The classic tools of male grooming …and not end up look­ing like a freshly-​​carved pump­kin when you’re done.

A while back I reverted to straight razors for shav­ing. I’d used them before, but only with lim­ited suc­cess; there wasn’t a lot of infor­ma­tion out there on the topic at the time. That was unfor­tu­nate since I wasn’t off by much in terms of how I used or main­tained my blade. Given a lit­tle more guid­ance, I’d’ve kept going.

Since the prop­a­ga­tion of the net, a lot more data has become avail­able, and some of it is quite valu­able; how­ever, more than a few arti­cles on the use and main­te­nance of straight razors seem to have been writ­ten by peo­ple unfa­mil­iar with their use; and a few, at least, were obvi­ously writ­ten by men with absolutely no first­hand expe­ri­ence using them at all.

I’ll go into all of that below, includ­ing point­ing out a few howlers penned from the inky oubli­ette of ignorance.

First, though, I should han­dle the ques­tion I always get from any­one when they first see one of these razors in my bath­room: Yes, I really do shave with them.

The sec­ond ques­tion is a lit­tle more obvi­ous and a bit harder to answer.

The most puerile rea­son is plain pure machismo, male mys­tique, or pos­si­bly over­com­pen­sa­tion. There’s some­thing about the cut­throat razor that is a lit­tle spooky; and frankly, the damned things just about drip testos­terone. But that’s not the rea­son I went back to straights.

No; my main rea­son was eco­nom­ics, with envi­ron­men­tal con­cerns run­ning a very close second.

I was just tired of spend­ing so damned much money on razor heads; pretty much all mod­ern razors are ridicu­lously expen­sive to keep fed — you gen­er­ally have to replace the car­tridge once each cou­ple of weeks or so — and while you might get the han­dle for free, you pay and pay and pay for the heads. Disposables à la the Bic are worse than use­less; they’re prob­a­bly ille­gal under Geneva to give to cap­tured enemy sol­diers for use in their ablu­tions. Safety razors are a lit­tle bet­ter than their car­tridge cousins, but not by much.

And as for electrics … well, when my Norelco finally lost all abil­ity to hold a charge I stared at it for a while, real­iz­ing I was hold­ing $80 worth of absolutely inert, use­less tech­nol­ogy. The Dovo Bismarck Super pic­tured above cost a lit­tle less than that, and it’s good for a life­time, and in fact a great-grandson’s life­time, given proper care.

And that damned elec­tric made me use about 20 min­utes to get a good shave. About what a straight requires as well, as it hap­pens — sans razor burn.

The car­bon debt started insin­u­at­ing itself into my awareness.

But yeah, the Absolute Scale of Manliness does play a role here. I can sneer at all razor com­mer­cials, for instance. Ooh, that one has five blades and a com­fort strip? And hey, this one is elec­tric and self-​​cleaning? Well, mine can kill a man.

WIN

I like the sim­plic­ity of the tool as well. It’s basi­cally a han­dle and about three inches of very sharp steel. There’s no pad infused with aloe; there’s no elab­o­rate inter­play of springs, swivels and hinges; there’s no elec­tri­cal con­nec­tion; there’s no switch; the blade never gets clogged or bogs in a thick patch and actu­ally works bet­ter with more beard than only one day’s growth; and the angle/​closeness adjust­ment is all in the fin­gers. The straight­for­ward­ness of the design makes a straight razor sur­pris­ingly easy to main­tain; very lit­tle will go wrong with one in the course of nor­mal use that can’t be reme­died by the owner himself.

That said, these things take some get­ting used to, and not in the obvi­ous way. Yes, at first, you are going to nick your­self; you might even slice your­self. Don’t worry; a well-​​maintained straight doesn’t hurt at all when it draws blood. You don’t feel it. You just start notic­ing pink on the edge, and you think, aw damn, I cut myself.

NO, you don’t then get an erec­tion or any­thing. Jeez. You just move on.

