When I asked my dad to teach me to shave around age 13, anticipating a grand rite of passage, he returned home the next day with an electric razor wrapped in a K-Mart bag. He asked for a single-blade “safety” razor last Christmas. I got him one, only to hear months later that he was too nervous to place a raw blade that close to his jugular.
We’re timid shavers, the Wilson men. So as I stand in front of my mirror, pressing the $300 OneBlade–a single molded piece of steel that’s three times the weight of my normal Mach3–to my neck, nothing I’ve heard, like how the design studio Pensa spent a year developing this razor with no budget or design constraints, soothes the nerves.
The mirror fogs. The razor slips out of my hand. For a few moments, I can’t tell if I’m shaving or self-mutilating.
But when the fog clears and I rinse off, I realize: I just got the closest shave of my life.
A bit over a year ago, Pensa was approached by OneBlade CEO Tod Barrett with a rare task: Make the best razor on the market. The company had no agenda. They didn’t care about any solution-oriented business plan, like the hot Dollar Shave Club, which banked on selling customers new cartridges every month, or market trends, like the renaissance in safety razors at boutique grooming shops. But OneBlade did want it to be something very nice–of heirloom quality–that Barrett would be willing to pass down to his grandson.
For all the hype around FlexBalls, five blades, and authentic barbershop shaves, razors only come in three basic flavors. You have your classic straight razor: That’s essentially a butterfly knife you run against your skin. Then you have your safety razor: That’s a disposable razor blade that you screw into a sturdy handle.
“Safety razors are safe in name only; it’s a blade against your face,” explains Pensa partner Mark Prommel. “If you don’t hold it right, you cut yourself.” Which leads us to the third type of razor: Your Gillette or Schick-style disposable razor that basically squeezes razor blades into a cartridge, flattening them out into a rectangle that pivots against your skin. “It’s almost impossible to cut yourself,” Prommel says. But that, of course, comes with a cost: A cartridge razor offers a decent shave compared to an electric, but any straight razor user will tell you it stinks. Indeed, there are days I’ve shaved with a Mach3 and wondered what my highball-drinking, suit-wearing forefathers of manliness would think of the stubble.
“These guys [at OneBlade] are coming at it saying, we don’t care about calling this what it is–being a return to safety razors, or being a better cartridge. It’s not a value story. It’s about, ‘How can we create the best shave?'” Prommel says. “Right from that, it was interesting, a no-holds-barred approach. We were like, ‘We don’t know, the cost could be $100, $300, $500, but whatever it costs, it’ll cost that for a reason,'” which is exactly what Barrett’s team asked for.
For half a year, Pensa’s team studied nothing but the blades and core geometries behind shaving. What they learned was that three basic components make up any shaving razor: the angle of the attack for the blade, the exposure of the blade (how much actually presses against your face), and the gap (or the chasm between the blade and the body of the razor, which is meant to catch your skin to be shaved).
“It’s really down to the tenths of a millimeter spacing between the blade and the razor [chassis] . . . and dozens and dozens of ways you can affect the way the razor falls on your face,” he says. The team concluded that the best razor would be a bit of a hybrid: one great blade with a handle, like a safety razor, with the pivoting and protection you get in a cartridge razor.
There’s no learning curve. “A typical safety razor, it has kind of a curved top, and it’s a 4,000th-of-an-inch-thick blade, you drop that blade in, typically screw it to put the blade under tension, and that holds the blade at the correct angle from one end to the other,” Prommel says. “But in essence, it’s really about skill, technique, and learning. The safety razor is forcing you to maintain your arm, wrist, and hand, and hold it at your face at the exact same stroke–you will cut yourself multiple times in the process of learning to use a safety razor.”
For eight months, four designers shaved exclusively at the office. They loaded 3-D-printed prototypes and steel milled tubes with razor blades and ran them across their faces in the studio’s bathroom. They literally bled for the work. And what resulted was the OneBlade. Made from an extremely precise, injection-molded steel process, OneBlade is a downright heavy chunk of smooth steel in your hand, looped for easier grip, so machined that it feels lethal. Its head features teflon-coated steel springs that allow it to conform to your face. For the cutting edge itself, Pensa found a Japanese company that made fine single-sided razors, rather than your stock double-edged version. With a dull rear edge, and careful engineering, the OneBlade allows users to slide the razor right into the head rather than use a screwdriver, where it locks with a satisfying click.
“It’s a very unique user experience,” Prommel says. And with those words ringing in my ears, I took a preproduction OneBlade out of its leather carrying case, loaded it with a razor (the click really was fantastic), and hit the shower to prep for my shave.
Usually, I’m a shave-by-feel guy, preferring the steamy convenience of the shower to the vanity mirror. But in the case of OneBlade, I take a more conservative approach, exiting the shower–fully steamed and neck lubricated by Cremo Cream–to do the deed.
I pull the machined metal off its even heavier metal base. It’s all so manly, but in my wet hands, the OneBlade is very hard to grip. I lift it to my neck to take the first stroke, and I’ve never been so convinced that I was about to see a stream of crimson run down my neck. My senses go hyper-aware, and I can hear the tiny clinks of sliced hairs resonate through the OneBlade like an antique music box with a rusty spring.
My hand is shaking a bit. The gleaming silver body looks like one giant sharp thing in the foggy mirror, and I can’t figure out if I’m running it against my skin at the proper angle. No blood spotted, I slowly gain confidence, add the slightest hint of pressure, rerun a few bad passes, and then flip the razor upside down to shave against the grain.
Heirloom materials be damned, I wish the thing had a rubber handle. I found it too slippery for a during- or post-shower shave, especially when combined with its weight between your fingers. If you’re more a shaving-as-ceremony type, the OneBlade will serve you better than if you’re a shaving-out-the-door type.
Yet I will say: It quickly rinsed clean. I didn’t cut myself nor did I get razor burn, and as my wife ran her hand along my skin, she commented that it felt particularly soft.
It’s enough to get me to try the OneBlade again to see if I can get more comfortable in a second outing. But would I pass it down to my son? He can try an electric razor first. After all, it’s a family tradition.