A common shaving process within the shaving-hobbyist or shaving-aficionado community is the so-called standard three-pass shave using largely with-grain, across-grain, and against-grain strokes, respectively, for passes one, two and three. This is an orderly approach to aiming for a very close shave and one way to successfully implement the concept of gradual beard reduction during a shave. I have found, however, in some cases it’s not the most efficient way to get a good shave.
In my world, my standard shave — though it may include three passes (more or less — I’ll explain below) is almost never the so-called standard three-pass shave. Like many of you reading this, I tend to let practicality dictate my shaving process and often, at minimum, skip the pro forma, de rigueur whole face, with-grain first pass.
My beard — perhaps like many others’ — is tricky to shave.
First off, the increasing amount of gray in my beard accompanying my increasing age directly influences my frequency of shaves. I noticed that unlike many younger men with dark beards, when I begin to go a couple of days or more without shaving, rather than developing a rugged, sexy look that seems so much in vogue, with my increasingly gray beard I just begin to look like a bum, like someone really down on his luck.
Therefore I’ve now made the decision to beautify America by choosing to shave every single day. This daily shave brings with it a lack of time between shaves for damaged skin to heal. This magnifies the impact of any irritation or occasional wounds inflicted in the daily shave. This makes more important the minimizing of unnecessary razor strokes and striking a good balance between the closeness of the shave and the likelihood of creating or re-opening skin injuries.
In addition, I have often written that I have sensitive skin, although these days I’m not convinced that it’s really any more or less sensitive than anyone else. Certainly my upper lip, like those of others’, is both sensitive — apparently having many nerve endings — and has coarse, dense hair: a problematic combination, but certainly not just unique to me. What I do clearly have is a beard that is difficult to shave very closely (that is, difficult to shave baby smooth in its entirety). This baby-smooth challenge is perhaps in part due to some extreme angles of the beard grain (that is, hairs growing close to parallel to the skin), the fact that several areas have beard grain that runs not precisely in one direction, and that my beard-hairs individually cannot be characterized as thin or fine.
Further complicating any attempt to get a very close shave is the topography — that is, the contours — of my face. It has many areas of concave surfaces, where the straight edge of the straight- or double-edge-razor blade isn’t ideally suited to closely shave hairs within these depressions. This is true even when I stretch the skin and perform various facial contortions in the attempt to create flat or slightly convex surfaces. I also have rather sharp convex contours at my jawline and chin, which can be minefield of high risk for nicks if I get careless.
Lastly, my skin, whether sensitive or not, is clearly susceptible to weepers whenever I go for a very close shave. And let me define what I mean by a weeper. A weeper is a very small (from as small as a pinpoint up to a millimeter or so in diameter), superficial, bleeding wound that may or may not be accompanied by slight pain when created. This is to be distinguished from a cut, which tends to be linear and usually deeper than a weeper. A weeper is also distinguished from a nick, which I would characterize as a wound at a crease, bump, or other small protuberance of the skin, or a small gouge from a corner of a razor blade. Weepers, as I define them, tend to be created by the middle area of a blade (not a corner) within expanses of skin that are relatively flat (or at least not concave) and otherwise unremarkable. I consider nicks and cuts to be gross errors of technique. While weepers are usually, in my experience, generally due to the error of more razor pressure against the skin than appropriate.
I believe that for me and those like me, it is the combination of flat grain, multiple grain directions in some regions, hair follicles that are rather substantial (at least, not accurately characterized as thin), and facial contours that are rather sharp or concave in some areas — it is this combination that renders the so-called standard three-pass shave not optimally effective.
The First Pass and Shaving Hardware
If one shaves every day as I do, with a beard similar to mine, the first pass or two, as commonly conceived by shaving hobbyists is rather pointless. In my experience, starting with an against-grain first pass instead of the recommended with-grain first pass gives a result that is as smooth to the hand when rubbing in the with-grain direction, but is far less rough when rubbing with the hand across or against grain.
Likewise, if I make an across-grain first pass, the outcome when compared to a with-grain first pass is similar to the preceding: they’re comparable when checking with the hand in the with-grain direction, but the coarseness of the with-grain first pass is noticeably inferior when rubbing in other directions — that is, across or against the grain.
A largely against-grain or across-grain first pass only runs a greater risk of incurring weepers if I am careless about the pressure of the razor against my beard. If I am appropriately cautious, keep beard reduction (not elimination) in mind and therefore don’t apply excessive pressure, the risks of irritation and wounds are not significantly increased. The risk of wounds is further decreased by a bit of tactical skin stretching with my free hand, which is what I always do when shaving my lower neck in any direction that is in the ballpark of being across or against the grain.
