28 Mar 2004
The Thiers-Issard Story
The Legend is born:
In Nineteenth Century Europe and elsewhere in the world the well-groomed gentleman was hard pressed to maintain his gentlemanly appearance. There were not nearly so many choices for grooming and personal care products as we enjoy today. Most soaps lotions and other men's toiletries were either hand made at home or produced in very small batches by local shopkeepers and crafters. This too was true of shaving implements, including the venerable straight razor.
As making one's own razor was quite impractical and beyond the capability of nearly everyone, providing these necessary articles became the responsibility of the local Blacksmith, who also served as the local Cutler producing tableware for the home, butcher's tools, specialized machinery, and medical instruments for other local professionals. As with any handwork, some crafters were more capable than others. These, the most accomplished and respected of craftsmen, became known as Master Razor Makers, their work being recognized as the epitome of the craft and their reputations for quality spreading far and wide.
During this time the Thiers family were active in their own family forge, producing all of the necessities of life for the local community. A search of the "Chart of the Jurande" or Professional Guild Charter from the period lists at least three "Thiers" as master razor makers.
Pierre Thiers, (1860 - 1929) at the age of ten was apprenticed to another master razor maker and set about the task of learning the trade. Over the next twenty-four years the ambitious boy became a man, and what a man - Twenty-four years of working 6 days a week at the forge, delivering 10,000 hammer blows in a typical day's work, had produced a powerful, barrel-chested man who was known to lift and carry a 165 pound sack under each arm. During this time the apprentice became a Master Razor Maker in his own right. Well known for his skills in the forge producing the finest quality cutlery, his products were sought by the most discriminating and demanding of buyers.
In 1884 Mr. Thiers undertook to establish his own forge and assume the rightful place of such a highly regarded craftsman - working for himself. In order to differentiate his products from those produced by other members of his family who were still active in the trade themselves, he named his factory Thiers-Issard, adding his wife's family name, Issard, to his own.
From 1884 to 1929 Mr. Thiers labored daily, breaking only to honor the Lord's Day by attending church and observing the sabbath with his family. Twenty-four years as an apprentice and thirty-five years as a Master in his own right finally caught up with him when, on an otherwise typical workday, at the age of sixty-nine, Mr. Pierre Thiers died, fittingly while at work at his forge, and most likely as a result of fifty-nine years of tremendous exertion.
The Legend Continues:
Though the death of Mr. Thiers dealt a serious blow to the family business, it was by no means the end of the story. With the able assistance provided by Mr. Thiers' widow, production continued in the hands of Pierre Thiers Jr. (1884 - 1962) whom Mr. Thiers Sr. had personally trained. Under the watchful eye of the master he too had become every bit the craftsman his father and mentor was and production of the finest quality products continued. As the business continued and grew, and demand increased, Pierre Theirs Jr. was joined by Louis Thiers (1910 - 1985) and later by yet another Pierre Thiers (1914 - 1997)
In 1985 the Thiers family sold the foundry and business to its current owner, Mr. Gilles Reynewaeter. In the best tradition of the Thiers family, Mr. Reynewaeter is committed to producing only the finest quality products, made in the traditional time-tested manner, and refusing to sacrifice quality in materials or craftsmanship to increase total production volume. Lessons well learned from the founder of the firm!
The total Commitment to Quality embraced by today's Thiers-Issard begins with the finest available materials.
At times national pride and patriotism can be misplaced. Such is the case with steel. While they would like to be able to say that "French" steel is the best alas, English "Sheffield Steel" has long reigned supreme as the finest available steel for finely edged implements and instruments. For this reason Thiers-Issard uses Sheffield Silver Steel in all of its' premium grade products. The edge application and holding ability of this special alloy has simply proven to be superior to any other.
Even considering today's modern stainless steels and more exotic metal alloys, no significant improvement has ever been made over quality high carbon steels for use in fine cutlery and edged instruments. For this reason Thiers-Issard does not use such materials in their products.
Using the best available materials is only part of the story. The craftsmanship employed to make those raw materials into a thing of rare beauty and functional utility is the rest of the story.
The razors begin as rough razor blanks manufactured to Thiers-Issard specifications by their steel supplier. The first step toward producing a finished razor is to clean up the rough blank using a heavy forge in a process called "detourage."
After forging, a hole is drilled in the tang that will accommodate the pivot pin. This step is done this early in the process because after the lead hardening process that is used on their best quality razors, drilling would be quite impossible.
Also done at this time is any fancy file work or other decoration, called "guiochage" that the particular razor's design calls for. This is where the skilled craftsman has an opportunity to impart a unique personality to each individual razor. This handwork typically takes an hour or more per blade to complete, but is time well spent when the finished product is seen and appreciated. Again, this type of work is only possible before the lead hardening process is done.
Thiers-Issard's Lead Hardening Process is unique in all of Europe and quite possibly worldwide. Each forged razor blade is immersed in molten lead at a temperature of 800 degrees centigrade. This immersion effectuates an abrupt and uniform heating to the precise temperature necessary to produce maximum hardness. This process is followed with annealing at 300 degrees centigrade to impart sufficient flexibility and eliminate brittleness.
Due to the possible health risks workers can experience by exposure to the lead used in this traditional hardening process French law has prohibited its use. Since Thiers-Issard has been using this process for so long and over the years have proven their ability to do so safely, they have been granted a special dispensation from the government and are the only manufacturer in France to be allowed to continue using this time honored method of hardening. This practice alone separates their razors from all others currently available.
