I’ve had an itch to shave with a straight razor since I was about 21 years old. In those days I wanted to do it for ecological reasons because there’s nothing to throw away except rinsing the biodegradable soap down the drain. I wasn’t a shaving hobbyist then. I allowed myself to be talked out of a straight because everyone I approached about the idea was convinced I would do myself grave injury, and strongly advised against pursuing such a foolish course of action. After all, the safety razor was invented for a good reason.
How To Shave With A Barber’s Straight Razor?
Fast forward about forty years. Now a happy, obsessive double-edge safety-razor (DE) shaver, I have realized I had only one last mountain to climb in my quest for the optimal shave. When I strove for the closest shaves with my DE, I was always left with minor irritation on my sensitive skin. Oh, it was nothing serious, but I speculated that if I could reduce the cutting angle between blade and skin – which you can’t really control much with a DE – the shave might be perfect. The logical option was a straight razor.
However, the cost, maintenance, and inconvenience of a traditional straight razor and related gear was problematic. So after researching barbers’ straights, with their replaceable blades, I chose the Parker SRX (Ed. note: Amazon* link, Grooming Lounge* link. Use your favorite search engine to find other sources. Another heavy barber’s straight that is often compared favorably to classic straight razors is the Feather Artist Club*). This razor is heavy – more in the ballpark of a traditional straight – because it’s made of stainless steel throughout (though the weight distribution is likely different due to the weight of the scales). It is also likely to be extremely durable, uses a recyclable blade so that no honing and stropping is required and the replaceable blade is a half-DE blade so I don’t have to buy special, more costly versions. Perfect, I thought.
I was aware of the opinion held by many that a straight razor with a replaceable blade – often referred to as a shavette – was very different from a traditional straight razor. These beliefs often included the assertion that a barbers’ straight razor was more difficult and therefore more dangerous to use. I figured that, whether true or not, barbers the world over are using these razors, so if they could learn to use them, so could I.
The First Challenge: Inserting a Blade
The blade-holding design of the SRX is such that the blade, the sharp edge, is sandwiched between two halves of the razor and secured with a pivoting clasp. It’s a durable, proven design that securely holds the replaceable blade. Some find this design difficult to open – especially when new – but after some experimentation I found the best, safest method:
To open the Parker SRX to change blades – after pivoting the scales and clasp of the razor out of the way – hold the shank of the razor in your non-dominant hand. Then with the tip of your thumb of the opposite hand, insert it like a wedge in the indentation at the point of the razor. If you wedge your thumb tip sufficiently, this will separate the halves of the razor enough to clear the replaceable-blade-positioning pins, and then the razor halves can be pivoted apart like one fans a hand of cards. After that it’s easy to position the replaceable blade and close up the razor.
The more easily the edge of the razor slips through hair as you shave, the more delicate you can be with your grip and the lower the force you must apply with the razor. This is important because the softer and more yielding your beard, the better and safer will be your shave with the straight.
This means that you will want to ensure that your beard has been well warmed and saturated with water. I tend to shower in the evening and shave in the morning, so for my straight shaves I wash my face with old-school ladies’ Noxzema cream (I’ve come to enjoy the menthol/eucalyptus bouquet). Next I rinse and further hydrate my beard with warm water rubbed in several times. Then I rub shave oil well into my stubble. I may take a minute or so to prepare my shave gear for the shave, and then I’ll apply a warm, wet cloth to my beard. Then I apply shave soap to my whiskers and face lather.
How to Hold the Barbers’ Straight
There aren’t any hard-and-fast rules when it comes to shaving including how to hold one’s barber’s straight razor; it’s a very practical and personal undertaking. Yet I figured that barbers have extensive training and experience, so in reviewing the written and video references available including both vintage and modern, I was impressed by the lightness and sensitivity of the grip that many barbers demonstrate. Though the professionals don’t show a consensus of preference for their finger positioning in the basic straight-razor grip, it seemed that more often than not they held the razor with three fingers on the shank side of the scales, and just the pinky finger on the tang.
In videos I sometimes hear non-barbers explain that they don’t use this three-and-one grip because their hands are too large. Okay, maybe, but barbers and barbers’ manuals will often show the third finger riding up the scales (not directly on the shank of the razor) and having the scale-to-shank angle at about 135 degrees rather than the 90 degrees that non-professionals seem to prefer. This larger scale-to-shank angle works well with any straight, but especially with the SRX because of the weight in the scales. This greater-than-90-degree angle of scales to shank diminishes the tendency of the weighty scales to unduly influence the angle of blade to skin, thus giving the user better control of that blade-skin angle.
