The Mystery of the Twisted Antique Shave Brush
Early in my days as a double-edge-razor user, I was lurking in an antique store, casually perusing the goods for any interesting, usable shaving artifacts. In a display case I spied an old, used shave brush. The salient characteristic of this old brush was its long bristles. The weren’t merely long; they were all running parallel to each other as one would expect except that the entire bundle of fibers had an overall cork-screw set to them, as though they were dried together in a mold designed to give the brush a gentle curve to the knot (a brush knot is the bundle of bristles that are joined to the handle to form the entire shave brush).
At the time, I was somewhat surprised that anyone would offer such a tired artifact for sale. It was such a sad specimen that I was quite sure no one would use it for shaving, and it was so peculiarly corkscrewed that it didn’t make much of a display piece either.
Then I recognized a little mystery at hand: I wondered how an old shave brush could take on such a uniform and peculiar set. I love solving mysteries.
The Gillette Recommendation
Some time later, I was surfing the ‘net for shaving information, and I came upon a site that published scanned copies of vintage Gillette instructions and tips – often one-page, folded publications that originally accompanied Gillette razors. In one such instruction sheet, likely from the 1920s, there was the suggestion from the venerable Gillette company that there was no need to rinse one’s shave brush after a shave. The idea was to simply let the shave soap dry in the brush for re-wetting and re-use in the next shave.
This idea simmered for a while in my brain pan, and I realized that that might explain the peculiar knot twist of that antique brush that I’d seen. Perhaps some shaver long ago had left a wet brush full of lather to dry in an ill-advised orientation such as bristles pointed downward within a soap mug. Then perhaps years later, someone rinsed the brush clean and found that it had taken this semi-corkscrew set.
Okay, that was a possible explanation for the antique brush, but more importantly to me, I began to toy with the idea of actually trying the no-rinse brush recommendation. Mind you, to that point I had been a scrupulous brush rinser.
I have solid middle-class values; we in the middle class don’t like to waste money and we don’t like to pay for something twice, when we don’t have to. So I take care of my cars, my house, and my tools–including shaving gear. So not only did I rinse my brush every morning as part of my morning ritual, but I would also shake the clean water out of the brush, methodically shape it, and carefully set or hang the brush to dry.
Leaving an unrinsed shave brush on the counter to dry ran against the grain, you might say, to my basic values–similar to not completely and thoroughly cleaning a paint brush after use, which quickly leads to its ruination.
Yet there was some appeal to not rinsing the shave brush. After all, if Gillette said it was okay, then it was probably not going to do any harm. On the positive side, that would also mean less lather to waste being rinsed down the drain thus adding fewer contaminants to the waste stream. Further, having lather in the brush from previous shaves might mean less soap needed from the puck or the stick for the shave. This is a small economy, but an economy in any case, which also appealed to my thrifty and ecologically-aware middle-class soul.
The only issue was concern for potential harm to the brush. I abhor false economy – being penny wise and pound foolish. Why save a fraction of a penny’s worth of shave soap with each morning shave if one endangers the longevity of a shave brush whose value is measured in dollars?
Hmmm. This was a question that needed exploring: would prolonged non-rinsing of my shave brushes endanger their longevity? Thus began the experiment.
Phase One: The Unrinsed Synthetic Brush
I began my experiment with my little Omega brand Syntex brush. Because the bristles are synthetic, this was a test of how the soap might affect the adhesive at the base of the knot, and the practicality and functionality of keeping old, dried lather in the brush.
I had much experience with saving dried lather from the days when I would bowl lather. For many months I would make lather in a bowl, and take a multiple-pass shave, rinsing my face after each pass to keep stubble out of the lather in the brush and bowl. After the shave I would squeeze out the lather from the brush back in with the lather in the bowl, then thoroughly rinse and shake the brush, and let both the clean brush and the clean, unused lather in the bowl dry overnight. The result of this method was good: I wasted less perfectly-good lather by not rinsing it down the drain, and it was easier to make lather when starting with dried lather from previous shaves.
However, since those bowl-lathering days, I have come to appreciate the face-lathering method. In addition, after abandoning the bowl for lathering, I also quit taking multiple-discreet-pass shaves. Instead of multiple discreet passes, I had acquired the process of lathering a single time for a shave, shaving my face in regions, and reapplying with my non-razor hand used lather from the underside of the razor and extra water as needed in each region as I shaved it to smoothness. I should also mention that in my regional-shave process, I pretty much use buffing strokes – always slow ones when shaving against grain, and the aggressiveness of the razor would determine the speed of the other strokes; the more aggressive the shaving set up, the more deliberate my strokes.
Not only do I now routinely use buffing strokes, but, probably unlike the vast majority of wet shavers, I make my initial with-grain strokes away from the lathered area, always toward an unshaven area – just the opposite of how one would rake leaves off one’s lawn. Hence this process of making shaving strokes away from a lathered area I call anti-raking strokes.
An advantage to buffing and anti-raking strokes is that they tend to leave more lather and moisture on the skin and spread it around as well, which better facilitates multiple regional passes before moving on to shave the next region of the face. I pretty much never have to use more lather from my brush after the initial face-lathering step. If additional lather or moisture is needed while shaving a region of my face, as I said above, I swipe lather from the underside of the razor and add a bit of water, both done with my non-razor hand. With this regional-shave approach, after my entire face is shaved and before rinsing off any remaining lather from my face, I add more water as necessary to those areas not quite smooth enough, and then perform final finishing strokes to get the desired level of uniform closeness.
