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

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.

Comments

29 responses to “Wet Shaving, or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Blade”

  1. KhaosMousa Avatar
    KhaosMousa

    Thank you! My father loves shaving “the old fashioned way” (he still has the first shaving mug that his father bought him), and I wanted to get him a good birthday present. Now I have my shopping list in hand, and I know that he will love this.

    Like

  2. redshift Avatar

    I think that’s about the coolest comment we’ve ever gotten. Let me know what he thinks. (I didn’t mention this in the post because it’s more advanced, but if you want a really nice razor, the Merkur Futur at $50 or Vision at $100 are quite nice, and have the advantage of being adjustable. The Classic razors have a fixed blade angle.)

    Like

  3. Evil Iggy Avatar
    Evil Iggy

    Thanks for all the interesting shaving info. I used to use a shaving brush and now I want to get back to that.

    The one thing I can’t get my brain around is that somewhere there are people shaving badgers… SHAVING BADGERS!

    Like

  4. Blue Midget Avatar
    Blue Midget

    Mushroom mushroom? Ooh it’s a snake…

    Like

  5. redshift Avatar

    Shaving badgers would certainly be an interesting job… I bet they just shear them like sheep. They don’t need the entire length of the hair, so they don’t have to get it out perfectly… poor badger.

    Like

  6. hulk Avatar

    Are we literally discussing badgers here? Because when I hear “shaving badgers”, my mind drifts elsewhere.

    Like

  7. redshift Avatar

    Literal badgers, yes. Not that I would expect your mind to be anywhere else.

    Like

  8. gord Avatar
    gord

    my dad is 82 and still shaves every morning. EVERY morning. i was looking for a unique gift for fathers day… now i have the answer. thanks. btw, i hope all they do to the badgers is just shave them….

    Like

  9. redshift Avatar

    I’m sure he’d love a nice brush or some good shaving cream! They make great presents because it’s something you wouldn’t always buy yourself.

    Like

  10. Dumdum Avatar
    Dumdum

    Wow, one mach3 cartridge lasts me at least 6 months. I always use el-cheapo canned shaving cream. I never use aftershave or lotion after shaving. I always shave up against the grain (after shaving down) and never have had razor burn or ingrown hairs.

    My face always comes out baby-butt smooth. I guess I’m just lucky I don’t have to spend a buttload of money to get a good shave.

    Like

  11. redshift Avatar

    You’re quite lucky. Some people can get away with harsher techniques if their hair isn’t too tough. My facial hair seems to be tough, and techniques that work for other people will tear through my razor blades and hurt my skin.

    Have you tried the techniques I talked about? You might find them even more comfortable. If you’re used to a Mach3 (not a bad option, as I mentioned) and cheapo shaving cream, you might not even know that there’s improvement to be had. Then again, whatever works!

    Like

  12. Dumdum Avatar
    Dumdum

    On the other hand, you’re lucky you can grow a thick, manly beard! Mine would be not-so-manly I’m afraid.

    I have to admit I’m tempted to try the safety-razor/shaving soap routine anyway.

    Like

  13. redshift Avatar

    Have fun, and feel free to come back if you have questions! Another great resource is Badger and Blade, if you get into it.

    Like

  14. McCow Avatar
    McCow

    My favorite razor for years, has been the Bic original disposable, but they are no longer available….It was a single blade, that worked real well…..I already have a mug & brush…just need to decide on a new razor.

    Like

  15. bill oddie Avatar
    bill oddie

    I’ve been shaving with a straight razor for about 18 months now and love it. Takes a bit of getting used to, but it’s a good shave and there’s something nice about taking time to learn how to use the old fashioned tools.

    Like

  16. Peter Avatar
    Peter

    I liked your post although you missed one point, the sound of shaving with a good razor. That was the first thing I noticed the good solid sound of the hairs being cut.
    I have tried a range of shaving products oils, gels, foam, mach3, fusion etc and so far the best shave I have had is with G Trumper shave cream lathered with a best badger brush using a double edged safety razor. Yes initialy costs more but as you use less it turns out to be a similar price to the gels and cartrages over time.