After hardening and annealing, the razor blanks are ready to be ground to the particular profile required by the razor's design. Which grind is used is determined by both the desired price of the finished product, and its anticipated use. As can be expected, the more grinding required, such as in the case of a Full Hollow Ground "Singing" razor, and the more skill and precision required in accomplishing the grind, the higher the finished razor's resulting cost. A razor that is less than Full Hollow Ground will cost correspondingly less.
Full Hollow Ground "Singing" - This razor represents the epitome of the Master Razor Maker's craft. The blade is the thinnest and most flexible made. When the edge of this razor is plucked or strummed much like a guitar string, a clear resonant tone is heard. This is the "voice" of Thiers-Issard's legendary "Singing" blades. This is the most difficult of all grind profiles and typically results in 25% of the blades being rejected and consigned to the scrap pile. Only the finest of materials and the most accomplished of craftsmen can produce a true "Singing" blade. This razor would be the choice of an experienced user who will settle for nothing less than the best. Its shave quality is simply superior to all other blade types. It should be noted here however that sometimes certain “historic” razors and damascus razors do not “sing” even though they are ground just as thin as a “singing” profile. This can be because of the antique style of the blade or the nature of the particular steel used, but these “historic” or damascus razors should not be seen as a diminished level of quality. These razors will perform equal in every sense as the more modern “singing” models!
Full Hollow Ground - This blade profile is nearly, but not quite, as thin or flexible as the "Singing" razor. It will provide a shave quality superior to most other razors yet typically sells for a lower price than the "Singing" razor. This blade profile is often used by professionals, as it stands up well to heavy daily use and still provides a professional quality result.
Half Hollow Ground - This razor is an excellent choice for a "First Straight Razor" as it is more than capable of delivering a premium quality shave at a very affordable price. This is usually the profile chosen when a razor is going to be used by several different people (as in some barbershops) or where rough handling may be expected. The half hollowed razor is also a good choice for use while learning, as it is a very forgiving blade profile and will take more abuse both in use and daily maintenance (honing/stropping) than a full hollowed or "Singing" razor.
Full Grind - Often called a "Wedge" style blade, this profile is the least costly and most rugged of all razor styles. Its thicker blade and edge allows for very rough handling. This type of blade is often used in commercial hair salons for hair shaping and feathering. Thiers-Issard makes no razors of this type.
Several different levels of finish are applied to the razor blades, also based on the desired finished product décor level and selling price desired. The finest finish, which is typically used on only the best quality razors, is "Polis glace" or "Mirror Polished" Just as the name implies this finish is very bright and shiny. This finish is required if Hand Gold-Leafing is to be applied as part of the decoration.
Satin Polished finish is less bright and is correspondingly less time consuming to produce. This finish lends itself well to standard black acid etched blade décor and is typically used on less decorative and correspondingly less costly razors. In some cases, as a matter of economic compromise, a mirror polished finish is applied to the front surface of a blade to serve as a bright background for the applied gold, while a satin finish is used on the unseen rear side of the blade.
Handles - The best handles are both hand-polished to expose the natural beauty of the material and installed by hand. Each rivet is hand peened being careful to apply enough pressure for a firm hold, yet allowing the proper movement at the pivot point. The natural materials used in their handles i.e. Horn, Exotic Woods, etc. are carefully inspected and any flawed or imperfect materials are rejected. As an example of the unseen, though ever-present quality built into their razors; the popular Red Stamina handle is made from multiple thin layers of fine rosewood completely impregnated with phenolic resins and pressed together under 30 tons of pressure to make a handle material that is both highly stable and impervious to water penetration. The end result is a product that is at the same time visually pleasing yet durable enough to last a lifetime.
Engraving and Gold Leafing:
Depending on the type of razor, at this stage the blade will be marked in different ways. For the less expensive razors an electrolytic black engraving process will be used. For the more premium razors a very time consuming and ancient process of hand-gold leafing will be used. Each razor will be individually hand varnished wherever the gold leafing is not to stay on the razor, this is called “reserving” or “epargne”. After a period of drying (about 2 or 3 days for each razor depending on the humidity in the air) the gold leaf will be hand applied to the areas not "reserved" by the varnish coat. The marking at Thiers-Issard is still done in the same traditional manner as it has always been done. This does not make for a perfect mark but does mean that each marked razor will have its own "personality”. Thiers-Issard, unlike some manufacturers, has always chosen to place our emphasis on the forming, heat- treating and sharpening aspects of beautifully hand-made razors rather than machine marking in the most modern fashion.
The Final Result:
After the blade and handle are assembled the final sharpening stage is begun. Each razor is first machine-sharpened on a special Waterstone Wheel. Next the basic edge is further refined by hand honing on an antique Belgian Flat Waterstone. These Belgian Waterstones are very rare, as the Belgian quarry vein that produced these extra large flat stones has been mined out. They are no longer available at any price from any source. Thiers-Issard purchased a large number of these stones (which they consider to be the best for finish sharpening) just before the vein in the quarry where they were mined played out. Finally each blade's edge is finished on a two-sided leather strop, first using our own special formula stropping paste and then on a plain strop lubricated only with the oil from the palm of the hand.
After all of this is done each blade is again tested. They must flex with the pressure of the fingernail only and of course, "Singing" razors must "Sing." Any razor that does not pass this final test is discarded. Those that do pass are cleaned and oiled for corrosion protection and wrapped for shipment.
We are now working on a very special razor that could be yours.