Straight Razor Shaving: Is it For You?

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Why a straight razor? Here are a few reasons why I switched from a cartridge razor to an old fashioned straight. I was working an average of 12 hours a day and found myself rushing from one task to another. I rarely ate a meal sitting down. I needed a tonic that forced me to slow down and take a breather from my hectic day. When I was using cartridge blades I found myself replacing the blades about once a week. A package of eight replacement blades cost about twenty dollars. Given the economic downturn, it was a cost I was unwilling to pay. The cartridge razors also left something to be desired in the quality of the shave. This was due to the mass produced blades in cheap plastic housings and the chemical laden shave foam I’ve come to call “canned goop”. I felt moderate stubble growth within 12 hours of shaving. Lastly, I was uncomfortable with all of the trash created by the cartridge/disposable razor method. Imagine all of the dulled blades, plastic razor handles, metal shave foam cans, and associated packaging that are thrown into the landfill. Now multiply that by every cartridge and disposable razor user in the world. That’s a lot of waste.

Straight razor shaving remedied all of my dislikes about cartridge razors. Shaving with a straight blade forced me to take my time and indulge myself for a few minutes a day. Most of the cost of straight razor shaving is up front. Considering I was spending over $120 a year on replacement blades alone, straight razor shaving will pay for itself in less than three years. The resulting shaves are so close to the skin that stubble growth takes 24 to 36 hours to appear compared to 12 hours from a cartridge razor shave. The only trash created from straight razor shaving comes from shave soap or shave cream packaging. Most of the packaging for the soaps and creams are recyclable.

Along with the aforementioned benefits of straight razor shaving, there is an amazing feeling of self-accomplishment associated with the maintaining and usage of such a blade. It is not easy to learn to shave with a straight razor, but at the same time, it’s not incredibly difficult. Keep in mind; people have been using straight razors for centuries. In this age of Microsoft Windows, Blackberries, and iPhones, surely scraping stubble off with a classic blade isn’t as difficult as it appears.

Many people I’ve spoken to say they had an interest or curiosity about straight razors. When asked why they never tried it, invariably, the answer is either “It’s too dangerous” or “It’s too scary”. With proper education straight razor shaving is neither. The perceived danger and scariness is attributed to the learning curve. What makes electric, cartridge, and disposable razors so appealing is the lack of a learning curve. Virtually anyone can pick up one of these and get a reasonable shave. A straight razor takes time and practice before becoming a proficient shaver.

Ok, so you’ve decided to plunge into the wonderful world of straight razor shaving. Now you’re asking, “What do I need?” Unlike cartridge razor shaving you will need a bit more equipment. Most importantly, you will need a shave-ready razor. You will also require a means of keeping your razor edge sharp, a leather strop for daily maintenance of the blade, a shave brush for creating lather, and a good shaving cream or shaving soap.

It can be tempting to find a cheap razor or an all-in-one package for less than fifty dollars at an online auction site. Speaking from first hand experience, I would strenuously caution against these products until you gain some familiarity with what to look for in a quality razor. When I was an inexperienced straight razor shaver I found a Dovo brand razor with beautiful mother of pearl scales for a price too good to pass up. When it arrived it was clear the blade had been sharpened unevenly and the pins that held the scales together were in disrepair. I also bought an all-in-one “deal” online auction. I figured I could get everything I needed in one shot: two razors, sharpening stone, shave brush, and strop. The items were junk. The razors were impossible to sharpen especially with the stone that came in the set. The stone was of dubious grit size, seemed to crumble when wet, and said “Camel Knife Sarpening Stone” (sic) on the side. After a few uses, the bristles of the shave brush came unglued from the handle. The leather strop ended up being made of vinyl or some other faux leather material. The metal ring from which the strop was supposed to hang was actually a cheap nail that was bent into a loop. Let my misfortune be your lesson. Cutting corners on cost will not always get you a good razor. Expect to pay between $40 and $150 for a good starter razor. Stay away from starter kits unless you buy it from a reputable retailer rather than an online auction site.

