[Updated August, 2020] (Caution, this article is image-heavy.) Over the years the hair of the badger has been acknowledged as the preferred material for shave brushes. But recent events have called that preference into question. Have synthetic materials finally met the challenge?
The Performance Of Natural Hair Shave Brushes vs. The Controversy Around Their “Harvesting”
Natural hair shave brushes are generally made from the coat of one of three animals: horse, boar, or badger. Of those three, only horse hair is “harvested” in a way that does not harm the animal: they’re merely taken from cast-offs of the grooming process.
Boar and badgers, however, are killed for their pelts (and meat). The processing of badgers from China in particular (widely regarded as a pest and trapped under license there)–by far the primary source of badger hair for shave brushes–have come under criticism for years as unnecessarily cruel.
Most wet shaving consumers in the West are only dimly aware of the controversy. But in late 2018 Procter & Gamble committed to eliminating badger hair brushes from their The Art Of Shaving inventory (though as of this writing they are still available). Some other brands followed suit, such as New York Shaving Co.
In terms of performance the badger hair shave brush is still hard to beat, particularly the higher grades. However the last few years have seen a dramatic acceleration of the “technology” behind synthetic hair shaving brushes, with several new materials developed and many new knot styles appearing. The performance of these brushes can easily meet-or-beat the low- and mid-range badger brushes, and some users think they can hold their own against the higher grades!
Sharpologist And Synthetic Brushes
Over the years Sharpologist has published some fairly in-depth articles about synthetic shave brushes but the last one was over five years ago now. In those days about the best you could do for a synthetic brush was the Omega S-series, though the first versions of the Muhle synthetic were launching as well. To get up to date on the newer technologies, over the past year I’ve gathered information from a number of sources including Andrew of ApShaveCo, Abe from West Coast Shaving, and Michael of Daily Lather.
Earlier materials used in synthetic shave brushes were generally variants of Nylon: Tynex®, along with filament technologies like Natrafil™, were the basis of several brush products. Taklon® superseded Tynex® in later products.
Most recently though, materials made out of variants of Polybutylene terephthalate appear to be more common in synthetic shave brushes.
Synthetic Knot Types
(This section largely contributed by Abe Villela of West Coast Shaving. Links go to representative samples. AliExpress (Yaqi), West Coast Shaving and Etsy links are affiliate.)
While the characteristics of the following synthetics fibers will be as described, there are things can alter the “feel” of the knot: density, loft, shape of the knot, and the size of the bore for the knot.
If the synthetic brush is advertised as denser than normal, there should be some additional “backbone” feel (perhaps not much, but the difference should be noticeable) due to the extra fibers. This may require a bit more pressure on the brush to make the knot splay.
How high the knot is set on the brush may give it a more “floppier” feel; conversely, a knot set lower in the brush may give it more backbone..
Like badger brushes, the shape of the knot also plays a role in how the knot performs. The bulb shape will prove a little more back bone and the fan shape will splay a bit better.
The last thing that can affect the performance of the synthetic knot is the diameter of the bore in the handle for the knot. A 24mm knot in a 24-25mm bore hole won’t have enough room to splay out, so the knot may feel tight, resulting in more backbone. A 24mm knot in a 25-26mm bore may have more room to splay.
Larger knots will more fibers that will need to splay. Brushes with a high glue bump may provide more backbone to the knot.
For the descriptions to follow a knot of 24mm is assumed for consistency. Most of the 24mm synthetic knots have a loft set to between 52-54mm. Anything 52mm and below will have more backbone. Anything set from 54mm and up will result in more flop.
Editor’s Note: In some cases you must buy a knot and a handle separately.
Plisson – Super Plush Type
This knot first made its appearance in the Plisson Brush. This knot became famous because it was the first “recent” synthetic knot that offered a noticeable improvement in performance, rivaling animal hair. This knot is still very popular and is still offered by many brush makers. It goes by many names but probably has “Pliss” in the name.
This knot is still only offered by Muhle. This knot looked closer to a badger knot as opposed to the previously mentioned plisson knot. Some consider this knot the first synthetic brush equal to a Silvertip badger in terms of performance. The tips are soft and it is not as dense as most brushes. Because of that, the knot does not hold onto lather and makes the flow through of the knot superb. Although other knot materials have appeared since, the Muhle knot still easily holds its own. You can not find this knot separately, so you can only get it in a Muhle synthetic shave brush.
Ubersoft (1 & 2)
The Ubersoft knot was the first synthetic offering that provided soft tips with a strong backbone. For those that enjoy the backbone found in 2 band badger or boar, this was the synthetic equal. It was later offered in a Version 2 in a fan shape. The fan shape gave it a better splay and made it excellent for face lathering.
