Tell your friends who only shop on Amazon to broaden their horizons and stop buying Escali, Bassion, and Perfecto shave brushes. No need to buy that boar anymore if price was your issue and not some need for penitential mortification of the face. The three models described in this article are probably the tip of the iceberg, as it was with synthetic shave brushes last year, and I think buying options will only expand in the next year with some related drop in prices. In the meantime though, most if not all of you should consider buying at least one of these quite good examples of cheap and good badger brushes.
The world of cheap brushes has already been covered by this reviewer in other Sharpologist pieces: synthetics here, and badgers here and here. This happy little affordable universe continues to expand, and interestingly, it’s midsize artisanal makers that are driving prices lower while offering exceptional quality. Simpson’s definition of an inexpensive brush of quality remains at the $65 price point, and the other bigger manufacturers like Shavemac, Thater, and Rooney have no real functional equivalent of cheap and good products.
In this piece, we will look at three two band badger brushes, offering us what the makers claim are ideal combinations of backbone and softness, all for well less than $50, and one for less than $30. Do the end results support the claims? Read on…
Stirling 26 X 54 Badger Black Handle ($40)
First, it’s somewhat low density made a full three pass load hard to secure with most soaps. Next, my particular brush had issues with its logo fading over time, and the “Stirling” branding eventually became first a “g” and then nothing at all. The brush still offered excellent value, very good performance at its price, and the fading logo problem was apparently confined to only a minute proportion of the initial run of brushes. It looked like Stirling could hardly improve on the design, especially at the price point.
Well, they could. The 26 X 54 succeeds well beyond the 24 X 54 in all ways and at roughly the same price.
Aesthetics & Ergonomics: Stirling uses the same meaty resin handle used on the 24 X 54 model. This is a fine handle, tapered for maximal grip, and (to me) is just the right size. The handle is 49mm tall. Weight is 82 grams. Of note, this brush is offered in two different colors and each color has a different loft – the white handle is the same height, but the 26mm knot mounted there is 58mm tall for a somewhat taller and less rigid knot. I like the black color better for both aesthetics and the shorter loft.
The brush weighs in at 82 grams, making it just about perfect in my book, and also being nicely balanced between knot and handle with the handle being slightly heavier, which is what I prefer.
The printed logo on the black 26 has been indelible even after much use, so Stirling has solved whatever problem they may have had with the 24 X 54 model branding.
The Stirling 26 x 54 is a semi-bulb, not dissimilar to the hybrid style knots Simpson offers, and opposed to the more bulbous Savile Row / Thater standard designs or the pure fans often seen in boar brushes and in many badgers as well, including one from Stirling, to be discussed soon.
When viewed from above, the Stirling knot is admirably dense and appealing, with no clumping or large gaps in the bristles noticeable. The minor issue Stirling had with the 24 X 54 with disorderly horizontal hairs pointing off haphazardly around the base of the knot has also been banished here, and even after much use the 26 X 54 still appears to be holding together cohesively.
In short, Stirling’s 26 X 54 black handle model punches far above its weight in design and attractiveness. The black color, though not as striking as some fancy swirled resin, or metal, or wood is still unusual in a world of predominantly white resin handles, and the Stirling has a simple functional dignity to it. I am happy to see the fading logo and unruly knot base stragglers banished.
The handle shape is just a tad generic and compared to something like a Simpson or Shavemac looks more like its actual price point. Given the price difference, it’s hard to criticize this issue, but the real competition is other less expensive brushes from Maggards, who generally offer somewhat more interesting and attractive handle shapes that are also highly functional. We’ll give them an A- rating for this aspect.
Performance: Again, Stirling has fixed whatever minor issues existed in their earlier 24mm model. The 26mm is more dense, and can hold ample soap for any number of passes. The brush is firm enough to easily load very hard soaps, yet the brush face feel is soft and pleasant, arguably more so than a brand new Simpsons Best. (The Simpson will mellow out over time, and will eventually feel as soft or softer than the Stirling, but from the start line, the Stirling seems much softer.)
