Monogamous Shaving: Day Five

Another perfect shave. This is bad, bad news.

Bad because it seems I’ve achieved what I originally set out to do with all this old-school wetshaving business, which is get a great shave. This I’ve done. Repeatedly. At this point, second-naturedly. No more squinting, no more overthinking, no more trial and error, no more experimentation with different razors, blades, creams, brushes, aftershaves, etc. I’m done. I did it. Now I’m supposed to congratulate myself on another goal met, and move on to the next worthy challenge, like finding the perfect wireless headphones.

Except it isn’t working out that way. When you boil it all down to the main objective — achieving a close, comfortable, baby-snooth shave without ugly red marks on my neck on a daily basis — I have clearly figured this stuff out. Not that it’s a brain teaser by any stretch of the word. Men have been shaving like this for hundreds of years, and often with tools and under conditions that were much less effective than what we have at our disposal today. But I do think, though, that it was easier back then to learn proper wetshaving right off the bat because it was all that was available, compared with the process of unlearning all the slop and bad habits which modern multi-blade razors and canned foam/gel were expressly designed to allow. Better to have picked up a straight razor or a DE when you’re 15, suffer for awhile, and then be on the right track for the rest of your shaving days than to grow up, as I did, with poor quality disposable razors and multi-blade cartridges and then have to radically change everything I did and knew about shaving once I switched to a DE.

That said, I did it. And I really enjoyed every stage of the process — the discovery of a whole new school of thought, the gleaning of ideas and advice, the shopping for cool-man razors, blades, creams, and brushes. Everything about this old-school wetshaving thing was much, much cooler on every level than the drugstore crap I’d been shaving with all my life.

And therein lies the problem: maybe it’s not supposed to be cool?

Consider the morning bathroom ritual. Showering isn’t cool. You do it to get clean. A nice, hot shower is pleasurable, certainly, but unless there’s something wrong with you, showering isn’t something to obsess or fuss too much over. Shampooing your hair isn’t cool. You just do it. You lather and rinse, your hair gets clean, end of story. It’s not supposed to be cool. It just is. You wash with soap in the shower and wash your hair with shampoo and it all works fine and you get out and towel off. You do it to get clean, and you get clean, and that’s it. It’s as it should be.

So why must shaving be this spa-grade pleasure ritual larded with shiny gadgets, expensive implements, sweet smells, bracing sensations, relaxing rituals? I mean, I love the hell out of it, but is this really as it should be?

If it isn’t, than I’ve spent a lot of time and energy puffing up what should by all rights be a simple grooming task into an EVENT. I’m not saying I have, I’m just saying I’m wondering about it. Because the fact is, I’m sitting here with the ability to get perfect daily shaves without any fuss or muss as long as I stick to the same setup, and I really miss the variety and experimentation of the last year or so that I’ve been exploring this whole wetshaving business.

Right now it looks like a choice between consistently great yet boring shaves, or enjoying the variety of all the different gear I’ve acquired at the expense of shaves which vary between good and horrendous.

I wish I could have both.

Monogamous Shaving: Day Four

I have a problem with delayed gratification. I freely admit it.

That’s why, when I heard that Dr. Chris Moss, author of the excellent Straight Razor Guide and one of the handful of genuine smartees on the shaving boards, liked to shave with a Filarmonica disposable blade straight razor, a cheap Spanish version of the Dovo Shavette I love, well, I immediately went online and hunted one down.

The only place I could find that sold the Filarmonica was Carr’s Barber Supply, a place that caters to real barber shops, not onesie-twosie consumer orders. Their minimum shipping charge was a buck more than the razor, but I ordered one anyway.

Only problem is, the next morning, for some reason, I decided to see if shaving with the same exact rig — razor, blade, brush and cream — for a week straight made for a better shave than all the jumping around from combo to combo I’d been doing ever since I got into this whole old-school wetshaving thing.

I stared at the Filarmonica this morning for quite awhile. I picked it up, unfolded it, and turned it over in my hand. It’s a cheap, stamped metal, poorly finished thing of absolute beauty. It looks like it was designed by someone in a Russian prison in the early 1800’s. If Carr’s sells it for 8 bucks, they probably get it for a buck or two. If that’s what they pay, then it must cost Filarmonica around fifteen cents to make this thing, if it even costs that much. I didn’t think anything could make the Dovo Shavette look solidly built, but I was wrong. The Filarmonica has size going for it — it’s closer to the size and shape of a real straight razor than the smaller Shavette — but beyond that, it’s about as finely crafted as a box cutter.

