Welcome New York Times Readers

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Thank you, Peter Jaret, for the nice writeup in today’s Times! For Times readers checking Shaveblog out for the first time, I thought it might be good to repost the oft-linked wetshaving primer I wrote last year that started all of this — the Today Show segment, the MSNBC article, the old-school shaving boom, and this blog. I’ve updated the text with new tips and links I’ve picked up since the original article ran, so if you’re interested in seeing what all the fuss is about, read on:


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The Perfect Shave

Corey Greenberg

Ever since prehistoric man first scraped a seashell across his cheek so prehistoric woman would let him dance cheek-to-cheek, shaving has been a part of the male experience. But even with today’s high-tech razors, lots of men still get nicks, cuts, and razor burn. That’s why the latest trend in male grooming, “wetshaving”, promises a better shave by going back to the old school.

The perfect shave is what all men strive for every morning when they bring their razor up to their chin — an effortless shave that’s baby smooth, and without any of the usual skin irritation, redness, and that burning sensation most guys seem to feel is par for the course when it comes to shaving.

Why do so many guys find this so hard to achieve? Because proper shaving has become a lost art. Shaving is one of those glorious male traditions that used to be passed down from father to son, but somewhere along the line, shaving became more about cheap, disposable razors than a nice, precision-made metal tool in your hand. In a single generation, shaving went from a pleasant, contemplative exercise in good grooming to a brainless routine to slash through in the morning without even thinking about it.

A disposable or cartridge razor dragged across a layer of foam or gel on your dry cheek is a step backward from the past, not an improvement. Now that men of all ages are once again paying attention to their appearance, it’s no wonder that the hottest trend right now in male grooming is a return to the traditional wet shave. And those who try it are shocked to discover that the “old-fashioned” method of shaving they thought went out with the Hula Hoop is actually the best quality shave of them all.

Wetshaving is just what the term implies — keeping your face wet with plenty of hot water before and during the entire shave. In fact, you should always shave after a hot shower, not before (if you need to shave without taking a shower, try washing your face with hot water for a few minutes).

Believe it or not, but your whiskers are tougher than the edge of a razor blade, and shaving “dry”, or mostly dry as with the vast majority of shaving creams, foams, and gels on the market, means you’re literally tugging on each and every hair on your face instead of neatly slicing it at the skin’s surface and moving on without irritating your skin.

With a layer of hot water between your skin and the lather, the blade skims the surface instead of dragging on it, which is the main cause of irritation, redness, and “shave bumps”. Most men are astonished the first time they have a proper wet shave, because the razor no longer pulls, tugs, and otherwise fights the whiskers — it just glides over your skin leaving a clean path in its wake.

 

The Shaving Brush

The perfect shave has three ingredients: a good razor, a good brush, and glycerin-based shaving cream. But the biggest difference between wetshaving and the way most guys shave today is the use of a shaving brush. A good badger-hair shaving brush is the single most important ingredient in getting the perfect shave — if you change no part of your shaving routine except to add a good shaving brush to the mix, you’ll be astounded at how much better and more enjoyable your shaves become.

Take it from a guy who used to use his fingers to smear cheap shaving gel on his face that smelled just like his deodorant — using a fine badger hair brush to lather high-end English shaving cream that smells like fresh-cut violets onto your face and neck isn’t just about treating yourself nicely after years of the ol’ slice’n’dice. It’s also the best possible way to prepare your skin and whiskers for the closest, most comfortable shave.

A shaving brush isn’t a paint brush for your face. A good brush — the best brushes are made of badger hair and start at $25 — absorbs hot water and then, after you dip the tip of the brush into your shaving cream, the brush releases and mixes the hot water with the cream as you swirl the brush around on your face and neck. The combination of hot water mixing with the cream and getting beaten by the brush all over your face delivers a thicker, richer, more emollient lather than you can get from a can, no matter what the brash young He-Men in the commercials with no hair on their chests wearing a bath towel being playfully tugged at by a gyrating tigress may tell you.

A shaving brush also gently exfoliates, or removes the dead skin, from your face before shaving, which gets rid of anything coming between the blade and your whiskers. Finally, the brush lifts your whiskers and suspends them standing upright in the thick lather, which exposes the maximum whisker length to your blade as it skims along your face. Never mind that using a shaving brush feels really, really good on your face right after a nice hot shower — it happens to be the very best way to prepare your face for the shave of your life.