Ow…ch?

I char­ac­ter­ize two kinds of straight-​​razor injuries: The nick, and the slice.

The nick you real­ize; the blade hes­i­tates for just a moment some­where, a kind of hitch or hic­cup, and then keeps mov­ing. You know right away: That’s going to bleed. The slice is sneakier; it’s more of a brush of the blade at a slim cut­ting angle over a fold of skin. I tend to get these most at my ear­lobes. In both cases they’re the result of me not pay­ing enough attention.

I have never lac­er­ated myself, and you won’t either.

Cold-​​water rinse is usu­ally enough to end the bleed­ing. By the next day at worst, the marks are gen­er­ally gone.

And no, dammit, no, it really doesn’t hurt.

That’s it for the threat. Now on to the real meat of the matter.

Thick, Fresh and Creamy is Best

A key com­po­nent to a good wet shave, even if you’re using car­tridges, is the lather. It should root itself in wet skin and lift and float the bris­tles, and that’s nearly impos­si­ble to get from canned prod­ucts. Come on, boys, admit it: Squirting a wad of cream on your hand has never really sat­is­fied you, now has it? And when you slap it onto your face, well, it seems pre-​​digested, pre-​​foamed, a kind of over­ly­ing insu­la­tion that doesn’t really get to the heart of the matter.

So, even if you don’t use a straight, con­sider going to shav­ing soap and a brush. Just float the brush in a sink­ful of hot water as your shower begins, then get out, shake the heav­i­est drops off, and whisk it in the mug to form a lather.

I use a badger-​​bristle brush, and not by most mea­sures an expen­sive one. It was just around $30, has a plas­tic han­dle, but has the nice bonuses of work­ing well, and not shed­ding all the time.

The most expen­sive bad­ger brushes cost around the same as an iPhone. And if you have that kind of money to spend on a shav­ing brush, email me. I’ll come to your home (you pay the air­fare) and per­son­ally guide you into shav­ing with straights for a nom­i­nal fee.

Here’s the getup I use.

It takes a little getting used to, but a good shaving soap, hand-lathered, is notceably better than canned shit

The mug is from Burt’s Bees, back when they flirted with mak­ing men’s prod­ucts. The soap is a heavy glyc­er­ine puck of Colonel Conk’s shav­ing soap, a disc that, for less than ten bucks, should be good for about a year. I tried a few soaps, but most of them are too dry­ing. After a week or so my face felt like it had been belt-​​sanded, not shaved, and … well, call me a pussy if you want to, but I didn’t care for the feeling.

Certain over­priced New York-​​based com­pa­nies that insist Shaving is an Art might try to sell you expen­sive oils to spread over your bris­tles first, after which you’re sup­posed to lather up.

Well, they suck. Of course they do. The pur­pose of lather is to lift and soften the bris­tles (as well as lubri­cate your skin a lit­tle); but how can the lather do that if it has to cut through a layer of freshly-​​applied oil?

As to puck size: Filling the mug with the soap is cru­cial. Some soaps are made to fit with a step on the side; I avoid those, because that falloff tends to be where the best lather accu­mu­lates, and I’d rather have that on my face, not col­lect­ing in a chasm around the bot­tom of a cup. Better to have the froth rise along the sides than get lost in a Marianas Trench.

Making the lather is a bit of an art. You need just enough water on the brush to wet the soap, but not too much to sat­u­rate it. It takes prac­tice, like every ele­ment of a good straight-​​razor shave, but when you get the hang of it you actu­ally start to enjoy it. Like every ele­ment of a good straight-​​razor shave.

Whisk the brush around in one direc­tion until you see bub­bles start to form, then whisk it the other direc­tion rapidly for a few strokes. Whisk it the reg­u­lar way again, then reverse, and repeat until you’ve got a thick, foamy rise. Don’t expect it to look like meringue or Cool Whip. Just work it for a while until you see lather on the sur­face, and then paint your bris­tles with the results.