All of which is to say that I can barely hold myself back from shaving with it.

But I swore I would see this experiment through. So I stayed the course. I used the Merkur safety razor, Vulfix brush, and Trumper cream and skin food again for the fourth day in a row. The shave was even better than yesterday’s which means it was utterly excellent. Baby’s butt smooth, no stubble to the touch, and no irritation or red marks on my neck. The shave even went quicker this morning.

I want to try that Fillarmonica in the worst kind of way. It looks so crude it has to be great.

Serenity now. Serenity now.

Monogamous Shaving: Day Three

I almost hate to say it, but today’s shave was the best I’ve had in a long time. I say hate, because I really don’t want to know that the best shaves come from using the same razor, blade and cream every day. I love using different razors, rotating the great smelling creams like Taylor’s Rose, Proraso’s Eucalyptus, and especially Taylor’s extra-moisturizing Avocado, which might give me the best shaves of them all in addition to its unique and wonderful scent.

Switching things up every day is fun, and makes an interesting ritual even interestinger. Still, there’s a lot to be said for becoming the master of your shave domain by sticking with the same rig and letting perfection happen. Gordon, the eminence grise of the Wetshavers board on MSN, has been shaving with the same Gillette DE for forty years, and he seems pretty happy with things. I’ve never seen him whine about how to get a better shave, or whether this new wonder soap or that new wonder razor or this new wonder brush rocked his casbah, only to commence whining a week later when the bloom was off the rose and his shaves still sucked. Because they don’t suck. He gets a great shave. He shaves with the same setup, day in, day out. And seems very contented.

Meanwhile, I’m only on Day Three of sticking with the HD/Vulfix/Trumper rig, and already I’m itchy to try something different. Doesn’t matter that today’s shave was incredible — I want some variety.

And the worst is, I just got a Filarmonica disposable blade straight razor in the mail from Carr’s Barber Supply. Nine bucks (and ten bucks for shipping!) and it looks like it could give the shtupendous Shavette a run for its money.

I want to try it so bad, but I have four more days to go with the shaving monogamy experiment. Even a single stroke on a cheek would taint the data. So I snapped a Merkur blade in half and loaded the Filarmonica, but that’s as far as I let myself go. Okay, I shaved a small patch on my leg. Just to test it out. But that’s it till I’ve gone a week with the DE.

Monogamous Shaving: Day Two

Day two of shaving with the same rig for a week straight. I used the Merkur HD razor, Trumper Violet shaving cream, Vulfix 2235 badger brush, and Trumper Skin Food again, and I must say, I think I’m on to something here. Excellent shave, baby’s butt smooth, and no irristation on the underchin/neck area, which is usually the bane of my existence.

It’s only the 2nd day in my experiment, but I fear that sticking to the same routine day in and day out may be the ticket when it comes to getting the best shaves with an old-school rig like this. Maybe it applies to modern shave gear, too — I see guys all the time, from knuckleheads to network execs, and they get fine looking shaves every day from disposable razors and whatever pressurized goo their wife picked up at the grocery store for them.

Maybe it doesn’t matter what you shave with, as long as you shave with the same stuff every day. Maybe your hand and face have “muscle memory” like dancers, and repetition breeds perfection. Maybe skin cells and hair follicles are living, sentient beings, and when they learn to expect the same cream and blade every day, they submit to the never-changing reality and accept/adapt to it.

Maybe shaving with the same rig every day means you think less about what you’re doing, which somehow makes for a better shave — it would certainly explain some of the guys I see walking around with perfect shaves, on their way to buy the third season of “Mama’s Family” on DVD.

The drag of this hypothesis is that I really like using different shave gear when the mood strikes. I like having an arsenal, as opposed to one Mach3 and one can of goo. Where’s the fun in that?

What’s that, you say? It’s not supposed to be fun, it’s supposed to be shaving?

I have to think about this some more.

Keep It Simple, Shavegeek

To get the best and most consisent shaves every day, you need to find a good routine and stick to it. Your face and hands become accustomed to it, and everything settles into a nice buttered groove.

