Wet Shaving, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blade

by redshift

Let’s take a little test, shall we? Don’t worry, you’ll like it.

  • Do you enjoy waking up in the morning?
  • Are you a discerning gentleman who enjoys the good things in life?
  • When you go into work, do you look like you’ve shaved with…
    • … a chainsaw?
    • … a wet badger?
    • … nothing? (au naturale)

Ok, that last one was a trick question. Badger is correct.

The truth is, 99% of guys today don’t know what a good shave is. You’ll go and buy a Gillette Warp9 and expect to come out of it and still have a face. Let me tell you something. They keep adding blades because they need to keep stuffing their pockets. It doesn’t give you a better shave. I heard Gillette is introducing a 5-blade razor to combat Shick’s 4-blade. That’s ridiculous. They won’t stop until they have enough blades to cover your entire face, giving you a shave with a flick of the wrist.

A good shave starts with good tools. Old-fashioned tools. All the tools you’ll need have been around for over a hundred years. They’re still around, and still enjoyed, because they just work. (And you might even enjoy it.) Here’s what you’ll need:

  • A good razor
  • A shaving brush
  • Shaving soap

And, optional but recommended:

  • A brush/razor stand
  • Aftershave

First things first. By good razor, I mean at an absolute minimum one that’s not disposable. The worst razor I can actually recommend is the Gillette Sensor3. It’s essentially a Mach3 with adjustable blades that move with your face. The downside, aside from low quality parts, is that the adjustability results in a shave that’s not as close. You should really try a double-edge safety razor. Here’s the razor hierarchy, upon which you can balance your own concerns for speed, safety, and cost:

  1. Disposable
  2. Electric
  3. Cartridge-based, such as Sensor3
  4. Double-edge safety razor
  5. Straight razor

Disposables should be avoided at all costs. Electric razors just can’t do the job. They’re designed for speed and speed only, and your face will suffer. Cartridge razors will serve you well if you’re in an absolute hurry in the mornings and can’t be bothered. (I promise you this isn’t the case. You’ll see why soon.)

Double-edge razors have been basically the same for a hundred years, and that’s for a reason. It’s a simple premise and they work. You get a good, sharp blade in a somewhat protective shell, and you’ve got a clean, safe shave. Trust me – even after just a day’s worth of practice, you’ll cut yourself far less than with cartridge razors and it’ll do an even better job.

If you’re insane, here’s an article from 1972 on how to use a straight razor. Yes, a true throat-cutter. The kind your barber shaved you with as a kid. It’s the best shave you can possibly get, it’s the cheapest, and if you can get used to having a deadly instrument dragged along your most vital and exposed of regions, it can actually be somewhat soothing. That’s all I can say about it, though, as I’m not a nutter.

Having a good razor is not even the most important tip for a good shave. Far more important is a quality shaving brush. A shaving brush is vital in lifting the short hairs of your face and neck and softening them before they’re attacked by the razor. Without this, the razor can’t reach most of the short stubble that modern shave gels and electric razors ignore. Plus, it feels damn good. With a good shaving soap such as Proraso with eucalyptus or Taylor of Old Bond Street‘s scented soaps, your face will be in heaven. I love waking up just to use my Proraso. It’s like a breath mint for your face – supremely refreshing.

There are many types of shaving brushes. Here’s a general rundown, from lowest to highest quality (and price):

  1. Synthetic (generic brushes usually fall here)
  2. Boar bristle (some generics fall here, or are called “pure bristle”)
  3. Synthetic/natural blends
  4. “Pure” badger hair
  5. “Best” badger hair
  6. “Super” badger hair, also known as Silvertip

I would avoid synthetic and boar, though you can go with boar bristle or a synthetic/boar blend if you really need to save money. The jump to a badger hair brush is large and, with brushes lasting over a decade, is worth the money. Badger hair is nature’s water absorber and couldn’t be better suited for the job of a shaving brush. “Pure badger” brushes come from the hair on most of the badger’s body. “Best badger” hair is a more select choice, is a bit softer, and holds more water. “Super badger”, or silvertip, comes only from the area around the badger’s neck, and is the softest and most absorbent hair anywhere on the badger’s body – and is therefore the most expensive.

