…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.
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.
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.
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.
If 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Tilt back again and shave from your chin straight down.
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.
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.
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
There 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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