Lather, repeat. Don’t rinse.

By the time you’re done your bris­tles should look like white­wash. Now you’re ready to remove them.

And here’s where we digress for­ever from car­tridge– or safety– razor ver­sus straight-​​blade users. If you’re using a car­tridge or a headed razor, get going with the shave; but let the razor head glide gen­tly over your skin. Do not rake. Do not land­scape. Just let the ten­sion and stroke of the blades them­selves pull along your skin and hose the bris­tles. Stroke gen­tly with the grain first; that is, in the same gen­eral direc­tion as the bris­tles are point­ing; then again a sec­ond time, softly and care­fully, against the grain.

Wicked Shaap

Razor strops are also handy for flogging wayward childrenIf you’re using a straight instead, you need to do two things before you get in the shower.

1. Strop the blade. Do this by plac­ing the spine of the razor against the strop, then rotat­ing so the blade just rests on the smooth side of the leather. Push gen­tly, spine-​​first, exactly the reverse of what you would do if you were sharp­en­ing a knife. (If you go the wrong way, you will slice right through the strop. Really. The blade is that sharp. It will cut leather, lit­er­ally, like a warm knife through but­ter. And you’re about to use this thing on your face!)

When the blade is near the end of the strop, rotate it along the axis of the blade’s spine (don’t pivot it over the edge) and draw it back toward your­self. Make sure the blade’s edge glides against the leather fully heel-​​to-​​tip as you do this; you’ll want to add a lit­tle diag­o­nal motion to your lin­ear stroke to accom­plish this.

When the blade is mov­ing away from you, its edge should point toward you; when it is mov­ing toward you, the edge should point away.

Do this for about 20 pairs of strokes, and until you’re sure of the motion, don’t try to do it fast. That cut­ting edge is sur­pris­ingly del­i­cate, just a few mol­e­cules thick, and doesn’t like to just be slapped around.

Don’t press hard, either; just keep enough pres­sure to hold the edge against the strop as the blade moves. You’re not grind­ing; it’s more like caress­ing, or per­haps spread­ing frosting.

2. Warm the blade. This is easy. After you’ve stropped it, put it (closed!) in the warm sink­ful of water along with your shav­ing brush. Then shower off.

A warm blade just feels bet­ter; cold steel on your skin can tighten the pores infin­i­tes­i­mally and make the shave less comfortable.

Don’t worry too much about using a towel on your face; dry off as usual but retain the washrag. When you’re ready to shave, give your face a once-​​over with the warm cloth. Dampen it in the sink first if you want to.

One site I saw sug­gested wrap­ping your face in steam tow­els and strop­ping the blade. That’s a cute idea, except for every­thing wrong with it, which is every­thing. Where can you get steam tow­els at home? How can you stand upright and keep them wrapped around your face? And how the hell can you strop a razor with steam tow­els wrapped around your face?

Well, never mind. Just lather up and … get going.

Practice?

One group of guys sug­gested prac­tic­ing on a filled bal­loon to learn how to use a straight. I call bullshit.

Balloons can’t feel, and you’re stressed at the idea of pop­ping the damned thing — which is cer­tain to hap­pen — spray­ing foam every­where. So fuck the balloons.

If you want to prac­tice, lather up your fore­arm and shave that instead. The skin is much thicker and tougher than you’ll find on some parts of your face, you can see what you’re doing, and you can feel when the angle is too extreme or too gradual.

We’ll talk about shav­ing angles in a minute. For now, if you’re still not sure, shave your arms.

The Grip

Generally you pass the han­dle of the razor between your pinky and ring fin­ger, using the ring fin­ger against the curve of the hinge to sta­bi­lize and thrust the blade a lit­tle. The next fin­ger — not the index — is gen­er­ally placed on the spine of the blade. The index rests closer to the tip to pro­vide fine control.

The grip might feel a lit­tle strange at first but it’s done this way for a rea­son; hav­ing the han­dle out at an angle pro­vides you with a sur­pris­ing amount of lever­age for con­trol­ling the blade’s angle, lever­age you really need to have.