Coping with the Sharpness of a Disposable Blade
It’s often said that both the stiffness and sharpness of a barber’s straight razor’s edge makes it more tricky to use, more likely to nick and cut. This may be accurate; I can’t judge because I’ve never used a traditional straight.
To address this concern when initially using the barbers’ straight, it may be safer to dull the corners of the edge and perhaps cork the entire edge a stroke or two. This will certainly shorten the useful life of the edge, but if your beard isn’t overly tough, it may reduce the risk for the first few shaves. But be careful about using too dull a blade. A dull blade might skip over whiskers and make a hard landing resulting in a cut. (Believe me, I’m speaking from experience on this one.)
This suggestion to cork the blade may be most appropriate if you’re only shaving limited geography at the start such as the planes of your cheeks.
I found that after a week or so, when I had become more accustomed to a very light touch and a more appropriate angle of razor to skin, I did better with a fresh, unadulterated blade that was sharp and therefore more easily cut whiskers. At the time I’m writing this, I’m finding that by the third shave on a blade in my straight, it may begin to pull dangerously as I’m shaving my lower lip and chin. This is a sure sign that it’s time to change blades.
Compare this three-shave straight-razor limitation to double-digit shaves with a blade in a DE. The safety of the safety razor allows (me, at least) to get many more shaves from a DE blade in its safety razor than from the half-DE blade in my barbers’ straight. Of course, with both instruments, making oblique strokes (discussed below) lengthens the useful life of any cutting edge.
Happy Landings and First Strokes
As I was first adjusting to my barbers’ straight, my initial wounds sometimes occurred from carelessness when initially setting the razor against skin. I found (the hard way) that the best method for starting shaving strokes – especially when first learning – was to lay the blade flat and motionless against skin. Then tilt the razor to a mild angle of about 20 to 30 degrees, and begin very light, short strokes.
I’ve noticed from watching many demonstration videos that amateurs tend to make longer shaving strokes, and barbers tend to make shorter ones. I also notice that barbers often seem to handle the razor delicately, with their hand and fingers rather relaxed. This expert relaxation facilitates sensitivity and control: two characteristics needed when removing hair from sensitive skin with an incredibly sharp implement.
Oblique Strokes Facilitate Light, Safe Strokes
Skewed strokes – also called oblique strokes – cut easier. Every wood worker, who uses hand tools such as chisels or hand planes, knows this. It’s also true for shaving implements. Vintage how-to-shave manuals that describe straight-razor-shaving techniques often mention using these skewed strokes. The well-known so-called Gillette Slide is also a type of skewed stroke (although it is often attempted in a difficult and more dangerous way than is described below).
Making these oblique strokes is easier than it seems. The trick is to first determine the direction that you want to stroke the razor. Then position the razor edge so that it’s slightly skewed (that is, not perpendicular) to the intended direction of the stroke. Then make the stroke. It’s actually quite easy. With a straight razor of any kind, either the toe or the heel of the blade might slightly lead when making the skewed stroke.
Whether the heal or toe of the razor leads depends on what is most convenient and comfortable for you in any given situation. For me, in some geography of my beard it’s easier to slightly lead with the heel of the razor; in other areas I lead with the toe. The razor doesn’t need to be skewed much, but a little off perpendicular to the stroke direction really does help to make the strokes safer. This is because the additional ease of cutting with skewed strokes allows for lower force to be applied, and this facilitates your strokes being sensitive, delicate and more able to follow the contours of your skin without inflicting damage.
The dangerous way to make a skewed stroke is shown in old Gillette DE razor instructions, and has misled men for generations. The old Gillette illustration shows the blade edge parallel to the floor and the stroke direction is downward but on the diagonal. Though this is a skewed or oblique stroke, the drawing suggests the technique is one of slicing a razor across the beard. This is a dangerous way to conceive of an oblique stroke. Instead, make your strokes in the usual or easiest direction, but simply lock the blade edge at a slight angle off perpendicular to the stroke direction.
Stretch Your Skin
You will get a safer and closer shave if you stretch your skin slightly as you stroke with the straight razor. This can be done with your free hand, or by contorting your face and head to stretch the desired portion of the skin being shaved. However I do question the frequent assertion in demonstration videos that by stretching the skin and shaving only with the grain of the beard, one can get a close shave. This is not true – not on my face anyway. Stretching the skin does allow a closer shave than not stretching, but for me to get a truly close shave, I still have to shave against the grain. Maybe it’s different for others.
