Friday, June 14, 2013

Shaving Gear: The Merkur 34

Merkur 34 HD Safety Razor
Merkur 34

Most beginners looking for suggestions for a first Double Edge Safety Razor quickly learn of the Merkur 34, aka the Merkur Heavy Duty.  The Merkur 34 has long been one of the most recommended  razors on forums such as Badger and Blade and the ShaveNook.

The Author's Merkur,  in need of a clean
While most safety razors are fairly simple, with the exception of some adjustable models, the Merkur is a very basic design, with a solid two-piece construction.  The 34 is a time tested design, which has been around for decades under various guises. Despite its short handle, the 34 is well balanced and easy to grip.

The shave head of the 34 has a closed comb (or safety bar), and slightly more blade exposure than Muhle or Edwin Jagger heads. This gives a slightly more aggressive shave, but not overly so. The Merkur is not as well finished as the Edwin Jagger equivalent (the DE89), but should last a lifetime of use.

At the time of writing, the Merkur 34 is in stock at and

Tuesday, June 11, 2013

Choosing your shaving gear: The Razor

Electric razor, Edwin Jagger Safety Razor and Dovo Bergischer Lowe Straight Razor

Recently we looked at choosing between shaving soaps and creams, and choosing a shaving brush. Today we’ll be looking at the piece of hardware that draws most men into traditional shaving: The Razor.

There are basically four types of razor available to men today: Straight Razors, Double Edge Safety Razors, Cartridge razors and electric razors. More recently, disposable blade straight razors have been created by Dovo and Feather (and a handful of other brands), which have some of the advantages (and disadvantages) of both safety and straight razors.

Multi-blade cartridges and electric razors have their advantages (convenience), but we feel that the disadvantages (poor shave, poor value for money, lack of charm!) outweigh these. As a traditional shaving blog, we’ll be looking at Double Edge Safety Razors and Straight Razors.

For the summary of pros and cons, skip to the bottom.
Dovo Astrale Straight Razor
Dovo "Astrale" Straight Razor

Straight razors are the more traditional choice, and in some form or other have been around since people decided there was such thing as too much hair. Over the centuries there must have been many designs and materials used in them, but today the term refers either to the typical Western design, with a single edge blade made from high-carbon or stainless steel blade mounted on a handle, referred to as “scales”. A stylised version of an open Western straight razor is seen in the Kaliandee logo. There were once hundreds of manufacturers of straight razors, but today only a few reputable ones remain- the biggest two being Dovo of Germany and Thiers Issard of France.

The other style still found today is the Japanese straight razor, which is a blade and handle forged from a single piece of high carbon steel. The traditional ones tend to be expensive, because as with traditionally sword-making, there is an attitude of making them well or not at all (borne out of the relative scarcity and therefore expense of iron ore in ancient Japan).
Straight razors possess no safety features besides the user’s concentration and steady hand. Since straight razors are not disposable, they will need stropping (edge maintenance done by drawing the blade flat, spine-first across a leather strop) before every use. As the blade slowly loses it’s edge with use, it will need honing once or twice a year.

With this increased maintenance and lack of safety, comes incredible control over your shave. A dedicated straight razor enthusiast can hone and strop the blade to their exact preferences, and achieve some of the best shaves possible. Straight razor users also tend to get to know their faces and hair growth patterns in a whole new way, and over time will probably be able to get a better shave than if they visited a top barber. The impeccable technique required of a straight razor also has some carryover to shaving with a double edge or cartridge razor. The non-disposable nature of a straight razor also means that the cost of the razor is spread over the rest of their shaving life. Straight razors also tend to be more decorated than safety razors, with some high-end models featuring engraved or gold-etched blades, patterns etched into the spine, and wood or horn scales.

Merkur 38C Safety Razor
Merkur 38C Safety Razor

Double Edge or “Safety razors” first became popular in the 1920’s, having been issued to troops in the trenches. They were revolutionary in that for the first time, men could shave themselves daily without having to worry about razor maintenance, and with a great deal less concentration required. The safety bar of a safety razor prevents deep cuts but there is still more blade exposure than with a modern cartridge razor, so more care and attention is required than with modern razors. Adjustable models are available that allow changes to the blade exposure and angle.

