My article of a few months ago discussed the fairly excellent Stirling “Kong” synthetic brush. At $23, that brush represented a good value, and challenged the usual suspects when it came to cheap brushes; mainly, boars. I liked the Kong, but overall felt that a boar could do more for less.
Well, the brush market has changed a lot since then. Within about three months of that article, two new players introduced their own cheap synth brushes modeled after the Plisson that was the basis for the Stirling brush: these were Maggard’s and Italian Barber, two of the largest internet wet shaving retailers, and their $12 and $10 (respectively) synthetics sold very well, and Stirling and other companies that offered higher priced Plissonesques also cut prices. The Kong that used to cost $23 now costs $15.
The new synths coming to market from IB & Maggards were also Plisson / L’Occitan emulators, offering that same blend of ease of use, durability, moderate backbone, and soft face feel that has been so popular among wet shavers, especially newcomers who do not have the patience or tolerance for the stink or out of the box scratchiness that affects many cheap boars, and cheapskates who did not have the budget for a decent badger from a good company (say starting at around the $65 price point – at that time.)
But what if you did not like the relatively mushy feel of the Plisson copies? What if you want a firmer, more dense feel, that could give some massage action rather than splaying rapidly, a brush with greater water retention, something that needs a bit of skill to use well, something, in short, with character? And what if you still didn’t want boar?
There have always been cheap badger brushes available to penny saving shavers. The VDH brushes at Target. Those various generic best selling badgers on Amazon for less than the price of a trade paperback with the suspiciously high star ratings. The lower end Parkers. Whipped Dog brushes with their great customer service but kinda hit and miss build quality. I’ve tried most of these options, and suffice to say, none of them seemed a really viable contender to a cheap boar from Semogue. The ideas of “cheap” and “high quality” seemed not to be compatible with each other in the same badger brush. Until now…maybe!
Enter Rod Lovan & Stirling. Rod sold a lot of the Kongs, and the smaller variants (Little Brudder) and I am sure he did not do too badly financially in the process. We can postulate that he made a few connections in China (where both the Plisson style fiber and many dead badgers come from). So why not use those profits and those connections to bring American shavers a really good cheap badger for far less than such items normally sell for?
Why not indeed. The Stirling badger currently sells for $30 (July, 2016) and this is called a promotional price, with an eventual price increase to $40 after the promotion ends (this price increase may not happen after all, for reasons to be discussed in the review later). So what will a $30 investment in a Stirling badger get you? Let’s take a look!
[Comment from Mark, "mantic59”–I also bought one of these brushes and have inserted my own comments along with Craig’s, in italics below]
You can check out either of my earlier Stirling reviews for full details on this Arkansas artisan in their 4th year of operation. Their website is here and they now offer a lot more hardware than they did at the time of the earlier reviews, especially a line of their own branded DE razors, along with the brushes.
Their selection of shave soaps remains substantial, well over three dozen available at any given time, but I must say that many of the more ambitious scents that I admired in the past (e.g. Cocoa Forest, Port Au Prince, Napoleon) have gotten the axe and we are left with a generally simpler scent lineup, along with the tedious roster of minimally scented menthol bombs and the “inspired by a Creed fragrance you can’t afford” stuff that does little for me personally. But we are here to talk about brushes, so let’s move on…
Priced at $30 (for now?), the 24 X 54mm Stirling Finest Badger wisely avoids any magical nonsense in branding: no “High Mountain White” or “Mongolian” gobblygoodook verbiage here. It’s a badger, it’s the finest (and only) quality the company is offering, that’s the deal, take it or leave it. This simplicity is refreshing and hopefully will be followed by other companies, including even Simpson, whose mystical Manchurian inferences get kind of tired pretty quickly.
The handle of the brush is 49mm tall, giving the brush a total height of 103mm, 4.124 inches for you metric resistant types. The handle is the typical off white color resin so typical in all sorts of shave brushes, and differs pretty radically from the Kong handle. (See picture, it’s worth a thousand words!)
