Congratulations! You’ve just gotten a shiny new shaving set. Only one problem…you don’t know how to use it. Let’s fix that right now.
The Shaving Brush
Using a shaving brush can make a huge difference in the quality of your shave. Shaving brushes generally come in one of four types of bristle: boar hair, horse hair, badger hair, and synthetic fiber. Boar hair brushes–often called “natural bristle” brushes–are the most commonly seen in shaving sets. Brushes with horse hair have returned to the market after an anthrax scare around World War 1 but still aren’t very comment. Badger hair brushes are generally regarded as the preferred material for shaving brushes: they can usually make a lather more quickly–and retain more heat and water–than brushes of other types. But they are the most expensive material and there is no standardized grading process between manufacturers. Finally there are synthetic brushes. These can range from brushes with nylon bristles those with more specialized synthetic material. Their price and performance usually fall between those of boar and badger brushes, though the latest generation is competitive with very good badger brushes in both performance and cost.
Preparing The Brush
If your new brush is made of animal hair (if there is no marking on the box or the brush itself, assume it is “natural bristle” boar hair) you may need to prepare it for its first use. Just like any animal, when the hair gets wet it can smell…well…funky. Some brush makers pre-treat their brushes to remove the funk but many do not. Just to be on the safe side it’s wise to defunkify your brush hair by cleaning it thoroughly with a pet shampoo. Rinse well and let it dry completely. It may not completely remove the funk but it will knock it down to an acceptable level. After a week or so of use any animal odor should go away.
The Mysteries Of Shave Lather
Your new shave set may come with a shave product. If not, Sharpologist has covered some of our favorite shaving creams and soaps. If you want some immediate gratification some products commonly found in wide distribution (“megamarts,” grocery stores, drug stores, etc.) include Van Der Hagen Luxury Shave Soap and Pacific Shaving Caffeinated Shave Cream. If you have a big shopping mall nearby you might find C.O. Bigelow shaving cream at Bath and Body Works, and Maca Root shaving cream from The Body Shop.
Before You Lather
Be sure to prepare the area to be shaved with a mild face cleanser (not a body wash or deodorant bar!) and lots and lots of warm water. Spend some time to do this right (up to three minutes) and don’t forget to pay attention to your neck.
Using Lathering Cream Or Soap Applied With A Brush
Here is your opportunity to really enjoy shaving. Lathering cream or soap offers a huge variety of scents: woods, spices, colognes…”real” scents that can evoke memories or scenes in your mind, not just the smell of the latest body spray or underarm deodorant (ewwww…). And the bonus is you can gently warm the lather to give it an extra dimension. Does it take (a little) longer to make, compared with other types of lather? Yes, but it is worth the trouble.
The Lathering Process
There are two general schools of thought on making traditional shaving lather, differentiated mostly on how water is integrated into the mix. The classic method of lather-making starts with minimal water on the brush, adding water until you get the lather consistency you are looking for. The other school of thought, sometimes called “creamy” (vs. “frugal”) lather-making starts out with much more water on the shaving brush, letting overflow spill out unused. Neither method is “right” nor “wrong.” Try both methods to see what works best for you.
Classic (“Frugal”) Lather
Making shaving lather the “classic” way starts with soaking both the brush and the cream or soap in water.
Fill a sink with warm-to-hot water and place the shaving brush in the sink. How long the brush needs to be soaked is dependent on the type of brush: boar hair, horse hair, and low grades of badger hair (such as “pure black”) need to soak longer (maybe a couple minutes) than higher grades of badger (perhaps less than a minute). Synthetic brushes do not need to be soaked at all, just thoroughly wetted.
If you are using a puck of shaving soap put it in the sink as well (or if it is in a container or bowl put the hot water in that). If you have a jar of shaving cream that has been used for a while it is probably worth pouring in a little water as well. The key point in these circumstances is to loosen the outer “skin” of the product to make loading easier. If you have shaving cream in a squeeze tube you don’t need to do anything with it.
After soaking dump the water out of the container of soap or cream and shake the brush three or four times to get rid of the excess. Now you are going to load your brush:
If you have a shave soap puck or a jar of shave cream, spin the brush onto it, pressing down slightly, to coat the brush’s bristles with product (an alternative for the jar is to scoop some out with a small utensil and place it directly into the center of the brush). You are looking for more than just a light foam on the bristles–you want a relatively thick coat. If you are using a tube of shave cream, squeeze out an almond-size amount directly into the center of the brush.