Safety razors allow men to shave with a single edge, which provides more tactile feedback (not as much as with a hollow-ground straight razor), less irritation and more control than a cartridge razor. Safety razors still require a supply of blades, but unlike their modern counterparts, Double Edge blades from any manufacturer should fit any Double Edge Safety Razor. While the basic design of DE blades is standardised, the durability, sharpness and “feel” of the blades varies between manufacturer. This give men the freedom to experiment with different blades until they find the one that gives them the best shave for the money. DE blades are significantly cheaper than cartridges.

Dovo Shavette
Dovo Shavette

Hybrid straight razors are blade holders in the shape of a straight razor. Originally, this style of razor was meant for barbers to finish off around the nape of the neck, the ears, and occasionally to give a traditional shave. The ability to swap blades meant that barbers didn’t have to own several straight razors and sanitise them between uses.

The two to know about are Dovo’s “Shavette” type, and the Feather “Artist” series. The Shavette can take either standard DE blades snapped in half (which can be safely done BEFORE removing them from their wax paper wrapping), or special Dovo Shavette blades. Feather razors take special blades.
The advantage of this style of razor is that it allows a shaving experience not unlike that of a conventional straight razor, but with the convenience (but also cost) of replaceable blades. Getting the most out of these razors usually means buying the special blades made for them, which does limit choice of manufacturer. Generally, these style of razors do not feel the same as a “proper” straight razor, so although they achieve a similar result, the experience is quite different.

Straight razors:
+Most traditional
+Most control over shaving experience
+Often very beautiful
+Cheap in the long term
+Potentially addictive hobby

-Most high maintenance
-Steep learning curve
-Expensive initial outlay
-Will also require purchase of a strop
-Will need to send off for honing, or purchase of a hone
-Honing also has a learning curve
-Potentially addictive hobby

Safety razors:
+More control, potentially better shave than cartridges
+Better looking than most cartridge handles
+Wide choice of blades
+Cheaper initial outlay than most straight razors
+Cheaper ongoing costs than cartridge razors
+Shallow learning curve

-Still need replacement blades
-Can still give nasty cuts if care is not taken
-Steeper learning curve for adjustable models

Hybrid (straight razor style disposable razors):
+Low maintenance
+Single, exposed blade shaving experience
+Different feel to both straight razors and DE razors

-Requires replacement blades
-Smaller selection of blades
-Different feel to both straight razors and DE razors

In the near future we will take a closer look at these different types of razor, how to use them, and how to maintain them. and carry a selection of Straight razors and Safety razors.

Sunday, June 9, 2013

Choosing your shaving gear: The Brush

One of the most pleasurable aspects of traditional shaving is creating a warm lather using a soap or cream and a shaving brush. Although the razor often steals the spotlight, it is often the brush that makes the biggest difference to how enjoyable your shave is. Brushes arguably have the most diverse range of options out of all the wet-shaving essentials, with different densities of brush knot, different shapes of loft and handle, different types of fiber  both natural and synthetic, and various manufacturers.
A good entry level brush
Edwin Jagger, Best Badger

Badger hair is by far and away the most popular material, with every major manufacturer of brushes using it. Of all the types of fiber a shaving brush can be filled with, badger is the only one conventionally sorted into different grades, usually (from cheapest to most expensive): Pure, Best, Super and Silvertip. Grades are not standardized between manufacturers. Higher grades are softer and more absorbent. Some manufacturers will have their own special high grades, such as “two band” or even “three band”. All badger hair used in modern shaving brushes come from China, where badger hair is a food by-product.
Vulfix's boar bristle brush
Vulfix No.28 Boar Bristle

Boar, often referred to as “pure bristle” is generally cheaper than badger, and is a very stiff fiber  although it may soften with use. Boar is a very popular brush fiber in Italy, consequently some of the best boar brushes come from Italy. Boar tends to hold a little less water than badger but can still produce excellent lathers.
An ethically sourced option from Spanish firm Vie-Long
Vie-Long Horse Hair

Horse hair was once a very popular fiber  but fell out of favor due to an anthrax scare in the 1920’s. Horse hair is being rehabilitated as a fiber due to it’s reasonable value, better softness than the lower grades of badger. Horse, uniquely, is the only natural fiber option that is produced without killing the animal, so is popular as an ethical option.
A cheap and quick drying nylon brush, good for travelling
Vulfix No.1 Nylon

Synthetic brushes are the only vegan option available, and are also useful as travelling brushes due to their resistance to going a bit “musty” if stored damp. They also tend to dry very quickly. Originally nylon was the only option, but there have been new developments in synthetic fibers that apparently approach or in some cases match the better grades of badger for softness, absorbency and lathering performance.

