Friday, April 11, 2014

Why a Single Edge?

I feel that I'm overdue writing a post dedicated to the single blade razor. Lately I've been emphasizing the importance of the brush and preparation, at the end of the day it's not the brush that removes stubble, and I do love my razors.
For clarity: shaving with a "double edge" safety razor counts as single edge shaving, as only one of the two sharp edges should be in contact with your skin at any time. If both edges are touching your skin, your shave has gone badly wrong!

Reasons to shave with a single edge:


  • Cartridges cost more over time than DE blades or a straight razor.
  • You are not locked into a specific brand of blade.
  • Traditional razors are built to last a lifetime, not until the next model comes out.
  • Traditional razors look far more impressive.
  • A single edge gives you more control.
  • A single edge gives you more feedback- especially a hollow ground straight razor.
  • Traditional products have a sense of historicity.
  • You get to learn a new skill.
  • You may achieve a much closer shave than you've had with cartridges.
  • You are less likely to experience ingrown hairs.
  • You are less likely to experience razor burn.
  • The best reason: Because you want to.
Some of those points need no elaboration, but I do want to emphasize a few.

Control and Feedback

When you shave with a cartridge razor, you have much more material in contact with your face- several blades, the blade guard, and a "lubricating strip" of questionable benefit.

Shaving with a safety razor, you only have the single blade and the safety bar (or comb) in contact with your skin. A straight razor has even less contact: only the finest edge of metal against your skin.

One of the first revelations I experienced when shaving with a traditional razor was how much more feedback I ever had with my cartridge razors. The analogy that came to me the first time I experienced this was of car enthusiasts talking about being able to ``feel`` the road beneath them through the suspension and steering. This feeling is most pronounced when using a hollow ground straight razor, which allows you to feel individual hairs ``pop`` as the blade cuts through them.

As well as being an incredibly useful tool for perfecting your technique, this feedback give you a great connection to your shaving ritual, and will teach you about the contours of your face and growth patterns of your hair, which is useful to know whatever razor you use.

Control (again)

The second way in which single edge shaving gives you control is in your choice of blades. Once you buy a Fusion, Hydro 5, Azor, or other cartridge handle, you are locked into buying the specific cartridge meant for that model, from the one manufacturer that produces it.

Double Edge blades are standardized in shape, but made by many manufacturers under many brands, with some key differences in quality, sharpness, materials and treatments. This means that if you decide that your blades are too sharp, too dull, too short-lived, you can try another brand. At the time of writing, the Kaliandee store carries Astra, Dorco, Feather, 3 models of Gillette, Merkur, Personna, Wilkinson Sword and Derby- and this is not an exhaustive selection of available brands, they are just the most popular.

With a straight razor, you are locked into one brand- the make of the razor. In the case of straight razors, this gives you all the more control as you can stop and hone (or have honed) your straight razor to your exact specifications.

Ingrown Hairs and Irritation

Most traditional shaving enthusiasts feel that a single edge beats cartridges for reducing irritation and ingrown hairs. There are a couple of reasons why this is probably true:

1) Fewer blades across your skin

Shaving generally requires multiple passes- the aim is to reduce hair over multiple passes of the blade rather than lop it all off at once. One of the selling points of cartridges is that their multiple blades give the effect of several passes in one. In my experience multiple passes are still needed for a close shave- and when you have 5 blades in one razor, even if you only go over the same area twice (as opposed to my usual 3 passes), you are accumulating the equivalent of 10 passes with a single edge.

2) Cartridges "tugging" on hair
Some people feel that cartridge razors tend to "tug" on the hair, pulling it slightly before cutting it. If this does happen, this will cut the hair below the level of the skin, leading to an increased chance of ingrown hairs. I've yet to see convincing scientific evidence for this, but ask the members of any shaving forum why they prefer a single edge over a cartridge and you are likely to hear ingrown hair and razor burn horror stories about cartridges.


 

Sunday, April 6, 2014

The Superlather

Do you particularly appreciate the variety of scents and products that traditional shaving offers? Are you a perfectionist, always aiming for a better shave?

If you can answer either of the above in the affirmative, and you haven't tried shaving with a superlather yet, I suggest giving it a go at your earliest convenience.

First off, a definition: A "Superlather" is any shaving lather made from a combination of two lathering shaving products (soaps, creams, and Italian hard creams/soft soaps known as "croaps").

Most wet-shaving experts specifically use the term to describe a combination of a hard soap and a soft cream, but I have combined soaps with soaps, and creams with creams before, and I called all of them superlathers (all the good ones anyway!).

