Like most guys, I was never “taught” how to shave. When I was old enough to amass enough scraggly chin pubes to warrant shaving, I simply went to the nearest drug store and bought whatever astrofacelube and hyper valyrian turbo razor was “the best I can get”. As expected, it was a less than thrilling shave, but it got the job done. On I went, experimenting with just about every product on the shelf in hopes of finding something better. Eventually I just settled on the fact that I could either get a baby’s butt smooth shave that result in tons of irritation 24 hours later, or I could get a mediocre shave and my face would calm down a bit.
A few years ago I decided to take another crack at experimenting. After loads of research I learned about the classic wet shaving method. This is basically the method old school barbershops and your grandpa used to use. It involves a routine of good care for your skin and facial hair and the use of a manual razor, be it the usual disposable cartridge style, a cutthroat straight razor, or the most common double edge safety razor. (No electrics, and I get into the why later) Why would I go back to such an antiquated method you ask? Well, first off, you probably wouldn’t be reading this far if you are already satisfied with your usual shave but I’ll give you a few more good reasons.
- If you stick with my recommendations, I promise you really will get the best shave of your life.
- If you go with a safety razor, its much more economical to replace the blades and always have a fresh, sharp blade.
- It’s environmentally friendly. Safety razor blades cause far less waste to produce and dispose of than cartridges. Also, good quality shaving creams and soaps tend to made of more natural ingredients than whatever the heck that canned, aerosol driven gook is.
- It’s therapeutic. Taking a little extra time out of the day to pamper your face and enjoy the shaving experience is almost meditative.
- Let’s face it. There’s just something cool, visceral, and manly about artfully carving those whiskers off with a finely crafted razor.
So, if you’re feeling pretty geeked about this let’s start diving into the good stuff. In these posts, I’m going to break wet shaving down into 3 parts: The Gear, Preparing Your Face and Post Shave Care, and lastly Shaving Technique.
There are 3 common types of razors that can be used for wet shaving. The disposable cartridge razor which you are most likely quite familiar with. Most cartridge razors are multi-blade units. The most important thing to understand with multi-blade razors is that every time you drag that cartridge over your face, you are in effect, shaving your face multiple times and every time you drag a blade over your face, you scrape more moisture and skin off your face along with the hair. So, if you are using a Gillette Fusion for example, you just shaved your face 5 times in one single pass. Doesn’t sound real nice on your skin does it? With that said, they still work fine for some guys. If you want to get through your shave as quickly as possible and cartridges already work OK for you then I would recommend going with a Mach 3 to cut down the number of blades and give your face a break. Wait for part 2 of this series. The prep and post shave care will still help you vastly improve the quality of your shave.
Next up we have the infamous but sexy cutthroat straight razor. It’s a single bladed, knife-like razor. There has been a recent surge in sales of these thanks to a scene in Skyfall where Bond is shaved by a gorgeous, buxom woman that certainly has it’s appeal. Many straight razors can be alluring works of art as well, like this Baxter Basecamp X model that runs $280. Straight razors can give an incredible shave in the right skilled hands. However, they have a very steep learning curve and are also very expensive for a good quality, shave ready razor. A good starter razor will run at least $70-$80. My recommendation here would be to go with the Dovo 5/8″ Black Handle. Admittedly, I am only just learning to use one so I won’t be writing about them just yet. Hopefully as my skills improve I can write a separate post on straights later.
Finally we get to double edged safety razors (referred to as DE razors from here on out). There’s a few reasons why these are my razor of choice for the perfect shave. Firstly, they do have a learning curve. I will try to set you up for success with my Technique post but do understand that these take some time and practice to get a truly amazing shave. The good news is, once you master the DE, you can get an incredible shave ever day in almost the same time as it takes to use a cartridge razor. Also, much of the technique of using a DE razor can be transitioned to using a straight. As these are my razor of choice I will give a few options to suit multiple budgets. My #1 choice is going to be the Edwin Jagger DE89. This is a well constructed razor with a nice weight and balance to it. Weight and balance are very important in a DE razor and my Technique post will give more detail as to why this important. If you can also track down the rarer Barley edition (the razor shown in the title picture for this post), that adds a nice knurled handle for better grip when it’s wet and some very good looks. It’s fairly reasonably priced too and can be found for $40-$50 online. If you aren’t quite ready to dive into wet shaving head first and want a more reasonably priced razor I recommend the Merkur 180. Merkur is a very reputable manufacturer and makes some great units. The 180 can be found for around $30 online and even a little cheaper with some extra searching. This razor is a little bit on the lighter side which can hamper your learning for correct technique though. The third option is to track down a true vintage DE razor. Vintage DE razors have seen a big spike in popularity lately and as such see widely varying prices. There is an overwhelming variation in vintage models too. I would recommend you hold off on these until you get your technique down and have done a bit more research to decide what you really want in a vintage razor. If you gotta have it though, I am currently using a 1959 Gillette Fatboy with an adjustable blade angle. This is by far the best razor I have ever used and can range anywhere from $50-$130 depending on the vendor and the condition of the razor.