By the way, during the shave, I never rinse the razor. I merely periodically swipe used lather from the underside of the razor, add some water, and re-apply it to my face where appropriate. I only rinse the razor with clean water after my shave is completed.
So my process required little change as I began the no-rinse brush experiment. Wet face as usual. Apply soap stick to face as usual. However, after that first no-brush-rinse shave, unless the dried lather in the brush is first wetted, its dried lather can be wispy and prone to float off the brush as one begins to make lather. So after pre-shave wetting of my beard, I would hold some water in my cupped hand and roll the brush in the water to prevent dried lather from floating off as I began the face-lathering process. Then I shaved as usual as described above.
Once clean shaven and with face rinsed, I simply ensured that lather near the handle of the brush was relocated at least a third of the way up from the handle and that the brush bristles were parallel and reasonably well shaped (but I wasn’t obsessive about this). Any excess clean lather in my hand or finger tips (resulting from removing lather from the base of the knot or from shaping the lather-laden knot) would be gently reapplied to the bristle tips for drying. Then I would hang the lather-laden brush to dry.
The results of phase one were positive. It became easier to quickly make lather in the morning. I did find that as the lather becomes dense in the middle of the knot, the bristles do lose some initial flexibility farther away from the tips, but moisture and the mechanical act of making lather softens the inner dried soap and thereby allows the bristles to flex appropriately.
Phase Two: The Unrinsed Badger Brush
After a few weeks of no post-shave rinsing of my synthetic brush, things were going along as smoothly as a close shave. So the time had come to try the second phase of the experiment, which was to use a brush with natural fiber – in this case, a badger brush.
My badger brush – like all my shave brushes – is inexpensive. It is also of modest size; it is not the huge, over-sized specimens for which many prosperous wet shavers will pay an arm and a leg. No, my Tweezerman-branded badger brush can be bought for a very modest price, and can likely be found under the Escali brand as well. My little badger brush performed excellently for bowl lathering and was fair for face lathering–only fair at this task because it was a soft brush with not quite enough backbone in the knot to literally stand up to the rigors of face lathering.
Yet after just a few days, enough dried soap had accumulated within the knot to give the brush both excellent backbone while yet retaining the soft bristle tips that are very kind to the epidermis. The dried-soap backbone would soften during the act of lathering, but only enough to make the brush perform well, and not enough to make the added backbone go away entirely.
Further, after months of not rinsing the brush, it has shed not a single bristle. Neither has it diminished in its ability to make and hold sufficient lather. On the contrary, it now makes lather quickly and more easily than in its daily-rinsed days.
Evolution of Method
Over the course of this protracted experiment, my methods of making lather and related activities have evolved slightly. I no longer run tap water for my shave beyond filling a re-purposed Greek-yogurt cup with cool water. (I do, however, run water after the shave to rinse the razor and my face.) From the re-purposed yogurt cup filled with water, I moisten my left-hand fingers with which I then wet my beard in preparation for the shave. After doing this several times, I dunk the brush in the water, cup my left hand, and lay the brush in my cupped palm to thoroughly wet the brush’s wispy dried foam. Then any soap in my left hand is rubbed on my moist beard. Then with my dry right hand, I take the soap stick and rub it on my beard as usual.
Then to make lather, I dip the brush-bristle tips in the cup of water again and begin to face lather. I will dip the bristle tips in the water several times during that process to ensure that my lather is sufficiently moist. Beyond that, nothing in my shave routine has changed further.
If you stubbornly insist on doing discreet multiple passes and also refuse to rinse between passes, then your brush will likely become partially filled with used lather, dead skin cells, and stubble. This probably isn’t a the best stuff to dry and re-use in a subsequent shave. So if you insist on re-lathering your face during a shave without first rinsing off the old lather and stubble, then your brush is going to be constantly contaminated with less-than-clean lather, and should probably, therefore, be rinsed after the shave.
Not rinsing a shave brush, whether badger or synthetic, appears to have no effect on the adhesive of the knot. In fact, it may actually supplement the factory adhesive in some cases. My badger brush shed just a few bristles prior to the experiment, but even that minor shedding has completely ceased with the advent of my never-rinsed brush.
If a brush has less backbone than you might like, the never-rinsed-brush process will likely add some, and thereby improve the function of the brush.
In sum, the benefits of never rinsing your shave brush include 1) a bit less soap added to your household waste water, 2) perhaps just a bit less soap needed for each shave, less clean water needed for the overall shave (due to not rinsing the brush), and 4) as mentioned above, a little extra backbone for those brushes that can use it.
Okay, to tally up the score, benefits-four, drawbacks-none. All tolled, it seems like old Gillette & Company were onto something: not rinsing your shave brush between shaves just might be a winning concept. It certainly has been for me.
About the author:
Doug Hansford, in addition to being a shaving aficionado and blogger, is a registered dietitian-nutritionist and certified LEAP therapist in private practice in Southeastern Michigan. He specializes in helping clients who suffer from irritable bowel syndrome, migraine headaches, fibromyalgia and other conditions of food allergy and sensitivity, offering a highly-effective blood test for food sensitivities and follows that testing with customized dietary protocols, and other related lifestyle-behavior solutions.