The 26mm splays reasonably easily, not as much so as a synthetic would, but certainly more than one would expect from such a large, dense knot. This is a knot that can readily be used for bowl or face lathering, and does indeed answer the needs of those seeking backbone and softness. I can’t speak for how the 26 X 58 mm might perform, but I think the 26 X 54 is just about perfect at its dimensions.
The 26mm lost less than half a dozen hairs over two months of frequent use, so I think shedding will not be a problem for most users.
The 26mm does not have any issues with lather flow through, and does not hog any soap, even when brand new. The Stirling also cleans up relatively easily, not quite as easy as a synth, but certainly more efficiently than many equally dense name brand badgers do.
There really is nothing more I would ask for from a brush at less than the $125 price point. I have some brushes that have a plusher face feel and that retain more warmth in their core after soaking in hot water, but these brushes are in the price range of $130 to $180 and arguably offer relatively minor benefit for their more than 200% higher price. I will give the Stirling an A rating for Performance.
Conclusion: An attractive brush, pleasant to use, offering performance at well above its price point, the Stirling 26 x 54mm is hard not to recommend. Even if you own a collection of premium quality badgers, you will probably want to spend $40 on this brush just to see what can be accomplished with badger aggressively sourced to offer quality and value.
If you do not own a badger brush, this is a no-brainer purchase, especially if you bowl lather and / or alternate face and bowl lathering. (If you are a face latherer exclusively, you may want to read the next review for an alternative option.) The Stirling does not quite beat synthetics in some areas (absolute softness, speed of loading, quick drying time) but if you want a combination of backbone, softness, and value, this is one of the finest options that could be sought.
An enthusiastic A rating for the Stirling 26 X 54 mm brush seems inevitable and appropriate.
Stirling 24 X 50 Fan Badger Brush
Many (including myself) feel that face lathering is best done with a pure fan brush. Pure bulbs (typical of Savile Row and most German brush makers) have superior backbone in the taller central shaft but then a mushier feel along the perimeter of the knot, giving an uneven feel from one area of the brush to the other. The taller prominent central core of bristles makes bowl lathering and paint brush application easier, but is harder to splay and does not give one the consistent backbone that a fan shape would. Many makers follow the example of Simpson, and offer a hybrid shape that can do both sorts of common lathering tasks well, and I would say the other Stirling brush mentioned above is one of these hybrids.
To be clear, one can certainly face lather with a bulb or bowl lather with a fan, and most will simply find a hybrid is the best compromise. But if you are an experienced enough wet shaver to know that you do not want to bowl lather ever and want easily inducible splay along with goodly backbone, a fan knot may well be what you know you want.
Before the $39 Stirling two band fan knot, the cheapest specifically fan shaped knots were from Germans Shavemac and Thater: quite pricy for the knot sized offered, and generally with very limited availability, i.e. usually needing to be specially ordered from the manufacturer or online retailers that sell only at full list. The Stirling fan is a revolution in the field, offering a very prominent fan shape with excellent density and performance, and at a very low price.
Aesthetics & Ergonomics: The 24 x 50 is available in two handles: a moderately interesting black and a quite snazzy butterscotch. The diameter and loft are the same in both handles, unlike the 26 X 54 model, and the brush handle is taller and with more articulation. Measurements are 66mm tall handle, 50mm tall knot, 116 total mms (4.57 inches) tall. Weight is 95 grams, about 15% heavier than the 26 x 54 model. The extra weight is in the handle, giving a weighted balance that is lower in the brush, arguably superior for face lathering.
I personally find the 24mm a superior brush to use compared to its larger diameter brother in the line. The handle has more places to rest the fingers, the balance is more efficient, and the tapering shape makes the brush less fatiguing to use for long lathering sessions. Again, I face lather exclusively, and this inclination shapes my assessment of the Stirling fan brush. I also love the color, and the black lettering on the butterscotch handle has proven resilient over time.
I would rate this brush a solid A for its design, as long as one is face lathering with it.
This is a classic design synergy, where function has shaped form and produced an inexpensive brush that can easily compete with foreign imports that are three or four times its price. If the butterscotch is too wild for you, the black handle is quite refined and equally ergonomic. Like the 26mm, the Stirling 24 had no issue with wildly disordered stray horizontal hairs at the base (which plagued my very first 24 x 54 bulb knot Stirling.)