DE blades are somewhat of a personal choice. Everyone has different facial hair and skin type and what works best for me is not necessarily what will work best for you. My recommendation here is to get a sampler pack. Use each blade in the pack for a week and try to learn what your preference in blades is. This pack has some of the most popular blades and is an excellent starting point. I will give some info on my 3 favorite blades though. Personna Red’s are a good starting blade. They are sharp enough to deal with all but the most burly beards but are quite forgiving so you don’t need to worry about chewing your face up too badly with them. Next up are Astra Superior Platinum’s. These are very sharp blades but still have a bit of forgiveness to them. If you have a particularly tough beard you might want to give these a try soon after you get comfortable with the Personna’s. And now we have the infamous Feathers. These blades are infamous for a reason. THEY ARE INCREDIBLY SHARP! Feather blades have been shown to be even sharper than a surgeons scalpel. However, once you get confident in your technique, these baby’s roll through any facial hair like it’s peach fuzz.
Now an explanation as to why I don’t like electrics. Electric razors take all the joy out of shaving. Plowing along your face with a handheld beard mower just turns the experience into another morning chore. Electrics are also designed to work on a “lift and cut” method. You may have seen some commercials bragging about this feature. It’s not a good thing. Tugging the hair follicles up and out of your skin, hacking them off and then allowing the ragged ends to drop back below your skin is just inviting irritation and ingrown hairs. Multi-blade cartridges also do this to some effect. Lastly, the blades on electrics dull just as quickly as any other razor. However, there is no way to sharpen these blades and no one replaces the whole head of their electric often enough to always have fresh, sharp blades. To illustrate my point, below is an image taken with an electron microscope of facial hair follicles that have been cut with a DE blade versus an electric. I pretty much rest my case here.
Creams and Soaps
Time to ditch that lame, canned, neon colored goop. Trust me, you’re gonna thank me. This is one of the most fun parts of the wet shaving experience. There are a ton of options out there and trying them out is half the fun of wet shaving. A good cream or soap will smell so good you want to just stuff your nose in it and smell it all day and will lather on your face like nothing you’ve ever experienced. On the practical side, good soaps and creams lubricate and condition your skin and facial hair far better than the canned stuff ever will. Like blades, these are really going to come down to personal preference in the end, but here are a few of my favorites. A great starter cream is Proraso Green. This is pretty cheap and easy to find online (I’ve found it as cheap as $10 for a huge tube) and can also be found under the C.O. Bigelow name at Bath and Body Works. A little dab of this on a good brush will lather quite easily. It also has quite a bit of menthol in it which is great at cooling down and calming your face those first few shaky shaves. Another very frugal yet wonderfully performing option is an Arko soap stick. It only runs about $5 and will last well over 6 months of daily shaves. This simple soap creates an incredibly dense and slick lather that gives a lot of skin protection for beginning DE shavers. My only knocks on it are that it is made from tallow (rendered animal fat) that can put some people off and the scent is something like that of Pepto Bismol. Next in the range is Jack Black Supreme Cream. This usually runs around $25 for a tub. It seems pricey at first, but one tub will easily last me 6 months of shaving every day. The scent here is a little on the mild side but has a very enjoyable earthy and nutty aroma (from the Coconut and Macadamia Nut oils in it). It is my daily go to cream though because it lathers up incredibly easily and has slickness to it that lets my razor almost float right over my skin. Now if you really want to splurge, go for Castle Forbes Lime Oil Cream. I’ve never shaved with anything that has smelled so good! It’s akin to shaving your face with key lime pie. And the lather…I’m not sure I can even describe it without getting a bit graphic. It’s expensive however. A trial size sample runs around $30-$40.
Brushes can again be a bit of a personal preference but there are a few options to keep in mind when choosing one. Generally you are going to want a brush with a nice fat handle and some weight to it. This makes it easier to hold when your hands get wet and slippery while lathering. The weight will also help to splay out the bristles a bit more which in turn helps to scrub and loosen up your facial hair a bit more while working up a nice lather. There are 3 common types of bristles you will see as well, boar hair, badger hair, and synthetic fiber. Boar hair brushes are the cheapest of the bunch. They will get the job done without fuss but the bristles are stiff and coarse so they won’t feel as nice on your face as more expensive brushes. Boar hair also tends not to absorb as much water (needed for building a good lather) as badger or synthetic fibers. My recommendation for a cheap starter Boar brush would be this Tweezerman brush for $15. Badger hair brushes are the most popular. Badger hair brushes come in several different grades of hair as well. As the grades increase, the hair generally gets softer, plusher and denser. The grades run ,in order of lowest to highest grade, Pure Badger, Best Badger, Super Badger and Silvertip Badger. Silvertip badger hair brushes are generally considered to be the cream of the crop of brushes. The bristles are pillowy soft and build butt loads of amazing lather with little effort. They are, however, can very expensive like this lust worthy Muhle Sophist brush at $160.