When choosing a razor it is important to know the condition of the blade. When purchasing a new straight razor, it is almost never shave-ready. Shave-ready means that the blade has been honed to a delicate edge, usually by hand. If the retailer states the razor has been honed by hand or has been honed by a “honemeister” then it is probably a shave-ready razor. If the razor has never been removed from its box since it left the factory, it is most likely not shave-ready. Each razor differs in the amount of touching up it requires before it is ready to touch your cheek. Some need a few swipes on a finishing stone while others call for an hour at the hands of a capable honemeister.

The key to a successful beginning in straight razor shaving is starting with a properly honed edge. Honing is not easy and takes a lot of experience to become proficient. For your first blade I would recommend that you seek out a honemeister to put a shave-ready edge on your razor. Many of the smaller retailers offer a honing service for a reasonable fee so that your new razor will arrive in a shave-ready condition. Sharpening your own razor is an art that will come with time.

There are many things to consider when choosing a razor. The major blade attributes include brand, type of steel, type of point, blade width and blade grind.

There are two major manufacturers of blades as of this writing. They are Dovo in Germany and Thiers Issard in France. There are also a multitude of vintage razor makers including Sta-Sharp, Genco, Dorko, Dubl Duck, Bismark and Henckels. I would recommend either a new Dovo or Thiers Issard for anyone new to straight razor shaving.

Blades are available in either carbon steel or stainless steel. It is easier to put a fine edge on a carbon steel razor. Carbon steel blades are more numerous than stainless steel, less expensive, and have many more types of materials for their handles. Carbon steel blades have more flex to them and will contour minutely to your face. The downside to carbon steel is that the blades are not as robust as stainless steel. They rust and show blemishes more easily if not properly cared for.

The most obvious reason for choosing a stainless steel razor is the fact that it will be less prone to rust, water spots, and other blemishes. Stainless steel blades have less inherent flex. A person with a thicker beard may choose a stainless blade for this reason. The stiffness in stainless steel will power through heavy stubble more ably than carbon steel. Stainless steel generally takes longer to hone because of its robustness but this also means the razor holds its edge longer than carbon steel.

There are many types of points for straight razors but the most common ones are spike, round, barber’s notch, and French tipped.

A spike point is quite simply a square like point at the end of the razor. This is useful for detailed work and getting at the random individual whisker. Given the square tip of the spike point, users are more prone to nicks and cuts with this type. It’s important to pay attention when straight razor shaving, even more so with a spike point.

A round tip blade is as it sounds, the sharp square end is rounded so there is no point to accidentally nick you. The round point razor is the most user friendly and I recommend them to the beginning straight shaver.

Some blades have a barber’s notch cut out of the tip. This notch allows the blade to be maneuvered in difficult areas such as around the nose, nostrils, and ears.

A blade with a point that juts out is called a French point. The elongated French point shines when it comes to precision shaving around beards, moustaches, and goatees. A French tip is a bit more difficult to hone because there is no spine above the point.

Blade width is usually measured from cutting edge to the spine in increments of 1/8 of an inch. A 4/8 blade is a half inch wide and an 8/8 inch is one inch in width. The selection of blade width is crucial in getting a close shave and depends on the individual user.

Many straight razor shavers prefer a larger blade because the additional weight powers through stubble without having to be as sharp as a lighter blade. A minor benefit of a thicker blade is that it will take on more lather while shaving between needing to be rinsed off. The negative side of a wide blade is that they can be unwieldy, especially to the novice shaver. They are difficult to maneuver in tight places like under the nose, around the upper lip, and sideburns.

Novice shavers will find smaller razors easier to manipulate compared to wider razors. You will be able to tell how sharp your blade is and if it is being held at the correct angle against the skin with a smaller razor. Moving the razor around areas that require precision is a breeze. This is why the 5/8th’s width razor is the most common size and I recommend this to new straight razor shavers. The most important thing is that you find a razor that is comfortable for your shaving method and type of stubble.

