It took me a long time to truly appreciate boar brushes. Though my collection of shaving brushes has always included at least a couple of boar brushes, they served mainly to complete the range of shaving brushes, like my two horsehair brushes. Most brushes I own and use have silvertip badger or synthetic knots.
In recent years, however, I’ve begun more and more to favor boar (aka “natural bristle” or “pure bristle”) brushes. Here I’ll take a close look at the four brushes shown in the photo above. The brushes, arranged by knot color, are, from left to right:
- Antica Barberia Mondial bleached boar – $60 (US), €82 (EU); diameter 28mm, loft 60mm
- Zenith B02-A28 bleached boar – €13.72; diameter 28mm, loft 64mm
- Omega Pro 48 (10048) natural (blond) boar – $17; diameter 28mm, loft 70mm
- Zenith 80B XSE natural (light brown) boar – €7.02; diameter 27mm, loft 64mm
Boar-brush knots are of three general types:
- Natural: bristles (unbleached). these retain their color — blond, brown, or even gray
- Bleached: bristles have been bleached white
- Dyed: a bleached knot that has a dyed stripe to resemble badger
Bleached vs. Non Bleached
The 4 brushes discussed include both natural and bleached knots. Bleaching somewhat weakens the bristles, but also makes them more flexible — and, obviously, changes the color. Some prefer a white knot, perhaps because it looks more sanitized. Bleaching also increases the likelihood of split ends, which in a boar shaving brush is not a bad thing, making the knot softer on the face. However, even unbleached boar bristles have a natural tendency to split over time, so boar brushes in general improve with use.
In my experience, a new boar brush seems to have some sort of lathercidal coating, so that, when you pick up the brush for the second or third pass, you find the lather is absent. This coating seems to be washed away with normal use, so my own practice for the first week with a new boar brush is to load the brush with soap, work up a good lather in my cupped palm, squeeze the knot to remove the lather, and rinse the knot clean of any residue — first with hot water until the water runs clear, then with cold. I then shake the brush dry and stand it on its base until repeating the routine the following day, using some other brush for my shave until break-in week has passed.
Antica Barberia Mondial
This brush is not really in the same class as the others listed — at least, not in terms of price (high) and loft (low). However, it has clear aspirations to be a quality boar brush, and just in terms of its overall look and performance, I thought it would be a fair comparison.
It’s an attractive brush, and it broke in quite readily. After the week-long break-in, I started using the brush in my regular rotation. The brush works well, but I find its relatively short loft makes the brush feel “blunt,” lacking the greater precision a longer loft offers. This knot also seems unruly, the bristles not lying together as in a more disciplined knot.
For me, this brush ranks last in terms of performance pleasure, though I do like its handle. It definitely is not a “bad” brush; it’s just in with a very high-quality group. When I use it, I do enjoy it.
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I bought the Zenith B02-A28 because I wanted to compare it to the Omega Pro 48, which has in recent years become a favorite brush. The Zenith has a slightly shorter loft (64mm v. 70mm for the Pro 48), but fairly close. My hope was that this handsome brush, with its aluminum handle, would (because of the handle) be an improvement over the Pro 48 — but that would be only if its knot matched the Pro 48’s performance.
However, the 6mm difference in loft did make a noticeable difference in feel. While this Zenith has excellent capacity and does feel good on the face, its knot lacks the supple resilience I feel from the Pro 48. The Zenith is definitely a good brush, but I favor the Pro 48 somewhat more.
Omega Pro 48
The Pro 48 is the brush that changed my opinion of boar brushes. The more I used it, the more I realized that the feel of the (long) knot on my face was exceptionally pleasant, having a feel unlike that of a badger or synthetic brush (both of which can also feel very pleasant, but in a different way — for example, a Plissoft synthetic can feel like a small warm soft cushion on my face, but the Pro 48 definitely feels like a brush). The long loft does more than just hold a lot of lather; the length produces a “give” in the resilience that’s hard to describe but easy to enjoy.
I should note that, although Omega brushes are quite usable after a week’s break-in, as described above, boar will continue to break in over time, though slowly, and I’ve been using this Pro 48 for years. Its age may mean that comparing it to three relatively new brushes is not an apples-to-apples comparison. Still, the Pro 48 does have the greatest loft, and I believe that is what makes the difference.
I initially thought that the Pro 48 had, like the previous Zenith, a bleached boar knot, but then I read that the Pro 48 knot is natural. (Omega does not say one way or the other.)
The Pro 48’s weakness is its handle, made of ABS plastic like (for example) Lego bricks. The handle is hollow and chromed, and though it works well enough, the feel is not so pleasant as the handles (solid aluminum or solid plastic) of the other three brushes. Omega makes a brush with a solid resin handle, the 21742 (whose knot, BTW, seems to be natural/unbleached). If Omega put such a handle on the Pro 48, they’d have a truly world-class brush.
Nevertheless, the Pro 48’s handle does the job, and given the feel and performance of its knot, I rate this as the best of the bunch — but see the next brush.
Zenith 80B XSE
The Zenith 80B XSE’s knot definitely has natural (unbleached) boar bristles. I bought it specifically to compare it to the Zenith B08-A26 to see what difference natural, unbleached boar might make. Its loft is identical to the Zenith B08-A26 (bleached), and the diameter of its knot is only 1mm less, so I think the two can rightly be compared.
The handles of the two brushes obviously differ: this brush has a (solid, not hollow) plastic handle and the B08-A26 has a machined aluminum handle. However, both handles feel solid and have reasonable heft, so except perhaps for aesthetics, the two handles are much the same during a shave. (I assume the primary reason the B08-A26 costs about twice as much as the 80B XSE is its (cheaper) handle.)
Both brushes went through the same break-in at the same time, and I found the natural knot performed better. It had better lather capacity (though I expect continued use will see the lather capacity of both brushes improved), and I thought the natural knot felt slightly better on my face. Still, for me, the Pro 48’s knot edges out this one, probably because of the Pro 48’s greater loft. I would very much like to try a natural Zenith knot with a 70mm loft (instead of the 64mm knot this brush has).
So which should you get?
My judgment — aesthetics and handle aside — is that the knots rank as follows:
- Omega Pro 48 — This knot has the best feel and performance (and longest loft). It should be noted that prior to this comparison test, this knot also had the most prior use. The handle is not so nice as that of the other brushes, but my focus is more on the feel and performance of the knot. Others may value the handle more than I.
- Zenith 80B XSE — Natural boar works extremely well, and I would love to try this brush with a loft of 70mm (instead of 64mm). Although this brush is close to the bleached equivalent, the B08-A26, I do find this one better. The handle is a satisfactory solid plastic.
- Zenith B08-A26 — An excellent brush, and for some the aluminum handle will be worth the extra expense. Its bleached knot, however, does not quite match the feel of the unbleached knot of the 80B XSE — but it’s close and, individual preferences being what they are, some might prefer it..
- Antica Barberia Mondial — This brush’s shorter loft does not provide so good a feel as that of the other brushes. Moreover, the knot seems somewhat bulky, with the bristles in a blunt bunch rather than lying smoothly together. The handle is very nice indeed.
My recommendation is to get a Pro 48 and also (for comparison and variety) one of the Zenith natural-knot brushes — the Zenith 80B XSE or perhaps the Zenith 507U XSE, with its elegant olive-wood handle. Note, however, the 507U XSE has a loft of only 56mm, so its resilience is not so supple as a brush with a greater loft. Still, it’s quite usable with a disciplined knot — and it does look good.