High quality badger hair shaving brushes come in all sizes and hair types, costing anywhere from $25 for a basic “pure” or “fine” grade badger model to $550 for a monster-sized, high-end “silvertip” job. Do you need a $550 shaving brush? Unless you’re Mr. Burns, the answer is no. I’ve tried a lot of shaving brushes over the years, from the entry-level to the obscenely expensive, and I got no better lather or shave from the expensive brushes than I do with the reasonably priced brushes I finally settled on. Once you go above $75 or so, you’re paying for snob/collector appeal, not a better shave.

Most shavegeeks go for the biggest brush they can hoist, but I get the best results with the small-to-medium sized brushes like the $55 Vulfix #2233 and Simpson’s almost comically small $65 Wee Scot. They’re a lot easier to use, you don’t get sloppy lather flying everywhere like you do with the bigger brushes, and you don’t wind up dumping a lot of unused lather down the drain. They’re also the perfect size to throw in your dopp kit for travel (hey, why shave like a heathen when you’re on the road?).

I recommend the English-made Vulfix brushes as the best bang for the buck. They’re much more reasonably priced than a lot of high-end British shaving brushes, and they lather right up there with the best of them. The brush shown above is Vulfix’s #2233, which is a medium-sized “super” grade brush that hits the sweet spot for size, price, and performance — at just $55, the Vulfix puts far more expensive brushes to shame when it comes to building world-class lather.


The Safety Razor

The next tool you need for wetshaving is a razor. And by razor, I mean whatever high-quality, non-disposable razor you feel most comfortable with. I know, I know, disposables are cool because that’s what they hand out in jail. But most disposables are extremely hard on your skin because the quality of the blades isn’t as good as a cartridge razor, or better yet, the kind of razor that serious wetshavers use: the classic double-edge safety razor.

A DE razor is the kind that takes a single, disposable razor blade, and it’s the same type of razor that your father, your grandfather, Cary Grant, Lee Marvin, JFK, and John Wayne used. Take it from me — the classic DE wipes the floor with any modern razor, I don’t care how many blades it’s got or whether it buzzes like a vibrating egg. Ever since I switched to using a DE razor from a Mach3, I’ve gotten much closer and more comfortable shaves, my face doesn’t burn at all anymore, and all the red irritation on my neck I thought was there for good went away completely.

DE razors are also the best choice for African-American men, many of whom suffer from “shave bumps”, which occur when their tougher whiskers are cut too aggressively by modern multi-blade razors, causing them to grow back underneath the skin and turn into ingrown hairs. Switching to a DE and using a shaving brush to exfoliate the skin and prep the whiskers is good for men of all races, but African-American men in particular find that shaving with a safety razor clears up their skin and makes shaving a pleasure again.

The men’s grooming boom has created a huge resurgence of interest in vintage safety razors. Gillette’s fixed-head and adjustable DEs from the 1940s and 50s are the most highly-coveted safety razors, and with good reason — they shave like a dream, look impossibly cool, and last forever. Your best bet is eBay, but be forewarned that even if you find one for a good price ($10-20), you’ll most likely have to boil it for 10 mins and scrub it with a toothbrush and some Bar Keeper’s Friend cleanser before you raise it to your chin. I like the 40s Super Speed and 50s short-handled Adjustable Gillettes the best, and the older 3-piece Gillettes the least.

Another great safety razor to be on the lookout for is the classic Schick Injector. While Schick stopped making these single-edge razors awhile back, they still make the blades (I buy mine at Amazon.com!). The Schick Injector is an interesting safety razor, because it’s’ the “missing link” between the old-school DE and the modern multi-blade. It’s a single-blade razor, but its shaving head is angled more like a cartridge razor, and most newbies find it much easier to immediately grok when coming over from a Mach3, etc.

Like a DE, Injectors shave circles around modern razors. In fact, Injector blades are noticeably thicker than a DE’s, so they shave almost like a mini straight razor — amazingly close, yet much more comfortably than a multi-blade. I’ve got a few vintage bakelite-handled Shick/Eversharp Injectors from the ’40s that shave as well as any razor I own, not to mention the fact that they look infinitely mo’ bitchin’ than some faux-metallic plastic stick with bright neon-colored rubber nubbies.

As cool as these vintage razors are, some guys feel more comfortable using a brand new razor that’s never stroked another fella’s puss. Personally, I think it would be cool to shave with an old razor that used to belong to, say, Cary Grant, but the fact is, a goodly number of eBay razors have been at one time or another up a hobo’s ass. I’m not saying all of them were, or even that most of them were, but you have to accept that some of these vintage safety razors must have gone Papillon at some point. So if you absolutely positively want to avoid going there, the good news is that there are new safety razors available that are every bit as good as many vintage models.

