You may think they’re old fashioned or foppish but the truth is using a shaving brush can make a huge difference in the quality of your shave. Unfortunately selecting and using a shaving brush can be a little confusing to the uninitiated. So lets try to make a little sense out of the options. There are three general criteria for understanding shaving brushes: price, size, and hair.
The most obvious selection criterion is price. You should be able to find a brush with virtually any budget so set yourself a maximum price and stick to it. Bear in mind that many shavers who use shaving brushes eventually get another brush after they have used one for a while and have decided they have a preference for a particular aspect or type of brush.
The next criterion of selection is brush size and shape. Brush dimensions are typically expressed in millimeters and are often divided into three sections: loft, knot, and over-all height. The loft is the length of the actual hair from the top of the handle to the tip of the hair. The knot is an indication of the amount of hair packed into the handle. By the way, the knot dimension can be a little sketchy because hair can be packed in tightly or loosely. Finally the length of the handle is factored in to determine the over-all height of the brush. Very generally speaking larger brushes tend to work better lathering large areas more quickly while smaller brushes offer more control. Brush sizes cover a very wide range but I think its safe to say that the average loft is about 50 millimeters and the average knot is about 20 millimeters.
Two additional factors of brush size and shape are a little more ambiguous. The first is the tips of the loft can be shaped into a fan-like shape or into a bulb-like shape. Each style has their advocates who claim one shape is better than the other but there’s not real agreement about it. The second is the size and shape of the handle. Size and shape is yet another personal preference, but in the absence of knowing what you want I suggest measuring the distance from the palm of your hand to the pad of your thumb and let that be the maximum length of the handle.
The final criterion is the type of hair in the brush. Shaving brushes generally come in one of four types of bristle: badger hair, boar hair, horse hair, or synthetic.
Badger hair brushes are generally regarded as the preferred material for shaving brushes and they can generally make a lather more quickly, and retain more heat and water than brushes of other types. However there are a number of different grades of hair, and unfortunately there is no standardized grading process between manufacturers. Be that as it may, there are some general guidelines you can use.
The lowest grade of badger hair is generally referred to as “pure.” This grade is characterized by a dark color and thick, relatively stiff, coarse-looking hair. Some manufacturers will bleach the hair slightly to give it the look of a higher grade but the hair itself will still look coarse.
The next step up is usually called super or fine. These brushes are generally better constructed and the hair is finer-looking, softer, and lighter in color. Super badger brushes retain water and heat noticeably better–sometimes dramatically better–than lower grades, and can make a better lather, more quickly.
The highest grade of badger hair is generally labelled “silvertip.” These brushes are usually made to the highest standard, often with hand-crafted workmanship, commanding the highest prices. Silvertip hair is often cream colored on top with darker bands of color below and very fine but still fairly flexible hairs. These brushes will retain even more water and heat than super badger brushes, but is a less dramatic improvement.
Boar hair brushes–often called “natural bristle” brushes are the most commonly seen in mass market outlets such as drug stores and groceries. Most of these brushes are not very well constructed and tend to require more work to get a decent lather out of as well. However that is not to say that all boar hair brushes are substandard. Quite the contrary, a well-made boar hair brush will provide years of service and work quite well after a break-in period. They work particularly well with shaving soaps, though you can use them with shaving creams as well. Sometimes these brushes are dyed to look like badger hair brushes.
Brushes with horse hair have started to return to the market after a hiatus of nearly 100 years due to an anthrax scare around World War 1. Horse hair brushes are typically made from either the horse’s tail or the mane. Sometimes a brush will be made with a combination of the two.
Finally there are synthetic brushes. These can range from brushes with nylon bristles those with more specialized synthetic material. Their price and performance usually fall between those of boar and badger brushes.
A few additional thoughts about brush hair. First, because boar hair retains less water than badger hair, selecting a boar hair brush with a higher loft will help compensate for water retention. Second, boars and badgers are killed to harvest their meat and hair so if that is a concern you will want to select a brush with synthetic or horse hair. By the way, almost all of the badger hair used in shaving brushes come from China, where the badger is considered a pest and controlled under license. Finally, shaving brushes are made to use with traditional shaving soaps and creams. But some people use them with brushless creams and gels as well. Bear in mind that the ingredients of some brushless products may damage a brush’s natural hair so if you are unsure of the ingredient reaction consider using a brush with synthetic hair.
The Buyer’s Guide List of Brushes
The guide lists current, standard brushes in the manufacturer line-up. It does not include limited-edition or “new old stock.” The “Loft,” Knot,” and “Handle” sizes are expressed in millimeters (mm) and are approximate. The hair “Grade” is terminology by the manufacturer: there is no standardized grading for badger hair so this column is best used to compare grades in very relative terms. “Price” is the approximate retail price in US dollars–note that actual prices from individual purchase points may vary widely!
To help you search for brushes I have a “CSV” file that you can import into your favorite database or spreadsheet program. That way you can sort, filter, and otherwise manipulate the data to your heart’s content. That file is HERE (right click, save-as). And HERE is the file as a PDF. This list is large but admittedly not complete. Updates, corrections, and additions are welcome, please use the feedback form.