Straight razors are a very popular gift given to male friends and family members during the holidays. Although a practiced individual can make shaving with a straight razor look easy (and very cool), there is some slight preparation needed in order to experience the true pleasure of this shaving method. Perhaps you’ve received a straight razor as a holiday gift, or maybe you were inspired by Daniel Craig as James Bond in Skyfall, who was quite adept at shaving the old way. No matter the reason, before delving into the world of straight razor shaving, it’s important to become familiar with the process in order to have the best possible experience — both in purchasing a straight razor and in enjoying your first shave with one.
For a person who is brand new to straight razors, there is a bit of a learning curve involved; they are quite different from the “grab and go” razors of today, although worth the effort for those serious enough to gain adequate knowledge of the process. It’s very common for beginners to store, dry and oil their blades incorrectly, especially while becoming accustomed to straight razor shaving. Therefore, a stainless steel blade (often labeled Inox or Rost Frei) could be the safest bet. Stainless steel is more resistant to rust and corrosion than high carbon steel, but many shavers prefer the comfort of carbon steel.
It’s also very important that the razor is “shave-ready” before it’s used. No matter what most manufacturers or retailers claim about their straight razors, the majority of brand new razors are not really shave-ready. Most beginners discover this only after a very unpleasant first shave. Sending the razor to a honemeister is usually a must before that first shave; this professional will make sure the razor is properly honed and that it shaves effortlessly and correctly. This isn’t a step that should be overlooked. Those who invest in a quality straight razor can be disappointed during that first shaves if it hasn’t received a fantastic edge.
By having the razor properly honed, the user also reduces the risk of cuts and nicks, as well as razor burn, because a properly sharpened blade requires no pressure to achieve a close shave. It’s also important to note that straight razors, like virtually anything else, aren’t all created equally. A low-quality razor will generally not achieve or hold an edge as well as a high-quality one, and simply won’t perform as well overall. When purchasing a straight razor, places like Etsy, eBay and Alibaba should generally be avoided by new users, as they often carry cheaper and poorly-created razors, or damaged vintage items. High-quality razors come from manufacturers like Böker, Dovo, Ralf Aust, Thiers Issard and Wacker. Many of the restored vintage straight razors, from reputable firms, will out perform the new ones, and at excellent prices. (Every razor Gentleman’s Blade sells is honed, stropped and fully shave ready.)
Accessories that Make Shaving a Pleasure
The straight razor is the most important part of the process, that’s true, but the accessories used will also have a big effect on the success of the first (and subsequent) shaves, as well as whether the shave is pleasurable or not. A high-quality shaving soap or cream is extremely important. Forget about the aerosol foams designed for disposable cartridges; a soap or cream designed for wet shaving must be used. Cartridges are designed to prevent the blade from coming into contact with the skin, so aerosol foams don’t have to provide much protection. In addition, the chemical propellants and foam building agents are usually incredibly toxic. The proper soap or cream will build a rich lather, will moisturize and lubricate the skin to provide a closer and more pleasurable shave, and will stretch a long way. If you’re not sure what kind of soap or cream to purchase, you can’t go wrong with a tried and proven classic, like Mitchell’s Wool Fat, Tabac or D.R. Harris.
Just as the soap or cream is very important, a quality shaving brush is also a must. With prices ranging anywhere from about $50 to more than $700, a quality silver-tip or high mountain white badger brush works exceptionally well. They hold more water and retain lather heat longer, providing the ultimate comfort and performance. But a $15.00 Omega 48 Professional, Proraso Professional or Semogue 1305 boar bristle brush will also perform well. A quality bristle brush can last a lifetime, if cared for, and the whisker-lifting and exfoliating qualities have long been preferred by Italian barbers. Don’t be afraid to lather up again during the shave, and dip the tip in an insulated water bowl, to keep the lather from drying out.
When it comes to lathering, a large coffee mug or bowl will work, but a scuttle, mug or bowl which is designed specifically for straight-razor shaving offers the best service. Many scuttles hold hot water and boast compartments to hold shaving brushes and keep them toasty warm. Finally, a strop is needed to keep the straight razor performing well and to align the edge of the razor properly. It’s the same as a rod for the kitchen knife; they don’t actually sharpen the blade, but align the micro serrations, so the blade cuts a lot better. Between 4 and 7 strokes on the linen side (a single stroke includes a round trip of both directions) and between 40 and 60 strokes on the leather side should prepare the razor so that it’s ready to shave.
Ease into straight razor shaving. You might want to shave only the cheeks with a straight the first day, and finish up with the old razor. Skip a day, then try the cheeks and neck the next shave.
