Do you have to shave by paying attention to the “grain” of the beard, the direction in which the hair grows? I say no…as long as you keep a few things in mind.
Ignoring Grain – The Inspiration
I recently received this message:
I have been DE shaving since October 2016. What an interesting and fun journey it has been. I started DE shaving not so much to save money as to get a better shave.
Along the way I have discovered that I have very sensitive skin with medium to coarse whiskers. Most scented artisan soaps are a no go for me and I have settled on the wonderful Mitchell’s Wool Fat and white or green Proraso cream.
It seems that in the wet shaving world, the gold standard is three passes being WTG (North to South), the XTG (West/East), and finally ATG (South to North). I am currently doing four passes, the fourth pass being and additional XTG.
I have found, however, that regardless of the razor and blade combination, the first North to South pass (with rare exceptions) is always smooth, blood free, burn free, irritation free and bump free. The trouble starts when I shave in the other directions regardless of razor and blade combo, the more aggressive razors and blades being the worst of course. Blood or burn or irritation or a combination are almost always inevitable.
Shaving North to South for that first pass, while being smooth and easy, is not sufficient to remove all the whiskers.
So this brings me to my question(s). Is it possible to do all three passes North to South? Do you think a fairly close shave is still possible with this method? Have you or others you know tried this? If so, what were the results? Do you think it is imperative to use an aggressive razor/blade combo only, in order to achieve a close(r) shave using this method?”
Most reading that message would suggest a different blade and/or razor, thinking something is too aggressive. And that would certainly be the conventional wisdom.
But there is also a deceptively simple question: “Is it possible to do all three passes North to South?” How about ignoring “grain” altogether?
In my own case, I shave two passes (three if I haven’t shaved for a while) without respect to “grain” with a final pass predominantly against the grain. Let me show you how I do it and how you might be able to do it too, or not pay attention to grain at all….
Skip to the end of this article for an explanation of my “hybrid” approach.
“Method” Shaving – Independent Of Grain
For some background on this question, let’s revisit “Method” shaving. This was a specific style of wet shaving promoted by the late Charles Roberts, in which reduction passes are accomplished in specific directions without respect to the beard’s “grain.” This is done through “cutting forms” (specific directions on specific passes), standardized hardware and a specially-mixed lather (more on that later).
First And Second Pass
The first and second passes are shaved with “Form 1”– “North/South” (re-lathering between passes):
If the shaver has an exceptionally heavy beard, or had not shaved for more than a couple days, additional Form 1 passes may be necessary.
After re-lathering, the third pass is shaved with “Form 2”– basically inward and down:
Finally, after re-lathering, the forth pass is shaved with “Form 3”–essentially shaving inward and up:
After these bulk reduction passes Roberts claimed that the shaver could achieve a “90% reduction” of the stubble. The final 10% to that “glass smooth” result is accomplished with a “glossing pass” through alternating variations of the second and third Forms along with changing the characteristics of the lather itself and manipulating the razor’s blade edge angle.
The Mix – Lather In Method Shaving
Lather in Method shaving–the “mix”–is very important. Late versions of Method shaving included specially-blended products under Charles Roberts’ Hydrolast label (no longer in production). However earlier versions used a combination of traditional products including a relatively large shaving brush with “silvertip” hair primed with Marseille soap and a small amount of high quality traditional lathering shave cream (Roberts often preferred the now defunct Coates shave cream or a Trumper shave cream). Priming a brush with soap then adding cream is now commonly referred to as “super lather.”
The take-away from this is that Method shaving requires a really good lather for it to perform properly.
How It Works In Practice
Yes, it sounds kind of complicated and Charles made it appear more complicated than it was with unnecessary verbal puffery but in practice Method shaving seemed to work pretty well for many of those who stuck with it, as long as they kept these points in mind:
- Shave every day.
- Make a really good lather.
- Use the standardized set of tools and techniques to reduce variables.