There are a variety of advantages to be had from combining products (if you just want to give it a go already, I give a quick explanation of my approach at the bottom):

The Best of Both Worlds
Pretty much all reasons to try superlathering stem from this: "the whole is greater than the sum of it's parts".

As I've discussed before, there are some broad differences between soaps and creams in general. Certain brands also have a reputation for being particularly strong in certain characteristics. By combining a soap and a cream (for example), you should be able to make a good, rich lather with the moisturizing and protecting qualities of a cream, with the slickness of a soap- in other words, you can get a step closer to the perfect shave.

Scent Combinations
The best way to create a signature scent (short of approaching a bespoke perfumer) is by layering and combining products. Although shaving soaps and creams do not scent your skin with anything like the strength of an actual cologne or aftershave, they still add to the effect (someone has to get close to pick up the scent of your shaving products, so think of this part of your scent layering as a treat for the people in your life who you are close to). Through some fun trial and error, you are bound to find a combination that suits your personality and tastes.

Making your products punch above their weight
Even though my University days are behind me, I still enjoy picking up the occasional budget or own-brand product just to compare to the big name alternatives. Where shaving products are concerned, while you generally get what you pay for, I find the cheaper soaps and creams still provide an acceptable shave even if they lack some of the luxury refinement of the high-end products.
For my last shave (which I enjoyed mid-way through writing this post), I loaded a Vie-Long brush with Col. Conk's Bay Rum soap, then proceeded to whip up a lather using Williams Mug soap. I find that the Williams/Conk combination works far better than either soap on their own. I won't be giving up my Taylor's, Truefitt, Trumper or Harris products any time soon, but superlathering makes the cheaper stuff enjoyable enough to stay in my rotation.

Using up "second choice" product
If, like me, you enjoy picking up and trying new products, then sooner or later you'll have a few around that don't quite cut it, and which tend to get overlooked in your collection. Throwing them away is wasteful. Giving them away is a great option, especially if you think the product is good but not to your tastes. The third option is to find a product you can superlather it with that makes for an enjoyable enough shave that you find yourself wanting to use it again (this is why I started superlathering with the Williams Mug Soap in the first place). 

 How to create a superlather

 My personal method for combining two soaps is to gently splay out the brush, and load* the inner part of the brush with the first soap, gently "close" the brush, trying not to squeeze the soap out, then load the tips of the brush from the second soap- not applying too much pressure in the process.  I aim to have the brush loaded with as much soap as I would if I were lathering only one, so the time spend loading from each soap is about half that if I were only using a single product.

For creams, I prefer to place a small (about half what I'd normally use) amount of cream into the splayed out brush,  then load the brush from a soap as usual.

Either way, once the brush is loaded, you can proceed to build your lather in a bowl or on your face as normal.

This is in no way definitive- Mike Sandoval of Shaving101 and Mark H of sharpologist both prefer to load their brushes with a soap and place a small amount of cream in his shaving bowl before lathering. The basic techniques of lathering do not change significantly, you are merely trying to incorporate two products rather than one into a lather. For me at least, experimenting with new techniques and products is part of the fun- hopefully you'll enjoy finding the combinations that work for you!

*introduce plenty of soap, i.e. "soapy water" into your brush, before you aerate and hydrate it further by actually whipping up a lather.


Monday, March 31, 2014

Choosing your shaving gear: What do you really need?

There are a LOT of products that fall under the umbrella of "traditional wet shaving gear":
  • Safety razors (adjustable or fixed)
  • Straight razors
  • Boar, horse, and synthetic shaving brushes
  • Black, Pure, Best, Super and Silvertip shaving brushes
  • Shaving creams and soaps
  • Hones and strops
  • Pre shave creams and oils
  • Alum blocks, post-shave creams
  • Traditional aftershaves
  • Brush and razor stands
  • Soap dishes, mugs and scuttles
With all of this choice, it can actually be somewhat stressful for the beginner to work out exactly what products they should invest in. For this reason, I'll be taking a look at what products are truly essential, which ones come highly recommended, and which are simply luxuries or a matter of personal preference.

Essentials:

Vulfix boar shaving brush
Vulfix Boar Brush


Brushes, Soaps, Creams
Certain items are more or less non-negotiable. The key to wet-shaving is the "wet" element, and what sets the traditional apart from the modern is the use of a shaving brush to make a lather. This means that a shaving brush and something to lather with it are THE essentials. Like many wet-shavers, I have more than one brush (I have more than one of most shaving products), and while I prefer certain brushes to use with certain products, a good brush, be it boar, badger, horse or synthetic, can do most things. Arguably the most all-round brush would be a high-end best badger, or a well-broken in boar brush. Both of these options should have a good balance between softness and stiffness, and suit a wide range of techniques and products*. I've covered creams vs soaps before; provided you buy a good quality one, either should serve you well.

