A guide to the gourmet shaving experience
NOTE: A considerably expanded version of this post is available as a trade paperback: Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving: Shaving Made Enjoyable – 6th Edition. This is a beginner’s guide to wet shaving: how to shave with a safety razor and not hurt yourself. (Because the safety razor uses a double-edged blade, it is sometimes called a “DE razor.”) The book provides all the information you need to begin traditional shaving (including on-line sources for equipment and supplies), and it also makes a good gift for friends contemplating that step. The new edition includes a chapter on dealing with skin problems, such as acne, razor bumps, and ingrown whiskers, as well as information on boar and horsehair brushes in addition to badger brushes and synthetic brushes. (FWIW, horsehair brushes are now my favorites: extremely efficient lather generators.) It has more detailed instructions, reviews more products, presents more sources, and so on. Look at the reader reviews to decide for yourself whether it would be helpful to you.
This book is a likely good buy for any man who answers “Yes” to question 1 and “No” to question 2:
Question 1: Do you shave just about every day?
Question 2: Do you actually enjoy shaving?
If the answers are “Yes” and “No”, in that order, the book would be a good purchase and an excellent gift, based on what previous customers have found.
At one reader’s suggestion, let me begin with a teaser:
- Do you enjoy shaving? Is it something you look forward to each day?
- Do you know where you can get good multiblade cartridges for 9¢ each?
- Do you search for aftershaves that promise to “soothe”, “heal”, “restore”?
- Have you ever tried the lather produced by a shaving brush and a good shaving cream?
- Has anyone ever explained how to use a safety razor with a double-edged blade?
The book mentioned above contains more information than you will find in this post, including fuller explanations and photos—to illustrate correct blade angle, for example. But this post will get you started.
The primary question from men considering the traditional shave with brush, shaving soap, and safety razor is, “Why bother?” Or, as a friend put it, why put aside all the modern technology of pressurized cans of formulated shaving foams and gels and the modern multi-blade razor cartridge that allows you to shave while still half asleep?
The answer varies by person, but for me it is the sheer pleasure that the morning shave now affords. Shaving has moved from a routine at best, a chore more often, to a wonderful ritual from which I emerge feeling truly pampered. I now look forward to shaving each day, and that feeling more than repays the little bit of equipment required. The daily shave: a daily pleasure. How many guys can say that?
The reason many men are choosing to shave with a safety razor, however, is much more down-to-earth: the multiblade cartridge uses a tug-and-cut approach that, for many, causes ingrown whiskers, razor bumps, and skin irritation. These men turn to the double-edged blade and safety razor for the comfort they achieve once they learn how to use the instruments, which might take a week.
1. The safety razor itself: how to wield it, and various different razors.
If the straight razor is of interest, see StraightRazorPlace.com and also The Art of the Straight Razor Shave, by Chris Moss. You can download the .PDF from this page. Excellent article. Ready-to-go straight razors—sharpened and honed and ready to shave—along with accessories are available from the well-regarded WhippedDog.com. Note especially his “sight unseen” deals: the easiest and least costly way to get into straight-razor shaving shop.
Using a safety razor puts you in charge, and going from a multi-blade cartridge to a safety razor is akin to going from an automatic transmission to a manual: you can get better performance by being more in control, but you must learn how to use it, practice your technique, and pay attention to what’s going on.
The first issue is pressure. With the safety razor, you must not use pressure to try to get a closer shave: pressure must be light, the razor and the blade doing the work—exerting additional pressure will cause problems (cuts, razor burn, etc.). As described below, you obtain a closer shave with more passes, not more pressure.
The key is progressive stubble reduction over multiple passes.
Other than pressure, the key variable in using the safety razor is blade angle. Try this: put the head of the razor against your cheek, the handle perpendicular to the cheek and parallel to the floor. Gradually bring the handle down toward the face as you make a shaving stroke, pulling the handle to drag the head down your cheek. When the handle’s dropped around 30º from the initial perpendicular (depending on the razor you’re using), the blade will make contact with the whiskers and begin to cut as you pull the razor. That’s the angle (more or less).
The right cutting angle is different for different razors. You’ll have to experiment to find the right cutting angle for each of your razors.
Proper technique with the safety razor consists of using light pressure and the correct blade angle over your entire beard area, including the neck. When you can do that, you’ll learn that the closeness and comfort of the shave is 30% from the razor and 70% from the blade. So read carefully the section below on blades.
For a beginner, I recommend one of the Edwin Jagger DE8x series, a three-piece razor: handle, baseplate, and cap, with the cap screwing into the handle with the baseplate between, the blade going between baseplate and cap. An error that some novices make is to assemble the razor with the baseplate upside down, with the result that the razor works poorly, if at all. Look it over carefully and make sure the baseplate is right-side up. With the DE8x razors, that would mean the scallops along the guard would be on the same side as blade and cap, with the other side toward the handle.
You can also use a vintage razor—an old razor on eBay or at a flea market or the like, here’s a good discussion on how to clean it.
Some vintage razors sold on eBay are, it should be noted, completely cleaned and sterilized. But others require you to provide the elbow grease.
Once you’ve picked the razor, the next step is choosing the blade. The comfort and smoothness of the shave (once your technique is good) will be about 70% from the blade you use, and only 30% from the razor.
