Seven years ago today, I ventured to make direct contact with Lee Sabini by email using an address I’d obtained from a B&B (badgerandblade.com) member. My understanding at the time was that Lee had been the owner of R. A. Rooney & Sons (makers of Rooney shaving brushes, with which enterprise Lee was widely believed to continue some involvement) and that he personally hand-crafted Morris & Forndran (M&F) shaving brushes (which often incorporated handle designs identified with the vaunted Rooney Heritage line).
That first email was brief and to the point. It stated: “I’d like to discuss having you make a custom brush for me with a faux jade handle. Please let me know if that might be possible and you’d be willing.” I was braced for disappointment. Lee was notoriously elusive, and much of online discussion regarding M&F brushes was hash upon rehash of frustration over failed efforts to get a response from Lee. To my great surprise, however, Lee replied as follows almost immediately: “Thanks for finding me the only brushes I have in jade at the moments is the L7 handles size knots 22 mm 24 mm 26mm if you are interested prices start as 80 pounds up to 110 pounds including shipping in blonde hair.” I quickly confirmed an order for a 24 mm jade L7.
That L7 turned out to serve as a point of departure with profound significance for me and my family. It inspired a derivative handle design (eventually dubbed the Chief), that led to an M&F group-buy project on B&B in 2013, which was capped by a meeting with Lee in London in October of that year, which led in January of 2014 to my acquisition of a lathe for use in prototyping further handle designs, which enabled turning the first PK-47, which resulted in a proposal from Lee in July of 2014 to collaborate on the production of 70-100 shaving brushes, which led to the establishment of Dark Holler Design Works and Paladin Shaving.
I figured out early in the course of the M&F group-buy project that the handles used to make Sabini-era Rooney and M&F shaving brushes were turned on CNC (Computer Number Controlled) lathes. I continued unquestioningly, however, for quite a while to assume Lee himself created those handles. But after Cody and I hauled a small bench-top lathe (actually, there were three) to our home in Overland Park, Kansas from a shop in Wisconsin in early January of 2014, and I started peppering Lee with questions about G-code, spindle speeds, feed rates, and tooling; it became obvious that Lee didn’t know much more about CAD design, G-code, or CNC machine operation than I did. And so, I finally got around to asking who, in fact, did turn the handles. He told me it was a precision engineer by the name of Frank, who had very recently retired “to go off and make model steam engines.” I don’t recall ever pressing Lee for any further information regarding Frank. I suppose I assumed if Lee wished to share more about him, he would do so without being asked.
I was not unmindful of the opportunity Frank’s retirement might (and soon did) bring about to create new brushes in collaboration with Lee. I focused intently on learning how to use CAD programs, construct G-code, and operate my machines in order to make shaving brush handles. Cody (who in June of 2014 graduated from the University of Kansas with a degree in Industrial Design) pitched in and worked to develop and refine finishing techniques. Almost every time one of us solved a problem, we ended up on a new level that presented more challenging problems. And with each step along the way, I came to hold deeper appreciation of Frank’s mastery in creating the Rooney Heritage and M&F handles. Early in the process, I brought an unused B&B Group Buy Chief and a pair of Rooney 2XLs (aka Chubbies) down to where we had the lathe and finishing equipment set up. Those brushes remained there for a long time representing the level of excellence in design, machining, and finish quality we were striving to achieve.
We produced about 450 Paladin shaving brushes in collaboration with Lee before deciding to carry forward independently in the second half of 2015. Frank continued, however, to serve as an imaginary overseer of handle production in our shop. And from my perspective his stature continued to grow. In November of 2016 I posted a reply on B&B that stated in part: The M&F Chief handles were turned by a precision engineer named Frank who worked for Lee Sabini. Frank was an absolute master, who IMO belongs in the Shaving Brush Hall of Fame, along with A.E. Simpson and Stan Archer.
I searched the internet a few times to see if I might find a Frank listed in connection with model steam engine conventions or the like, but with no success. Then, last year Frank’s name came up in a discussion with Matt Roff, the managing director of GPS Agencies, our principal supplier of machinable rod in England. Matt’s predecessor, I learned, introduced Frank (whose last name is McInroy) and Lee to each other not very long after Lee had acquired a controlling ownership position in R. A. Rooney & Sons in 2003. I mentioned an interest in being introduced to Frank but didn’t press for it at the time. Late last year, however, a couple threads cropped up on shavenook.com (TSN) regarding the origin/authenticity of some Rooney-labeled, Heritage-style shaving brushes that had recently appeared on eBay described as NOS (new old stock). I called and emailed Lee to obtain his opinion. He promised to get back to me but didn’t. That finally provided the stimulus to locate and establish contact with Frank if I could, which I did, and WOW, what a rewarding experience it has been to get to know him and his wife Lynn through correspondence over the past year! Now it’s time to share some of their story, without which there would be no Paladin Shaving story to tell.
Stay tuned for Part 2.