Compared to its 26 x 54 sibling, the 24mm fan is less visually impressive, with a more restrained bloom. The stubby barrel on the 26mm sits differently in the hand, and though the 24mm is slightly taller due to its handle, the knot is loftier. If you are a generalist and want a budget priced showpiece whose looks belie its low cost, the 26mm is a good choice, but if you are a face lathering shaver, or if you would just like an experience with a fan knot alternative, the 24 x 50 is an equally great buy.
Performance: The smaller knot allows better precision in lathering and also splays more easily, so you have a very versatile face lathering tool here. If you want maximal facial coverage, the 2 extra mm on the bulb will be appreciated, but the firmer face feel of the 24 mm aids in creating lather with efficiency and precision.
The 24mm has no issues with loading enough lather for a three pass shave, and also appears denser than its 24 x 54mm stablemate. The 26mm is denser visually, and has the same ease with holding enough product for a normal multi-pass shave.
The 24 x 50 lost virtually no hairs over extended usage, and is equally proficient at loading hard soaps, softer soaps, and creams. Face feel is comfortable, splay is more easily inducible than with the already pretty splayable 26 x 54, and backbone is easily the equal of any Simpson Best, and comparable to a Shavemac D01, while also offering comparable safe tips. The only two band I have that offers as much backbone for less than $130 is an Envy White, and the Envy has far more prickly tips. An Elite Manchurian ($130) or an L&L Jefferson ($179) have better combos of backbone and softness but at those price points, that is to be expected.
A Simpson Colonel at $65 is competitive in some ways, offering slightly higher density and better warmth retention, but in terms of most significant technical performance characteristics, the Simpson is equalled or exceeded by the more than 50% less expensive Stirling. In particular, the splay of the Stirling is more readily induced, and the face feel is softer, especially fresh out of the box.
A solid A for performance is fully warranted for this somewhat specialized brush.
Conclusion: Stirling may be dooming their first badger (the 24 x 54) to the dust bin of history by offering both the 24 x 50 and the 26 x 54 models. Those wanting maximum density or a pretty optimal all in one or bowl latherer will be drawn to the 26mm and face latherers who want a small precise knot with backbone and ample density will like the 24mm fan. I see no logical reason why a buyer would prefer the 24 x 54 bulb, especially as it is noticeably less dense and sells at roughly the same price (only four to five dollars cheaper) than its two more exceptional brethren. Stirling should either cut prices more dramatically on the 24mm bulb more or phase it out.
In the meantime, econo badger buyers have two great options to choose from at the $40 price point in the Stirling line. I like both of the Stirling models in this review, and could recommend either to either first time badger users or collectors with no hesitation.
Should you own both? In my personal case I would say not, as I never bowl lather, so the 26mm knot is pure excess. For non-face latherers, though, the 24 x 50 handle is much nicer than the generic barrel of the 26mm, so that complicates things. Still, the two handles are not that far apart in quality, so bowl latherers can probably safely purchase the 26mm with no regrets.
Face latherers or experimenters, the 24 x 50 fan brush earns a solid A and is highly recommended for your perusal.
As males, we are familiar with the appeal of the 4Ts: Time Travel Tech Transplants. What if Spartacus had a Piper Cub? What if a Nimitz class aircraft carrier was time warped back to Pearl Harbor in 1941? What if Robert E. Lee’s Confederate Army was given 10,000 AK-47s? Food for thought in all cases, but the Maggard Badger does not need such a dramatic transposition of time and historical eras to create an interesting hypothetical… Here, the questions is simply what if Maggard brought this brush out in late 2014?
Maggards is an online retailer whose name is probably known to all. (Or if not, they can refer to my prior article here.) When Maggard sells hardware, it generally moves well, in great volume, and establishes a solid reputation for quality. In the case of this two band badger, Maggard is obviously hoping to do well, and they will sell hundreds I am sure, but yet they will not do quite as well… as if it had been 2014.