The German company Merkur offers a whole range of extremely high-quality safety razors, with their biggest bang for the buck being the HD “Hefty Classic”. It’s an excellent razor to start with if you’ve decided to take the DE plunge, and lots of guys love it so much they won’t shave with anything else. I love the HD and highly recommend it — it’s a simple, no-nonsense, astonishingly effective DE that shaves me as close as anything else I’ve tried, price be damned.

A razor’s only as good as the blade you feed it. Unlike modern cartridge razors, though, DE razors offer you lots of choices when it comes to blades. Some DE blades are mild and forgiving, others are scary-sharp and prone to nicks if you don’t know what you’re doing.

The German Merkur Platinum blades are sold by most vendors who sell Merkur’s razors and they’re of good quality, but I find these blades can be inconsistent and not terribly forgiving for the first-time wetshaver, so I don’t recommend them if you’re just starting out.

A much better choice would be the American Personna relabeled “house brand” blades you find in drugstores, which are inexpensive and much smoother than the Merkurs. Even better are the $25/100 Personna blades made in Israel, aka the “no-name” marked simply “Super+” which can be bought in boxes of 100 for $25 on eBay or here.

The Israeli “no-names” are my favorite DE blades of all, because they’re incredibly smooth, forgiving, and easy on the face, yet in a good vintage Gillette or new Merkur they can deliver that perfect, baby’s butt shave at the very heart of the shavegeek trip. I wish I’d known about these blades when I first picked up a DE, because they would’ve saved me a lot of time and claret.

At the other end of the spectrum are the Japanese Feather High Stainless Platinum blades. These are easily the sharpest, most unforgiving DE blades on the market. My skin can’t cope with the Feather blades without nicks galore, but I know shavegeeks who won’t feed their DEs any other blade. The Feather Platinums can deliver a skin-peeling shave in the right hands, but I don’t recommend them for newbies, or even seasoned wetshavers with sensitive skin.

Ironically, the DE blades Gillette sells in the US are, quite literally, the worst a man can get — harsh, rough, and so bad you’d be forgiven for thinking they were made that way on purpose to get you to ditch the DE and use a Fusion instead.

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The Shaving Cream


A high-quality, glycerin-based shaving cream is the final ingredient in the perfect shave. If your shaving cream/gel comes in a can and costs less than a coffee at Starbucks, or even Dunkin’ Donuts for that matter (and their joe’s better besides), prepare to be astonished at what old-school shaving cream lathers, shaves, and above all, smells like. Yes, I said smells like! If you’ve never lathered up in the morning with a fine English shaving cream that smells like fresh-cut violets, limes, or lavender, then you are truly missing out on one of the great manly pleasures.

The Brits have been making this stuff for centuries, and they really do make some of the best shaving creams on the planet. At around $20 for a tub and $12 for a travel tube, they may seem a bit more expensive than the foams and gels at the drugstore, but since a little goes a long way when lathered with a shaving brush, these high-end creams are actually a good value and last for many months of daily shaving.

I use and recommend Geo F. Trumper’s and Taylor of Old Bond Street’s shaving creams in both tubs for the bathroom and small tubes for travel. My personal favorites are Trumper’s Violet, and Taylor’s Avocado and Rose creams — these shaving creams will spoil you rotten for anything else when lathered onto your face with hot water and a badger shaving brush. And the intoxicating scents of these top-shelf creams will make you actually look forward to shaving, probably for the first time in your life.

The Art of Shaving makes a nice shaving cream as well, in the old-school English style. I especially like their Lavender cream, made with real lavender essential oil. AOS has shops all over the country and its products can be found in many mall’s men’s departments, where it’s usually the only good shaving cream in the display case.

I also recommend the legendary eucalyptus shaving cream from Italy called Proraso. This $7 wonder comes in a large, bright green toothpaste tube, and has been the best-selling shaving product in Italy since the 1940s. Despite its budget price, Proraso actually shaves on a par with the fancy English creams, and it has the added benefit of eucalyptus oil, which gives your face an incredible cooling effect when you splash with cold water at the end of the shave. Like the Trumper and Taylor shaving creams, you can buy Proraso online, but you might also check your local Target, as the chain recently began carrying Proraso’s entire line of old-school shaving products.

While most of the boutique “upscale” shaving creams marketed to young guys and metrosexuals are crap, two “new-school” shaving creams recently hit the market that give the best English creams a run for their money. London’s Truefitt & Hill has been around since 1805 (a full century before King Gillette invented the safety razor!), andwhile the venerated English firm’s traditional shaving creams are excellent, their new Ultimate Comfort unscented shaving cream is their best yet. Creamier and kinder to sensitive skin, the Ultimate Comfort is an easy recommendation.