The pretty obvious target for the Stirling badger is the Simpson Duke 3 best badger, which normally sells for roughly $100 – $116. That brush is a 23X46 knot, with a 46mm tall handle, so it is a bit smaller than the Stirling when viewed side by side (see picture below) . The handles are exactly the same diameter and have a similar structure: tapered at base, expanding out into a banded barrel shape and retaining the same diameter from middle handle to top.
We will be comparing the Duke 3 and the Stirling a lot in the review. Another contender in this struggle will be the Shave Revolution High Mountain White, reviewed here last year. That brush was an excellent one, also gunning for Simpsons, and the price has fallen on that model from the $60 at time of review to $40 these days.
The SR High Mountain White (yes, they still call it that) is somewhat different in dimensions due to a much bigger “barber” style handle. The knot of the HMW is at least similar at 24X50, but the handle is much taller (55mm), curvier, and more articulated than either the Duke 3 or Stirling. (See the pictures.) The HMW also is available in two different handle colors, the marbleized resin I own, and a coppery metallic swirl color that is also pretty neat. Also of potential interest, the SR brush has its corporate logo stamped only on the underside of its handle, while the other two badgers here wear their logos proudly on the side of the handle, so bystanders can be suitably impressed.
Shave Revolution also now have a “Manchurian” model available at a higher price (of course!) and a “Pure” badger available at the same price as the HMW. Moreover, Shave Revolution has now been able to keep the HMW model in stock pretty reliably, so it is a more viable contender for your shaving dollar now than it used to be.
Finally, it should be noted that each of our contenders was shipped securely and safely in its own box inside the shipping box. The SR brush still includes a free tub of the house brand shaving soap (which is not too bad) though sadly no longer includes the nice hard plastic carrying tube that the old model came with at the $60 price point. Stirling gave me a bath soap sample sliver in my order. And Simpson gave me… well, nothing much, other than the most insulting instruction manual in the history of wet shaving (more on that later!)
Build Quality & Ergonomics:
Below the knot, we have all the best a resin handle can offer. The weight of the Stirling matches the Simpsons ounce for ounce, and the SR is in the same ballpark. Substantial feel, and the ergonomics of the Stirling arguably is superior to the Duke 3, as the segments above and below the “barrel band” are both longer and more evenly proportioned compared to the somewhat dwarfish Duke. Both brushes give me enough space to rest my short-fingered vulgarian style digits, but big fingered guys may well like the Stirling as it gives them more digital real estate.
I admit I prefer the SR HMW handle best of all, but that’s because I tend to prefer thinner, longer handles. This is very subjective of course, so I will only say all of these brushes offer fine ergonomics in their handles. The Simpson certainly does not feel like it costs so much more than the others. (You will hear this phrase a lot in the rest of the review…) But let’s talk about the furry heart of the matter!
The Stirling knot comes smelling like an animal, no doubt about it. Only an Omega boar is as stinky in my experience. The Simpson smells utterly neutral out of the box (see, money can buy some things!), while the Shave Rev HMW smelled like pesticide. The pesticide smell washed out of the Shave Revolution in about 2 uses, while the smelly animal scent only gradually came out of the Stirling after about 10-12 uses. After 15 uses, I have a neutral smelling brush in the Stirling.
[C[Comment from mantic59: the smell of my brush was dramatically lower than Craig’s example. There was a mild badger "funk” initially but it went away after just a couple uses. However I admit I have a fairly poor sense of smell.]em>
This isn’t terrible. Some of my Omegas took months to lose their stench, and my Pro 48 still smells like a wet dog two years after I first used it. (I let it sit for a few months after using it a few times. Bad mistake with smelly boars! Curiously, my Semogue boars never had this issue…)
The gamy badger smell is one of the few reminders that you are in the cheap seats with the Stirling, and it is a bit jarring, but can be coped with easily enough. Use strongly scented soaps your first 10 uses out (though not the same one over and over again) and use the brush every other day, and all will be well.