While a good grip is a good start, what’s more impor­tant is get­ting a feel for the instru­ment in your hand. Don’t be afraid to change your grip to a more com­fort­able seat­ing. And if you feel out of your depth, just stop; prac­tice on your arm again. It’s bet­ter to back off and learn how to be gen­tle than it is to badly mess it up the first time and hate shav­ing with a straight forever.

Ears

Work in front of them first, care­fully, let­ting the tip of the razor stroke near­est the lobes. Pick one ear to work with first. Shave gen­tly and care­fully. Don’t press; you do not have to. The blade should just bite a lit­tle at your bris­tles, but it shouldn’t hitch and it should not hurt.

Every damn page I have ever seen obsesses on angles. You’re told, author­i­ta­tively, that you should hold the blade at about a 20-​​degree angle to your skin.

Well, my bath­room lacks a laser-​​guided pro­trac­tor, so I tend to go by feel. You’ll know when it’s too flat; the blade will just skim your face and do noth­ing. And you’ll know when it’s too steep; the fucker will hurt.

If noth­ing is hap­pen­ing, steepen the angle and try again. If it hurts, flat­ten the angle on the next stroke.

Cheeks

The side of the face fol­lows the ears, usu­ally. Stroke the razor down­ward first, on one side of the face, and then repeat the motion, mov­ing in grad­ual, ahem, slices as you go. Stop some­where around the edges of your lips. Rinse the razor by swish­ing it in the sink, then switch sides.

Here’s where it’s good to be at least a lit­tle ambidex­trous. Since I’m a lefty, it’s not hard for me to switch hands. If you’re now using your dumb hand, go slower.

And, for what it’s worth, remem­ber to lean into the mir­ror to get a closer view.

You might feel a dif­fer­ence in how the razor moves on the other side of your face; it might feel too bit­ing or too weak. Some of this may have to do with the physics of a true razor’s edge, which can roll over or curve a lit­tle under pres­sure; if you’re sure you’re using about the same angle as you did before but it’s hurt­ing, flat­ten a little.

You might also feel a sense of rip­ping or tear­ing as you shave your cheeks, par­tic­u­larly as you move toward your jaw­line, no mat­ter what angle the blade is at. If that hap­pens, you’re not hold­ing your skin tense enough. Reach over your head with your free hand and pull at the skin just above of your tar­geted cheek, taut­ening it; make faces in the mir­ror if you have to. Tight skin shaves bet­ter. Loose skin is ask­ing for disaster.

Shave with the grain; that is, shave down­ward only for now, in the direc­tion of your bris­tles’ growth.

Throat 1

You’re not going to die. Just tilt your head back and stroke the blade down your jaw­line, over your throat, shav­ing one side; switch and shave the other. If a lot of arte­r­ial blood spurts out onto the mir­ror, feel free to curse me for a lying ass­hole with your final thought.

Coup de Maitre

This is the mus­tache line under your nose, and it’s pretty tough to get, on par with the chin. What I do is pull my nose up with my free hand and gen­tly stroke the blade beneath, always work­ing down to my upper lip, and I open my mouth, dis­tend­ing my lip over my teeth as I do this. (Think of a snooty but­ler exam­in­ing a filthy raga­muf­fin ped­dling spit-​​shines and you’ll get the idea for the facial expression.)

It’s del­i­cate. Take your time and find out what works best for you. In this spe­cific case, do what­ever you can to keep your skin tense under the blade.

Lower Lip and Chin

I usu­ally push my tongue behind my lip to add ten­sion, then pull a face and shave very care­fully into the groove of my chin. I work over the point of my chin and down a bit, try­ing to work the bris­tles off. Every time I do this I con­sider grow­ing a goatee.

Throat 2

Tilt back again and shave from your chin straight down.

