Monday, March 31, 2014

Choosing your shaving gear: What do you really need?

There are a LOT of products that fall under the umbrella of "traditional wet shaving gear":
  • Safety razors (adjustable or fixed)
  • Straight razors
  • Boar, horse, and synthetic shaving brushes
  • Black, Pure, Best, Super and Silvertip shaving brushes
  • Shaving creams and soaps
  • Hones and strops
  • Pre shave creams and oils
  • Alum blocks, post-shave creams
  • Traditional aftershaves
  • Brush and razor stands
  • Soap dishes, mugs and scuttles
With all of this choice, it can actually be somewhat stressful for the beginner to work out exactly what products they should invest in. For this reason, I'll be taking a look at what products are truly essential, which ones come highly recommended, and which are simply luxuries or a matter of personal preference.


Vulfix boar shaving brush
Vulfix Boar Brush

Brushes, Soaps, Creams
Certain items are more or less non-negotiable. The key to wet-shaving is the "wet" element, and what sets the traditional apart from the modern is the use of a shaving brush to make a lather. This means that a shaving brush and something to lather with it are THE essentials. Like many wet-shavers, I have more than one brush (I have more than one of most shaving products), and while I prefer certain brushes to use with certain products, a good brush, be it boar, badger, horse or synthetic, can do most things. Arguably the most all-round brush would be a high-end best badger, or a well-broken in boar brush. Both of these options should have a good balance between softness and stiffness, and suit a wide range of techniques and products*. I've covered creams vs soaps before; provided you buy a good quality one, either should serve you well.

Edwin Jagger Plaza double edge safety razor
Edwin Jagger Plaza Safety Razor

The Razor
Although I favor single edge shaving, I'm not going to argue too hard with anyone labeling themselves a "traditional wet-shaver" if they use a cartridge razor, so long as they are using a brush and soap.

However, you are going to need SOMETHING sharp to cut those whiskers- a razor of some kind is non-negotiable- and sooner or later, the company making that cartridge razor you've been using is going to try to talk you into "upgrading". Instead, I recommend a sidegrade to something more traditional. For only slightly more than the cost of a 12 pack of Fusion cartridges, you can pick up a basic safety razor from a manufacturer like Edwin Jagger, and blade sampler pack that should last you months. A basic straight razor will set you back more, though it could well end your dependence on buying blades for life.

Dovo hanging razor strop
Dovo Razor Strop for Straight Razors

Leather Strop (straight razors only)
A straight razor needs stropping before every use. Since this task is both essential and needs to be done as regularly as you plan to shave with your razor, it is not something you can outsource, as a beginner might with razor honing. At a minimum, you will need a leather strop, ideally with a canvas back, and a maintenance paste for the strop.


 A brush, cream/soap, razor, and a bit of skill should be all you need to achieve a better shave. There are certain things that make the experience undeniably better though.

Dovo stand for shaving brush and straight razors
Dovo Brush and Razor Stand

Brush and Razor Stand
Shaving brushes are designed to hold onto water, a brush that doesn't will do a poor job of lathering. While this is a desirable quality for the actual shave, it is not ideal for the brush's longevity or hygiene for it to sit around damp afterwards. For this reason, you should allow your brush to dry out as best you can. This is best done by keeping the brush in a stand; apart from allowing gravity to aid the process by keeping the brush in a bristle-down position, a brush in a stand is less likely to be put into a poorly ventilated cupboard, or otherwise misplaced or mistreated by visitors, roommates, partners etc. A brush in it's stand is clearly already where it belongs. These same things apply to razors, although drying out is less essential provided the razor is not a high-carbon straight razor (which WILL rust if left wet).

Apothecary bowl
Apothecary Bowl

Shaving Mug
A shaving mug, bowl, or scuttle, is a great accessory for your shave den. Although you can build a lather directly on your face (which is what bumps this down from being an "essential"), mugs are great for beginners as they allow precise control of the amount of product and water used. Larger sizes of mugs can also be used to store shaving soaps, which allows you to buy refills of shaving soaps rather than the version that come in a bowl. You can (and many people do) use something like a large cappuccino mug for bowl lathering, but many people prefer to get something designed for the job- the "apothecary style" mug you'll see in many places is designed to be easily held with wet hands.