My overall pick is, however, going to the Jack Black Black Performance brush. This has been the brush I’ve used almost exclusively for the last 3 years. At $85 this synthetic brush is a bit pricey. It has a few advantages though that make it worth it’s price. In performance of lather and comfort, I’ve found almost no noticeable difference between this and a Silvertip brush. The bristles of soft and cushy on the face and it loads up lather with minimal effort. The fact that it doesn’t use animal hair is a bonus point for the eco-minded. In addition, the synthetic fibers on this brush are designed to be anti-microbial so there’s little to worry about with keeping the brush clean and sterile. Animal hair brushes are also prone to losing hairs over time and can sometimes (especially when new) have a bit of a funky smell to them. Synthetic fibers suffer from none of those issues which gives this brush a very very long lifetime and makes it’s price a good value in the end.
Prep and Post Shave
Some good prep and post shave care shave products are critical to getting a good shave. These apply to every type of shaving (yes, even electric users will benefit from these). A good facial scrub will be the starting point for every shave. Getting your skin and beard cleaned up in the shower ahead of time helps the blades to glide over your skin with less resistance and grabbiness. The scrubbing component helps loosen up ingrown hairs and dead skin. I’m recommending Nivea for Men Revitalizing Face Scrub. It’s fairly inexpensive, easy to find at just about any drugstore and is low on harsh ingredients that can dry out and irritate your skin. Again, if you want to go all out and get the best of the best, splurge on Billy Jealousy Liquid Sand. It smells awesome and has very small, fine scrubbing particles that really give your face a baby’s but soft feel. You’ll also need some hair conditioner. Whatever you already use is fine, if not just pick up a bottle whatever you want at the store. The brand isn’t going to matter much here but a little bit of conditioner worked into your beard while you shower goes a long way in softening up the facial hair for easier cutting by the blade.
Post shave will consist of two products. Salicylic acid (like Clearasil or Oxy) pads will be the first step in post shave care. Wiping down your face post shave with these will sterilize your skin of bacteria that can cause irritation and infection. Salicylic acid has also been clinically shown to cut down on razor bumps and ingrown hairs. As a bonus use, I have found that they are great for cleaning and sterilizing your razor once a week as well. Finally we come to the aftershave. No matter how much time and effort and care you put into a shave, you are always dragging a very sharp instrument over your soft skin and stripping it of moisture that has to be put back. That’s where aftershaves come in. Try to stay away from store bought goops again. A lot of these are loaded with stuff that clogs up your pores, and does more harm than good. Plus, most of them smell like a 13 year old who just discovered cologne and is trying to impress his schoolyard crush. My one exception is Nivea for Men Sensitive Post Shave Balm. It’s reasonably priced and easy to find. This goes fairly light on the skin, doesn’t have an overpowering scent, and has a nice mild cooling sensation. My overall recommendation here is going to be Cetaphil Daily Facial Moisturizer. Skip all the other fancy additives in my opinion. This stuff just gets right down to the point of giving your face some moisturizing care after shaving. It has almost no scent, so you can choose whatever cologne you want afterwards if you feel so inclined. It’s also non-comedogenic, meaning it is dermatologically proven not to clog your pores or irritate your skin in any way. As a bonus it has SPF 15 for an extra defense to your freshly shorn face. It’s also fairly easy to find in local stores.
A couple of miscellaneous supplies you may also want are an alum block and/or a styptic pencil. They’re both actually mainly comprised of the same material, potassium alum. This mineral is anti-bacterial and acts as a fast blood coagulant. Alum blocks are larger chunks of the mineral that a rubbed over the face post shave. The block would be used to serve the same purpose as the salicylic acid pads I mentioned before. I don’t see much need for it unless you really want to stick with the old school shave motif. A styptic pencil is a must though. Should you nick yourself during shaving (and you will, I still do it from time to time when I get lazy with my technique), wetting one of these little pencil shaped sticks and rubbing it over the nick will stop the bleeding almost immediately. Alum blocks are not terribly easy to find, but this one from Osma is very popular with old school shaving enthusiasts. Styptic pencils are all the same and cheap and easy to find at any drug store.
In conclusion, I hope I have gotten a few people hyped up for an adventure into the realm of bad ass shaving! Please post comments and questions. Feedback always helps to improve future posts.
Also, here are 3 complete shaving kit shopping lists for different budgets all just a single click away.
Economy Kit – $
Recommended Kit - $$
Luxury Kit – $$$$