But shavegeeks aren’t rational sorts. They — okay, I — bounce around between a collection of razors, blades, brushes, creams, and assorted poltices, never shaving with the same lineup twice in a row. So their — my — face gets beat up and ends up looking worse off than when I began using all this high-end stuff.

So today I decided to quit bouncing around all over the place — a Gillette one day, a Shavette straight razor the next, a Feather scalpel the day after that — and try shaving, for the first time in many, many months, with the same rig every day for a week.

I chose my trustiest go-to implements for this week of monogamous shaving. The Merkur Hefty Classic “HD” razor, Trumper Violet shaving cream, Vulfix 2235 shaving brush, and to finish, Trumper Skin Food.

The Merkur HD is the first DE razor I ever used, and it’s the one I keep coming back to. While I love the vintage Gillette adjustable DE, the Merkur appeals to me more because of its non-adjustability. You can’t crank it wide open for a skin-peeling shave, nor can you dial it too far down for an over-protective, ineffectual shave. It’s juuuust right. It’s like the Fender Telecaster of razors — its lack of variables and other funny business forces you to focus on your technique, so your shaves get better and better the longer you stick with it. Most guys sound miserable on the Telecaster, but Steve Cropper got maybe the best sound ever gotten out of an electric guitar, and he got it out of a Telecaster plugged straight into an old Fender amp. If you know what you’re doing, the Merkur HD is all the razor you’ll ever need for the perfect shave. 30 bucks.

With the exception of its West Indian Limes cream (too drying for my skin, though others love this stuff and it does smell fantastic), I’ve gotten great shaves with all of Geo F. Trumper’s shaving creams. They’re expensive, but worth it. But my favorite of all the Trumper creams is their Violet scented version — a deep purple wonder cream that lathers and lubes like a champ, and smells so intoxicating that you cry when you rinse it off. I hated floral scents till Trumper Violet set me straight, and now I can’t get enough of it. 25 bucks for a tub that lasts half a year.

Vulfix is the world’s largest manufacturer of shaving brushes, and they OEM most of the premium brushes you see at stores under different names (they do almost all of Trumper’s house brand brushes, as well as Taylor of Old Bond St., Savile Row, and quite a few other big names in high-end shaving brushes). I’ve got a bunch of Vulfixes and they’re all great — even the littlest Vulfix, their travel brush, does a great job turning a nickel-sized dollup of cream into mounds of thick, rich lather. Some of the more insecure shavegeeks go for the biggest brushes they can find, for the same reason short men smoke cigars the size of a Pringles can. Me, I find the really huge brushes make a mess of the lather and get it all over your bathroom when you’re lathering, not to mention wasting a lot of cream that’s left over at the end of the shave. I prefer the medium sized brushes myself, and my favorite is the Vulfix 2235 in silvertip badger hair. It’s got a classic handle shape that feels right in the hand, and the brush is plenty big enough to generate a huge amount of lather without the mess and waste of the oversized brushes. I don’t care how big your head is, this is all the brush you’ll ever need. $70.

Aftershaves are tricky. Most suck, because traditionally they’re mostly alcohol, which stings like a bitch, dries your skin out, and does more damage to your face than good. Witch hazel, particularly the better brands with higher purity like Thayer’s, is a far better aftershave — it’s cheap, easy to find, and great for soothing and settling your face down after a shave.

If you want something better and are willing to pay a bit more, Trumper’s Skin Food has been the choice of shaving obsessionals for many years. Mostly glycerine and rose water, with a tiny bit of menthol crystals mixed in for a cooling effect, Skin Food has a gum solution that dries to form a micro-thin barrier on your face, protecting the newly-shaved surface from the elements for a few hours while the skin cells heal. Comes in two scented versions, coral (rose) and lime, pink and green, pick your poison. I like them both. Seems expensive, but you only use a pea-size squirt to spread all over your face and neck, and a small bottle lasts a very long time. $25.

At this point I’ve tried just about everything when it comes to DE razors, blades, brushes, and creams, and this rig is the one that always delivers the best results, on the most consistent basis. My problem is, I get bored easy, and I like trying new things all the time, so I bounce back and forth between different razors, blades, creams, aftershaves, and what I get for my constant tweaking are wildly varying shaves and a perpetually put-upon puss. So I’m sticking to the go-to rig for a week, if for no other reason than this is how a grown-up should behave.