As well as material, the shape of the brush, as well as how it is achieved is important. The two shapes commonly used are the bulb and the fan. Bulb brushes are denser in the center, and good for bowl lathering, as well as more precise application of lather to the face. Fan shaped brushes tend to spread out more on the face, and make for comfortable, if messy, face lathering. Fan shapes lend themselves to a more circular motion on the face than bulbs. Not all brushes will clearly fall into one category or the other, with some brushes occupying a shape between the two.

The method used by the brush manufacturer to achieve the shape of the loft is important. Cheaper brushes are more likely to be shaped by trimming the loft into shape, resulting in stiffer hair tips, and a more exfoliating brush. More expensive brushes are made by carefully tying the hairs into the knot so as to produce the desired shape, and are consequently softer.

For a beginner, the choice of shape might not be obvious, but for anyone who plans to lather directly on the face, a fan is suggested, and for wannabe bowl latherers, a bulb shape is preferable.
Although most wet-shavers aspire to own brushes in higher grades of hair, some people will actually prefer stiffer, more exfoliating brushes, which are also better for lathering harder soaps.

General points:

-Badger is the most popular choice
-Higher grades of badger are softer and usually filled a little denser
-Boar is relatively stiff and exfoliating
-Horse is softer than lower grades of badger, and usually a little cheaper
-Synthetic fibers vary, with newer ones performing comparably to natural fibers
-Synthetic is the only vegan option
-Horse and synthetic are the only vegetarian options
-Firmer brushes tend to perform better with solid soaps

Some specific models we recommend considering:

Good value entry level badger: Vulfix pure badger shaving brush -more exfoliating, good all-rounder

Good value best badger: Edwin Jagger- all rounder, favors creams a little

Horse hair: Vie-Long- soft, better at creams

Boar: Vulfix No.28- stiff, better at soaps

Basic synthetic: Vulfix No. 1- soft, better for creams

Good value higher quality: Simpsons Chubby 1- Good all-rounder

Available from and

Thursday, June 6, 2013

Choosing your shaving gear: Soaps vs Creams

When a person first takes an interest in traditional wet-shaving (I say “person” rather than “man” because there are an increasing number of ladies who use straight razors and double edge razors for leg shaving), the three key considerations are:
1) Solid soap vs shaving creams
2) Brush hair grades
3) Straight razor vs safety razors

This order may seem odd to some people as this puts the cheapest choice first, but there is some logic to it. Some brushes are better at soaps, some are better at creams, and some are all-rounders. Choosing a brush may be a little easier if you know what you’ll mostly be lathering with it. Both brushes and creams/soaps are arguably more important for the quality of your shave than the razor, unless you’re one of the unlucky few who are very badly irritated by multi-blade cartridges. For this reason, razor choice is in last place, even though it’s often the razor that tempts people to take up traditional shaving (we will get to razor choices later). The better cartridge razors will still produce a decent shave if you prepare properly, and by mastering your lather before you change your razor, you have less steep a learning curve when you do.

The purpose of both soaps and creams is to form a lather when hydrated and aerated using a shaving brush. The advantage of a lather is to help prepare the skin and hair for shaving by lifting the hair away from the skin, removing some of the natural oils protecting the hair so that water can penetrate and soften the hair, and by providing a slick surface to the skin so that the razor’s edge glides over the skin rather than digging in and nicking it. The better soaps and creams will also be at least a little bit moisturizing on the skin, and should leave the skin feeling soft and smooth after a shave, even before the application of any aftershave creams or moisturizer.

Arguments abound on shaving forums over whether soaps give a better shave than creams, or vice-versa, but probably the best soaps and creams will offer equally good shaves if used correctly, with the more important factor being the brand and technique. However, there are some general differences that are useful to consider when making a choice.