Another issue: after a month of use, my Stirling logo has mostly been washed off the side of the handle. It is now says ”S____ing _____ _o.” instead of “Stirling Brush Co.”.
This is kind of disappointing; none of my other brushes at various price points had this logo fade, and the brush was certainly not immersed in water or scrubbed with any cleanser. Many cheapie brushes either put the logo on the bottom of the handle (Shave Revolution) or just don’t have logos at all (Whipped Dog).
Is this a big issue? Not to me, but it is a reminder that these brushes were built to a price point, and the fading logo is surprising, as the cheaper Stirling Kong I own still has a fully visible, utterly unfaded logo after a much longer period of use. That handle is black, so maybe the ivory color handle was the issue with the badger.
UPDATE: After close to 6 weeks, the Logo went from being a “__________G” brush to being utterly generic, i.e. the logo is completely gone. I contacted Stirling (as a customer, not as a reviewer) and Rod Lovan responded personally, indicating that “two or three” brushes out of the first few hundred brushes had the fading logo issue.
[Com[Comment from mantic59: my logo is still OK though it looks like the S in Stirling may be just starting to fade a bit….]>
He stated the company was re-considering application methods for the logo on future batches to see if even this small failure fate could be addressed. He also offered me a $5 store credit as restitution for my own lost logo. I thought this was great customer service and think the company handled the matter well. Still, if you are the kinda guy who buys comics and sticks em in plastic bags after delicately reading them once, just be aware there might be some longevity issues with the logo on your brush in this case, though if Rod’s statistics are accurate, the chance is mighty low indeed.
The rest of the build checklist for the Stirling comes off nicely. No visible glue bump, the knot is well centered and straight. In six weeks, and roughly 20 uses, the brush lost no more than two or three hairs.
The Stirling, like the Shave Revolution, blooms dramatically once used. The blooming effect makes the Stirling far more like a fan shape that it seems in pictures. The SR HMW seems to have bloomed out a few mm more, but both of the cheap brushes are more visually dramatic than the Duke 3, which is more of a hybrid fan / bulb shape, which seems to be exactly what Simpson wants, so they can try to be all things to all men, or at least all things to those men who are not certain whether they like fans or bulbs. Certainly if you wanted a bulb shaped badger, the Stirling would not be your first choice…unless, of course, you only had $30 to spend!
None of these brushes lost more than 2 or 3 hairs in their first week or two of use, and the SR and Simpson have maintained this same perfection after many months of weekly use for each.
However, the Stirling has one eeny teeny problem. There are a lot of “wild” bristles coming out of the base of the knot after only two weeks of use. Many are at almost right angles to the main knot direction, and these horizontal outliers are a minor aesthetic detriment on the model. Neither the Duke nor the HMW have quite as many wild hairs and none of them are quite as severely horizontal as those seen in the Stirling knot.
I am not sure how much I care about this. I had a similar experience with my Whipped Dog badger, and after more than a year of use, that issue caused exactly no problems with that brush. The horizontal bristles were somewhat more likely to become loose and fall out, but this was a slow process and was not really even noticeable and certainly had no impact on the main structural integrity of the Whipped Dog knot at all.
It just looks unappealing, like a few stray nose hairs sprouting from your significant other’s nostril. If you were planning on giving tours of your shaving equipment to admiring visitors, and said visitors grab the Stirling up and eyeball it from 6 inches away, they may “tut tut” a bit when they glimpse those non-conforming bristles.
[Com[Comment from mantic59: my brush has some "wild hairs” too, though not as many as Craig’s example.]>
If this does not seem like a scenario of relevance to you, and if you yourself will not lose any sleep over this issue, then all is well. Or if it really bothers you, take some scissors and trim the offending stragglers every few months. (Note well: this strategy may be harder to implement with the significant other’s nose hairs…)
I will score the Stirling a B+ in build quality. If the Stirling was dueling only with the Duke 3, this would probably be an A-, but the short lived stink and zero wild horizontal bristles on the Shave Revolution prove that cheap brushes do not need to be compromised in these areas. The fading logo is an apples vs oranges thing, as the SR has a bottom engraved logo on a black marbled handle, and shows no fading, as opposed to the Stirling side printed logo on the white handle that is now mostly vanished.
