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The Three Elements of Shaving

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Shaving, for many men today, is a chore. It’s something like brushing your teeth. It’s a thing that you do every day and are happy just to get it over with.  Except for the discomfort, the bad results, and the ever growing expense of buying razors and throwing them away.  Then there’s there promise of a return to a better, golden past where men were men and shaving was done with razor sharp, naked steel. Shave like your great-granddad!  I don’t know about your great-grandpa, but mine wore a long beard. Probably because shaving was a pain even back then.

If you spend much time on sites like this one or watch videos about shaving on you might be a little put off at how much some of us get into shaving. It has become a ritual, a hobby. We proudly share photos of our bathroom counters covered with razors, blade packs, brushes, mugs, and endless lotions, balms, and skin treats. I love it, but even I admit it’s a bit nuts.

But what if you only want a really great shave? I’m here to tell you that you can get that superb “Baby Bottom Smooth” shave, actually save money and time, and feel great without making shaving your new pastime. If you want a hobby, go for it—I’m right there with you. But if you really want to shave like your grandfather did, you can cut corners, save money, and look sharp. That’s what grandpa did and shaving definitely wasn’t his hobby.

Shaving can be divided into three categories in their order of importance: technique, tools, and skin care. The most important of these is your technique. Get your technique right and you can overcome the shortcoming of your tools (razors and blades) to some degree. And the skin preps, shaving creams, balms and assorted goodies are mainly there for the pleasure of using them.  It boils down to this: learn to shave first, then worry about everything else later.

Improve Your Shaving Technique

Technique is the way that you shave. It doesn’t matter that much what you’re using to shave with, but how you shave will make the biggest difference in your results. The problem for most is us is that we were never taught how to shave properly, because our own fathers weren’t doing it well. The advent of the disposable razor helped to shape the shaving experience of the last couple of generations, trying to make shaving quick and easy. Just scrape off those whiskers, douse yourself in alcohol, and get on with the day.  That approach does not give you a good shave.

Want the best shave possible? Go to a barber. The best possible shave is achieved by using a finely honed straight razor in expert hands. But do you want to be this expert? It will take training and lots of practice. And that means practicing on your own face using a frightening sharp edged instrument. I’m not saying not to do it. Just don’t expect it to be easy at first. And if you do it, please get some help and advice.

I recently had a barber shave and I believe she (yes, it was a female barber) used a Gillette Fusion cartridge razor, not a great razor by any means. But she knew how to shave a face. It was a relaxing, luxurious experience and my skin felt great afterwards. It was like I didn’t have a beard at all. Find a barber who knows how to properly use a straight razor and you’re in for a treat.

Before you go out and buy lots of expensive razors and other goodies you really should learn how to shave correctly. Most guys that I know use disposable razors and do one pass, against the grain, and are done. That’s a lousy way to shave. They don’t seem to realize that the hair on their face and neck grows in different directions. If you have the patience and the right mentors (including videos online) you can learn to give yourself a great shave using a straight razor. But with very little effort you can get a great shave from a safety razor or even a disposable, if you use them the right way.

Here’s a tip: if you are currently shaving with a disposable razor, keep using it until you master the three-pass shaving technique. Only then move to a double edged or straight razor.

Step 1: Get to know your face and beard. Let your beard grow for two or three days, then run your fingertips over your face and neck. When you move your fingers in one direction you will slide over the hairs smoothly, but when you move them in the opposite direction you’ll feel the hairs resist and prickle your fingers. That’s the “against the grain” or ATG direction. Note how the direction changes with the planes of your face. For me, the hair on my cheeks grow down towards the floor, but from the point of my chin along my jaw line the hair grows back towards my shoulders. To shave well you need to intimately know your own face. Park yourself in front of a mirror and explore your face with your eyes and fingers.

Here’s a tip: when you think that you’ve had a great shave, wait for 24 hours, then run your fingertips over your face. Feel and note where the hair is more prickly. That’s where you’ll need to concentrate when you shave the next time.

Step 2: Stop scraping your face. One of the biggest mistakes that men make while shaving is to press the razor into their skin and pull hard. They use their other hand to pull and stretch the skin and bear down with the razor. Stop that. You are literally scraping the skin off with your beard, slicing into your face. This is what leads to razor burns and rashes as well as ingrown hairs. Shaving takes a light touch. That’s what you’ll learn if you get a barber shave. They let the razor do the work.

Unfortunately, a plastic disposable razor doesn’t weigh much, especially the head of the razor. That’s why we press them down hard. That pressing is causing your pain and trouble. Even with a plastic razor using a light touch will give you a better shave. If you progress to a safety razor (also called a double edged razor), you’ll find that the increased weight of the razor’s head will make shaving with a light touch much easier and effective.