My experiment with Method shaving back in the day was largely successful, with the exception of “2QL,” the left quadrant, which I could never seem to get “glass smooth.”
The Razor/Blade Aspect?
Method shaving standardized on the Merkur Heavy Duty (34C) razor with a Feather blade. But that was when there were far fewer choices on the market than there are now. Let’s put aside “cutting forms” and lather for the moment and look at today’s razors that may be applicable to the topic at hand.
Many slant bar razor users “report better shaves with slants as compared to conventional DE razors; in particular a closer, more efficient shave without irritation.”
“Who should use a slant? Daily shavers or several times a week shavers. Those with tough, coarse beards. Shavers looking for more efficiency in their shaves. More controversially, those with sensitive skin may find a slant offers efficiency without irritation, but again we are bumping up against the issue of efficiency and how the slant achieves that if we are going to postulate ‘cuts great, irritates less’.”
The “Gillette Slide?”
The Gillette Slide might replace a slant razor when used competently with a conventionally-designed head. The disadvantage of using technique in place of hardware is you cannot get a consistently equal result.
What about using an adjustable razor (like the Parker Variant, Rex Ambassador, or Merkur Progress)? It’s certainly something I know a thing or two about. 🙂
I have found that, generally-speaking, the first pass with an adjustable razor set to a low setting will take off the bulk of the stubble most comfortably and without irritation.
After re-lathering I dial up to a higher setting to reduce more of the stubble while still maintaining a lower chance of irritation, since most of the hair length has been cut down by previous passes.
However I will dial down again for touch up strokes near the end of the shave to reduce the chance of over-shaving an area.
What about using a razor with a pivot? There are two factors at work here, pivoted razors that have more than one blade like the mass-market cartridge razors; and pivoted razors with a single blade like the OneBlade, the Focus Dynamic, the Gillette Guard (AKA Gillette Treo), or even the Leaf razor (with only one blade loaded).
Mass-market, multi-blade pivot razors are designed to work in conjunction with shaving grain-wise…that is, with the awareness of how the shaver’s stubble grows. However they might be workable under some circumstances if the shaver is not purposely shaving against the grain immediately. More on that later.
Pivoted razors with a single blade are generally milder razors in my opinion. And, given a slight tweak in technique that they may need (biasing the way the razor is held to favor the top of the razor’s head during the first pass), they can be easy to work with and can produce great results.
Putting Everything Together
Looking at all this background I think the case can be made that, under certain circumstances, a reasonable shave can be accomplished with a minimum of irritation regardless of how the stubble grows–as long as that single direction does not happen to be one that is predominantly against your grain. You will have to experiment to find which single direction works best for you.
It seems to boil down to the amount of stubble reduction desired. You probably will never get that “baby’s butt” smoothness on the skin by shaving in a single direction–or even two. But there are levels of reduction that may acceptable to you.
For this idea to work best you must:
- Shave daily (absolutely no less than every-other-day).
- Prepare for the shave well.
- Use a really good lather/lubricant.
- Reduce variables: use the same razor, blade type, and lather product whenever possible
- Do not attempt to get a “baby’s butt” close shave but rather a “darn fine” shave that looks great on you.
So…are you looking for maximum stubble reduction or an easy, consistent, “good enough” shave?
For A “Good Enough” Shave By Shaving In A Single Direction
This will require two or three passes (in the same direction) with a razor that has a reputation as being relatively “gentle,” such as:
- Feather Popular
- Feather AS-D2
- OneBlade (Genesis or Core)
- Rockwell Razors 6S or 6C with the #1 or #2 base plates
- Supply Injector with the 1 base plate
- Original PAA Double Open Comb
- Gillette Guard
- An adjustable razor (such as the Parker Variant) at a low setting
After preparing for the shave, lather up and use relatively short, slightly overlapping strokes in your chosen direction. Use a “Gillette Slide” stroke motion if you are comfortable with it. After the first pass rinse well and re-lather–the lather should be slightly thinner this time. Again, use short, slightly overlapping strokes but this time “straight on” instead of the sliding motion.