The grind is what gives a razor its edge. A wedge grind is the most simple razor designs. When the blade consists of an elongated triangular shape when viewed from the top point furthest away from the handle, it is a wedge grind. This type of grind is the heaviest since the blade retains most of its metal. This makes the wedge grind blade ideal for men with particularly thick stubble growth. The wedge grind is a robust blade that brute forces its way through beard hair. This grind is stiff and will not flex against the contours of your face. Wedge grinds often do not provide as close of a shave as a hollow ground razor.

A hollow ground razor is one that has had a concave portion cut out from both sides, creating the fine cutting edge. These require more work to create and are generally more expensive. They are also more common among shavers than wedge grinds. This is because they take a finer edge and are more flexible against your face.

Grinds are a matter of personal preference like most of the aspects of straight razor shaving. Generally, the thicker the grind means less flex and moves more easily through heavy beards. Thinner grinds create a finer edge that is easier to hone and provides a closer shave.

The most user friendly straight razor build for a new shaver would be a stainless steel, round point, 5/8th width, hollow ground blade made by a reputable company and initially honed by an expert honemeister.

In addition to your blade you will need a strop. A strop is a strip of leather that is used to prepare the razor’s edge for shaving. There are paddle strops which are stiff and have a handle. Paddle strops often have two to four useable sides with varying degrees of draw or friction against the blade. Some strops require the use of diamond paste or some other type of abrasive compound. Other variants have a side that is lined with canvas or linen which is useful for its increased abrasiveness compared to leather. The most basic strop is called a hanging strop which is simply a strip of leather that is designed to hang from a nail or hook near your shaving area.

The nice thing about strops is a starter level strop will give you the same performance as an artisan one with all the flourishes. A single sided starter strop of premium horsehide can be had for about $43. This basic strop is made from the same exact material as a $200 strop. You’ll end up paying more if you want an ornate handle, “D” ring and swivel, linen/canvas side, etc. I’ve gotten by without a linen strop side just fine. The “D” ring that hangs your strop prevents the strop from bowing inward or outward when it’s held taught. It’s convenient but not necessary if you hold the strop firmly but not overly tight.

It is known that stropping a blade before shaving will make the blade sharper and your shave closer. It’s been a long running debate as to how exactly stropping effects the blade. It was long believed that stropping straightens the micro-thin razor blade into a perfectly aligned edge. Drawing the blade across canvas or linen removes a miniscule amount of metal from the blade. Under microscope it was found that stropping a blade across leather removed oxidation to create a smoother edge. An interesting test to prove the effectiveness of stropping is to first shave without stropping and then notice how much easier it is to slice off whiskers after stropping the blade.

The best strop for a new straight shaver is a starter or travel hanging strop. These are bare bones but made of horsehide. Since you will be dragging your blade across the leather it is easy to slice or nick the strop. Better to nick a $43 starter strop than a $200 heirloom strop.

The next item we’ll discuss is the shaving brush. The bristles of the brush are available in badger hair, boar hair, and animal friendly synthetic. Like strops, more expensive does not necessarily mean better. In most cases, costly brushes are only so because of the rarity of the materials and their increased ability to hold water in the bristles. Badger hair is the most expensive and offers a softer feel against your face. Badger hair is used for its ability to retain copious amounts of water to create slick lather when combined with shave cream or shave soap. Boar hair bristles are coarser. This is not a bad thing, just a matter of preference. Some find the brisk abrasiveness of boar hair against the cheek in the morning to be quite invigorating. Synthetic brush hairs are of varying quality and texture but overall they have soft tips and stiff shafts.

Badger hair brushes are divided into different grades. Silvertip badger hair is the most expensive. It is the softest of the grades and as such, the gentlest on the face. Silvertip hair brushes are often very ornate and with intricate handle designs. Just because it is the most expensive variant does not mean it is the best. A lower grade badger hair brush with stiffer bristles actually exfoliates and lifts beard hairs up better than the soft silvertip brush.