Pure badger brushes start around $20, best badger around $30, and silvertip around $40. I have a small silvertip model, a Savile Row SR-204, which was only $40 and works amazingly well for the price. For the true enthusiast, there are brushes ranging to almost $1000. All good brushes are made in England, as are most shaving soaps. Honestly, $40 isn’t much for something so nice that’ll last you at least 10 years. I’d highly recommend getting a silvertip brush, with the size (and therefore price) being up to your budget.

So, we have a razor, brush, and soap. What on earth do we do with it? Well…

  1. It’s a good idea to shave right after a hot shower. Hot water opens your pores and gives a closer, more comfortable shave. As an alternative, you can use hot water to heat up your face – use nice, hot water for at least 30 seconds to a minute to get your face ready.
  2. Soak your brush in hot water, then drain it (without shaking) until the dripping slows down. It won’t take long, as badger hair is designed to hold water.
  3. Swirl the tips of the brush around in the soap. This should get the soap to a nice lather for the brush to absorb. Do not push the brush into the soap, there’s no need. If your soap didn’t come in a tub, put a bit of it (about the size of an almond) into a mug.
  4. In an up-and-down or circular motion (depends on who you ask), brush the soap onto your face. Don’t be afraid of it; if you’re a little more vigorous the soap will get a better lather on your face. All you need is an opaque layer of lather.
  5. For the first pass, shave downwards (possibly at a slight angle). This will remove a majority of facial hair. With a good double-edge razor, you should apply no pressure. The weight of the razor itself is enough to do the job. Always pull the razor at a 90 degree angle to the blade to avoid cuts.
  6. Re-soak the brush in hot water, re-lather the soap in the tub, and re-lather your face. Do a second pass with your razor sideways, where possible, to get the remaining stubble. Try not to shave upwards (against the grain) as it can cause ingrown hairs and razor burn. Good razors don’t need to shave against the grain to get all the hair – and raising the hair is your brush’s job.
  7. Do a quick test with your hand, and if you missed any spots, your brush should have enough soap for touch-ups.
  8. Rinse your face with cold water. Cold water re-closes your pores, which helps stop the bleeding from any nicks or cuts. Plus, if you use Proraso soap, cold water activates the eucalyptus which is very refreshing.
  9. Pat your face dry, don’t rub. Rubbing can irritate razor burn.

Optional steps:

  1. If you have a brush stand, hang the brush bristles-down. You don’t want water to seep into the handle and loosen the bristles. If you don’t have a stand, you can keep the brush in a mug to dry.
  2. If you have any cuts, use either a styptic pencil ($1-2 at the grocery store) or an alum block ($5-10) to stop the bleeding.
  3. If you have a good aftershave like Proraso’s pre-post shave cream, apply it now – it will leave your face feeling soft and moisturized. This also helps negate any razor burn you may have gotten.

And that’s all there is to it. It’s not much more complicated than regular shaving cream and razor, won’t take too much more time, and you’ll feel much better afterwards. Where to get all these neat goodies? Chances are, your grocery store won’t have them. One place I’d highly recommend is QED, which seems to have the lowest prices on all the things I recommended, and has good service. Note: if you want to buy a razor or accessory from them, it’s in the “other” section located here.

As for specifics, here’s what I have and would recommend:

  • Razor: Merkur model 1904 Classic. I really like it, and I prefer the 1904-style handle to the other Classic handles. The only thing I might consider if I bought again was the long-handled model, as the Classics are fairly short – only slightly over 3 inches.
  • Brush: Savile Row SR-204, a silvertip badger brush, 3.8 inches high. It’s about the smallest silvertip brush you can buy that’s not travel-sized. I like the size, as it’s easier to do around the ears and nose. Larger brushes are also a lot more expensive, and this was only $40. Savile Row is custom-made for QED, and is essentially a rebranded Vulfix brush. Vulfix makes high quality brushes and are quite reasonably priced.
  • Soap: Proraso, with eucalyptus. I recommend the tub rather than the tube for a beginner, as you can lather the soap inside the tub itself for convenience. The tube is still great, though, and I use it often. Another great option is any of the soaps from Taylor of Old Bond Street. They’re a bit more expensive (though more dense), and come in a number of interesting scents. Good soaps are glycerin-based, and unlike modern shave gels/creams, they don’t create huge mountains of lather – you only need a thin, opaque layer to shave well. Any more is just wasted.