Edwin Jagger Plaza double edge safety razor
Edwin Jagger Plaza Safety Razor


The Razor
Although I favor single edge shaving, I'm not going to argue too hard with anyone labeling themselves a "traditional wet-shaver" if they use a cartridge razor, so long as they are using a brush and soap.

However, you are going to need SOMETHING sharp to cut those whiskers- a razor of some kind is non-negotiable- and sooner or later, the company making that cartridge razor you've been using is going to try to talk you into "upgrading". Instead, I recommend a sidegrade to something more traditional. For only slightly more than the cost of a 12 pack of Fusion cartridges, you can pick up a basic safety razor from a manufacturer like Edwin Jagger, and blade sampler pack that should last you months. A basic straight razor will set you back more, though it could well end your dependence on buying blades for life.

Dovo hanging razor strop
Dovo Razor Strop for Straight Razors


Leather Strop (straight razors only)
A straight razor needs stropping before every use. Since this task is both essential and needs to be done as regularly as you plan to shave with your razor, it is not something you can outsource, as a beginner might with razor honing. At a minimum, you will need a leather strop, ideally with a canvas back, and a maintenance paste for the strop.

Recommended

 A brush, cream/soap, razor, and a bit of skill should be all you need to achieve a better shave. There are certain things that make the experience undeniably better though.

Dovo stand for shaving brush and straight razors
Dovo Brush and Razor Stand


Brush and Razor Stand
Shaving brushes are designed to hold onto water, a brush that doesn't will do a poor job of lathering. While this is a desirable quality for the actual shave, it is not ideal for the brush's longevity or hygiene for it to sit around damp afterwards. For this reason, you should allow your brush to dry out as best you can. This is best done by keeping the brush in a stand; apart from allowing gravity to aid the process by keeping the brush in a bristle-down position, a brush in a stand is less likely to be put into a poorly ventilated cupboard, or otherwise misplaced or mistreated by visitors, roommates, partners etc. A brush in it's stand is clearly already where it belongs. These same things apply to razors, although drying out is less essential provided the razor is not a high-carbon straight razor (which WILL rust if left wet).

Apothecary bowl
Apothecary Bowl


Shaving Mug
A shaving mug, bowl, or scuttle, is a great accessory for your shave den. Although you can build a lather directly on your face (which is what bumps this down from being an "essential"), mugs are great for beginners as they allow precise control of the amount of product and water used. Larger sizes of mugs can also be used to store shaving soaps, which allows you to buy refills of shaving soaps rather than the version that come in a bowl. You can (and many people do) use something like a large cappuccino mug for bowl lathering, but many people prefer to get something designed for the job- the "apothecary style" mug you'll see in many places is designed to be easily held with wet hands.

Osma Alum Block for soothing nicks after shaving
Osma Brand Alum Block


Alum Blocks
Astringent and mildly antiseptic with a mild coagulant effect, alum blocks are a very old-fashioned post-shave treatment. By moistening the block with cold water and gently rubbing it across the face after your shave, you'll help to seal and disinfect any nicks and cuts.

Alum blocks are often described as "soothing", but what many people will actually find is that it stings slightly when you first apply it, before calming down and leaving your skin smooth and irritation free. What I, and many wet-shavers find, is that the better your technique and sharper your blade, the less initial sting you have (presumably due to fewer microscopic nicks on your skin). This makes the alum block very useful for assessing your technique.

 Finally, because of their antiseptic effect, if you DON'T like alum as a shaving accessory, you can use it as a natural deodorant instead, so it's unlikely to be a wasted purchase.

Hones (straight razors only)
Stropping helps to keep your razor sharp by gently re-aligning the microscopic metal burrs at the razor's blade into a fine edge. After several months of use, these burrs will start to become too numerous and too misaligned for stropping to be sufficient. At this point, your razor needs re-sharpening, or honing, or it will become ineffective and downright uncomfortable. This is a task you can outsource to one of the many independent "honemeisters" who can be found on the shaving forums. If you only have one razor, this can be inconvenient, as typically such arrangements involve mailing the razor off, and there may be a waiting list. With some care, most people can learn to hone their own razor. The basic tools required are a hone (or several, but many get by with a single combination stone, with a high grit side and a low grit side) and a lapping stone to ensure the hone is flat.  

