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Visiting Solingen: Ralf Aust - a Master Artisan Straight Razor Manufacturer
Immediately I knew this was a special place. Small - but not cramped. Messy - but that special kind of messy that can only be the result of vast amounts of productivity. It couldn't be more than 150 square feet, but it is evidently clear that every square foot of this small workshop has been very carefully laid out for maximum efficiency. I glance around at all the familiar tools I have in my own razor restoration workshop - and notice a few I've never seen before. Before I could start asking questions, Mr. Ralf Aust himself offered me a coffee. This was going to be a good day. That morning, Casie and I had checked out of our hotel in Cologne, Germany and hopped on the road to the Solingen area. Solingen is a sprawling city with several buroughs, each with a commercial "downtown" area. We were on our way to the westernmost - Ohligs. This particular burough has a population of around 42,000 - about 1/4 of the population of greater Solingen. I carefully followed my GPS to what appeared to be a residential area on the western side of town, with 3-story buildings lining the streets. I was 4 minutes early. I imagine the missing speed limit signs on the Autobahn probably had something to do with it. I hopped out of my little rental Audi A3 that had spent the last few days zipping through various cities in Germany, and stepped up to the front door. I found a buzzer with "RALF AUST" printed next to it. BZZZZZZZZZZZZZZ. I heard an audible click of the door lock, and I was in! I walked down a hall to a small outdoor courtyard - and a small outbuilding painted dark blue. Mr. Aust pop his head out of the door to welcome me to his workshop. Luckily, he knew quite a bit of English, which was excellent because I am completely lacking in German skills! After introductions, and coffee, we broke out our cell phones with language translators at the ready for when we couldn't find the words. He was eager to show me his workshop - and I was just as eager to see a master of his craft at work. Ralf Aust, standing in his one-man workshop The workshop was actually comprised of two ~150 square foot rooms, one on the first floor, and one lurking beneath our feet in the basement. A small spiral staircase connects them. In the basement, the majority of the grinding is performed, and the first floor is mostly finishing, scale making, and his office area. We started in the basement - at the first step in which a straight razor is created. He starts with a drop-forged blade blank. The blanks he uses are extremely high quality Carbon steel that is produced in a nearby German factory. His stamp has already been hot-stamped in the steel, and they have already been hardened and heat treated. The blanks are still quite thick - up to 1/32" at the edge - and are pretty messy looking. That said, they do at least resemble a razor. There are 6 or 7 steps to the grinding process - each step the diameter of the grinding wheels are reduced. Thickness of the blade is carefully tested on a thumbnail. Years of experience tell him when he's ground enough steel away during each step in the process. He has two double-wheel grinders - one he explained was passed down from his father and is 70-80 years old, while the other is more modern. Both grinders appear to have all sorts of little modifications and tweaks that suit his methods and style perfectly. It's apparent to me that both are wet grinders. He runs to the other side of the room and twists a valve. A series of water lines and tanks run through the workshop ending just above the two grinding wheels, delivering a fine stream of water to the surface of the blade and stones to ensure they stay cool. They also keep dust to a minimum, and no special safety gear other than some glasses are required. Dozens and dozens of grinding stones fill shelves to the right of the two grinders, while a wall of buffing wheels, solid contact wheels, and belts as tall as me fill the wall to the left. He shows me the first step in the grinding process, every few seconds he tests the blade thickness against his thumb nail, looking for a visible flex in the steel. His movements are deliberate and appear effortless, his experience evident in every step. Behind me, I glance down at a box full of rusty old blades. I look a little closer -- and realize this isn't just any box of blades. I see little chips and cracks and...uneven grinds? I put two and two together -- and I ask him "Mistakes?" "Ja!" he responds. His response solidifies what I already knew - that it takes years to become a master. It also makes me that much more confident in my business relationship with this man - I know that when something doesn't go right with a razor, it finds it's way to this very bin. After explaining his process, and showing me examples of what a blank looks like after each step in the grinding process, we head upstairs. Here, he shows me a large belt grinder, with a stack of blades lying next to it. He tells me that this is where he grinds the tangs and shapes the points of the blades. The grinder is positioned low, so that he sits comfortably while grinding. This grinder isn't a wet grinder - so more care is taken to ensure the blade does not heat up too quickly. I turn my attention to a giant box that looks far more modern than the rest of his workshop tools. He tells me that this is his laser etching machine where he applies the Ralf Aust logo to the face of the blade. I'm impressed to see him integrating new technology into his traditional workshop. The Laser Etcher used for the logos applied to every Aust straight razor Then, it was on to the scale making. I'd always noticed that his wood scales were perfectly shaped - and now I know why - he uses a laser cutter to cut out the scale profile. This makes scale production very quick and easy. He wanders over to some shelves and shuffles through an array of hardwood sheets, and picks a piece to show me how his machine works. After pulling up a template on his computer, with a click of his mouse he cuts out a perfectly shaped razor scale in a matter of 10 seconds. He also showed me another tool - a simple table router - but on top of it is an elaborate custom made jig. He takes some wood scales and shows how he routes out two channels on the top insides near the pivot holes so that the tang of the razor does not rub on the scales when closing. It's an ingenious method to allow him to use laser-cut spacers (consistent thickness) for pinning up scales, instead of the more typically used wedges. I happen to like the look of a wedge on a set of scales - but, I appreciate the efficiency he's able to achieve using this method. Customized router jig to shave away inside scale material for smooth closing scales I asked him about how long it took him to make a set of scales - and he said he can produce around 5 sets per hour. Quite remarkable, given it takes me around 2 hours to produce a single set of custom scales. That's 10 times faster! Efficiency is clearly the name of the game. Some familiar tools in nearly every razor restoration workshop Razor pinning station Once razors are pinned up, he shows me his honing methods - which are remarkably similar to my own. After watching him hone a razor from beginning to end, I can say that he is doing everything right. He uses Naniwa waterstones through 12,000 grit, and finishes by stropping on horse hide bench strops, following up with a hanging hair test. The stones are lapped often, which means the end user will not have issues touching them up in the future. Other larger scale manufacturers use more mechanized sharpening, and finish on curved stones, the geometry of which can't be reproduced by the end user without re-establishing the bevel. As we continue our conversations through the afternoon, we discuss all sorts of things - from the production in Solingen of straight razors, to market trends. We discussed the impact of cheap chinese and pakistani razors on the market - so widely available and inexpensive, but many completely non-functional. We agree that they're negatively impacting the market by ruining people's first experience with straight razors. We also discussed the production methods that some of the other straight razor manufacturers in Solingen are using. Some of the things I learned are quite eye opening. At the end of the afternoon, I profusely thanked him for the opportunity to visit him and for being such a gracious host. I left with an extreme appreciation for him and the small company that he has built. The fact that he is a one-man shop is simply remarkable, and I'm happy that I had the opportunity to see the inner workings of his operation first hand. It has made me even prouder to be an official Ralf Aust retailer, and I am excited to share my experience with the world. Later that afternon, I reflected on the experience with a tall weissbier in a beautiful biergarten 20 miles northeast of Cologne. It capped off an excellent day - one of many that happened during our trip through Europe this summer. I encourage everyone out there to consider a Ralf Aust straight razor - whether their first, or their tenth. The attention to detail and quality is difficult to find anywhere else in the market. Score one for the little guy! Let us hope that Mr. Aust is willing and able to continue producing some of the finest straight razors in the world, and the Ralf Aust stamp will grace the tang of many thousands more straight razors in the future.