By the way, this is not to say that I routinely shave everywhere against the grain with my straight. I’m still learning, gaining experience, and at this point, I do a first pass with the straight. This first pass does include shaving against the grain on my lower neck, which continues to go well – no problems. I have a couple of times done a second, against-grain pass with the straight, but this is not an every-day thing. Time will tell whether I choose to go that way. For now, I will often do a second pass against grain with a DE razor. So far, if I’ve done a second pass with the straight, I’ve skipped my chin and lower lip.
Gradually Increase Acreage
I tend to agree with some of the straight-shaving demonstrators on video, who recommend keeping your straight-razor shaving simple and increase its use over time. For example, on the first days with a straight, I think it’s wise to only shave the planes of your cheeks, stop there, and finish the shave with a safety razor.
You might shave entirely using your dominant hand, or choose to shave your right cheek with the razor in your right hand and vice versa for the left cheek. I do; I use my left (non-dominant) hand on the left side of my face and, interestingly, have probably had fewer minor nicks and cuts with that hand even though I feel more confident using my right hand. Perhaps it was early overconfidence that led to more wounds with my dominant hand.
After you’re comfortable shaving the planes of your cheeks, you might then keep going, shaving downward across the jaw line, under the jaw and on the neck. I successfully shave those areas all with downward strokes even though the grain of my beard runs sideways under my jaw line and upwards on my lower neck.
The next area to tackle might be upper and lower lips. These areas are generally more difficult, and require more concentration and care. And last is the chin, which can be really tricky if you have a prominent chin with lots of interesting contours. Make small, light strokes. Take your time. Re-lather when things dry out. You’ll get it eventually.
To Rinse or Not to Rinse
Another interesting difference between professional and amateur straight users in the on-line demonstration videos is how shaving lubricant is removed from the razor. Amateurs tend to rinse the razor under running water from the tap. Professionals tend to wipe the blade on a towel or the palm of their free hand.
If your straight is vintage style or a barbers’ razor made of material that might eventually rust, it seems to me that wiping the razor makes the most sense. This is especially true of traditional straights, where moisture that gets into the pivot joint of the scales might be difficult to remove and would, therefore, be likely to encourage corrosion.
Another reason to avoid water is that wet hands may hold the razor less surely. The last thing that I want is a straight razor slipping in my grip. I also don’t want to hold the razor tightly; I want to hold it lightly, sensitively, to facilitate a delicate cutting stroke. No water for me, thanks. Depending on my shave lubricant and my whim, I will wipe on a wash cloth, a paper towel or the palm of my non-razor hand. I use the paper towel when I’m using an oil-based shave lubricant such as Old Woodward Shave Butter. When using a shave soap, I’ll wipe my straight on the same damp wash cloth that I used to warm and wet my beard at the start of the shave. Sometimes I’ll wipe the razor on my free palm and then rinse that off under the tap at the appropriate moment. I will then dry my hands before again picking up the razor.
I reached a low point in my barbers’-razor experiment about a week in. Tired of the minor nicks and cuts as well as the rough, stubbly outcomes with the straight alone, I had moments when I was ready to throw in the towel, acknowledge defeat, and go back to my favored DEs. Then I mentioned to some of my university students before class about my shaving doings and one of the young women thought it was particularly cool to shave with a straight. This small encouragement from a pretty young co-ed was enough to give me a second wind. The next day I used the straight again.
I’m glad that I kept on. My shaves got better, closer and with significantly fewer errors. Then not long after that I did my first second pass using the straight.
I’m still not sure where this whole process will end up. I do know that it’s poured new enthusiasm into me for shaving. I look forward to my morning shave just like I did when I was a newbie first shaving with DEs. Well, I am a newbie – at least with the barbers’ razor. And I enjoy the challenge so much that on many days I have an impulse to shave a second time in the afternoon or evening – just for fun. But I don’t; I resist that impulse.
I have noticed that I’m getting really good shaves when doing a first pass with the straight and a final pass with additional clean-up strokes with my favorite DE. The outcomes tend to be super close and with no irritation to speak of.
So I guess in some ways just a few weeks into this process, I’ve pretty much accomplished my initial goal: a great shave with no insult, no irritation. But this is using a combination of straight and DE razors. Only time will tell how this will further evolve.
About the Author
Doug Hansford is a registered dietitian-nutritionist in Bloomfield Hills, Michigan, and specializes in treating conditions related to food sensitivity such as IBS, migraine, fibromyalgia and others. He is also part-time faculty at Wayne State University as well as a shaving hobbyist.