Jawline

For me, this is nec­es­sary; I pull at an ear­lobe and pass the razor over my jaw­line to my chin, get­ting all the stray stub­ble that I missed ear­lier; then I switch hands and sides and do the same again. It’s quicker and less likely to draw blood than try­ing to get every­thing in one pass down the cheeks or over the neck; and it’s def­i­nitely eas­ier to work over the point of the chin in this fashion.

Second Over

That’s it; you’ve done a once-​​over. The sec­ond over is much trick­ier and will have to be up to you; the gen­eral idea, for me any­way, is to use the same hold I have on the razor and stroke up, against the grain, over my throat and jaw­line; then I pull my ear­lobes and shave lat­er­ally along the rise of skin beneath them; then I shave upward on ten­sioned cheeks. My chin and coup de maitre I shave lat­er­ally, from one side to the other, always work­ing in — that is, from cor­ner of mouth to centerline.

In all cases I use my fin­ger­tips to tauten skin dur­ing the second-​​over.

I don’t rinse before the second-​​over, but I do re-​​slicken my face with a dash of water on my hands. The shav­ing soap usu­ally can han­dle the rest. There’s still a lit­tle there on your skin, but it’s not a lather any more; it’s just a lubri­cant. That’s fine.

Oh, you might end up with a gross-​​looking scum along the edge of the blade after you’ve done the second-​​over. That’s a com­bi­na­tion of shav­ing soap, stub­ble rem­nants, skin oil and dead cells.

Straight-​​razor shav­ing is an excel­lent exfo­li­a­tion method.

Aftershave?

In two words: Fucking ouch. There are balms, there are colognes, there are alcohol-​​free con­coc­tions, and not a sin­gle one of them really seems to do it for me. They all burn to vary­ing degrees, and most leave my skin too dry. I’ve got a really unfor­tu­nate com­bi­na­tion of del­i­cate skin with stub­ble like steel wire.

Rather than blow stacks on over­priced, inef­fec­tive after­shave prod­ucts, I use a generic store brand of Vaseline-​​style skin mois­tur­izer, a cucumber-​​melon vari­ety that smells nice and doesn’t burn so much as tin­gle slightly.

Selection, Price and Where to Purchase

T'ree inches long and wicked shaapThere aren’t very many mass-​​production straight-​​razor fac­to­ries left, unfor­tu­nately. While you might con­ceiv­ably run across a blade at an antique store (or in Grandpa’s attic), a used instru­ment might have an irre­triev­ably dam­aged edge.

Dovo is a German man­u­fac­turer located in Solingen, and their razors start at about $70. The razor with the black han­dle is such a model; it’s the entry-​​level Bismarck Super. The blade is car­bon steel, which means it’s prone to rust and dis­col­oration; always give such a blade a good wipe-​​down with your wash­cloth, fol­lowed by a rinse and thor­ough dry­ing, when you’re done using it. Be care­ful around the edge; rub­bing at the wrong angle can dam­age it, and of course the blade could eas­ily slice right through the cloth.

Dovo makes a vari­ety of carbon-​​steel razors; they also make high-​​carbon stain­less mod­els that are resis­tant to rust. The silvery-​​shiny one is an Inox by Dovo, a medium-​​priced ($130) stain­less model.

The other major man­u­fac­turer is Thiers-​​Issard, a French con­cern; they make some fine razors as well at prices roughly equiv­a­lent to Dovo’s. There’s also a black­smith named Tim Zowada who makes them by hand out of Damascus steel, but they start at $400 and go up from there.

So far all my pur­chases have been made online through the Nashville Knife Shop — they have a good selec­tion and really fast ship­ping, free if your order is over $100. (I do it online because I live in a small town, which puts me quite out of touch with most resources I’d have in a larger city).

Also, any­one want­ing to see an actual shave in action — as done by sev­eral indi­vid­u­als — can hit YouTube. There’s a pretty good gath­er­ing of demos, and one poster named plexuss even dis­cusses strop­ping and honing.

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