written by James Sinks | photos courtesy of Portland Razor Co.
Every year in the United States, an estimated two billion disposable razors—totaling some thirty-four million cubic feet worth of hazardous waste—clog their way into landfills.
Scott Miyako looked at the avalanche of trash and saw opportunity in an old style alternative—the straight razor, which, if cared for properly, never wears out.
Dabbling with designs, he was surprised that the quality of the shave was better. He didn’t anticipate the idea would stoke a vintage hygiene renaissance. Neither could he anticipate that the venture would need to survive a close shave of the health sort.
The Artisan Niche Boom Bang
Miyako and his girlfriend, Alex Pletcher, launched Portland Razor Co. in 2014, after moving to Oregon from Southern California. A mechanical engineering major who previously made music amplifiers and hobbyist knives, he sold his 1969 Camaro, a 1978 Honda Civic and a 1985 El Camino to finance the startup.
He found an artisan niche with room to grow. The couple’s research at the time showed just one other domestic maker of straight razors. Miyako made the blades. Pletcher handled the marketing.
Business boomed, and the shop now churns out as many as fifty razors a month. Despite never spending a dime on advertising, Portland Razor Co. has a backlog of two months, has outgrown its first two locations and is looking to grow its workforce beyond the current three employees.
This spring, the company moved into a 1,200-square-foot former cabinet shop on SW First Street, just south of downtown. In the shop—part art studio, part industrial lab, part showroom—the grinder whines and sparks dance as steel is coaxed into shape.
Portland Razor Co. fits nicely among a current crop of Oregon handcrafters who are fashioning and selling high quality vintage wares, from light fixtures to replica toys. With some consumers, everything old is suddenly new again.
Yet Miyako, 30, brushes aside the suggestion the company is simply capitalizing on a short-term trend. “We are not trying to bring back an old way for the sake of doing it the old way,” he said. “We believe that straight razors are the best tool and the best option, in terms of a better shave, and in terms of sustainability.”
The company’s nine styles of blades cost $120 to $250 apiece. Special orders featuring patterned metal or custom engraving will run more.
All the blades are born from a slab of forged steel alloy, enriched with tungsten, carbon and vanadium. From there, they take different shapes as they are repeatedly ground, oiled, sharpened and heat-treated at temperatures up to 1,525°F.
To demonstrate the sharpness of the razors to a constant flow of visitors, “lead bladesmith” Hunter Lea, a twentysomething with a beard and an easy smile, has shaved bald spots into both his forearms.
Portland Razor also fashions strops, the leather straps used to keen blades daily to keep them sharp. Strops do not actually sharpen by removing metal, but rather smooth metal fibers back into a fine tip.
Something to Believe In
A year ago, after shrugging off back pain for months, Miyako sought medical help and got a grim diagnosis: testicular cancer. Treatment and recovery would keep him sidelined for six months.
Lea calls his colleague’s cancer a “dick kick from the universe.”
But Miyako is unabashedly upbeat. He says the cancer is gone, and he is grateful for the perspective about work and life. He is doing something he believes in.
Before every razor goes out the door, it undergoes a “hair drop” test to ensure its sharpness. A single strand of Miyako’s hair, cut during chemotherapy and bagged in the shop, is laid softly across the blade and falls into pieces. Then the blades are sanitized, oiled and shipped.
Can a piece of metal make the world a better place?
“I don’t want to get too philosophical, but it can help you reconsider the disposable nature of things, and it is also a product that will treat you well if you treat it respectfully and responsibly,” he said. “We could all use a little more respect and responsibility for everything we deal with in life, by treating things well and treating each other well.”