If Stirling tightens up the knot bunching a bit, prints the logo a bit more durably, and treats the brushes at the factory before shipping, they could easily get a perfect score here. In the meantime, the smell, faded logo, and slight horizontal bristle issues are hardly anything worth worrying about at this price point, especially in light of all the things that the Stirling does well. Speaking of those points, let us proceed.
Lather Creation & Application
Soaps used ranged from Tabac & Fine pucks (very hard) to Catie’s Luxury Shave Cream (quite soft) to Barrister & Mann Latha & Glissant formulas, mid range in hardness. I also used some Nivea & Proraso creams. I am happy to report the Stirling was equally adept with all soaps and creams, and could easily formulate lather from any product tested, hard or soft.
The only real issue noted with lather creation was that when compared with the other two brushes, the Stirling needed longer load times and more product to become fully loaded for a three pass shave. In those cases where I used the same load time / number of swirls for the Stirling as I did for the Duke or the HMW, the Stirling seemed to come up short on lather retention at around the third reconstitution of the lather before the final pass.
New badgers are normally not “lathercidal” the way that new boars are. Nor did I think the issues was soap retention due to high density, a common Simpson brush issue. Rather I think the issue here is that the Stirling is simply not as dense as either the Duke or the Shave Revolution. Therefore extended initial loading is needed to make sure one does not have to reload during a shave. I tested this brush more than 20 times for this review, and using my exact same loading technique that I use for every other badger produced a constant protolather deficit in the second and third passes, unless more initial product was loaded.
This sounds like a worse problem than it is. The Stirling is way denser than say a $40 Parker or a $30 Whipped Dog. That it is not as dense as the Duke 3 should not amaze, but the excellent density of the SR HMW at its only slightly higher price point shows up the Stirling to an extent. However, I also have a costly Savile Row that has the exact same issue as the Stirling, and the Savile cost more than the Duke 3 did. (In the Savile Row case, I believe the loading density issue is due to the more dramatic bulb shape, which is optimized for face lathering.)
This deficiency in the Stirling is also easily remedied. Add about 20% more swirls / time to your load, and you should have enough lather for 3-4 passes. In my case, I do 60 swirls rather than 50, not a real issue. If you have shaving soap supply deficits, this extra usage of product may trouble you, but I think for most of us, the real issue is how to use the existing surplus supplies we have up before they spoil on the shelf!
Soak times were pretty ordinary, and soaks of 2 to 5 minutes seemed to give similar performance in product retention and bristle softness. A ready “Pass” on the pass / fail result here.
Anyway, I was impressed at how easily the Stirling dealt with the Tabac and Fine pucks. The slight lack of product retention due to only average density does not strike me as a very big issue, but again, in comparison to another cheap badgers, or even to the less expensive Stirling Kong synthetic, there is a notable deficiency, though one that is easily remedied. I’ll call this a B+.
Bowl / Face Lather: Just about perfect for both uses, similar to the Duke 3. The mid sized handle makes control in both modes a snap, and the bloom is again just about perfect, as is the Duke’s. Stirling definitely hit the Duke mark here, and definitely beat the SR HMW, as that model’s longer handle and wider Kent like bloom makes it a bit more of a challenge for face lathering. The Stirling’s bloom is just wide enough to help it load up easily in a bowl, yet not wide enough so that you slop lather over your nostrils and ears.
The Duke 3 has a reputation for being one of the best “utility infielders” in shaving, and the $30 Stirling does a great job of emulating the British “man for all seasons” that costs a lot more. This is also one of the rare aspects of performance where the Stirling clearly bests its cheaper artisanal rival from Shave Revolution. Score of A awarded for both modes of use.
