill, has made based on fact. If you're easily offended, or wish to battle over "which one's best" or any other nonsense, this is NOT the article/thread for you. These are fact based observations based on the quantifiable and tangible qualities of these razors. Not a single one of these razors reviewed (including Bill's) was rated perfect. In fact - one thing that might come as a surprise, is that Bill not only didn't rate his razor as the best - he rated it as tied for second. I think the results will surprise many. His ratings and comments RE: each razors rating and misc comments are in bold, my subjective comments (RE: shave quality, fit and finish, etc) are below, non-bolded and italicized.
Note: these ratings are Bill's completely unbiased ratings I tried to argue with him on a few of the ratings, but he stood firm - this is the real deal from one professional award winning knife/razor maker to you. To keep this professional, I will not be posting close ups of the flaws pointed out in each razor - merely 1 overview shot of the razor in which ALL of them look good as this is not intended to bash anyone, merely educate.
Let's get started - Lowest rated razors first - highest last. The total is out of a possible 90 points, consisting of 9 categories worth 10 points each.
#8 Robert Williams MOP/Hippo Ivory - 50 points.
1.) Footprint - 5. Nothing uniform and the lines do not flow.
2.) Master Grind - 5. Different Widths.
3.) Blade Symmetry - 4.5. Tilt & twist (clockwise) which means the centerline of the cutting edge was lost in the grinding process.
4.) Pins - 5. Rough looking and they are mismatched (each side looks different) however they are filed and rounded.
5.) Filework - 8. The hammered tang and spine isn't of the best quality, but has a uniform and matching rustic look that works well on this razor.
6.) Butt Spacer - 6. Parallel - puts too much stress on the top 2/3 of the scales.
7.) Shaving Balance/Ergonomics - 6.5. Handle heavy.
8.) Fit and finish - 5.5. So-so all around. Initially miscalculated where the razor was to be placed in the scales and drilled the hole on the tang in the wrong place - had to fill it in, and drill it further from the tail.
9.) Blade finish - 4.5 - Uneven, and evidence of sanding belts, which shouldn't exist in a mirror finish.
Worst Feature - Master Grind.
Best Feature - Rustic aesthetics of the spine/tang.
Looks sharp in pictures, and is a neat design. Shaves much better than his newer stuff (the blade is absurdly hard) however like Robert other pieces, the quality just isn't there.
#7 - Robert Williams Mammoth Ivory Razor - 52 points.
1.) Footprint - 9. Really Slick Lines.
2.) Master Grind - 8. Ok, but a little uneven/off.
3.) Blade Symmetry - 6. Has a tilt in several places, tang is bent, notch uneven and looks incomplete.
4.) Pins - 4. Really rough looking and they are mismatched (each side looks different). Pins not even filed, so they have sharp/rough edges.
5.) Filework - 5. Average at best - for a "rustic" look.
6.) Butt Spacer - 5. Spacer sticks out/protrudes from the scales and is parallel, without a taper.
7.) Shaving Balance/Ergonomics - 5.5. Tips of the scales stick out to much, and make it awkward to hold. The razor is too heavy, and the scales are too thick.
8.) Fit and finish - 4. No comment.
9.) Blade finish - 5.5 - Evidence of sanding belts, which shouldn't exist in a mirror finish. Mark on blade from finishing
Worst Feature - Tang rubs against scales when opening/closing.
Best Feature - Footprint is lovely.
Like most of Roberts razors, these look quite nice in pictures and they're great shavers, however the quality is errr... let's say they're "rustic." The tang rubbing against the scales, and the spacer sticking out drive me crazy as they're little things that could have easily been caught/remedied. Flaws aside, it looks and shaves quite nice, and the design is quite pleasing to the eye.
#6 Maestro Livi Abalone (with Takeda Damascus Blade) - 54 points.
1.) Footprint - 7+. Nice shape, lines with a decent flow.
2.) Master Grind - 6. Relatively close but a little rough and mismatched. He didn't think ahead on the scales, and made the blade in the wrong shape, so he had to grind the heel down.
3.) Blade Symmetry - 4.5. Twisted and at an angle (5% off vertical) and a slight tilt, ground different, lost the centerline in the grinding process.
4.) Pins - 4. Too thick, pins don't match the aesthetics of the rest of the razor and look crude. Hammered the pivot pins too hard causing the scales to skew.
5.) Filework - 4. Crude, and looks like it was an afterthought. Work isn't even or consistent.
6.) Butt Spacer - 7.5. Pretty good job out of abalone and is nice and flush. Probably would have been rated much higher if it had a taper, which is important on a razor like this.
7.) Shaving Balance/Ergonomics - 8. A tad off, but pretty evenly balanced for such a large razor. Feels good in the hand.
8.) Fit and finish - 5.5. Ok overall, but nothing spectacular or particularly notable.
9.) Blade finish - 7.5 - Consistent.
Worst Feature - Master Grind.
Best Feature - Aesthetics, looks great.