There’s much to learn, including the proper angle that the blade should touch the skin, how to make short, smooth strokes, and how to hold your razor as you change directions with the planes of your face. Don’t expect to master it all in your first shave. It will probably take you two or three weeks to learn to shave this way.

Here’s a tip: If your face is ravaged from your shaving technique, try a light touch for a couple of weeks shaving only with the grain and let your face recover. That’s what dermatologists recommend for shaving, but dermatologists aren’t particularly interested in close shaves. Let your skin recover before trying for a closer, baby bottom smooth shave.

Step 3: Learn the three-pass shave technique. Don’t worry about getting the “best” razor or shaving cream yet. Stick with what you’ve been using and learn to improve your shaving technique. This simple process will dramatically improve your shaving results and it won’t add much time or effort to your daily shave. Do everything the same, except when it’s time to put the razor to your face remember which way your beard grows and do three separate passes over you skin. Re-apply your shaving cream between each pass.

And remember: use a very light touch!

You’ll shave:
•  WTG: With The Grain. That means shave first in the direction that your hair grows. Shift the razor as your beard direction changes.
•  XTG: Across The Grain. Lightly pass the razor across the direction that your hair grows.
•  ATG: Against The Grain. This last pass will get you the results that you’re looking for without the pain.

As you make these passes avoid pressing the razor into your skin. You can use your other hand to gently move the skin in places, for example, pull up to move the skin that sits along your jaw line up so that it’s flat along your cheek and easier to shave, but don’t pull it taut! Gentle, easy, and soft, please.

These light passes will gently cut the hairs of your beard, making them shorter with each pass AND will protect your skin. Learn to shave this way and you’ll be amazed at how much better your face looks and feels.

Choose Your Shaving Tools

If you’re looking to save money by changing the way you shave you’ll need to exercise caution. At first glance switching from disposables to double edge or safety razors seems much less expensive, except, of course, for the “startup costs.” And it’s greener, right?  If you really want to make a green impact, stop shaving altogether. But yes, reducing what you throw away is a great step forward towards a greener personal life. And yes, perhaps a bit less expensive.

The Safety (Double Edged) Razor

Double edge razor blades are much, much cheaper than disposable razors. If I track only my spending on blades I spend only about a third of what I was spending on disposable razors. If I buy in bulk I can reduce my costs to less than ten percent of disposables. That’s a big savings and it can make a real and effective “green” impact.

And, of course, you have to responsibly dispose of those used blades. The farmhouse where I grew up had a slot in the back of the medicine cabinet where you could “bank” your used blades. I imagine that the space between the wall studs was stacked with blades. You yourself can collect them in a container for safe disposal or recycling. Check with your local trash and recycling for their requirements. You might also find a local healthcare provider who will allow you to occasionally dispose of your blades with their “sharps” and medical waste.

But that’s just the blades. You’ll need to select a razor (some call them “shavers”). Safety razors have been made for over a hundred years and with a few exceptions, you can use most of them with modern blades. In many ways, razors manufactured up through the 1960’s are superior to today’s razors. They’re also becoming highly collectible—another danger of the “hobby” of shaving.

There are many excellent safety razors available today and many different price points. You’ll find terrific razors available for under fifty US dollars, but there’s no limit to what you can spend.

 Here’s a tip: don’t shave every day. I get a great shave after two days beard growth. The second day I still look presentable and most people won’t notice, at least until late in the second day. Let your face rest between close shaves, but still moisturize!

If you want to save money, first check with your family and see if anyone has an “heirloom” safety razor sitting in a drawer somewhere. If there’s none to be had, check with antique stores and flea markets. There are many “finds” in these places and since many of these razors are made of brass and stainless steel or plated in chrome they’ll clean up like new with a soak and a little tender loving care.

The Straight Razor

A really great straight razor will last for generations. I know men who are shaving with their grandfathers’ and great-grandfathers’ blades. I purchased a really fine straight razor, a C. V. Heljestrand MK #4, in the early 1980’s for next to nothing and expect to pass it along to a favored grandchild sometime in the far future. Even if you spend a couple of hundred dollars to purchase a straight razor today, that cost can be spread out over your entire lifetime, making it even cheaper than double-edged razor blades. That is, if you don’t count the costs of maintaining the blade.

To maintain your blade you’ll need a strop and sharpening stones to hone it. Or you’ll need to send your razor out to a professional for occasional sharpening. You’ll also need to oil and clean it. It takes skill and practice to maintain a straight razor. I think that it’s worth knowing how to do and for many it’s a relaxing practice. And on the plus side, when the zombie apocalypse rolls around, you’ll be among the clean-shaven.