Part of the calculus of deciding the specifics of a given multi-pass shave is taking into account my choice of hardware for the process. When using a fresher, sharper blade, I’ll either use a face-friendly adjustable razor such as the Parker Variant or my imitation Merkur Futur, the Ming Shi 2000S; or more likely I’ll choose a mild two- or three-piece razor such as the Merkur 33C Classic, their 34C Heavy Duty, a post-WWII Gillette Tech three piece or the Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements’ double-open-comb (DOC) razor. Because all the adjustable razors that I’ve used have a blade exposure that is pretty neutral (that is, with the blade edge lying pretty much on the shaving plane, which is determined by the top cap and safety bar), they are therefore not terribly mild shavers. So I’ll be sure to set the razor to its mildest setting and do a first pass using cross-grain strokes on my cheeks and chin (that is, in the nose-to-ear direction), either with-grain or cross-grain strokes (straight down or nose-to-ear direction) on my upper lip, almost-against-grain strokes (upward) under my jaw and on upper neck, and almost-against grain strokes (downward) on my lower neck.
If I’m using a mild non-adjustable razor as mentioned above, I may simplify the first pass by shaving across grain (nose-to-ear direction) on my upper lip and chin; upwards (somewhat against grain) on cheeks, jawline, and upper neck; and downwards (somewhat against grain) on lower neck.
If I have an older blade that isn’t quite ready for the recycle canister, then I use my adjustable razors on their mildest setting as though they were more like the aforementioned mild non adjustables.
I should also warn that not all adjustables are alike. My Gillette Slim, for example, is a very different instrument than the Variant or the Ming Shi 2000S. For me, it is much more difficult for me to get a comfortable shave with the Slim as compared to the Variant or the 2000S — no matter what the shaving process, but especially starting out with an against-grain first pass. So I must emphasize that I’m advocating my three-pass variations only with razors that are fundamentally comfortable on one’s face.
The Second Pass
My second pass technique depends upon what came before. Generally speaking, I amp up the aggression of my stroking direction for the second pass without changing the aggression of the razor. In any given region of my beard, if my first pass was across grain, then my next pass will be approximately against grain. If my first pass was approximately against the grain, then my second pass will be, as much as possible, strictly against the grain.
The problem areas, the upper lip, lower lip and chin, will get special treatment. If the first pass was with grain in these areas, then the second pass will use across-grain strokes — often from both cross-grain directions. If the first pass was across grain, then the second pass will be from the opposite cross-grain direction and will likely include cross-grain strokes with the blade edge skewed so that it tends to shave slightly against the grain.
The Third Pass
For the third pass with an adjustable, I’ll increment the razor about a half to a full unit more aggressive (depending on the sharpness of the blade) and will often do precisely against-grain strokes as much as possible over most of my beard. The exception being my upper lip. There I will tend to shave slightly against grain on my upper lip unless the blade-and-razor combination (the blade in particular) is in an extremely face-friendly phase of its life cycle.
With a mild non-adjustable razor, I may do more buffing strokes in the directions indicated in the preceding paragraph, especially on my cheeks, chin, under jaw line, and upper neck. (The buffing strokes are especially effective when using the DOC razor because the combed top cap holds lather, which is released back onto the skin on the return stroke, thus adding more lubrication for the next shaving stroke.)
If I’m going for a particularly close shave, then after the third pass I’ll typically feel for those areas not quite smooth, simply wet those areas with dabs of water (because the residual soap left from the previous pass combined with a bit of fresh water will be slick enough) and make final clean-up strokes. These will often include buffing and j-hooking strokes, particularly with a non-adjustable razor. If I’m using one of my adjustable razors, I will likely again increment the razor setting to one unit more aggressive before making final touch-up strokes.
If I’m either in a hurry or am recovering from skin damage from a problematic previous shave, I may actually end the shave after the second pass and call it good.
So in summary, perhaps like me, you find the initial pass or two of the so-called standard three-pass shave to be about as necessary as a four-way stop at a desolate, open, flatland, back-country intersection. Skipping early-pass preliminaries and starting with across- or against-grain strokes still implements the concept of gradual beard reduction, but more effectively in my experience. I’ve found that with the right equipment and a light touch, these variations from the commonly-accepted routine can, under the right conditions, give great results with fewer strokes.