The takeda steel is killer and shaves like an absolute dream. The scales are equally lovely. Unfortunately, like all other Maestro razors I have seen, honed or used - the fit and finish is really lacking and uninspiring. The takeda steel also has a downside, as if it is heavily used - over time the honing angle will be thrown off, as the steel on the spine is softer than the super hard blue steel - so the spine/shoulder will wear at a faster rate on the hone. All nitpicking aside, it's a sweet razor, but costs enough to give you a nosebleed. While people will pay $1K for 'em day and night - the price is hard to justify. It is a sweet shaving/looking razor though. Bottom line - I wouldn't buy another Maestro Livi razor, and I recently sold this razor, and will likely sell the other one i've got.
#5 Joe Chandler Damascus - 71.5 points.
1.) Footprint - 9+. Sharp looking humpback.
2.) Master Grind - 9. Well done.
3.) Blade Symmetry - 7.5. Slight tilt by a few degrees.
4.) Pins - 8. Great looking (my own design) but the rear butt pin is misplaced and would look much better with the design if it were centered.
5.) Filework - 8. Tiny bit rough, but looks good.
6.) Butt Spacer - 7.5. A little long and without a taper, but is nice and flush.
7.) Shaving Balance/Ergonomics - 6.5. Doesn't feel good no matter where you hold it. Thumb notch is annoying and misplaced.
8.) Fit and finish - 8+. Fine work.
9.) Blade finish - 8+ - Etched quite well, but not over the top.
Worst Feature - Thumb notch and balance.
Best Feature - Construction/finish of the scales - great job on the CA coat.
This is one where Bill and I don't fully agree. I think Joe's filework is outstanding, other than that we're in full agreement. This is a wonderfully beautiful razor - however 2 of the three customs i've bought from Joe had to go back to him to be reground as there was no edge on the heel of one, and the shoulder of the other (this one) - and the third razor I had purchased from him had already been returned by an unhappy customer (RE: the same issues). Also, while the steel takes a great edge, it is a really harsh shaving razor. Provides great shaves in terms of closeness, but beats the crap out of your face.
#4 Joe Chandler Stainless - 73.5 points.
1.) Footprint - 9. Very nice profile.
2.) Master Grind - 9. Well done.
3.) Blade Symmetry - 8. Very, very slight twist to the blade.
4.) Pins - 8. Great looking (my own design) but the rear butt pin is misplaced and doesn't follow the symmetry of the razor. Should have been higher.
5.) Filework - 7.5. Pretty even/decent on the spine, and excellent on the jiimps.
6.) Butt Spacer - 8. Shouldn't have used brass (or if he had, carved it out, so it wasn't so heavy) way too weighty, however great fit and finish.
7.) Shaving Balance/Ergonomics - 6.5. Massive brass spacer totally throws the weighting off.
8.) Fit and finish - 8.5. Fine work.
9.) Blade finish - 9 - Some marks and traces of grind marks upon close inspection, but very good, and should be a benchmark for errr - a couple of guys doing mirror polishes on razors...
Worst Feature - Spacer.
Best Feature - Flawless CA finish and overall design.
In my opinion the filework on the spine is really crude - especially compared to the other razors (including the damascus one above) I have from Joe. Other than the poor balance of the razor, and problems with the front 1/4 of the razor not having an edge on it (not ground at all) it's an unbelievably gorgeous razor, and shaves beautifully to boot.
** Tied with Ellis** Tim Zowada Damascus - 77 points.
1.) Footprint - 8.5. Blade a bit too low in the scales and displaces the flow.
2.) Master Grind - 9. Near perfect.
3.) Blade Symmetry - 9. Near perfect.
4.) Pins - 8.5. Pin mismatched (one side has the allen wrench adjustment, the other is smooth/clean) and on such a pretty razor they should be matched and both sides. Would have been a 9 with a matched/clean pin.
5.) Filework - 8. Even and consistent.
6.) Butt Spacer - 7. End of the blade doesn't come close enough to the end of the scales so there is an 8mm space.
7.) Shaving Balance/Ergonomics - 9. Very well balanced - light and maneuverable.
8.) Fit and finish - 9. Great work.
9.) Blade finish - 9 - Good looking damascus.
Worst Feature - Space in the butt of the razor.
Best Feature - Wonderful balance and ergonomics.
Personally I don't mind the adjustment pin... in any event, Tim's razors are stunning shavers, and look incredibly smart. The space at the end of the razor between the blade, and the solid piece of wood is the only "issue" with the entire razor in my mind, however Tim has fixed this issue in his newer razors.
** Tied with Zowada** Bill Ellis Ambonya - 77 points.
1.) Footprint - 9. Good lines.
2.) Master Grind - 9. Even.
3.) Blade Symmetry - 9. Symmetrical.
4.) Pins - 9. Matching and placed properly.
5.) Filework - 8.5. Even and consistent.
6.) Butt Spacer - 7. Not enough taper, and too small/not flush at the end.
7.) Shaving Balance/Ergonomics - 8. Evenly balanced.
8.) Fit and finish - 8.5. A minor imperfection in the ca coat.
