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Straight Razors - Do You Know What That Handle Is Made From?

Aug 17, 2007
The material that the handles of a straight razor are made from can greatly affect its value - but how do you tell what it is? The following article gives some hints and tips.

Straight razor collecting is a branch of knife collecting and is popular amongst collectors due to its relatively low outlay. Still, there are some straight razors whose value is increased greatly simply due to the material the handles (called scales) are made from. Learning to identify these materials is not easy and even seasoned collectors are sometimes hard-put to define the material exactly. The following is a basic primer in identifying common scale materials.

Ivory. The single most prized scale material, although some would argue for Mother-of-Pearl. Ivory is commonly thought to come from the tusks of elephants. Whilst this is true, there are other sources of ivory, including walruses, whales, hippopotamus and wild boar. All ivory is suitable for inlay and, to a less degree, carving. All ivory is a very dense material that displays a glowing finish when polished. It has often been imitated (due to its cost) and can be difficult to identify. Some points to look out for in the identification of ivory razor scales include: Thinness of the scale - ivory scales are normally about half the thickness of imitation ivory. Look on the inner side of the scale - ivory was sawn to shape and very often the saw marks were left intact - not the case with an imitation. Elephant ivory has a very fine 'grain' that runs the length of the handle - any cracks (usually at the fixing pins) will always run with the grain. Ivory will scrape when tested wih a sharp knife - not curl. The ultimate ivory test is the 'hot pin' test. Hold the point of a hot pin to some inconspicuous area - imitation ivory will melt instantly, ivory will not.

Buffalo Horn. Most horn scales are made from the horns of the Asian Water Buffalo and can easily be confused with high-grade plastic. Colours vary from shiny black to yellow and even a greenish shade. Some are translucent, allowing light to pass through. If the material shows white streaks then it may well be cow horn. Horn may have designs impressed into it, or may be carved, both of which add to its artistic value and the overall value of the razor. Horn will react in the same way as ivory to the hot pin test; that is, it will not melt.

Mother-of-Pearl. Sometimes called just 'Pearl', this substance derives from the interior of a shellfish. For a complete scale, a very large shell is required. This means that usually the scales were made of pieces - this is no detrriment to their worth but a single-piece scale is highly prized. Mother-of-Pearl has an iridescent sheen to it when held to the light that no imitation has ever equalled and for this reason it is quite easy to identify. This material is also fragile - don't drop it!

Abalone. This comes from the same source as Mother-of-Pearl, but the species of shellfish is different, giving a deeper colour to the finished scale. Abalone is very rarely seen as a full scale - more often it is used as an inlay for decorative purposes. It, too, has never been successfully imitated and, once seen, is unmistakeable. As brittle as Mother-of-Pearl, it should be handled carefully.

Bone. This material is probably the most versatile natural material for making razor scales. Tough and durable, it can be carved or just polished to a satin sheen. When aged, the pores are often apparent, helping to distinguish it from ivory. Any cracks in a bone scale generally do not run with the grain, again helping to tell it apart from ivory. Bone mellows nicely with age but does not have the creamy, milky appearance of ivory. It too will stand the hot pin test.

Tortoise Shell. This product is mis-named, as almost all this material come from the shell of the hawksbill turtle. It is polished to semitransparency, when its mottling becomes evident. With age it may well change to a dark red-brown colour. This has always been a rare scale material, and even before turtles became protected it was imitated with cow horn, then later still with celluloid. Again, the hot pin test will reveal the celluloid imitation, but cow horn can be almost impossible to distinguish without extensive testing.

Celluloid. The great scale material since about 1870. Celluloid was the first real 'plastic' and could be easily formed, moulded, coloured and carved. It could be used to closely imitate every natural scale material except Mother-of-Pearl, although the material known as 'cracked ice' came fairly close - until you saw the real thing. Two things always expose celluloid - the hot pin test, which will melt celluloid at a touch and the 'perfectness' test. This test, although subjective, is a good one. Natural materials, no matter how carefully crafted, contain small flaws and imperfections - celluloid is perfect. So if you see an 'ivory' handle that's perfect - check properly, it's probably celluloid.

This primer does not pretend to be an exhaustive treatise on razor scale materials - somewhere out there will be a solid gold pair, no doubt! Please note, though, that the dealing in certain types of handle material, notably ivory, is now against the law in some areas of the World - it's always best to check local statutes before buying a piece.
About the Author
Steve Dempster writes fiction, copy and articles when he's not collecting razors. Visit his razor site at The Invisible Edge
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