Solid soaps are the more traditional choice, and have many fans purely because of it. Many soaps used to be animal tallow based but many brands have switched to a vegetable base, including Geo. F Trumper and Taylor of Old Bond St. Glycerin soaps also exist, arguably the most famous example being those made by the Colonel Conk brand.
Soaps tend to last a lot longer than creams, with the hardest, triple-milled soaps lasting the longest. Generally, the harder a shaving soap is, the more effort it takes to build a lather from it. This hardness favours shaving brushes that are a little stiffer, either due to a denser knot of hair or stiffer bristles such as boar or the cheaper grades of badger. As with food, the less moisture content a product has, the less preserved it needs to be; some soaps will be preservative free, and the few with preservatives will have very low levels. Finally, some people feel that soaps produce a slicker lather than creams.

-Longer lasting
-Fewer preservatives
-Possibly a little slicker
-A little more time and effort to use
-Allowed in hand baggage
-Works better with a stiffer brush

Shaving creams are effectively soaps that are softer, oilier and slightly hydrated- not entirely unlike the relationship between liquid hand soaps and bar soaps. In creating a product that is not intended to be solid, manufacturers can add more moisturizing and protecting ingredients such as glycerin, in amounts that would not work for a solid soap. Since the ingredients responsible for fragrances tend to be more liquid, creams are often contain more of them and are more noticeably scented than their solid counterparts. Because creams are already slightly hydrated, and by definition much softer, they are very easy to work into a lather and are often recommended for beginners because of this. Because of the higher moisture content they will tend to need more preservatives, or consequently have a shorter shelf life. A cream will also likely contain more ingredients that are there for the sake of keeping the cream consistent, rather than for the benefit of your skin- if you have concerns about synthetic ingredients, a solid soap may be a better choice for you. Whereas soaps like a stiffer brush, creams benefit from a softer brush that holds moisture well.

-Tend to be more moisturizing
-Often more strongly scented
-Easier to lather
-Possibly a little more protection (but less slick)
-Works well with softer brushes

Which to choose is entirely a matter of what appeals to you, but although many wet-shavers are advised to start with creams, do not be afraid to try a soap if one appeals to you- it is entirely possible to start out wet-shaving using a soap. When I started out wet-shaving, I purchased Taylor of Old Bond Street’s Sandalwood soap, and still keep some in my rotation. For those in need of a recommendation for a good cream to begin with, Proraso makes some excellent creams which is reasonably priced for beginners.

A selection of shaving soaps and creams from various brands is available from and

Monday, June 3, 2013

Off Topic #1: Home coffee roasting

There's often an overlap between coffee geeks and shaving enthusiasts (and wristwatch collectors, but that's another post). I think the common point between the two hobbies is often the desire to get more involved, in a very hands-on way, with something most people already do but put little thought into. Most men shave, even if not all of them do so regularly, and most people consume coffee products of some kind. For many, cartridge razors and big chain coffee are enough-perhaps they channel the effort I put into shaving and coffee into other hobbies; but a few of us feel the need to get a little more connected with our daily rituals.
I took up traditional wet-shaving back in college, out of a combination of sheer curiosity and outrage at the price of razor cartridges, but my interest in coffee didn't really kick off until I graduated and coffee became a luxury rather than “dissertation fuel”. I started out, as most aspiring Home Baristas do, by finding some local roasters, tracking down the best espresso machine and grinder for my dime and playing around with French presses and Moka pots. However, in the last year I've been reading about the history of coffee, and correspondingly eschewing my espresso machine for simpler ways to brew my morning drink.
It turns out that one of the most rewarding ways to get involved and hands-on with coffee is to try roasting at home. My first attempt was on Sunday night, which took nothing more than half a pound of green coffee (Rwanda AA from, a saute pan, an oven thermometer and some good ventilation. Although the results of my first attempt were visibly uneven, this morning’s coffee was one of the best cups I've had in a while, and I can’t wait until I become actually good at roasting.

If you’re the kind of person that likes to take your daily rituals to the next level, say, stropping your own straight razor in the morning, then you may find roasting your own coffee for your morning brew to be well worth the effort (you will need a way to grind the coffee before you brew it- there are some cheap hand grinders available). If you are already a coffee geek and have access to a suitable grinder, I also highly recommend giving Turkish coffee a try at some point.