A Different Slant (apologies to J. Peterman)

Example

Running late this morning, so I grabbed the Merkur Slant Bar razor.

Had to be out of pajamas and out the door in ten minutes, to join a group of mercenaries en route to the Congo. Okay, to take the kids to Music Together. Corners needed cutting. As did my stubble.

For generations, men with beards of copper wire have turned to the Merkur Slant Bar in a last-ditch attempt to get a straight razor close shave from a safety razor. The slanted head curves the edge of the blade, to mimic the angle of attack you get with a straight razor (that’s right — you need a curved edge to copy a straight edge — don’t ask).

The Slant’s a rare beast, and few shops carry them. But I found one. Had to win it in a game of high-stakes poker on an illegal riverboat in French Ghana where the pot included a shrunken head. Okay, I bought it from Lee’s Razors. Shaved with it a few times, nicked myself but good — this razor shows much more blade than most, and it nicks easy if you’re not careful. But it really digs in and mows hair quickly, so I figured I’d use it to save some time.

Took a 30 second whore’s shower (pits and bits) and slapped on some cream. The clock was ticking. One shave down, one shave up, rinse and run. The Slant’s legend is that it gives good quickie shave, because it cuts so close the first time.

Was it close? It was okay. Was it quick? Under a minute. Do I love this razor? Well…I get a better shave just as quickly from Merkur’s basic, no-frills, built-like-a-tank Hefty Classic (aka “HD”). Even Lee says the HD’s the best razor Merkur makes. I agree. The Slant gives a decent in-a-hurry shave but it’s too aggressive for my skin.

Ironically, the Slant is so aggressive that it irritated my skin as much as the multi-blade cartridge razors I left behind in search of something better, hence this whole trip. So if you want the kind of shave the Slant Bar delivers, save yourself some long green and buy a Mach3 or a Quattro. Same shave, same irritation, lower price.

Some shavegeeks claim the Slant Bar’s the best razor ever. That’s like saying the Nutty Buddy’s the best frozen confection ever. It’s not even in the top hundred. That said, if your beard is tough and wiry, this overaggressive beast may serve your needs.

The Merkur Slant Bar. One size only. $33. Women will caress your face when you arrive at the garden party, tennis racket over your shoulder. Men will eye you warily, and position themselves between you and their wives. Just be sure to have lots of little toilet paper squares on hand, and if your name is Nicholas and your dad was a Czar, you may want to rethink this.

Scary Razor

Example

Today I did something I almost never do — I shaved twice. Hardcore shavegeeks will tell you that this is one of the worst things you can do, because the very act of wetshaving peels off a layer of skin which takes 24 hours to rebuild. Whatever.

The thing is, my morning shave just didn’t do it for me today. I think the blade in my Merkur Progress had just turned over its odometer, and the shave just wasn’t as close and smooth as I usually get from this excellent razor.

So five or six hours later, I broke out the most feared of all the shaving implements I have at my disposal — the dreaded Feather Artist disposable blade straight razor! The Artist Club uses its own special blades, made by Feather, which most shavegeeks consider hands down the most scary-sharp blades outside of an emergency room. Even hardcore straight razor guys who hone their own steel and ride Harleys and eat broken glass are in awe of the Feather blades’ sharpness (I used the Professional version blades, which fall midway between the Pro-Guard training wheels blades and the Super Professional atom-slicing jobs).

The Artist Club is like the Darth Vader version of the Dovo Shavette I used yesterday. It’s bigger, badder, more deadly, and it brooks no slop. The Shavette is plenty sharp but it still lets you get away with less than dead-on technique. With the Feather, you blink, you die.

So why did I get one? Because I’m an idiot. The Feather’s easily the scariest shaving tool you can buy, and much more experienced wetshavers than me have been known to scrurry like scared rodents at the mere mention of it. I have no business wielding this sharpest of all straight razors, and yet here we are.