Preparing for the Perfect Shave
One thing many straight razor fans understand is that this method delivers a very pleasant zen-like experience, so unlike the dreaded chore associated with cartridge razor shaving. An excellent tip is to add a little water to the shaving soap puck before jumping in the shower. This gives the shaving soap time to “bloom,” making the lathering process easier and creating the right consistency. If you have a separate shaving bowl or scuttle, you’ll also want to fill it with very warm water and immerse the bristles of your brush in it, so they soften and absorb the water. It’s been said that the perfect shave begins in the shower. Shaving supply companies like Taylor of Old Bond Street, Mitchell’s and Henri et Victoria offer body washes and shampoos for exactly that reason. Many wet shavers shower while their soap “blooms” (absorbs warm water) on the vanity counter. Taking the warm shower, or applying a warm towel to the face, will open the hair follicles and soften the whiskers, allowing you to achieve a closer and more comfortable shave by removing the hair more easily.
Before shaving, the soap is whipped into a thick lather, in the tub it came in or in a separate mug, bowl or scuttle. Many men will first apply a high-quality pre-shave oil to their skin to protect and moisturize; this can be especially helpful for beginners, before the angle and technique are perfected. As the shaving soap or cream is applied to the face, the lathering continues, a vigorous scrubbing motion used. This will build a cushion between the edge of the blade and the face, and also lifts the whiskers, allowing them to be cut off more easily and closer to the skin. Straight razor users may want to turn the tap off while shaving to get the vital audio feedback. The singing of the blade and the popping sound of the whiskers being cut are very helpful as you start to build your own technique.
A folded hand towel placed along the front edge of the sink provides an excellent place to rest the razor if needed, and is of course perfect for wiping off the soap. If the razor has been properly honed and is shave-ready, it will glide over prepared skin using just the weight of the blade and the correct angle, with no additional pressure required. The correct angle is between 20 and 30 degrees. Double the width of the blade’s spine, and that’s about the space you need between the razor’s spine and your skin, in flat areas like the cheek, to arrive at the correct angle. Unlike disposable razors that pivot to follow the contours of the face, a straight razor’s angle must be adjusted constantly to retain the correct angle.
After shaving, a few additional steps can be taken to care for the skin properly. To close the pores, rinse with cold water or apply a cold towel to the face. It’s almost guaranteed that nicks, cuts and abrasions will happen with the first shaves as the techniques are perfected. Having styptic pencil, matches or gel on hand is a great way to immediately stop any ‘weepers,’ and running an alum block over the skin after the shave will soothe any razor burn as well as disinfecting cuts and nicks. Finally, applying a great-quality after shave balm will not only make you smell great, but it will restore moisture to the skin. It’s important to avoid those old-school aftershaves like Brut, Aqua Velva and Old Spice, as they contain alcohol, which strips the natural oils from the skin and can actually increase irritation. A few drops of an excellent moisturizer, like Geo F. Trumper’s Skin Food, or Stirling Soap Co.’s Barbershop balm, applied to the entire face, is an excellent finishing touch.
Caring for Your Straight Razor Properly
Men who take the time to learn the proper way to shave with a straight razor quickly see exactly why the method is so raved about. In order to keep the straight razor performing very well, it’s important to take a minute each shave to care for it. After each use, wipe down the razor blade with tissue. Slide a folded tissue between the scales to dry them, and then lightly oil the blade with a thin coat of food-grade mineral oil, Dovo paraffin oil, or medical/cosmetic grade camellia oil. If you look at all the stands available for storing razors next to the sink, you’d think the washroom might be a good place to store a razor. You actually want to keep your straight razor away from the humidity around showers and bath tubs, and well out of the reach of children. Men have traditionally stored their razors at the front of the sock drawer, in a leather sheath or the case it arrived in. It’s dry, and a place children are unlikely to look. Razor stands are also great in the bedroom, if there are no young children around.
Starting the Learning Process
Although “expert” advice seems to be available everywhere, it’s very important to realize that many of these “expert” tips and tricks are coming from enthusiasts who enjoy shaving with straight razors, and not from actual professionals. (Many forums actively banish professionals in the shaving industry from their sites.) Here are some of the best tutorial videos to get you started:
• Lynn Abrams – Best How to Shave with Straight Razor Tutorial for Beginners
• The Superior Shave – How to Strop a Razor
• Mastro Livi – Straight Razor Cleaning and Care
Straight razor shaving is in a totally different league than disposable razor cartridges or electrics, and is again becoming more and more popular as men discover the delightful difference between the approaches. By gathering as much knowledge as possible, you can be sure that your first shave with a straight razor is pleasant and enjoyable, not to mention effective.
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