Osma Alum Block for soothing nicks after shaving
Osma Brand Alum Block

Alum Blocks
Astringent and mildly antiseptic with a mild coagulant effect, alum blocks are a very old-fashioned post-shave treatment. By moistening the block with cold water and gently rubbing it across the face after your shave, you'll help to seal and disinfect any nicks and cuts.

Alum blocks are often described as "soothing", but what many people will actually find is that it stings slightly when you first apply it, before calming down and leaving your skin smooth and irritation free. What I, and many wet-shavers find, is that the better your technique and sharper your blade, the less initial sting you have (presumably due to fewer microscopic nicks on your skin). This makes the alum block very useful for assessing your technique.

 Finally, because of their antiseptic effect, if you DON'T like alum as a shaving accessory, you can use it as a natural deodorant instead, so it's unlikely to be a wasted purchase.

Hones (straight razors only)
Stropping helps to keep your razor sharp by gently re-aligning the microscopic metal burrs at the razor's blade into a fine edge. After several months of use, these burrs will start to become too numerous and too misaligned for stropping to be sufficient. At this point, your razor needs re-sharpening, or honing, or it will become ineffective and downright uncomfortable. This is a task you can outsource to one of the many independent "honemeisters" who can be found on the shaving forums. If you only have one razor, this can be inconvenient, as typically such arrangements involve mailing the razor off, and there may be a waiting list. With some care, most people can learn to hone their own razor. The basic tools required are a hone (or several, but many get by with a single combination stone, with a high grit side and a low grit side) and a lapping stone to ensure the hone is flat.  


Pre-shave oils, Creams, Aftershave Creams
 A good lather and good technique with your razor should get you a long way to a perfect shave. Pre-shave treatments and aftershaves (especially the non-alcohol based variety) can help you go the rest of the way. This is particularly true if you have sensitive skin, don't quite have your technique down, or have very particular preferences regarding the feel of your skin after a shave. For some people, some kind of pre/post treatment would be an essential, but for many (including me), they are luxuries; sometimes I use them, sometimes I don't.

Traditional Aftershaves
Traditional aftershaves tend to be alcohol based, and are formulated at least partly for purposes of fragrance rather than effect on the skin, although they are mildly antiseptic. The best aftershaves will still have some kind of moisturizing ingredients to counteract the drying effect of alcohol. I would regard this style of aftershave to be entirely non-essential, but nevertheless a fantastic way to finish off your morning grooming routine- if you're not one of the few who find them drying.

*The latest generation of synthetics may well prove to be good all-rounders too.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Shaving in a hurry

There are many reasons why men make the switch back to old-school shaving products; price, control, a sense of history and tradition, a love of luxury, or even just sheer curiosity. Most men have a few reasons, and if there is one factor in common with all traditional wet-shavers, it is probably a perfectionist streak.

However, many men shave in the morning under time pressure, and  find that busy mornings and the quest for the perfect shave are fundamentally at odds with one another. This is especially true for beginners and straight razor users (and doubly so for beginners learning on a straight razor!), who are obliged to take extra time and care to avoid nicks and irritation.

Over time, as you gain more experience, you will likely find that you can achieve a good shave quickly, without feeling too rushed, or too much like you are performing a chore. Until you reach that level (I still have some room to improve), here are the approaches that work best for me:

1) Streamline your preparation

Shaving is an art- lots of factors need to come together for a perfect shave. Chief among them however is preparation- mainly of your face, and of the lather. There are a few ways you can make this more efficient.