Now you’re going to build the lather. You can do it in an empty bowl of some kind or directly onto the face. An advantage of using a bowl is that you can get a better idea of how the brush is generating lather. And if you gently heat the bowl beforehand you can get a warmed lather than can feel…well…really great, particularly in cold weather! On the other hand building lather directly to the face can save some time.
Start massaging the brush into the bowl or on the face using circular motions and pressing the brush down slightly. Some advocate using a painting motion vs. a circular motion but let’s start off with circular. Massage for about 30 seconds then dip the tips of the brush in water and repeat. It may take a couple minutes for the lather to build on the brush to the right consistency, depending on the type of brush, the type of product used, and the mineral content of the water. Whether you’re building in a bowl or to the face, you are looking for a shiny, somewhat “loose” consistency (runnier than what might come out of a can or brushless tube) with soft “peaks” (like a cake batter) without any bubbles. While you are doing this, enjoy the scent of the shaving lather. Pay attention to it. Concentrate on it! Feel it on the skin.
Here’s how Michael “Leisureguy” Ham describes making “Creamy” lather:
If you have a boar or horsehair brush, wet the knot thoroughly under the hot-water tap and let the brush stand, dripping wet, on its base while you shower. That serves to soak and soften the knot. Then:
For soap and harder shaving creams: Wet brush fully—sopping, dripping wet—and hold tub of soap over the sink on its side and brush briskly and firmly (enough so that the bristles splay somewhat) until the bubbles being formed are microscopic, at which point the brush is fully loaded.
At first, some water and some loose sloppy lather will probably spill into the sink, but pretty soon you’ll see real lather. But keep brushing: the focus is loading the brush, not making lather, and you want the brush fully loaded with soap.
Brush the soap until the bubbles being formed are microscopic—creamy rather than foamy—then bring the brush to your (wet, washed) beard and work the lather up and into the stubble, taking your time. If the lather seems a little dry or a little stiff (too much soap), then run a driblet of water into the center of the brush and work that into the lather on your face. I’ve never had lather that’s too wet with this technique, but sometimes I do need to add a little water.
Do several to practice. Try loading for shorter and longer times. Try adding little driblets of water, working it into the lather, little by little, until you can tell the lather’s too wet. I.e., play around with it to get experience and try things out. (Since making good lather is a matter of experience, get as much experience as quickly as you can.)
I’ve found that the “microscopic bubble” indicator is the most reliable sign that the brush is fully loaded.
If the lather’s still bad, suspect hard water and try a distilled water shave. Hard water doesn’t affect shaving creams so much. Note that hard water is not softened by using a Brita filter (which removes particulate matter, not dissolved minerals). Bottled drinking water is hard: hard water tastes better.
For soft shaving creams: If it’s a firm, hard cream (like Figaro, for example, or Tabula Rasa, or Coate’s Limited Edition or Dr. Selby’s 3x Concentrated Shaving Cream), make lather as if for a soap, as described above. If it’s a relatively soft cream (AlsShaving.com shaving cream, TOBS Avocado, Castle Forbes, or the like): wet brush well, shake it a couple of times, and twirl the tips in the tub. (If the cream’s in a tube, squeeze out a little and put it on the brush or smear it on your wet beard on your cheeks.)
Then use the brush to spread the cream over your entire beard, so that your beard is coated with a thin layer of almost pure shaving cream. Run a driblet of water into the center of the brush, and brush your beard to work the water into the shaving cream. Repeat as needed until you get the lather where you want it.
Again, play around: keep adding little bits of water until the lather’s too wet, testing it perhaps along the way between thumb and forefinger to see how slick it is. Slickness will increase, and then when the lather’s too wet, slickness will fall off sharply.
The more you play around with test lathers, the faster you learn to make good lather.
Sometimes lather is not very good because the water is not very good, with too many minerals or contaminants (e.g. “hard” water). If you have hard water try using distilled water. Just heat some up (not to boiling!) and pour into your sink (with the stopper closed, of course).
The other part of your shaving kit is the razor. If you have a familiar cartridge razor you probably already know how to use it. If note, skip down a few paragraphs to “Essential Techniques.” If you have a single blade double-edge safety razor you may be in uncharted territory. That’s OK though, here are the basics:
Open Comb vs. Safety Bar
Double edge razors have heads that can be divided into two general groups: Open Comb and Safety Bar. Open Comb’s have obvious “teeth” that help guide heavy stubble and shaving cream into channels. Safety Bars have a solid (or scalloped) bar that provides some additional protection to the skin from the blade. Generally, Open Comb razors will not be as gentle on the skin as safety bar razors, though there are exceptions.