Straight razors are another area where you can do well shopping in antique shops and flea markets, but it’s a good idea to get an education about razors, manufacturers, and blade conditions before you set out. I’d advise buying a new blade, one that’s “shave ready” and leave shopping for antique blade for later in your progression to shaving obsession. But don’t skimp on buying a straight razor. I’d advise to not focus too much on fancy scales (the handles of the blade) or beautifully etched blades. Shop for a blade that can maintain an edge.

 Caring for Your Skin—What You Really Need and What’s Just For Fun

For those of us who have gone a little nuts about shaving our bathroom counters are beginning to look like a 1930’s barber shop. But is it all necessary? Do you need to whip up a lather with a badger hair brush in a ceramic mug? How many balms, lotions, and creams do you really need?

Here’s my answer: two. All that you really need is a passible shaving cream or gel and a good skin moisturizer.

I don’t see much benefit from a pre-shave skin routine and a multi-step after-shave process. It can be highly pleasurable, but it’s not really necessary. While the skill of whipping up shaving soap can be fun and rewarding, it’s not a requirement to get a close shave.

Here’s a tip: throw out that alcohol-based aftershave. It will dry out your skin. Use a moisturizer instead. You don’t need the sting.
I use an aloe-based shaving gel to shave. It’s inexpensive and gives me a super-slick surface as well as conditions my skin. You can purchase 100% aloe gel cheaply and it works great. After my shave I use a facial moisturizer, a cheap but good one. And I use it every day, even when I don’t shave, including application first thing in the morning and before bed at night.  I use a “store brand” lotion with a 15 SPF rating, giving my face a little protection from the sun and UV rays.

I’m not saying don’t go out and buy expensive lotions and nice smelling creams. They’re wonderful to use. But they won’t do much more for you than the cheap lotion that you can pick up  at your local store.  If you do buy fancy and expensive creams be sure that you understand that they’re a luxury, not a necessity.

Enjoy The Close Shave, But Know What’s Important

It is deeply satisfying to learn a new skill. Shaving is one of those neglected areas of life where a few changes can make a big difference in how you look and feel. You can save money without going completely nuts and making it into a hobby. Just remember these three things: first learn how to shave, then find the right shaving tools for you, and finally learn how to properly care for your skin.

Everything else is above and beyond your basic needs. Collecting razors, stocking up on interesting soaps and lotions, even perfecting your shaving cabinet can be fun and rewarding, but at that point it’s no longer about the shave.

Randy Murray

Randy Murray

27 thoughts on “The Three Elements of Shaving”

  1. Was wondering if you could tell me exactly what you use for your daily shave routine. Knowing myself, I can really get into something and spend an inordinate amount of money on something before developing it as a hobby. Specifically, which passable cream, non-alcoholic aftershave, and facial moisturizer do you use?
    Thank you kindly.

    1. I’m currently using Proraso shaving soap with Eucalyptus & Menthol and the Proraso after shave balm.
      When traveling I forgo the bowl brush and shaving soap and use the King of Shaves gel.
      For moisturizer, I use a Target brand moisturizer with an 15 SPF for a bit of daily sun protection.

  2. In a fit of rage, I found your blog while doing a search for why, in 2014 are we still scraping our faces with a sharpened piece of steel. After 42 years of shaving, trying every possible method, I’m sitting here typing with one hand while trying to staunch a major bleed on my chin. our faces are not flat and blemish free, but we use a flat piece of steel to do the job. yes I have a hard face to shave, but there must be someone out there working on an alternative, please! Sorry for the windy rant. I stopped calling it “shaving” years ago It’s “blood letting” to me. Btw good write up. Mike.

    1. I feel for you, Mike. For most of my adult life, from the time I was 16 or so, I’ve worn a full beard. From time to time I’d shave a bit here and there, but then let it grow our again. But as the hair on top departed and the rest turns mostly gray I find that I look best with just a VanDyke.
      I never cared for shaving either, and the reason was that I was never taught how to shave. It takes instruction, practice, and the right approach. After the lost years between when fathers would train their sons how to shave and this Renaissance where the internet can teach you we suffered through the disposable age (where we were promised by TV commercials that anyone could do it). I’m learning to shave now, better and better.
      My advice to you: if you don’t have to shave, don’t. If you want to shave, then set a path towards learning how, improving your skin care, and never accepting the pain as inevitable.
      Good luck to you!

      1. Thanks Randy. I’ve had beards etc. over the years, and even my wife says maybe grow one. I guess it’s time again.
        Thanks again, Mike.

  3. Pingback: Avant d’acheter – 3 éléments à considérer – Sharpologist | La Boutique du Barbier

  4. Great article!
    I recently switched to a non-alcoholic after shave balm. It does feel good, but I’m worried about its antiseptic properties. Is it good enough to prevent an infection?
    And like you mentioned, I’d prefer not to use multiple products.
    The one I’m using is Every Man Jack aftershave balm. What difference does this have compared to a moisturizing cream?

