[Note from Mantic59: Doug Hansford writes a blog on shaving and has had some interesting experiments on shave technique recently. I asked him to consolidate his thoughts for Sharpologist.]
Though I enjoy having a very close shave, I, like some others, have facial skin that won’t tolerate three-pass shaves every day. So I’ve struck a bargain between my obsession for a close shave and my distaste for raw, wounded facial skin. I’ve experimented with technique options for optimizing my daily shaves without making three full passes.
An Old-School Perspective: the Standard Shave
Most men the world over and throughout history, if they shaved at all, took a single pass. And I would also suggest that most didn’t shave daily; some perhaps only every week or for special occasions. A single-pass shave with any lone shaving edge will shave close enough to look acceptably tidy on most men, although will not give close to a baby-smooth result for many either. Yet if one compares this single-pass shave to being bearded – all rough and wooly – a single-pass shave is pretty darned clean and smooth by comparison. This is why it’s appropriate to call a single-pass, with-grain shave a standard shave. It is the standard against which other, better shaves are judged, and it’s likely the historical norm for shaving.
It can also be good for the psyche, by rallying against the imperatives of a close-shave obsession, to take a standard shave – that is, one pass, with grain – daily, when a closer shave isn’t really needed. Not only does it help one get more comfortable with merely a good-enough shave, it can also help the skin restore itself for those days when you want better than a standard shave.
Optimizing the Standard Shave
Maximize your skin protection as you make any pass – whether the solitary pass of the standard shave, or one of several – by using an anti-raking stroke pattern.
Most men probably shave their beards as one would rake leaves off a lawn; that is, they start at an edge of the beard and stroke toward the lathered, unshaven area. This leaves a relatively lather-free surface that grows with each additional stroke. However, it also begins each stroke in an area rather free of protective lather and moisture. Shaving this bare area in the usual manner can create unnecessary irritation.
Instead, shave by starting each stroke in a lathered spot near the margin of the beard, and stroke toward the beard edge. With each progressive stroke into the beard, always stroke from the lathered area toward the just-shaved area. This will tend to carry lather and moisture ahead of the razor and help protect any skin that gets re-shaved with successive strokes.
Don’t Be Square
There is a stroking technique that can also maximize the effectiveness of any blade in any non-slant razor. I call it the oblique stroke. It is also known as the Gillette slide, named after the well-known illustrations in old Gillette shaving instructions that show a razor oriented with the blade edge parallel to the floor, but showing a long diagonal stroke across the cheek.
While the Gillette slide, as drawn, might be correctly considered an advanced shaving technique, the common oblique stroke is quite simple. Instead of trying to shave diagonally across ones face with the blade edge parallel to the floor, which is surprisingly difficult, it’s quite easy to stroke your razor in whatever direction is most comfortable and desired, while simply orienting the razor so the edge is slightly off perpendicular – that is, not square – to the stroke direction.
As many woodworkers know, the skewed cutting angle actually makes the blade edge effectively a bit sharper. (This is commonly done with chisels or hand planes when cutting wood.) The oblique stroke also makes the blade-bar span effectively a bit larger. So this technique can slightly increase the shaving power of any straight-bar or open-comb razor.
Buff Up a Standard Shave – Obliquely
If I’m truly going to do just a one-pass shave, another way to optimize it is to use short, oblique buffing strokes in flatter, less sensitive areas. That means keep the razor on the skin/beard for both the cutting and return strokes, which should be oblique. Keep in mind that buffing on a one-pass-only shave might be fine and dandy, but if you do subsequent passes after that, it might be a formula for unnecessary irritation. If you’re going to do oblique buffing for your solitary-pass shave, a relatively mild razor choice such as a Gillette Tech, or one even milder, might be a prudent move.
Slow ‘n Steady
When shaving problematic areas such as under my jaw line, on my upper lip, on the point of my chin, or on my lower neck, making my strokes more slowly and rather short will often reduces injuries. This is especially true when shaving against the grain.