My favorite shaving cream these days is Nancy Boy’s amazing lavender, peppermint, and rosemary scented cream. It’s extremely skin-friendly and chock full of beneficial ingredients like avocado oil, aloe, allantoin, cucumber extract, Vitamin E, and genuine lavender, peppermint, and rosemary essential oils, with no harsh soaps or artificial fragrance. The Nancy Boy shaving cream also works well brushless, if you’re in a hurry. But lather this stuff up with a good badger brush and it just doesn’t get any better – my skin feels much more moisturized after a shave with Nancy Boy than with any other shaving cream I’ve used. If I could only shave with one cream, this would be it.

How To Shave Like A Man

After you emerge from a nice, hot shower, fill the sink with hot water and let your shaving brush soak in it. Splash some more hot water on your face to keep it wet. The key to wetshaving is keeping your face wet throughout the shave, so the blade never comes in contact with dry skin.

Remove your brush from the water, hold it bristles-down, and give it a slight shake to get rid of the excess water. You want some water in the brush to make good lather, but not so much water that your lather turns out thin and runny.

Open your tub of shaving cream, scoop out about a nickel-sized dollop of cream with your finger, and place it on the wet tips of your brush’s bristles. Some guys swirl the brush and cream in a mug or bowl to build up their lather, while others just cup their other hand and build up the lather in that. I like to cut to the chase and build the lather directly on my face by swirling the brush around on my neck, chin, and cheeks till I’ve got a nice, thick layer of opaque lather.

Once you’ve lathered your face and neck, stand your brush up on the counter and pick up your razor. The first thing you need to know is that a safety razor doesn’t have a pivoting head, so unlike a Mach3 or a Fusion, the blade doesn’t hug your face no matter how half-assed you are with the razor. So you’ll need to maintain the right blade angle yourself.

Sounds difficult, but after a shave or two, most guys grok it just fine. You want to shoot for a blade angle of approximately 30 degress — not so shallow the blade misses the whiskers, and not so high you scrape your skin instead of shave it clean. It may take a shave or seven before you get this down, but once you do you’ll be amazed at how close a single-blade razor can shave without pulling on your whiskers and burning your skin like modern multi-blades do.

At first, you want to shave downward on your face and neck, with the direction your whiskers grow. A North-to-South shave will get rid of most visible stubble without irritating your skin. If you want a shave that feels baby’s butt smooth to the touch, wet your face again, lather up again, and shave very lightly upward against the grain.

If you can’t shave against the grain without irritation, try a second N-S downward shave. In most cases, you’ll approach that baby’s butt smoothness without any of the razor burn that a S-N pass gives most guys. But I’m not going to lie to you — if you want baby’s butt, shave upward, young man. Just do it as lightly as possible and only do it for one pass, after you shave downward first to clear most of the bramble.

Once you’re done shaving, rinse your face with cold water to close the pores, and thoroughly rinse your razor and shaving brush of lather. Shake your brush a few times to dry it, wipe it gently on your towel, and stand it on its handle to finish drying. This will let the bristles air-dry without damaging them, so your brush will last 20 years or more.

Pat, don’t rub, your face dry with a clean towel, and finish up with a good non-alcohol-based after-shave or moisturizer — Trumper’s Skin Food is one of the best, but any good moisturizer will be better than that stinging alcohol-based stuff that we’ve all suffered with. Some guys swear by witch hazel, which is cheap, good, and perfect for closing your pores and soothing your face. Lately I’ve been using moisturizing oils like Jojoba and rosehip seed oil, and my skin has never been happier after a shave.

CAUTION!

If you’ve been shaving with a disposable razor or one of the modern multi-blade cartridge systems like the Mach3, be aware that switching to a single-blade DE will require that you un-learn all the bad habits that modern razors are designed to let sleepy, lazy guys get away with. Mainly, that means slower, more careful strokes, and guiding the blade over your skin without pressing down too much.

Let me say that again.

Without pressing down too much.

It’s really not a big deal — men have been shaving this way for over a hundred of years, well before plastic disposables and 5-blade razors were invented. Once you slow down and stop pressing the blade against your face so hard, you’ll find that not only do you get a closer, smoother shave, but all of that burning sensation and red marks all over your neck will start to go away immediately, and then disappear for good.

If you end up with a few nicks your first few shaves with a DE, don’t worry, it happened to all of us — your grandpa, Lee Marvin, and me — when we first picked up a safety razor. It’s your face’s way of telling you to stop being a knucklehead. After a few shaves, you’ll figure it all out, and then you’ll wonder why you haven’t been shaving like this your whole life.


Copyright 2006 Corey Greenberg

Notes

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