Another triumph here for Stirling. After the first use, you can feel the bristle tips are going to be soft and low impact, and indeed they are. Even when splayed and rotated rapidly, the Stirling is always a mellow joy to use. The Duke 3 best in comparison was a lot scritchier out of the box, especially when splayed (shh! Don’t tell Simpson on me…) and took a fair amount of use to mellow out and become less abrasive. I have a theory that Simpson tells users not to splay when lathering (see next section below) because they worry that people will notice that their best badgers are actually a bit scratchy, at least out of the box.
At the same time, the Stirling also offers a very reasonable amount of backbone. You can certainly give yourself a nice face massage with this, though no exfoliation of course (which is fine with me.) Backbone & exfoliation capability is definitely not as much as boar, but fully comparable to Simpson.
What you do miss with the Stirling compared to the Duke or Chubby 2 is that unique “wall of badger” feel of Simpson, where it feels like there is one giant badger paw pressing against your face when you apply pressure and swirl. I can’t really say that wall of badger feel does all that much for the shave quality, it’s just unique, and not unpleasant. It makes the Duke (apparently) much more expensive, and much harder to clean compared to Stirling (more later), so there is a downside to this feel.
The SR HMW does not have Ye Olde Badger Wall Feele either, and has roughly comparable softness and backbone to the Stirling, so we will call this match up a tie between the lower priced contenders, and an easy A for Stirling when we remember it has the lowest price point of the trio.
Clean Up Ease and Durability
Another triumph for Stirling. Getting all the soap out of a dense Simpson is like fighting a land war in Asia, and if you want a perfectly unclumped bloom on your drying Simpsons, you need to do a lot of shaking, buffing, and squeezing.
By comparison, the Stirling cleans up easily and quickly, making it the ideal brush for a morning when you’ve overslept. This brush probably can be rinsed and cleaned up ready for drying in about half the time it takes to stand the Duke 3 down. The SR HMW is somewhere in between the Duke and the Stirling in terms of clean up ease.
Remember the comment earlier on the Most Annoying Instruction Manual in Shaving? That refers to the standard Simpson owners manual for its brushes, where they tell you to use only paint brush strokes, not “heavy circular motions,” you know, those same motions that 90% of wet shavers use when they lather. This always annoyed me, like buying a Mustang GT and having the owners manual stating “vehicle should not be operated at speeds in excess of 50 MPH.”
I understand that there are many jackasses who create 90 degree angles between bristles and handle as they try to push the handle through their cheeks, and I sympathize (kind of) with Simpsons desire to set a basis to deny warranty services on these super splayers, but to say “don’t splay and rub in a circle when you use our very expensive badger” just bothers me.
The Stirling does not mention this prohibition, indeed it has no manual at all, so I happily splay the brush to a moderate degree and also alternate between circles and brush strokes. And I feel much happier doing that than I do with the Duke, both because Stirling didn’t say anything on the subject… and because the brush costs 75% less! In any case, the brush feels sturdy enough, even though made in China, and has lost virtually no hairs at all during vigorous use, so I will give the Stirling an A in the category.
Value: Pretty obvious what the score here will be. To stand toe to toe with a world class luxury brand name whose product costs close to four times as much and equal or surpass it in various performance aspects is an achievement.
The HMW also impressed me when it was released… but it was priced at $60, twice what Stirling asks, and also back then it was doing a good job of competing with a brush that only cost twice as much. The fact that the HMW is now cheaper shows market pressures at work, and creates a tough rival for the Stirling even at its 25% lower price point. But at the end of the day, the Stirling is still an amazing value, so another A awarded.
Also as mentioned earlier, the fact that the Shave Revolution HMW is such a tough competitor and at only a slightly higher price, (and that’s before we factor in the free tub of Shave Rev soap) I suggest (and believe) that Stirling is not going to raise the price on these badgers to $40. The SR HMW is a debatable better value at 25% more, but becomes a more compelling shaving solution at the same price.