Aesthetics & Ergonomics: “Striking” is the first word that comes to mind when one sees this dark toned aluminum handle brush. Next on the list though are less complimentary terms like “stubby” and “smallish”. The stubby appellation lasts pretty much indefinitely (more later on that), but the diminutive adjective lasts only until the first lathering, when the post dry bloom will do much to dispel the appearance of a minuscule nature.
Rather like a Kent, the 22 X 54 mm brush expands its bloom out at the top to give one a mushroom like profile where the bloom at its widest is about three times the diameter of the base of the knot. In short, from a side profile, the short though handsome Maggard looks like it has the bloom of a 28mm or larger brush. This is sort of an uber-fan design.
Unfortunately, also like most Kents, the romance ends when you look at the knot from above and see the less dense packing of bristles, proven by the various dark spaces between sections of bristle, the exact same dark spaces not seen in a Simpson or (more damningly) a Stirling. We’ll address the density topic a bit later in the performance section. Suffice to say, like a dude with a big bald spot on the top of his head, you will want to keep prospective admirers looking at your Maggard from the side for maximum impressiveness.
I am of mixed mind on this. While 22mm is all that one needs for a decent brush, especially a face latherer, Maggard has obviously aimed to impress with this mushroom style bloom, rather than aiming for something more conservative and traditional like a Simpson Colonel, where the bloom is only slightly wider than the knot base. A big bloom is certainly fine, if it also features good density, but bloom for its own sake seems like a ploy meant to impress the easily credulous. A lesser bloom and higher density would have pleased me more.
Besides the knot appearance, the big liability for the Maggard 22mm is the odd handle shape. If you look at the handle closely, you will note in addition to its shortness, it also tapers inward toward the center of the brush where the knot starts, with no flare or ridge to rest the fingers on during use. As a result, what happens during use is that even shavers with smaller hands (like my own self) find the fingertips come into contact with the knot base all too easily, leading to soap slopped on the hand, and even possible fumbles. If you have huge hands a la Rachmaninoff, your fingers will be competing with the knot bristles for face contact.
Though I did not drop the brush, and learned to minimize getting lather all over my hands for the most part, I admit I am still baffled by the design choice here. Yes, the brush looks cool, and yes, the shape is unusual, but then so are two cylinder auto engines. In both cases, there are good reasons for such rarity! There is no valid reason for this design other than for aesthetics, so the user is left with diminished function for a marginally more striking visual design.
Other than the bloom uber alles and the non-ergonomic taper, Maggard covers the bases well with this brush. Balance is nice, the brush is sturdy, and the knot lost virtually no hair during use. The anodized aluminum finish did not wear or scratch during weeks of use, and the handle to knot balance is ideal. There is no Maggard’s branding at all, not even on the underside of the handle. This may be a pro or a con for the user, dependent on his perspective.
Also of note, not a whiff of anything unpleasant from day one, no chemical or animal funk noted. At this price point, that is quite the achievement!
Even with all these good things, including the admittedly attractive visual design, I award the Maggard brush a B+ in this category. A better articulated handle and somewhat more density would easily bump this score up, but this first iteration is still very much a work in progress.
Performance: Some redemption found here. At first, the 22mm was difficult to load for three passes, and I thought that relatively sparse density was to blame. After about 10 uses though, the Maggard began to load and deliver soap more readily, and now enough product for three pass shaves is easily obtained from my usual one minute load. I presume this was lather flow-through break-in, and i can now confidently recommend the Maggard 22 for all uses, as it loads soaps, croaps, and creams handily and dispenses product efficiently.
As might be guessed from the 22 X 54 mm dimensions, the Maggard offers decent though not exceptional backbone. Face feel is excellent, much nicer than Simpsons Best out of the box, and a soft, luxurious experience that can nevertheless load hard soaps easily and splay on demand. The Stirling 24 x 50 is a bit firmer, but roughly as soft.
Maggard was clearly aiming for the face lathering guy here, and the short wide knot is pretty specialized. If you have a really tiny scuttle, the 93mm high brush may work, and the wide bloom could at least collect lather from a bowl pretty handily. The monster bloom may be off-putting to any latherer who values precision placement of product on the visage, but if you want maximum coverage per listed mm of knot, this is your tool.