    1. Most non-alcohol balms and moisturizers have no antiseptic properties. If you’re concerned about that you might consider using an Alum stick. It can stop the bleeding from nicks and cuts, too. Wet the stick, rub it over your face, air dry, then apply your balm or moisturizer.
      Keep an eye on your razor and blades, too. Might be a good time for a tetanus booster!

  5. I’ve forgotten the ‘important’ details, but there are monks in the Far East, I believe it is, who ritually depilate the entire body by pulling out hairs individually — meaning that they extract one hair at a time, not that it’s a solitary act. I think the actual process is done by one or more monks to another. : ] I doubt that any balms or conditioning agents other than religious conviction are used.
    Perhaps it’s better to regard meticulous, old-school DE or Straight Edge shaving as a Zen Event or religious rite where facial hair removal is concerned. I don’t know why I recalled that, or why the hell I thought it relevant. ; ]

    1. A pair of clam shells can be used as tweezers in these circumstances.
      And I agree with you. When I think about old-school DE shaving, I imagine my grandpa would have made one trip to the store, bough his razor with less than a minute’s contemplating, and that was his razor for life. I seriously doubt that there were many, outside of barbers and the idle rich that spent much time at all about shaving.

  6. What moisturizer do you use that you think is cheap? I’ve not found one that works for me that didn’t cost over $10. Just because it’s cheap doesn’t mean it works great.

    1. I use the Target store version of Cetaphil’s Daily Facial Moisturizer. It includes SPF 15 protection. I think it’s just under $10 and I’ve noticed a big difference in my skin (including dry skin around my ears) since I’ve been using it.
      No, cheap doesn’t equal good, no more that expensive equals good.

  7. I’ve been wetshaving for two years now. (wow! It has been two years already?! I’ve just realized that! lol)
    And I agree with you when you say all those expensive things aren’t really necessary.
    At first I got caught up with that “hobby” approach. But, except for the razor, I can find everything I need here in Brazil at the local drugstore or even at the neighborhood supermarket. I bought a boar brush at the supermarket, Brazilian wilkinson’s sword blades and shaving cream at the drugstore. I have only two razors (a Mergress… yes, quite a tool that I bought during my “hooby days”) and a cheap Gillette DE made in India (the sterling) that I use when I’m traveling.
    Man… that Mergress… I think I’m set for life with that thing! 😀

  8. Randy,
    Very nice primer on wet shaving, the hows and whys.
    Like many on the forums, I’ve succumbed to the various AD’s, yet I know shaving is really all about good prep, good technique and skin care after the shave.
    Nice first article on Sharpologist. Thanks.

      1. Randy,
        I was remiss yesterday in not specifically thanking you for your ‘Three Elements’ article. Your moisturizer suggestion today is also appreciated. Having recently revisited the joys of DE blade shaving, I’m looking for tips to improve the experience.
        Thanks again for a great article.

    1. I use a strong alcohol-based aftershave (Tabac) as a barometer of the quality of my shave–the more the sting, the worse I did. When dry, I apply a good moisturizing balm like those from Muhle, Prorase and Prairie Creations.

    2. Randy, a very well-written and concise overview of wet shaving basics with pointers for shavers with all levels of experience.
      I agree that wet shaving requires practice. We pick up habits from years of cartridge use that do not translate well to DE and straight razor shaving. Wet shaving is a manly art to be learned and appreciated.
      Thanks for an article well done!

  9. Just re-discovered the joy of ‘blade’ shaving thanks to Sharpologist/mantic59. Go back? NO WAY. Having a great time – a soothing experience while my wallet takes a rest. mantic59’s and other tips on Sharpologist rock (and roll with ease)!

  10. I think you meant “with the grain” in the following sentence:
    Here’s a tip: If your face is ravaged from your shaving technique, try a light touch for a couple of weeks shaving only against the grain and let your face recover.

    1. First thing I noticed when I read this earlier. Didn’t have time to post, though. Glad it has been addressed since I got back.
      Overall I think this is a very sound article and can benefit those looking to improve their shaves, but perhaps not quite ready to give up carts or canned lather. But I think there is one major, almost universally important factor that hasn’t been addressed here: Hydration! IMO, too many men splash a bit of water on their face and then glob on the cream/gel. The first, and most important, step to proper face preparation is to get the face completely hydrated. A splash or two of water just doesn’t cut it.! Perhaps not everyone needs this step, but I’d be willing to bet it would take care of a number of issues for many men suffering from irritation.
      Along with hydration, prep in general is a bit shortchanged a bit in this article, IMO. But I don’t want to pick nits, as there are some very valuable tips in this article. Well done, for the most part.

      1. And excellent point. Hydration is important, but not that difficult. A good soak in the shower prior to a shave will do it as well as a hot, wet, washcloth held to the face for a minute.

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