  • First- if you both shave and shower in the morning, fill your shaving mug with warm water and place your brush to soak in it while you shower. Your brush will likely absorb enough or more water than you need to create your lather (if it soaks up too much, you can gently shake out some of the excess- a little practice will teach you how much you need). 
  • If you are using a solid soap, use you brush to transfer some of the warm water to the top of the soap to soften it while you shower. This will make it much quicker and easier to lather, in many cases it will lather as easily as a cream at this point. 
  • Use a shaving bowl- As much as I enjoy face lathering, if you are in a hurry, whipping up a lather in a bowl will reduce the likelihood that water and lather will end up somewhere you will have to clean up. You can also usually produce more lather in a bowl for a similar amount of time and effort, as you can "whisk" the brush around rather more quickly in a bowl without redecorating your bathroom in a "foam party" theme. A bowl full of lather also makes reapplying for subsequent passes easier. 
  • A warm shower should prepare your face enough before you lather- just don't entirely dry it off before you lather up. If you do not shower in the morning, wash your face with warm water while your brush soaks.
2) Replace your blades regularly

I find I can get quite a few shaves out of most brands of DE blades, but most blades are past their best after the first 2 or 3 shaves. At this point, more care is required for a comfortable shave- both in preparation and the shave itself.

If your time is at a premium, swap out blades early, after all, they are cheaper than cartridge blades. The straight razor equivalent to this would probably be to strop the razor thoroughly the night before, so it is at it's best and ready to go in the morning.

3) Use More Product!

Pre-shave products are no substitute for a good lather, but they can certainly improve the quality of your shave, and may help prevent nicks and irritation if you take a few liberties with the speed and care of your shave.

Traditional aftershaves tend to be alcohol based and fragranced, and while they may have some soothing ingredients, their purpose is often to be mildly antiseptic to help prevent nicks and cuts from becoming infected (it was an infected shaving nick that killed the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, backer of the Tutankhamun dig, so this was rather crucial before antibiotics).

Modern aftershaves are created to be more soothing, and these excel at relieving the irritation that may occasionally result from a hurried shave. While prevention is better than cure, these are still worthwhile products.

4) Switch to the evening

This one seems rather obvious, but shaving has been so culturally ingrained as a morning thing that it really doesn't occur to some people. I find shaving can be invigorating or relaxing, based entirely on what products I use.

Products such as Edwin Jagger's Cooling Menthol or Proraso's Menthol and Eucalyptus will tend to be stimulating and awakening, and ideal for a morning shave, while products with woodier, warmer scents are more relaxing and can help you to wind down after a busy day. If you want to take your time shaving, and your beard isn't so fast growing that you can shave in the evening and wake up with stubble, I highly recommend giving this a try.

5) Keep perfectionism a weekend luxury

In our interview with Neil Jagger (founder of Edwin Jagger), he revealed that his weekday shaves are usually with an Edwin Jagger razor fitted with a Fusion cartridge, while he uses a Chatsworth with a DE shave head on the weekends. He prepares with a silvertip brush and a soap or cream for all his shaves, so they are all to a standard he enjoys.

My own approach is similar: As someone who owns both straight razors and double edge safety razors, I tend to default to safety razors during the week for convenience, and treat myself to a luxury straight razor shave on weekends.

Even if you do not use more than one razor, the key here is to aim for "good enough" during the week, but to treat yourself and take your time on the weekend. The things you learn on your weekend shave will probably improve your everyday shaving experience over time.

6) Keep your mirror clear

One annoying obstacle to shaving, quickly or otherwise, is often a foggy bathroom mirror after showering. Here are my top workarounds for this:

  • The obvious: Better bathroom ventilation
  • The masochist: Colder showers (which are supposedly good for you, and actually quite tolerable, especially if you have a morning exercise routine)
  • The high-tech: apply an anti-fog treatment of the variety sold for car windscreens and mirrors
  • The low-tech: leave the bathroom and shave like they did before modern plumbing, with a basin of warm water and a freestanding mirror

I've had good results from all of these approaches (apart from anti-fogging my bathroom mirror, which I've only heard good things about). I'm sure there are other good ways to get a better shave in a hurry, and I'd love to hear about them in comments.