Best badger is the next grade down from silvertip hair. Best badger hair is firm against the skin but still supple. It has less water holding potential than silvertip hair but more then the next grade down. Many shavers find that best badger retains the perfect amount of water; not too much, not too little. Best badger is less expensive and doesn’t overload the brush with water.

Pure badger is the least expensive of the badger hair grades. This is because the maker usually cuts the tips of the badger hair to shape the tip of the brush rather than leave the tips intact. Since the tips of the pure badger hairs are cut the bristles are coarser against the skin. Like boar hair, this is not a bad characteristic rather a choice of preference.

The selection of a shaving brush is dependent on the desires of the shaver and budget. My first shave brush was an Omega brand boar hair that can be found for $15. It worked superbly. It whipped up lather like nobody’s business and felt stimulating against my face in the morning. Later, I would get an ornate badger hair brush for about $150 which was softer and held more water. It was also great at creating lather and was gentle against my face. I still use both depending on the mood I’m in.

Even though you’re first razor should have been honed by an experienced sharpener you will eventually want to learn to maintain and touch up the blades yourself. Barring any accidents such as banging your blade on the bathroom faucet, you should hone your blades every couple of months or so. Each blade is unique in how often it needs to be sharpened. One blade will seemingly last forever while another one will beg to be honed every couple of weeks.

I recommend getting a coarse grit stone for establishing an initial bevel on new blades and removing dents and nicks on blades during repair work. This stone should be around 4000 grit. Your second stone should be a bit finer for polishing away the microscopic scratch marks left by the 4000 grit stone to create a keen edge. This second stone is ideally 8000 grit. This is the barest minimum of equipment to get you started. I highly recommend a finishing stone that is 12000 grit size to put a mirror shine on the edge.

Consider a Norton 4000/8000 combination stone as the workhorse of your sharpening kit. This wet stone has 4000 grit on one side and 8000 on the other. The Norton is economical, the perfect size for a straight blade, and high quality. These can be found for about $80. For a finishing stone I use a 12000 grit Chinese stone from a quarry in Guanxi province which is known for its uniform consistency.

The last piece of sharpening equipment you will need is something to flatten your sharpening stones before you drag your blade across it. While your sharpening stone may appear flat, there are minor imperfections on the surface. Honing with a stone that is not completely flat will only waste your time; wear down your hone and your razor. The process of flattening your stone is called lapping.

Lapping can be performed in several different manners including using plate glass and sandpaper. The easiest way is with an abrasive diamond plate. I use a model D8C made by the DMT company. It is coarse grit and quickly laps my Norton 4000/8000. The Chinese 12000 stone takes a bit longer because of its density but the D8C works just fine on it.

I saved the best for last. The final items to round out your shaving kit are the shave soaps and aftershaves. There is an abbreviation in the straight razor shaving world: S.S.A.D. It stands for shave soap acquisition disorder. Stay away from the canned goop you’ll find at most of your grocery stores. You can find artisan made shave soaps for the same price or less than a can of goop. There are so many scents and components to choose from that it is easy to find yourself running out of storage space for them.

I have skin that dries out easily so I look for soaps that contain shea butter and goat milk. Some soap makers offer menthol in some of their creations for a cool soothing lather. I classify my soaps into two groups; morning scents and evening scents. My morning shave soaps are energizing with scents like mocha, mint, eucalyptus, and rosemary. Evening scents are soothing and relaxing. They include bay rum, lavender, sandalwood, and rosewood.

The process of shaving is very rough on your skin. Aftershave is applied to protect it and sometimes to replenish nutrients lost during the shave. Alcohol is added as an ingredient to kill any bacteria that might infect any nicks you may have incurred during your shave. Aftershave treatments can be found in liquid splash and creamy balm forms. They are offered by many of the artisan soap makers in scents that can be paired with your shave soap. While many revile the inexpensive drugstore aftershaves, others revere them as scents from a simpler time when men frequented barbershops regularly for their shaves. These include Aqua Velva, Old Spice, Skin Bracer, Brut, and Pinaud Clubman. Don’t knock them until you try them. You might be pleasantly surprised by their low price coupled with a pleasant scent and add them to your rotation.