The first time I got the balls up to try this thing, my knees were knocking and my hand was shaking. And as soon as I touched down, BAM — sliced open a nice fishbelly cut right across my cheek. Niiiice. So, back in its balsawood box went the Feather, and I swore never to touch it again, until a few weeks later when I tried it again and was marginally better at it. Then I kept at it, a shave here and a shave there, until — and listen, I’m not claiming I’ve mastered this crazy thing by any stretch of the word — but if I take my time and I’ve had a few cups of joe to sharpen the hand/eye, I can actually shave myself with the Feather without painting the bathroom ruby red.

So anyway, like I said, the morning shave with the Progress DE wasn’t so hot. Not the razor’s fault, but my own, for using it with a DE blade that was past due. I swiped this way and that, and still felt stubble all over the place. Being that it’s a holiday, I let it go, but as it got close to dinner time, the shave was starting to annoy me. It’s sick, I know. Really goddamn sick. But that’s what these @%#$ shaves have become now — the yardstick by which I judge the rest of the day. Great shave = great day, and bad shave, you get the picture. If someone else confided this belief system to me, I’d privately cross them off my list. But there’s nothing I can do about it now. After you shave with this good stuff, you can’t go back to a Mach3 and a can of pressurized goo. I know, I’ve tried.

Took a hot shower, let the stream and the steam prep my face, got out and grabbed the Feather. Slathered on some Pacific Shave Oil on my wet face, lathered up with an old favorite, Musgo Real shaving cream, and went to town. OK, you know what? Those Chicken Littles are right — it’s not the best idea to shave twice in one day, especially if the second shave is with an implement that should by all rights be used to skin rabbits with. I got a scary smooth shave, but I know I was pushing the envelope of what my face can take. Once in awhile you can get away with this kind of thing, but I don’t recommend it as an everyday ritual. You don’t want to shave in the morning, come home after work, and then haul out the Feather for a cleanup round on a regular basis. Still, what a shave. I really hope the Feather’s not the only way I can get a shave like this, because I’m not sure I can bring my hand/eye A-game to the sink every morning. My hat’s off to those who can.

(Note: The Feather Razor is the sharpest, most dangerous consumer shaving tool I’m aware of. I cannot emphasize this strongly enough: I do not recommend it to anyone who’s just coming off of a Mach3 or a disposable. Even if you’ve been shaving with a DE safety razor and you really know what you’re doing, you WILL slice yourself and you WILL bleed like a stuck pig the first time you try the Feather. It will be the most painful shaving facial cut of your life, and the blood will seemingly flow forever. You may find that a goodly expanse of your cheek is flapping around on the floor like a goldfish. I recommend this particular razor only to those experienced wetshavers who have mastered the conventional straight razor, as the technique is identical, and unique to these razors alone.)

Dovo Shavette

Example

This fine, lazy Sunday I had nothing but leisure time, so I shaved with the funky little Dovo Shavette — it’s kind of a training bra cut throat razor, for guys wanting to try a straight razor on the cheap. The $20 Shavette mimics a real straight razor by using half of a double-edge blade for the cutting edge, so you take a regular DE blade (I used a Merkur), snap it in half, and insert one of the halves into the Shavette.

I’m not nearly as comfortable shaving with a straight razor as I am with a safety razor, but the Shavette is pretty easy to get the hang of. A few nick-happy shaves to begin with, but you pick it up pretty fast.

And once you do, oh man. What a close shave this thing gives! It’s just a cheap stamped metal piece of crap, but give it a good blade (Dovo is Merkur’s parent company, and their DE blades are especially smooth and forgiving, which is even more important when you’re dealing with a naked blade than it is in a safety razor) and this thing can shave circles around any DE I’ve got.

I bought a Shavette because I was in Vegas recently and got a barbershop shave at the Truefitt and Hill shop at Caesar’s, and it was by far the closest shave I’ve ever gotten. The razor this gentleman, this Jedi, this ARTIST used? A stinkin’ $20 Shavette! In the right hands, it can outshave just about anything out there. I would never have believed it until I got the shave of my life with one.

Couple of tips, courtesy of the T’n’H master barber who shaved me:

1. Pacific Shave Oil (www.pacificshaving.com) applied on the wet face before you lather does wonders in letting the Shavette’s blade glide over your face without irritation. The little $6.95 bottle lasts over 100 shaves, they say. I don’t notice any benefit when using this stuff with a DE shave, but it makes all the difference when I shave with the Dovo. Why, I have no idea.