So how does this brush change the shaving brush market? Let me speculate, possibly in a controversial manner:
- May or may not hurt the cheapie mainstream badger market. All those folks buying Escali on Amazon and VDH at Target are doing so because they are likely unaware that this brush exists. We all know Stirling is not going to be on the shelves at Walmart or Target any time soon, but if the Lovans can open a storefront on Amazon, or provide lots of these to a third party retailer who sells on that site, you may see the cheap junk that sells so well on Amazon becomes a lot less popular.
- Truly damages the mid range badger brush market. Companies like WSP and Parker must be feeling pretty nervous, as this $30 Stirling brush easily bests their cheaper models and competes nicely with their offerings costing 2 to 3 times as much.
- Will hurt the boar brush market at all price levels. People buy boar mainly for two reasons. First, it’s a cheap option that can over time be worked up to equal far more expensive options. My Semogue Owners Club boar is now about as good as a Simpsons Colonel that cost twice as much as the SOC did — but it took literally months of frequent use to get the SOC to that point. By comparison, the Stirling badger is as good or better than that Colonel (or the SOC) right out of the box and at a $30 price that is cheaper than both the Colonel and the SOC. No one really needs to get the SOC (or any other boar) any more if this was their main motive.
Second, some madmen use the boar bristles to exfoliate their face. And then they go and pound nails through their nostrils for good relaxing fun…If this is why you buy boar, then the Stirling will not appeal. I can’t help but think this is a pretty small section of the boar buying market though. The more mainstream fiscally motivated boar buyers will be highly tempted by the Stirling badger. The Euro market and volume of sales / diversification will keep Semogue and Omega doing fine for the near future, but American cheap brush buyers may increasingly gravitate to the Stirling over time.
- Will have some effect on the cheap synth brush market. First time buyers will probably still prefer the Kong or comparably priced rivals. Easier to use, no bad smell, softer. However, some first timers will take the Stirling badger plunge, and many synth brush purchasers will make this badger their second brush, or part of the same purchase when they get the synth.
All in all, I think this brush will be a big hit, and it deserves to be. My advice to Stirling: keep the $30 price, fix the bad and somewhat lengthy animal stink if you can, step up bristle density about 20%, and knit the knot tighter to cut down on those wild straggler bristles. And maybe print the logos on the handles in a more resilient manner.
This brush is undoubtedly exciting. When I first started wet shaving two years ago, cheap badgers were either utter crap or heavily compromised moderately effective designs that reminded you that you were in the penalty box for cheap wet shaving dudes. With the Stirling, you are getting 75% of the Duke 3 experience at about 33% of the price. The minor QC problems and the loading limitation issue are the sole reminders of how much you paid, and these will not be a major detriment for most buyers. Stirling will sell a lot of these and justifiably so.
The big question: will this brush nudge its way into my rotation of Kents, Shavemacs, Simpsons, and Savile Row? It might, if that logo fades away completely (half a logo is worse than none!), and if the horizontals don’t start making the brush look like Albert Einstein’s hair over time. In the meantime, if you by some chance do not already own a badger, or if you own something by Escali, you should already be online placing your order for this Stirling!
Grade: A- awarded. The Stirling is very close to perfect in its core functions of providing quality lather and an excellent face feel, and the problems noted are minor. Still, in a world where one can get an extremely well made synth for $12, a $30 badger with even minor noticeable QC issues will cause some buyers to hesitate. The extra loading needed is not one of these issues, as that can easily be worked around, but the wild hairs and vanishing logo ruin what might have been a perfect score.
The Stirling, though an impressive and competent brush, does not entirely transcend its’ $30 price point in terms of build quality, at least not in this first iteration. The stray hairs and fading logo are perfectly acceptable in a $30 brush, but the $40 Shave Revolution badger looks a lot better made for not very many dollars more.
I also emphasize that the fading of the drab logo from the ordinary handle is not going to cause me any sleepless nights. However, when Stirling’s own cheaper Kong stablemate has a better, longer lived printed logo, I feel that Stirling has missed something here.
I do expect these issues to be non-factors for many, and I also expect that Stirling will continue to improve this product line over time, but even as is, this is a fine brush, worthy for purchase by both newbies and brush collectors looking for the world’s first good cheap badger.