I’m going to take a break from talking about clothes and shoes for a second to talk about how I got into wet shaving. It was kind of an accident really. It was 2012 and my future wife and I had just moved into our new home. I found this enormous steel trunk in the garage. It turned out the previous late owner was in the air force and the trunk was full of old books, a squash racket, course books from his radio engineering days, and a shaving kit (I later found his service pistol in the garage but that’s another story for another day). I asked the daughter and wife if they wanted the trunk and its contents back but they said they were downsizing and told me to keep it.
Inside the shaving kit was some really old rusty double-edge blades, some crusty old shaving soap, an alum stick, and two Gillette Tech double-edge safety razors. Incidentally I had just read an article on artofmanliness.com about shaving like your grandpa and these razors instantly piqued my interest. The old fashioned coolness of it just appealed to me. Like most guys, I had only ever shaved with an electric razor and the experience was always a bit lackluster and I would have a 5 o’clock shadow by midday. Multi-blade cartridge razors always gave me ingrown hairs and the cheapo immigrant’s son in me could never justify the ongoing cost. I had flirted with the idea of wet shaving with a straight razor but the stropping, maintenance, initial cost, and prospect of slicing my face open like a pomegranate was a bit off-putting.
In came the fortuitous safety razor. A $15 shaving brush, a packet of sample double-edge blades, some shaving soap, and a 5 minute youtube tutorial later, and I was slicing and dicing with the best of ’em. After the initial outlay, it’s a pretty cheap way to shave. Blades cost about 30-50 cents each and I only go through about one a week. A container of shaving soap usually lasts about 6 months. It is a bit of a learning curve. If you are used to multi-blade razors, you will usually press too hard and cut yourself. Let’s start from the beginning…
You will need a safety razor (duh). Most will be of the double-blade variety. Be careful with vintage single-blade variants as some don’t fit any currently sold blades. If you have a grandpa who has one, great. Otherwise beginner razors like the Merkur 34C or the Edwin Jagger DE89 are good choices if buying new. Otherwise eBay is awash with vintage Gillette Super Speed razors – just make sure you disinfect them with a bit of rubbing alcohol before using them.
You also need a brush. Badger or boar hair are the go here (don’t ever use synthetic). Most people recommend badger but if your beginner budget is small, then boar actually offers more bang for buck. Omega is a fantastic entry level brand for boar, and I personally feel they are much better than cheap badger brushes. The hair holds less water and so doesn’t over-saturate the shaving soap and the hair is stiffer so it exfoliates better. It does smell like, well wet boar, for about a month when it’s new though.
Shaving soap/cream is a huge category with many many products. Some cheapish entry level brands are Proraso, Arko, and Taylor of Old Bond Street. A soap requires more lathering, usually done in a mug, whereas a cream lathers up faster and you can do it straight onto your face or in your hand.
There are many brands of blades and different people’s skin will react differently to different brands- the best thing to do buy a sampler pack with many different brands from a place like Beard & Blade (formerly shaverhut) or Men’s Biz and try them all. Soon you will have your favourites. My personal favourites are Feather (japanese blades that are probably the sharpest in the industry), Wilkinson Sword (good balance between sharpness and irritation, also teflon-coated for extra glidey-ness), and Bic (best bang for buck).
Aftershaves also come in many brands and forms. I have tried quite a few and by far the best bang for buck aftershave has been the Nivea Sensitive Post Shave Balm. Whatever brand you decide on, you always want to use an alcohol-free aftershave as alcohol tends to irritate any cuts or raw skin more, and also “dries your skin out and makes you look older” according to Patrick Bateman. Alcohol-free aftershaves tend to be based on witch hazel, which also has some antiseptic properties. Some of the new fangle dangle ones have all kinds of other oils and herbs and whatnot. I’m not sure if they work any better but some of them do smell nice.
And last but not least, you need an alum stick or alum block for those inevitable nicks and bleeds. I have used both a stick and a block and I prefer the block as it lasts longer. The stick generally should work faster on big cuts as it is powdered.
Before you do anything, watch a couple of youtube videos (see the links at the end of this post) and practise the movements without a blade in the safety razor. Unlike a multi-blade razor where the angle is pretty much fixed, a safety razor allows you to adjust the blade angle to your face by pivoting the handle. This takes some getting used to and a bit of practice. Once you are more confident, then load a blade and place the razor with the handle at 90 degrees to your arm. Slowly adjust the angle until the handle is at about 30-45 degrees to your skin and feel for when the blade is gently touching your skin. When you are first learning, give yourself a good half hour for the session so you are not rushed.
Prep is key here and 90% of cuts can be avoided by good prep. This means using hot water to soften your facial hair – you can use a hot wet towel or if you are lazy like me, just shave after a shower. You also need to use hot water to soak your badger or boar hair brush, and fill the sink with hot water. Load a blade into the safety razor (this might be done by unscrewing the handle or twisting the bottom of the handle so the razor opens up). You should also adjust the position of the blade slightly so that the amount of exposed blade is even and not on an angle.
The next step is to lather up the shaving soap/cream. If it is a shaving soap, put it in a mug if it isn’t already in a container (if it’s a new soap, you can also zap it in the microwave for a short time to get it to melt a bit and set into the mug so there’s no gaps) and use the brush to lather up in fast circular movements until you get a dense lather (usually takes about 15-30 circles). If it’s a cream, I usually put a small amount (about the width of a dollar coin) in my hand and lather it up with the brush (about 10 circular movements). Then use the brush to apply the soap onto your face and sideburns. Leave the soap on for a few minutes for your hair bristles to soften.
Then it’s time to shave! You will need to lather and shave 3 times on your face (sideburns only the first time) – once with the grain, once across the grain, once against the grain. If you are particularly prone to ingrown hairs you can go diagonal against the grain for the last go. On a double-edge razor, when the razor gets clogged up with soap on one side, you turn the razor over and use the other side. Once both sides are full, swish it in the water in the sink. Safety razors aren’t really that safe since the force isn’t distribute across multiple blades like with a cartridge razor (they are only called this because they are safer than a straight razor). Don’t press hard – just rest the blade on the skin. You will cut yourself at some point – I took a small chunk off my nose once. Practice makes perfect.
After the shaving and rinsing all the soap off, pat dry with a towel, apply some alum to the cuts (some people like to rub an alum block all over their face – I don’t do this as alum is an astringent and makes my face overly dry), and pat some aftershave onto the skin. Let this sit there for a bit while you rinse the equipment, before applying some moisturiser. When I was learning I shaved every second day to allow my skin to recover from my mistakes.
That’s it! It might sound arduous to a beginner but really once you get the hang of it, it only takes about 10 minutes. In a pinch I can do it in 5.