Optional

Pre-shave oils, Creams, Aftershave Creams
 A good lather and good technique with your razor should get you a long way to a perfect shave. Pre-shave treatments and aftershaves (especially the non-alcohol based variety) can help you go the rest of the way. This is particularly true if you have sensitive skin, don't quite have your technique down, or have very particular preferences regarding the feel of your skin after a shave. For some people, some kind of pre/post treatment would be an essential, but for many (including me), they are luxuries; sometimes I use them, sometimes I don't.

Traditional Aftershaves
Traditional aftershaves tend to be alcohol based, and are formulated at least partly for purposes of fragrance rather than effect on the skin, although they are mildly antiseptic. The best aftershaves will still have some kind of moisturizing ingredients to counteract the drying effect of alcohol. I would regard this style of aftershave to be entirely non-essential, but nevertheless a fantastic way to finish off your morning grooming routine- if you're not one of the few who find them drying.



*The latest generation of synthetics may well prove to be good all-rounders too.


Monday, March 10, 2014

Shaving in a hurry


There are many reasons why men make the switch back to old-school shaving products; price, control, a sense of history and tradition, a love of luxury, or even just sheer curiosity. Most men have a few reasons, and if there is one factor in common with all traditional wet-shavers, it is probably a perfectionist streak.

However, many men shave in the morning under time pressure, and  find that busy mornings and the quest for the perfect shave are fundamentally at odds with one another. This is especially true for beginners and straight razor users (and doubly so for beginners learning on a straight razor!), who are obliged to take extra time and care to avoid nicks and irritation.

Over time, as you gain more experience, you will likely find that you can achieve a good shave quickly, without feeling too rushed, or too much like you are performing a chore. Until you reach that level (I still have some room to improve), here are the approaches that work best for me:

1) Streamline your preparation

Shaving is an art- lots of factors need to come together for a perfect shave. Chief among them however is preparation- mainly of your face, and of the lather. There are a few ways you can make this more efficient.


  • First- if you both shave and shower in the morning, fill your shaving mug with warm water and place your brush to soak in it while you shower. Your brush will likely absorb enough or more water than you need to create your lather (if it soaks up too much, you can gently shake out some of the excess- a little practice will teach you how much you need). 
  • If you are using a solid soap, use you brush to transfer some of the warm water to the top of the soap to soften it while you shower. This will make it much quicker and easier to lather, in many cases it will lather as easily as a cream at this point. 
  • Use a shaving bowl- As much as I enjoy face lathering, if you are in a hurry, whipping up a lather in a bowl will reduce the likelihood that water and lather will end up somewhere you will have to clean up. You can also usually produce more lather in a bowl for a similar amount of time and effort, as you can "whisk" the brush around rather more quickly in a bowl without redecorating your bathroom in a "foam party" theme. A bowl full of lather also makes reapplying for subsequent passes easier. 
  • A warm shower should prepare your face enough before you lather- just don't entirely dry it off before you lather up. If you do not shower in the morning, wash your face with warm water while your brush soaks.
2) Replace your blades regularly

I find I can get quite a few shaves out of most brands of DE blades, but most blades are past their best after the first 2 or 3 shaves. At this point, more care is required for a comfortable shave- both in preparation and the shave itself.

If your time is at a premium, swap out blades early, after all, they are cheaper than cartridge blades. The straight razor equivalent to this would probably be to strop the razor thoroughly the night before, so it is at it's best and ready to go in the morning.

3) Use More Product!

Pre-shave products are no substitute for a good lather, but they can certainly improve the quality of your shave, and may help prevent nicks and irritation if you take a few liberties with the speed and care of your shave.

Traditional aftershaves tend to be alcohol based and fragranced, and while they may have some soothing ingredients, their purpose is often to be mildly antiseptic to help prevent nicks and cuts from becoming infected (it was an infected shaving nick that killed the 5th Earl of Carnarvon, backer of the Tutankhamun dig, so this was rather crucial before antibiotics).

Modern aftershaves are created to be more soothing, and these excel at relieving the irritation that may occasionally result from a hurried shave. While prevention is better than cure, these are still worthwhile products.

4) Switch to the evening

This one seems rather obvious, but shaving has been so culturally ingrained as a morning thing that it really doesn't occur to some people. I find shaving can be invigorating or relaxing, based entirely on what products I use.

Products such as Edwin Jagger's Cooling Menthol or Proraso's Menthol and Eucalyptus will tend to be stimulating and awakening, and ideal for a morning shave, while products with woodier, warmer scents are more relaxing and can help you to wind down after a busy day. If you want to take your time shaving, and your beard isn't so fast growing that you can shave in the evening and wake up with stubble, I highly recommend giving this a try.