The Best Shave in Less Than Three Passes: Tag-Team Razors
The preceding techniques for an optimal standard shave (that is, one pass, with grain) can be combined with some additional ideas to optimize one’s two-pass shave. This will yield a much closer shave than the best standard shave, but will avoid much of the skin insult that comes with three-pass shaves day after day. So in addition to making oblique, anti-raking strokes that are rather short and deliberate, I will do the following:
First Pass: Vertical, Largely With-Grain Strokes
In my two-pass shaves, I make most of my strokes vertical. Because much (not all) of my beard has a generally-downward-growing grain, I simply stroke the razor downward in the first pass. The exception to this is my lower neck, which grows sideways and slightly upward. There I simply stroke upward. Remember that these strokes are oblique, not too quick, rather short, and in an anti-raking pattern.
Also for the first pass on a given day I will use one of a variety of razors – all of which are generally mild to medium aggression. Yet because I’m shaving carefully and largely with the grain of the beard, this also means that it’s relatively safe to amp up the razor aggression if I choose; so I will occasionally use an even more addressive instrument for the first pass. That said, my normal first-pass options for my beard and face include the Gillette Slim Adjustable set to four (of nine), the Maggard straight-bar razor head (the original first-generation version), a c.1948 Gillette Tech (or equivalent such as the Rimei RM2003), or the Merkur 15C open-comb razor.
Second Pass: Vertical, Largely Against-Grain Strokes
In the second, final full pass, I will use a mild razor. My preferences include the Weishi 9306 (or a twin such as the Dorco Prime razor) or the Gillette Slim set to one (of nine). I will occasionally use the Tech for the second pass if I used it for the first. The mild character of the second-pass razor helps me to minimize weeper wounds during this final, full pass.
I use all oblique, short, deliberate strokes for my second pass and these are vertical against the grain except on my upper lip, where I go cross grain (and, obviously therefore, not in a vertical direction). I also continue with the anti-raking stroke pattern in this second pass to help minimize irritation.
I will sometimes simply re-wet my problem areas, which will then still be sufficiently slick due to residual shave soap, and, with my second-pass razor, will take a few clean-up strokes under my jaw line and on my lower neck. Under my jaw line, these strokes will be strictly against grain (and, therefore, not perfectly vertical). On my lower neck, I will usually make any clean-up strokes vertically (like in the second pass), but with the blade angle of the oblique stroke oriented so that it will tend to slice against the grain a bit.
So for those double-edge users whose skin can’t tolerate three passes every day, these preceding ideas are some techniques that can improve the quality of your daily shaves.
And for Economical Shavers
To get more mileage from your shave soap or cream as well as your blades, there are a couple of things you can do; after all, a penny saved is two pennies earned (considering payroll taxes).
To increase the smoothness and functional life of your blades you can press dry them after rinsing. I like to use a square of toilet tissue for that task. Then to go a step further, try palm stropping your blade on your palm that is lightly oiled with shaving oil. The stropping may help align the microscopic edge that can get damaged from normal use, and the oil may help to reduce the erosion of any factory coating. The oil may also help seal the blade from oxygen and moisture, which might otherwise have slightly deleterious effects.
A tip for better mileage from your shaving lather comes from Gillette themselves. In one of their printed instruction sheets from the 1920s, they suggested not rinsing one’s shave brush after the shave. Simply set or hang the brush, full of lather, to dry. Then prior to the next shave, hold some water in your cupped hand, and in it roll the brush. This in-the-hand wetting will prevent the whispy dried foam from floating away in the air as you initially flex the bristles.
Then you can rub your damp, slightly-soapy hand against the other and then rub that soapy moisture into your already-wetted beard.
The dried-lather-in-the-brush tip implies another idea, which is that pre-shave soaking of a brush is not necessary. After you have wetted the outside of the dried-lather brush in your cupped hand, you can simply run from the spigot a small amount of water into the brush and begin to make lather, adding more water into the brush several times as necessary.
Finally, if your economical interests run to preserving precious skin oils in your face as well, consider shaving entirely with cool water straight out of your cold-water tap. Many men notice no difference in the quality of their shave when using cool water, and, not only might it help preserve natural oils in dry, sensitive skin, it also wastes less water waiting for it to run hot from the tap, and it saves the energy that would be needed to heat the water in the first place. This idea was suggested in a very old-school tip, which explained that cold-water shaves eliminate the need to have your servants prepare hot water before your shave! (And that’s why I do it, of course. 😉
About the author: Doug Hansford writes a blog on shaving at www.shavelikegrandad.blogspot.com.