Alternatively, use Method shaving Form 1 (shown earlier) for the first pass and Form 2 for the second. If you want to try for three passes, use Form 1 for the first two and Form 2 for the third.
If you are using an adjustable razor you should try shaving the first pass at a very low setting and shave the second pass at a slightly higher setting.
For Maximum Stubble Reduction Shaving In A Single Direction
If you are willing to risk a higher chance of irritation use a comparatively more “aggressive” razor such as:
- Rockwell 6S or 6C with the #5 or #6 base plate
- Supply Injector with the “Aggressive” base plate
- A slant razor
- An adjustable razor at a high setting
- A mass market cartridge razor with three (or fewer) blades
Once again, you will need to prepare for the shave well and use a really good lubrication product (e.g. lather). And you will probably want to shave with two passes, rinsing and re-lathering between passes, using short, slightly over-lapping strokes.
If you are using a fully adjustable razor you can try shaving the first pass at a “middle” setting and shaving the second pass at a higher setting.
Or you can try using different razors for each pass. Admittedly you may find this method unappealing if you’re trying for an easy, uncomplicated shave but it is certainly worth consideration if you already have several razors.
What About More Than One Direction?
If you are willing to experiment a bit you may get more stubble reduction by adding an additional pass from a completely different direction, either 90 degrees or 180 degrees away from the first passes.
My “Hybrid” Approach Is An “Awareness” Of Grain
To put “grainless” shaving in perspective let me describe how I have shaved for a number of years. To understand it better, here is how my face stubble grows:
As you can see, stubble grows on my face predominantly left-to-right.
I typically shave with a first pass straight down.
My second pass is straight up.
My third pass is right-to-left.
With just a bit of touch up (blade buffing, J-hooking) I can achieve a “baby’s butt” close shave, with little to no irritation, almost every time (YMMV).
This is effectively two cross-grain passes followed by an against grain pass.
Subtleties Of My Technique
My routine above is generally what I do no matter what razor and lather I am using. But I do make a few subtle “tweaks” depending on circumstances:
If I’m using an adjustable DE (which was almost every shave until I tried the OneBlade) my first pass is on a low setting (if I have a longer, multi-day stubble I repeat the first pass at a slightly higher setting). I dial up for the following passes, then back down again for the touch-up.
If I use a non-adjustable DE I will usually shave the first pass with a “Gillette Slide” on the stroke. If my stubble is particularly thick (like from not shaving for a few days) I will re-lather and repeat the first pass with a conventional stroke.
If I’m using a pivoted razor like the OneBlade (which is now my “daily driver”) I will bias the razor toward the top of the head, creating a slightly shallower blade-edge-to-skin angle, for the first pass.
I always prepare well (either by shaving immediately after showering or by cleansing my face before shaving if I have not showered).
I almost always use a really good shave soap or shave cream (if there’s any question about the quality of my “software” I will prime my brush to make a “super lather”). If I have to use a “brushless” product for some reason I usually limit myself to two straight-down passes and call it a day.
I will usually thin my lather slightly (by adding just a bit more water to my face) for the second and third passes, to cut just a bit closer. I will squeeze out some thick, super-hydrated lather from the brush for my touch-ups.
The Bottom Line
Can you ignore the way stubble grows while shaving and just shave “North to South” with multiple passes, getting progressively closer with each pass? I think yes, you can, if you are willing to do some experimentation up front: it may not be “North to South” that gets you the best results. You also need to prepare very well, use a really good lather, and settle for a “good” shave instead of a “great” shave.
Personally, I think it is more effective to be aware of how your stubble grows and use that knowledge to shave in the predominant directions that provide the most reduction with the least irritation.
It is also worthwhile to consider the long-term effect of shaving on the skin: you certainly don’t want to shave in such a way as to damage the skin by being too aggressive.
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