Scott Miyako’s spirit is pure artisan, through and through. Not only does he have a manufacturing background, he also has experience in woodworking and cabinetry. So when the former engineer began wrestling with what he termed “the shaving problem,” it made sense that he would end up crafting his own solution, too. And so the Portland Razor Co. was born.
“In getting started with straight shaving,” Scott’s partner, Alex Pletcher, explains, “he was like, ‘Okay I just gotta try making these because I make everything else all the time, and I’ve made knives and such before so let’s see where I can go.’”
The result was such a precision shave that the duo decided to make a business out of it. Pletcher and Miyako moved from Los Angeles to Portland and gave themselves an eight month window to establish the Portland Razor Co. Three years and hundreds of exquisitely crafted items later, the pair are creating and selling the most reputable American-made razor on the market.
Like many others (seriously, there is a passionate straight shaving subculture), Miyako and Pletcher were attracted to the “cool factor” of these cold, sharp steel blades. The utility was also undeniable.
“Straight razors may require more maintenance and skill to use properly,” says Miyako “but the shave quality has the potential to be far beyond anything achievable by a cartridge razor.”
But the duo wasn’t just attracted to the aesthetic and performance aspects of the product, straight razors are also a zero-waste creation. That means users aren’t tossing disposable blade after disposable blade in the trash — and considering that research from 2016 asserts a woman will shave 7,718 times in her life, a straight razor shaver can spare a lot of grooming detritus.
As Miyako became more interested in straight razors and their culture, he began researching locally produced products. He soon found the American market limited solely to expensive, custom razors. He’d worked at an American manufacturing plant and had a deep interest in the positive impact of fabricating goods in America. But a question arose: how could two Portland transplants hope to compete with a straight razor tradition that has thrived in Europe since the 1700s?
“We just thought: ‘If someone did it hundreds of years ago,’” Pletcher says, “’there’s no reason that we can’t figure it out.’”
Years were spent developing a standardized process that would yield consistency without sacrificing attention to detail or quality. Using American steel and a West Coast aesthetic, Miyako created a simplified, competitive product line.
“We try to make the best product possible and have the product speak for itself,” Pletcher notes. “Scott and I founded the company around the idea of making the ultimate shaving tool.”
After parking outside of the flexspace that houses Portland Razor Co., I realize that I have no idea where in this large, unassuming building people make razors. Since starting their company almost on a whim, Miyako and Pletcher have gone far — outgrowing their two previous locations. I wander the second floor hallway, peeking into rooms powdered liberally with plaster dust and littered with dry wall, until I find and open the door to a curious space.
In addition to housing every aspect of the razor production line, this part of the building is also the location of the Portland Shave Shop, the company’s newest venture. As I enter, Pletcher comes forward to greet me, smiling warmly. We spend the next twenty minutes in this space, much of the time standing across from one another at the counter.
To the left of the door is the barber station, centered on a quintessential 1920’s Koken barber chair. Its red seat and headrest are remarkably shiny and pristine, considering their age it. Along the opposite wall run floor to ceiling wooden shelves punctuated by well-ordered products, as the by-appointment barber shop isn’t just a space for tonsorial endeavors, it’s also a retail arena.
After our introductory small talk, Pletcher takes two of their razors from a glass fronted case. As she smoothly handles the pair, she tells me “These are actually everything that we have. We’ve been back-ordered I believe since 2014 pretty much. So we’ve been fighting that back-order and adding blade smiths and training people and catching up and expanding product offerings and stuff.”
She is relieved to have something finished for me to see, as that is not always the case when people visit. The razors are sleek. One is custom crafted with California buckeye burl scales (the grip that protects the blade when it is closed), which evoke dark marble with their swirls and smooth polish. In addition to the pricier customs, Portland Razor Co. also has classic and artisan lines with names like The Kraken and The Siren, and they range in price from 125-275 dollars. Custom orders can run as high as 600-700 dollars.
Turning from the counter allows me to take in the room. There are shaving brushes, each standing at attention in a row; pomades in both Superior Hold and Super Superior Hold (which is just confusing); and beard oil in scents like Sandalwood Spice and Bourbon Barrel. At one point, Pletcher opens a wee glass bottle of beard oil, telling me it is her favorite and urging me to take a whiff. The scent is so delicate that I spend a minute huffing like a pug before I catch an unexpected note of vanilla. I thought certainly, beard oil must only come in scents like bay rum or eucalyptus. Not so.
