If it ain’t fixed, don’t broke it
July 3, 2005
When I first became interested in trying to shave with a double-edge safety razor, everyone I talked to advised me to start with a fixed-head, non-adjustable razor. Which made a lot of sense — when you’re new at this, a fixed-head razor that’s pre-set for a medium level of cutting aggression keeps you out of trouble while you’re learning the ropes.
So I bought a Merkur HD from leesrazors.com, and I fell in love with it. After a week or so of nicks and bleeding, everything started to fall into place and I began getting the very best shaves of my life — closer, smoother, and more comfortable than with any other kind of razor I’d ever tried.
Of course, that wasn’t enough. Even though the shaves were going great, I wanted better. Everyone on the shavegeek forums seemed to use adjustable DEs, which let you dial in the degree of cutting ferocity to perfectly match your skin, shaving style, and blade choice. So I bought a few adjustable Merkurs, and trolled eBay for some vintage Gillette adjustables, and relegated my fixed-head HD to the dresser drawer.
Immediately, my shaves went downhill. I nicked the hell out of myself. My neck got all red and bloody again, and shavebumps rose around the base of my Adam’s apple. Things were no better than when I used a Mach3.
My problem was, I stupidly thought that cranking up these adjustables would mean they’d cut closer, so I dialed them in at their highest, most aggressive settings, and proceeded to slash my own throat. This is a classic rookie mistake. Everyone does it. Even if you’ve read this before you get your first adjustable DE, you’ll still screw up. Trust me. You can’t escape the temptation to crank things up for that “extra” whatever. It’s human nature.
Once bitten, I dialed the adjustables back to their middle settings, and started getting shaves that approached the high water mark set by my trusty fixed-head Merkur HD, which I felt guilty enough about abandoning that I fished it out of the drawer and put it back into the rotation.
Why do I bring all of this up? Because I’m at the point where, even though I’ve become very good at shaving with a DE, I’m beginning to think that I’m not the adjustable razor type personality. Because if I have some adjustment range, I’ll use it. Every day, I’ll futz with the setting, depending on yesterday’s shave — if I felt stubble too soon after the shave the day before, today I’ll crank the razor open a bit more. And if yesterday’s shave was too aggressive and I got some skin redness, today I’ll dial it back a bit, and wind up with stubble a few hours later. I go back and forth, back and forth, without ever finding the one true setting that suits me best and sticking with it for good. Doesn’t matter whether it’s the Merkur Futur, Vision, or Progress, or the vintage Gillette adjustables — I can’t stop dicking with their settings, and I can’t ever get reliably great shaves out of any of them day in and day out.
Which I can, with the greatest of ease, with the fixed-head HD. It’s very non-adjustability is its best feature. Merkur designed this razor for one setting and one setting only — it’s perfect for my skin and technique, or maybe I’ve subconsciously adapted to its blade geometry and become one with the HD. Either way, as long as the cream’s decent, I never get anything less than a fantastic shave with this simple, unassuming, very un-shavegeekesque safety razor.
I know, I know — if I just held up the HD and one of the adjustables side by side and dialed in the adjustable razor so it had the exact same blade exposure as the HD, I should be able to get the same quality of shave from it as I do with the fixed-head razor. But I’ve tried this, repeatedly, and it doesn’t work. If a razor can be adjusted, I will dick with it on a daily basis, sometimes even in the middle of a shave. It’s just my nature.
This morning I decided to haul out the Merkur Progress, seen above, for a spin, seeing as how I haven’t used this model in quite awhile. I love the Progress the most of all the Merkur adjustables, even though it’s the cheapest. It looks the least futuristic, for starters — with its cream-colored plastic adjustament knob at the end, the Progress looks like a century-old design, unlike the space-age Futur and Vision razors. And its smaller shave head — same size as the HD’s — lets you get under your nose for better shaving there.
I’ve determined that the Progress’s “3” setting, on its 1-to-5 scale, is equivalent to the blade setting of the HD. So, of course, what did I do this morning, after weeks of perfectly perfecto shaves with the HD? I set the Progress for 4. You know, for more “more”.
And the shave sucked.
Naw, it didn’t really suck. It was a good shave. It just wasn’t as close and comfortable as the HD, that’s all. I felt stubble hours later instead of at the very end of the day, and I reddened my neck a bit, which I never do with the HD.
I think one of my problems with the Progress is that it makes a much more audible cutting sound when mowing down your whiskers than the HD does. You can actually hear the Progress pinging away as it hits your hairs, which sets up a rather nasty behavioral feedback loop where I keep shaving till I stop hearing that cutting sound, which never really completely goes away, so I keep shaving over the same areas until my skin starts to get raw. When shaving with the HD, this sound is far more muted, and once you shave an area closely, you stop hearing the cutting noise, so you feel good about things and move on. This, I’m convinced, is the main reason I get such vastly better and more consistent shaves with the el-cheapo fixed-head HD than I do with the more high-end adjustables. It’s not that they can’t shave as well — I just keep hearing that cutting sound, and it leads me to keep shaving over the same spot too many times.
Maybe if I listened to my iPod while I shaved I wouldn’t hear the cutting sound and I’d get just as good a shave from the adustables as I do the HD. If I get to the point with this shaveblog where I’m out of material and I’m grasping at straws for something to talk about, I’ll try the iPod.
The more I delve into this wetshaving thing, the more I’m convinced that there’s no “best” razor, brush, or cream. It’s whatever combo works best for your skin, hands, and personality. My personality doesn’t do well when afforded a lot of options. I wind up tweaking till the cows come home, which they never do, so I’m screwed. Give me a basic, non-adjustable tool and let me focus on my technique, instead of endlessly dicking with the settings thinking that somehow I’ll hit upon the magic config that launches the rocket. It’s the same reason why, when I’ve got a Stratocaster, all I do is play with the settings, and when I’ve got a Telecaster, all I do is play guitar.