2. Shave with NO PRESSURE when you use the Shavette. I know I say that for every razor, but this time I really, really mean it. Bear down with a naked blade and you will draw blood. Lots of it. A Shavette will almost wipe the whiskers off your face like a brush without any downward pressure whatsoever — just guide it over the curves of your skin as if it was a butterfly just coming to rest on your face. A light touch and a good blade like the Merkur and you’ll be astonished by the shave this el-cheapo training bra cut throat delivers.

Will I shave with the Shavette every day? No — it takes me at least twice as long as when I use a DE, and while I do enjoy my morning shave, I don’t have the time nor the mental focus every morning to swipe a naked blade over my face. Plus, I do love using a good DE — it has its charms and advantages too. But every now and then I love whipping the Shavette out to see how close I can get to that mythical Truefitt and Hill barbershop shave.

Billy Goat’s Gruff

I’ve got a patch of stubble on the underside of my chin, above my neck proper, that simply refuses to shave as smooth as the rest of my face. At least it won’t without serious irritation and red marks — I can shave it baby’s butt smooth, but it feels and looks like hell. If I go over the patch a few more times in a diagonal direction, directly against the whiskers’ grain, I can shave it glass smooth. But then it hurts. But man is it smooth. Despite the pain. Still, sure is smooth. Yet painful. That said..

I think I need to cool it and just let my underchin go from now on. Do I need it to feel perfectly smooth to my fingers, or is it better to have a tiny bit of roughness, with the benefit of having it look much better to everyone else (who’s clearly judging my daily shaves critically, as most passers-by regularly do — oh, they try to pretend otherwise, but they all, all of them, stare at my shaves and judge me in whole solely on their merit)?

Can I live with stubble only I notice? Do I care more about others’ pleasure than my own? I-I’m not sure.

Pain is just weakness leaving your body

I have a love-hate relationship with Feather Platinum DE blades. They’re far and away the sharpest, most smooth-cutting DE blades I’ve come across, but damned if they don’t beat the hell out of my neck and underchin. A Feather-loaded razor shaves my face so closely and smoothly I find myself fondling my own face during the day because I can’t believe how smooth it is. But for some reason, the Feather blades beat my neck like a rented mule. I shave with one for a few days, then I say to hell with it, nothing is worth the beating my neck is taking, and then a month later I’m back on the Feather again. As I said, it’s not a healthy relationship.

So this morning I took some advice from Gordon of Wetshavers fame, and turned down the blade exposure setting on my old Gillette adjustable DE from 7 to 4. I usually shave with it it on 7 with Merkur or Personna blades, but with the Feather blades, the Gillette is a little too fierce for my skin, especially my neck and right under my chin. So I dialed it back a few notches and tried shaving that way.

Ah-ha! Much better shave overall, and with far less irritation on my neck to boot. You think a less aggressive setting is going to shave like crap, yet it almost always shaves better than the highest settings. I think a lower setting forces you to shave at the proper blade angle relative to the plane of the surface of your skin, while the higher settings let you scrape too much for your skin’s good. My problem is, I know this lesson well — learned it right off the bat — but I keep forgetting. Also, I’m a tweaker, so I play with different settings, to see if anything interesting happens. That’s really stupid when it comes to shaving with a DE. I need to stop doing it. But I never will.

I can’t believe how many guys, especially the young excitable Nascar/NRA types on the shaving forums, think that the more aggressive the razor setting, the better — call it the Nigel Tufnel syndrome. After all, if God and Gillette put a top setting of 9 on the old razors, why not go for broke, master your thirst, yee haw, etc.? Weeeell, because it irritates most guys’ necks so bad they wind up with sore necks dotted with red splotches and shave bumps, that’s why. And then the poor schlubs scurry to the forums with cries for help, asking what magic aftershave poltices will relieve the redness and shave bumps, when all they really need to do is take their razors down a few clicks.

Hey, I know, it doesn’t feel cool to shave at the lower settings. It’s like driving a car in second gear — what fun is that? I’m reminded of that Marines recruiting poster that shows a physically spent kid in boot camp at the peak of human suffering with the caption “Pain is just weakness leaving your body”. Bravo! Pure imbecilia!

What was I talking about? Shaving. Dial it down, boys. You have nothing to lose but the red on your necks.