Three Piece vs. Two Piece vs. One Piece (“Twist To Open”)
DE razors are typically constructed in one of three ways. Three piece are the classic” (and easiest to manufacture) type, consisting of a handle, a base plate, and a head or cap. Two piece have the base plate permanently mounted to the handle. A one piece “twist to open” (TTO) razor is the type most common just before the advent of cartridge razors: the Gillette “SuperSpeed” is the classic TTO.
Set Gap vs. Adjustable
Generally speaking, Open Comb razors expose more of the blade to the skin, making for a more “aggressive” shave. But even razors with a Safety Bar can be aggressive: it’s all about the amount of blade exposed to the skin. The vast majority of razors have a set gap size: the amount of the gap distance is determined by the manufacturer for a particular model of razor. However “adjustable” razors can change the gap to make them more gentle or more aggressive. There are only two adjustable razors currently made, all from Merkur and mentioned earlier.
Let’s assume you’ll be shaving your face, though the concepts apply to shaving pretty much anywhere. If you haven’t already, carefully map how the grain on your skin grows.
Essential Razor Technique #1: The Importance Of “Grain”
Knowing how the hair grows is essential to a comfortable (and hence, more enjoyable) shave because it allows you to remove more hair per stroke with less chance of irritation, providing more beard reduction more quickly. Understanding beard growth is essential when using a multi-blade razor! It is less essential when using a single blade razor but still important–more on that later.
Grain is also important to know so that if you decide to pull the skin taut to shave you can know which direction to pull. Over-stretching the skin makes the possibility of irritation or ingrown hairs much more likely.
Essential Razor Technique #2: Reduction By Passes
No matter what kind of razor you use, an essential razor technique is to shave in passes, with each pass progressively removing hair more closely to the skin. Even multi-blade razors with their “lift and cut” theory (though some might say it’s more like “yank and hack”) follow this technique, along with the “grain.” More on this below….
Essential Razor Technique #3: No Pressure
Putting too much pressure on the razor creates a “valley” for the blade, not only reducing the efficiency of the blade but also making irritation more likely. Modern cartridge razors that pivot can partly compensate for too much pressure but don’t rely on it. Hold the razor by the bottom of the handle, tilt your head to one side, and let the head of the razor rest on your cheek. Feel that? That’s the most amount of pressure you want to use.
Essential Razor Technique #4: Proper Blade Angle
If you are not using a razor with a replaceable blade cartridge, you will have to be concerned with the angle where the blade meets the skin. Blade cartridges set this angle for you, with some engineer (or marketer!) deciding what is best for everyone. If you are using a classic double-edge you must set this angle yourself. More on this in a moment….
Essential Razor Technique #5: A Sharp Blade
It may seem obvious but a good, enjoyable shave needs a good, sharp blade to shave with. That means not using a blade or cartridge that is beyond it’s prime.
Putting It All Together
Razor technique with your first pass should always be with the grain and almost leisurely in it’s accomplishment. Don’t worry about getting every last strand of hair or go over the same spot again and again during the same pass: your goal is to reduce the stubble, not eliminate it.
- If you are using a single blade without a cartridge (i.e. the classic double-edge razor, a single-edge razor like the “Injector” style, or a straight razor) you might be able to “cheat” the grain a little: rest the razor head (or blade) against the cheek and slowly rock the razor downward until the blade edge just makes contact with the skin, then go just a bit more. Then lock your wrist and shave straight downward, regardless of the “grain.” The angle between the blade edge and the skin should be somewhere between 30 and 45 degrees.
- Relather and repeat the first pass. This razor technique is especially useful for those who are learning single-blade shaving.
- Reduce stubble more slowly. After the first pass relather and shave across the grain (the direction 90 degrees away from the grain). Relather and shave across the grain from the opposite direction. Relather then shave against the grain. Then on successive shaves start experimenting with the final passes (is not shaving against the grain acceptable? Do you need both across-grain passes?) and gauge its effects.
- Segment the area to be shaved into its flattest parts. Take shorter (maybe even much shorter) strokes on curved areas like the chin. Rinse the blade between segments so that you always have a “clean” blade on each part.
- Listen to the shave. Many people consider the sound of shaving to be one of its most enjoyable aspects. You may not hear much using a cartridge razor but many single blade razors produce a deep, satisfying sound and many who use a straight razor listen for a “singing” sound of the razor. In any case, with some experience you should be able to determine the sound the razor makes when it is cutting properly.
And there you have it! The basics of using your new shaving set. If you are unfamiliar with some elements of it there may be a bit of a learning curve but don’t let that stop you! With some practice you will be getting close, comfortable, enjoyable shaves in no time.
Comments? Questions? Leave ’em below.