Tuxedo – Black Wolf – Black Tie – Luxedo
The Tuxedo knot has become the most popular synthetic knot. It has super soft tips and medium backbone. The fibers are black with white tips. This knot has natural splay and is not as springy as some synthetic knots. With this synthetic knot, Some recommend not getting a high-density version of this knot. Many consider the Tuxedo knot shave brush the Goldilocks knot of the synthetic world–It’s just right across the board.
The Timberwolf synthetic shave brush knot introduced a new level of just how soft synthetic shave brush tips can get–it is often described as “Plush.” If you want to know what “plush” feels like, think of how your wife’s makeup brushes feel. Backbone is low-mid. This knot is grey with black tips. Because the fibers are a tad thinner, there are more in this knot compared to other synthetic brushes. Because of that, it won’t have as great flow through as the Muhle Synthetic.
Silksmoke – Hawk
This knot is gray with white tips. It has even softer tips than the Timberwolf. The biggest difference is this knot has a strong backbone. When you feel the knot dry, you could easily think that this knot may have too much backbone. The backbone can feel springy, but when wet the backbone on this knot is very pleasant. With most other plush knots, the fibers are thinner. The Silksmoke synthetic shave brush gets the backbone from the density. It has ok flowthrough but the nice scrub from this knot makes it shine.
Synbad – Mew
The Synbad synthetic shave brush knot is brown knot with white light cream tips. The fibers are thicker than the average synthetic knot so that will be the main source of the backbone. The backbone is low-medium. This reminds some of a 3 band silvertip with just more backbone.
Cashmere – Angel
This knot may be the most underappreciated Synthetic knot out there at the moment. The Cashmere synthetic shave brush knot has plush tips and is a lighter shade of beige. While it’s not the most aesthetically pleasing knot to look at, this brush is a powerhouse. This brush receives high marks all across the board. There is little to no backbone on this knot: if backbone is important to you, pass on this type unless you can find one with a deeply-set loft. This brush has the nicest flowthrough of any knot out there.
This knot is a darker brown. And it is the equivalent of its natural fiber counterpart. Unlike the actual Horse fiber the Faux Horse synthetic shave brush knot these fibers don’t tangle, so there is no need to comb the fibers after every shave. The backbone is low and you can still feel a springiness to it. There comes a point where a lot of the synthetic knots feel the same, and the only thing that is different is the actual color of the fibers. This one happens to be one of those.
Gamechanger – Boss
The Gamechanger knot was introduced shortly after the Tuxedo knot. The color of the knot is a darker Gray with black soft tips. While it’s not the best-looking knot, can be a solid “daily driver.” The Gamechanger synthetic shave brush knot has the backbone most want with the soft tips with great scrub.
The Ghost knot is about 90% the Gamechanger knot, just white. Because the fibers are all white, you can see some of the fibers can be a bit wavy. This is where the back comes from in this knot.
The Silver Synth shave brush knot resembles the original Ubersoft knot but it captures the look of 3 band silvertip knot. The backbone is medium and the tops are on the “border” of soft and plush. This knot can feel springy, but when it’s wet the backbone feels like a natural fiber brush. This brush excels at lather flowthrough. “Painting” your lather with this brush work well.
The Full moon knot is nearly identical to the silver synth knot with just more of a balloon bulb shape. The fiber is a bit thicker and the tips cross into the plush category. This knot is great for both bowl and face lathering.
When the motherlode knot first came on the scene, the color was a big turn off to most. It has a dark maroon brown color with off white tips. This knot has the thinnest fiber but also the plushest tips available. Because these knots were extremely dense and the fibers were really thin, finding the right loft is important to get super plush tips and a different kind of backbone that can not be found in any other knot. Set this knot 2-4mm deeper for the best result.
At first glimpse the Taconic Shave Silvertip synthetic shave brush looks remarkably like a badger brush. The the performance of this brush is notable not only because it performs so much like a higher-end badger brush but also because it has a good stiff backbone (which is usually lacking in long loft brushes) due to an extremely dense brush knot. The Taconic synthetic brush has fibers that have excellent lathering capability, with really good flowthrough. Check out Sharpologist’s other comments about this brush.
Where To Buy?
Unfortunately many of these synthetic shave brushes are not as widely available as their animal hair cousins. Most are available from smaller artisans working with small-batch inventory from East Asia. The most-known names with these kinds of products available include (in alphabetical order):
Do you have one (or more!) of these brush types? What do you think of them? Leave a comment below so others can learn!