Lather creation is easy once you get past that initial product hogging phase, and cleanup is simple. The brush maintains its shape nicely, and has no stray hairs lunging out of place.
As mentioned, the apparent lack of visual density concerned me when I first looked at the Maggard from above after first use. I was reassured after using it for two weeks or so, as the density that exists is perfectly adequate for shaving. Water retention and product loading is efficient and has an easy learning curve. I will award an A- for performance.
This is really all the brush the average wet shaver needs performance wise. There is no Simpson Chubby Wall of Badger effect, but nor is there a $150 price tag attached. if you want a face latherer, don’t mind a big sloppy bloom, and want a mid-range combo of backbone and softness of tips, this is a great start point into the Land of Badger Shaving. Will it be a final destination for most? Well, maybe. If only it was 2014…
Conclusion: What was 2014 like in brush terms? No sub-$20 Plisson knockoffs. No sub-$20 Muhle Rytmo black fiber knockoffs. No $40 Stirling badgers. One had the occasionally available and mediocre Plisson L’Occitane original brush for $35, the floptacular Parker stinky pure badger for $40, and then the world of Infinite Boar, 30 different models of hirsute swine from Mediterranean lands, all less than $35, most smelly as a stable, and most usably soft eventually — after about two or three months of regular lathering. Wanted a decent badger? Sure, that will be $70 for the meanest of Simpsons.
In that world, a $25 two band badger, stink free, with backbone and softness, and an aluminum handle to boot would have been like an F14 facing off against a Zero. In early 2017 though, the Maggard has some tough competitors.
Maggard’s own 22mm black fiber brush for $12 is remarkably close in effect to their badger and at half the price. Maggard themselves, as well as Stirling, Chiseled Face, and Italian Barber all offer synth Plissonesques for $10 to $15. And then of course, the Stirling badgers for $35 to $40, along with new badgers at similar price points from Italian Barber and Chiseled Face.
If the average shaver had only $25 to spare on a brush, or wanted the lowest possible price for a decent badger brush experience, the Maggard 22mm would still be dominant. But can the average wet shaver spare an extra $10 or $15 to get a Stirling brush with a better knot though somewhat less fancy handle? Might the average price sensitive shaver might not prefer the even cheaper and easier to use $15 synth if adequate utility was the goal? I think the answer is “yes” in both cases, and that will lead to less than optimal sales for the new Maggard badger as there are better choices for not much more money and comparable choices for significantly less cash..
Maggard to an extent is competing against themselves here, and is competing against Stirling to an even greater extent, As mentioned, Maggard is a titan in the online shaving world, and between their reputation, their discounts from their coupons and sales, the ease of bundling this brush into a starter kit, etc I am sure this brush will move.
But like other Maggard’s first entries into various markets – their first two safety bar heads, their first open comb head — it would not surprise me to see the 22mm badger reworked into a product with denser bristles, larger knot diameter, and a better handle design, and all for a pretty similar price to this model. In short, the 22mm is V1 of the Maggard badger; better things are to come I suspect.
Brush collectors may want to wait for that revision. Those who can afford a slightly higher priced brush, and who also are not in love with an attractive though ergonomically troubled aluminum handle, may want to look at Stirling’s line instead. But for newcomers and the cost sensitive, this is a fine brush to own for now and possibly for the long term as well.
Maggard hopefully is testing new brush designs even as you read this. Or maybe they’re working on an artisanal soap powered time machine!
Overall, I rate this brush a B+. Or an A+ if this was 2014…
Conclusion: It’s great to have so many cheap badger options available. This may become a problem for retailers, both currently and prospectively, because few buyers will want multiple inexpensive badgers. Only the best designs and values can expect to succeed, and even then, distribution capability may well prevail over inherently better designs. In this first round, Stirling products are top notch, but the Maggard’s online empire will keep their somewhat less impressive design afloat as they ramp up R&D on something more spectacular. This is all good news for budget brush shoppers, who can now take their relatively scant dollars and step up to a badger that can last for the long term, as compared to a starter badger, boar that needs months of work to break in, or a soulless synthetic. And things are way better than they were back in 2014!
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