9.) Blade finish - 9+ - Very tricky/time consuming lengthwise finish.
Worst Feature - Butt spacer.
Best Feature - Blade finish.
I think Bill was being overly critical of his work, as for me, the spacer ever so slightly smaller (1mm inset ambonya in the back) makes the rear of the razor look cooler with the CA finished REALLY popping and looking 3D. I'd also give him a 10 on the filework - with different patterns on the spine and for jiimps, and them being PERFECT (I measured the placement/distance). This razor takes a wicked edge and is really a joy to shave with... it's my second favorite straight razor (the first is another Ellis)... My one gripe/critique on this razor, is the finish. While it is terribly hard to do (he showed me how he does it) and is incredibly time consuming, it is prone to scratching - and I use the heck out of this razor. I personally don't think it looks as cool as a mirror polish, but one thing is for sure, it is original, it's cool and it stands out. I'm not shy about saying Bill's my favorite razor maker - he's got neat/interesting yet classic designs, his quality is impeccable, and his fit and finish is beyond obsessive compulsive.
#1 Frank Warner Birdwing - 79 points.
1.) Footprint - 9.5. Incredibly unique and beautiful flowing lines.
2.) Master Grind - 9. Even.
3.) Blade Symmetry - 8.5. Very slight cant by .5 degrees.
4.) Pins - 9.5. Matching and placed properly.
5.) Filework - 9. Even and look clean.
6.) Butt Spacer - 8.5. Not at traditional spacer but works perfectly and has a neat effect.
7.) Shaving Balance/Ergonomics - 7.5. Ass heavy.
8.) Fit and finish - 9. Perfect and very interesting (not glossy) CA coat. Beautifully sculpted and even "wings" in the wood.
9.) Blade finish - 8.5 - Well done and consistent.
Worst Feature - Balance.
Best Feature - Killer footprint.
Frank Warner is hands down the most under-rated razor maker. He's quiet, keeps to himself, and makes a few razors a year as a hobby... but he makes the most interesting and wild razors out there, and he also uses a wide array of steels not used by any other maker.... D-2 Stainless (on this razor) spring steel, and other misc tool steels are all in his arsenal. His designs are very different, and won't appeal to all - but his craftsmanship is outstanding. The birdwing is VERY small, and a bit tricky to shave with, however the edge it takes is frightening, and it shaves much like a top of the range Japanese Iwasaki, in that if you do your part, it'll give you the closest shave possible... and if you don't - it'll cut the bejesus out of you. Frank is documenting the process of him creating a razor, with pictures on each step, etc - which i'll begin posting next week.
Misc overall thoughts from Joel - There are a lot of great razors out there... and there are a lot of expensive razors out there. Price and quality are not hand in hand.... in my opinion the top 3 makers in this group are equal in terms of quality, fit and finish, etc - and while a Zowada is mighty expensive, a full custom Ellis, or a handmade Frank Warner (Frank doesn't do "full" customs to spec - he only does his own designs, and will allow you to specify materials and such) is significantly less... both of these guys will make you a jaw dropping razor of the highest quality for under $500. The bad news? Well... both of these guys don't make very many custom razors a year - so they're pretty hard to come by.
If you are patient, and can handle a wait - an Ellis or Warner is in my opinion, the holy grail... both in terms of quality and value. Other makers offer much different designs, weights, steels, materials, etc - and they certainly have their merits, and shouldn't be dismissed, as for many - they prefer the razors of these makers for various reasons. My "holy grail" may be another mans "meh" - so take my opinion as that... merely MY opinion. I enjoy using/drooling over the Maestro Takeda Abalone, and razors from other makers... but the ones that really get my blood pumping are ironically from the top 3 ranked makers.
What to take from this? Well - know what, and why you're buying. If you're buying for looks, or for steel choice, to create your design, etc - you may now have a better idea of where to look. If you want a flashy eurodesign razor and you're not afraid of spending some $ - Maestro is hard to beat - and if you want to come up with a wild and wacky idea out of the blue with crazy materials and weird/new ideas... Robert Williams is hard to beat - if he even has competition in that realm.
I hope this article has given you a bit of insight into different makers strengths and weaknesses, etc. Of the above razors - there's not a single one that won't give you a close shave, and there's not a single one that looks ugly. Design, appearance, etc are very much personal preference, and are highly qualitative, whereas sheer quality, fit and finish and attention to detail - which happens to be what floats my boat, is very quantitative and "rankable" and i've gotten quite a bit of flack in the past for pointing out some pretty extreme quality issues with different makers. Frankly, it doesn't affect the function of the razor (typically) but many who are fond of the maker being critiqued are often hurt.
The reality is - we should all realize and accept 2 things.... 1.) Essentially every custom razor is going to shave just fine and dandy, and overall look quite nice. 2.) Embrace criticism. Don't be afraid to say you're not pleased with XYZ about a particular razor - it educates the masses, helps people make expensive decisions, and gives makers feedback on areas of improvement - but when doing so.... do so with tact. Something i'll admit, I can lack at times.