I follow Pletcher around the small space as she gestures toward the other items on the shelves. Not only does she know each product, she knows the people behind them. Like literally knows them — Portland’s craft culture at its best. Indicating an array of simply packaged shave soaps in brown boxes and aftershave in brown glass apothecary bottles, she tells me about Evan, the owner of the Craftsman Soap Company. Miyako learned of Evan through a common friend while hiking the Lost Coast Trail (Portlandiest story ever). In a display that sits behind glass, she points to a supple, tan leather dopp kit and explains meeting the maker at an event for female and minority business owners. Each grooming item represents another member of her community of independent craftspeople.
Our time in the Shave Shop comes to an end when Pletcher pulls aside a curtain behind the counter and invites me into the manufacturing space. Production is divided among multiple small rooms, each housing at least one station. Initially, I am introduced to Kyle, who is working on components of the strops they also manufacture. He’s tying small circles of fiber and scorching the ends. In addition to crafting strops, Kyle is also the in-house carpenter. All of the woodwork and finish carpentry in the shave shop is a product of his labor, and he makes the scales for their straight razors.
Behind a door, I hear the low growl of machinery. We are getting closer to the action. Once in the room, it becomes clear the sound is coming from the grinder. Miyako is sitting in front of it on a stool. Upon our entrance, he takes a break, and turns to face me. He’s wearing shorts and a pair of classic Vans Sk8-Hi shoes. Perhaps, I notice these first because he hasn’t taken off his goggles or respirator mask. Once he has, he makes a sweeping motion around the room, displaying the tools of his craft.
The room isn’t big, and it is made smaller by the many tables holding tools. I spot a band saw and knife kiln (which I only know because I obsessively studied their website before arriving). Renovations are taking place. There is a ladder I am not sure I can fit around, so I stand awkwardly across the room peering through it’s rungs while Miyako expresses how he feels about his craft.
“To me, being an artisan means striving for perfection” Miyako asserts, “I’ve never made a perfect straight razor, and I know I never will, but working towards making the perfect razor compels me forward and makes me excited about what I do.”
Miyako explains that he can complete a razor in about three hours of work and I am shocked because I assume gorgeous, handcrafted items take ages to make. It used to. Initially, he says, the company was only crafting a few a week, and now, they can get 50 done in that time.
When it comes down to it, the speed may also be because straight razors have very few parts and only ten steps in the manufacturing process. They begin with 4 things: a piece of American steel for the blade, a sheet of wood or acrylic for the scales, a length of brass rod, and washers for attaching the blade to the scales. The blades are ground, filed, heated, oiled, polished, and honed.
The honing is done in another room, so Pletcher brings me to that area of manufacturing. The honing station is simply a small metal sink and counter, like you would find in an average bathroom. There is a shelf above that is used to hold the long, rectangular waterstones on which the razors are smoothed and polished. Unlike European razors, which must be taken to a honemeister to be sharpened before use, every Portland Razor Co. razor is sold shave ready, so there is a lot of honing. This is all performed by part-owner Hunter, who also manages the Shave Shop.
As our interview comes to a close, I ask Pletcher if she can identify some artisan ethics, some core principles that she feels undergird her community. She demurs, unwilling to speak for everyone. Instead, she shares a central value of their specific craft.
For these creators, the straight razor is emblematic of a greater sense of responsibility in the world. Razor ownership and care is made of ritual. Owners have to make the time to maintain blades so that they shave well and continue to work for years and years. That means stropping, honing, and oiling. “We can talk about that responsibility to the razor and then it giving you the feedback of a very nice shave. It is also possible to extrapolate into other parts of your life. If you take that sense of responsibility out into the world with you, what other things will give you better feedback in response?”
In my time with Pletcher and Miyako, it becomes crystal clear that a handcrafted razor isn’t simply a tool, it’s part of an experience. An awesome experience.
“I think that in a lot of ways a straight razor a modern solution because it’s just cooler,” she says. “Who enjoys going to a Walgreens and buying a box of cartridges? That’s not fun.”