    Like

  17. BloodGain Avatar
    BloodGain

    One of the other comments mentions “the Bic original disposable” razors. These ARE still available (or similar ones are), but are now sold under the name “Bic Sensitive”.

    These are an excellent replacement for those horrible cartridge razors. I haven’t gotten around to buying a nice Merkur Hefty Classic, despite switching to wet shaving a couple of years ago, mostly because I was so impressed by the improvement of the Bic Sensitive disposables.

    There is a single blade, with a decent space under it, so it doesn’t clog so easily. From what I’ve learned, you do have to apply light pressure to make up for its lack of weight, and it will still trap hair under the blade if you let it grow a little. On the positive side, they’re pretty easy to find in drug stores if you forgot your razor, and you don’t have to worry about losing them when you travel.

    In response to Peter’s comment about the sound of the hairs being cut, I fully agree. The big deal hear is that you’re HEARING the hairs being cut instead of FEELING them being cut!

    Like

  18. Fendrihan Avatar

    We should also be aware that not all shaving creams are meant to be used by all men. We are unique and so is our skin type. One must choose wisely on what to put on his face. Taylor of Bond Street has created different aftershaves and shaving creams for men who have sensitive skin.

    Like

  19. Nick Avatar
    Nick

    “The kind your barber shaved you with as a kid.”

    Was the barber shaving me when I was a kid? Or, was the barber a kid when he was shaving me.”

    Like

  20. Daev J Avatar
    Daev J

    Any cartridge or multi-blade or disposable even etc razor will last literally 10 or more times longer if you just thoroughly (blow) dry it immediately after use.

    Such razors don’t actually ‘wear out’, the water/moisture left behind on the blades each time we use them actually corrodes and warps the blades each time we fail to blow dry it, thus causing the painful cuts/razor burn that prompts us to have to throw it away and line the big-disposable company’s pockets with that much more of our ever-scarcer disposable cash.

    Like

  21. redshift Avatar

    Great comment – I do the same with my double-edge razor blades. The blades are already cheap, but blowing them dry really extends the life.

    Like

  22. De Razor Avatar

    I would definitely go with a double edged razor, any badger hair brush is fine, silvertip is the most expensive, so look for a pure or best badger brush. I agree with choosing Proraso in a tub rather than tube. The range of soaps and creams available is amazing so choose carefully one to suit your skin type.

    Like

  23. bernieb Avatar
    bernieb

    Great article – inspired me to finally get on the bandwagon (like my brother!) and order the Merkur (Futur) and silvertip brush and Proraso soap. Thanks for this info. I’ll write back with my results…

    Like

  24. Rip Ragged Avatar

    Fill the shaving mug with hot tap water before getting in the shower, and again as soon as you get out of the shower. Pour it out just before lathering up the brush.

    It warms up the soap and gives you nearly hot lather if you work quickly and get in on your face.

    Lucky Tiger aftershave is wonderful stuff, and is available at better apothecaries. It has no lingering aroma at all, for those whose workplaces frown on fragrances.

    Like

  25. Adrian Avatar
    Adrian

    Is a safety razor good to shave hour head with too?

    Like

  26. redshift Avatar

    It has certainly been done, though I can’t testify to its quality myself. I know there are products meant to make it easier like the HeadBlade.

    Like

  27. Ron Avatar
    Ron

    You mentioned the type and brand of razor,brush,soap,and after shave lotion you use,do you have any certain brand of blade you like.

    Like

  28. redshift Avatar

    I’ve been using Derby blades for years. They’re cheap, but they give the best shave of the ten or so brands I’ve tried.

    I may do a new post soon about the new types of products I’ve tried, which cover all the categories you mentioned and then some.

    Like

  29. Yelnik Igwawa Avatar
    Yelnik Igwawa

    I admire the passion and enthusiasm with which you address this ancient and manly art. Your opinions and explanations are greatly appreciated. I confess that I’ve sported a full beard for the past 35 years, so a straight-razor shave of the “usual highlights” would, at this point, be perhaps more of an adventure than I wish to embark upon. But I still enjoyed the article, bookmarked it, and who knows? Someday I may take the plunge, and thanks to this great article, I’ll be well-prepared!

    Like

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