It’s important to note that a given blade will get different responses from different people. List any brand of blade, and some guys will say it’s the best blade ever, some will say it’s the worst, and others will say it’s so-so. You have to try a blade yourself to see whether it will work for you. Your best bet is to buy sampler packs that include a variety of blades. The post at the link contains complete information about the sampler packs currently available and their use, including the price per blade for each sampler pack.
Never buy a large supply of any brand of blade without having first had a shave with that blade. You really cannot predict how the blade will work for you, regardless of what other people say about their experience—whether their experience was positive or negative. Some blades I’ve hated turn out to be the best possible blades for other shavers.
In all razors using double-edged blades, the blade is held between a top and a platform, with only the edge exposed, and as the razor is tightened to grip the blade, the blade bends over the slight hump of the platform, the edge becoming rigid. (Single-edged blades, like those used in Gem razors and Schick Injectors, are rigid to start with because they are thicker, and thus do not have to be bent in the razor’s grip as do the thin, double-edged blades.)
When you finish shaving, there’s no need to remove the blade from the razor or even to loosen it. Just rinse off the razor in hot water, give it a shake, and put it aside to dry. The only time you need to remove the blade is when you’re ready to replace it.
The next item among traditional shaving tools is the shaving brush. The four main categories are badger (and WhippedDog.com offers a good starter silvertip badger brush at a low price); boar (a popular choice; boar brushes should be soaked for a while in hot water before each use); horsehair (excellent lather-producers at reasonable prices); and synthetics (and the latest synthetics—the kind known as “artificial badger”—are terrific brushes at a reasonable price).
When you complete your shave, rinse all the soap out of your brush with hot/warm water, and then do a final rinse of the clean brush using cold water.Over time brushes may become slightly waterproof from hard-water deposits. ShaveInfo.com has instructions on brush cleaning.
You use a brush to produce lather from a shaving cream or a shaving soap. Shaving creams are easier to lather and novices for that reason often prefer shaving creams. I did so myself, but then as I learned to make a good lather from a shaving soap, I found that I preferred soap lather to shaving cream lather.
One problem with shaving soaps, however, is that they are sensitive to hard water: if your tap water is hard, the minerals in the water combine with soap to produce soap scum, and that makes forming lather from a soap difficult. You can try a distilled water shave as both a diagnosis and a workaround. It’s easier than it sounds (see the article at the link) because the volume of water required for a shave is so small. With very little practice, 1/2 cup is plenty.
The defining characteristic of a good lather is that it’s dense and heavy: microscopic bubbles and a substantial amount of water. Larger bubbles indicate either too much water or water added so fast that it could not be worked into the lather. Your whiskers are softened by absorbing water, and heavy, wet lather will hold water against the stubble in addition to lubricating the skin so the razor glides easily.
Em’s Place has more information on lathering from both soaps and creams And note that razor-skipping when you shave (razor head not gliding smoothly across your skin, but seeming to “stick” and then skip) might be a problem with the lather.
Before you apply lather (or pre-shave) at the sink, wash your beard with soap and water and then leave it wet after rinsing. I have recently found that Whole Foods 365 brand glycerin soap makes an excellent pre-shave, and at $2/bar it is not expensive. Any high-glycerin soap can be used. Wash the beard and then partially rinse with warm water and apply the lather. It makes a noticeable difference in the quality of the shave.
Before you start applying razor to stubble, it’s important to know the direction the stubble grows: the grain of your beard. About 10 hours after shaving, rub your beard firmly with the tips of your fingers. Pick a spot, and rub in different directions at that spot. One direction will be roughest—that’s against the grain. In the opposite direction at that spot, it will feel smoothest: with the grain. That direction is your beard’s grain direction at that spot.
Go over your entire beard, determining the grain direction at every spot.
The importance of grain direction is this: your first pass is with the grain (WTG). The second pass is across the grain (XTG), either directly across or across at a slant. Those who do the across at a slant usually do a second XTG pass on the opposite slant. Only the final pass is against the grain (ATG), and in the beginning you’ll probably want to skip this pass, introducing it gradually as described below.
The safety razor has two sides, and in shaving you flip back and forth, using both edges of the double-edged blade. Flip the razor over to the “clean side” after a few strokes and then rinse it off when it’s covered in lather. After each rinse, give it a good shake—or two or three—to remove as much water from it as possible.
Once you complete the first (WTG) pass, rinse your face and re-lather (lather is always applied to a wet beard). The second pass is across the grain (XTG), and this will further reduce the stubble. The XTG pass is also useful for cleaning up the upper lip, under the nose.
Rinse, and—when you first start shaving with a safety razor—do only the two passes. When you first start learning the safety razor, don’t try ATG. Reasons: first, until you master blade angle and pressure, ATG is likely to cause cuts and/or skin irritation. Second, in the ATG pass, you’re holding the razor pretty much upside down, and you’ll find it requires more practice and concentration to keep pressure and angle correct in that maneuver.
After you finish shaving, rinse your razor in hot water and stand it up to dry. You do not need to remove or dry the blade, or even loosen the razor’s grip on the blade. In general, it’s a good idea to minimize handling of the blade. And it’s better to have the razor out where it can dry, and not put it in a drawer—especially since the blade’s edge is more likely to damaged in a drawer.
There’s a good variety of aftershaves. Here’s a useful summary and reference. Generally speaking, you can choose between an aftershave (bracing) or a balm (soothing).
Shaving, it should be noted, is a path of continuing experimentation. You will want to try different razors, blades, brushes, soaps, creams, techniques—everything.