On the opposite side of the spectrum are the high end European brands such as Taylor of Old Bond Street, Penhaligon’s, and Trumpers. These brands are certainly luxurious but some can be prohibitively expensive. Luckily, these old school companies have exceptional customer service. They offer sample kits for a small price tag. Some of these brands will actually send you free samples if you write to them and ask nicely. I actually prefer these sample kits to the full sized bottles of aftershaves and colognes. For a fraction of the cost you’ll receive a half-dozen or more scents and the samples are large enough to last quite a long time. I’ve even received handwritten thank you notes for my interest in their products.

Now that you know everything you’ll need, you’re probably wondering where you can find these items. I’ll point you in the right direction by listing my favorite retailers. I’m in no way connected to them. I’ve tried their products and found them to be the best quality for the price. Most of them offer old-fashioned personal service that is something of a rarity in this day.

My first razors were bought from Vintage Blades. They carry both Dovo and Theirs Issard razors in either carbon steel or stainless steel. Blades purchased here are shipped shave-ready. They are available with a large variety of handle materials to suit just about any taste and budget. Vintage Blades is a one-stop shop for shaving needs. They stock sharpening stones, strops, and other products. I recommend you see Vintage Blades for your Norton 4000/8000 stone. I bought mine at online auction for over $90. Vintage Blades now carries the Norton for $75. Vintage Blades can be found online at www.vintagebladesllc.com

I still use the starter strop I purchased years ago. It is a three inch wide strop made of top grain red latigo leather. It was made by the master craftsman, Tony Miller, of The Well Shaved Gentleman. This is a one-man operation. Any strop purchased here was made with Tony Miller’s own hands. His strops are supple and allow superior draw of the blade across the strop surface. My strop shipped with a bottle of neatsfoot oil which is used to keep the leather soft through the years. He also makes a vegan-friendly strop made of synthetics that gives a comparable draw to his leather strops. The Well Shaved Gentleman is found at www.thewellshavedgentleman.com

The Chinese 12000 grit polishing stone was found at The Woodcraft store for under $35. You can find them at www.woodcraft.com and doing a search for “natural polishing water stone”.

The DMT brand D8C model diamond plate I use for lapping the Norton and Chinese sharpening stones cost me $45 at www.knivesplus.com

For an inexpensive boar hair brush, check Ebay for Omega brand brushes. They can easily be found for $15 or less. See Classic Shaving if you’d like to try a badger hair brush. Classic Shaving carries several brands of badger hair brushes with a range of prices to fit just about any budget. Classic Shaving can be found at www.classicshaving.com

There are many shave soap and aftershave makers out there. My favorite is Honey Bee Spas. The Honey Bee Spas soap maker offers many scents including some designer fragrances. Honey Bee Spas can be found on Ebay by doing a seller search.

Another favorite is Mama Bear’s Soaps. They offer a plethora of scents and include many mentholated options. Her aftershave balm is well-known in shaving circles to be phenomenal. It is available in both a summer formula with extra cooling effect and a winter formula that is heavier and has more moisturizer. Mama Bear’s Soaps is at www.bear-haven.com

One of my favorite scents for shave soap and aftershave is bay rum. It is a warm scent with tropical tones and clove spice. For the best in bay rum products see Ogallala Bay Rum. As of this writing they are running a special where new customers can purchase a 4 ounce bottle of their bay rum cologne for one dollar! I also suggest you consider their five bay rum shave soap sampler for five dollars. Ogallala Bay Rum can be purchased at www.ogallalabayrum.com

With the knowledge and direction you’ve picked up here you are well on your way to the wonderful world of straight razor shaving. The fun thing about this art is that there is always something new to learn or discover. Once you become comfortable with what to look for in a razor you will find yourself drawn to antique stores and estate sales for the rare vintage razor rich with history. You will find a sense of pride in caring for and shaving with your own blade. You will be pleased in the knowledge that your shaves are a cut above the rest.
 

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