5) Keep perfectionism a weekend luxury

In our interview with Neil Jagger (founder of Edwin Jagger), he revealed that his weekday shaves are usually with an Edwin Jagger razor fitted with a Fusion cartridge, while he uses a Chatsworth with a DE shave head on the weekends. He prepares with a silvertip brush and a soap or cream for all his shaves, so they are all to a standard he enjoys.

My own approach is similar: As someone who owns both straight razors and double edge safety razors, I tend to default to safety razors during the week for convenience, and treat myself to a luxury straight razor shave on weekends.

Even if you do not use more than one razor, the key here is to aim for "good enough" during the week, but to treat yourself and take your time on the weekend. The things you learn on your weekend shave will probably improve your everyday shaving experience over time.

6) Keep your mirror clear

One annoying obstacle to shaving, quickly or otherwise, is often a foggy bathroom mirror after showering. Here are my top workarounds for this:


  • The obvious: Better bathroom ventilation
  • The masochist: Colder showers (which are supposedly good for you, and actually quite tolerable, especially if you have a morning exercise routine)
  • The high-tech: apply an anti-fog treatment of the variety sold for car windscreens and mirrors
  • The low-tech: leave the bathroom and shave like they did before modern plumbing, with a basin of warm water and a freestanding mirror



I've had good results from all of these approaches (apart from anti-fogging my bathroom mirror, which I've only heard good things about). I'm sure there are other good ways to get a better shave in a hurry, and I'd love to hear about them in comments.












Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Progress Vulfix and Simpsons Shaving Brushes

As is probably obvious, we've been doing a lot of interviews lately with some of our top brands. Our most recent one, which we featured in a press release and  posted in full on our website today was with Mark Watterson, Managing Director of Progress Vulfix and Simpsons. Mark officially joined the company in 2004 but his Father, Phillip, had been with the business for over 40 years, and Mark essentially grew up around the business.

Instead of re-posting or summarizing the whole interview here, I'll instead briefly introduce both brands, for the benefit of any interested wet-shaver who has yet to discover them.

....................................................

"Vulfix Old Original" and "Simpsons Brushes" logos


Vulfix are well known to most wet-shaving enthusiasts, and many have started out with a Vulfix brush. Strictly speaking, Vulfix's niche is actually "mid to high quality", but I would argue that, since their cheaper brushes are both affordable and good value, anything cheaper probably isn't worth buying. Hence, I have often thought of them and occasionally described them as being strongest in "entry-level to mid-range" brushes. Vulfix in fact produce a complete range of brushes, from a very basic nylon fiber model all the way up to Silvertip badger.

Vulfix 2006bk Pure Badger shaving brush
Vulfix Pure badger shaving brush


Simpsons* make probably the best quality shaving brushes in the world. There are a couple of brands that come close, but both are hard to find, and one has a rather murky recent history. Most traditional shaving enthusiasts, at least ones participating in forums, either end up buying a Simpsons brush, or at least aspire to own one. Their reputation is largely built on four factors:

  • The sheer amount of handwork that goes into their brushes
  • Excellent customer service 
  • The unusually high density of their knots
  • The care with which they grade their hair
Simpsons Duke 3 Shaving Brush in Best Badger
Simpsons Duke 3 Shaving Brush in Best Badger


As with bespoke tailoring, handwork isn't just about prestige. Even the most high-tech machines still can't perform tasks with the same skill and complexity as a master craftsman. Until that changes, a knot of badger hair tied by hand will outperform one made by machine; it will have better density, and only hand tying can achieve the optimum shape for the brush without resorting to cutting the hair to shape, which compromises the softness of the hair tips.

The downside to working with a material like badger hair is that even with careful hand-tying and gluing, there will be the occasional brush that sheds too much (a few lost hairs in the first few uses of a brush is normal). This is where Simpsons customer service matters- they have an excellent track record of replacing the occasional "shedder". 

The density of Simpsons knots and the care with which they select hair go hand in hand. Careful grading means that only hair exhibiting the best qualities of each grade are used, whether it be "Pure", "Best" or "Super" (Silvertip). 

Simpsons Chubby "1" in Super Badger (silvertip)
Simpsons Chubby "1" in Super Badger


Where the density of their knots really matters is in the Best and Super grades. Normally, if you want a brush with good stiffness and "backbone", you would have to buy pure badger. Pure badger is the coarsest grade, and with the stiffness comes a more exfoliating lathering experience- loved by many, but certainly not everyone's choice. The density of Simpsons' knots gives even their best and super badger brushes the kind of backbone normally found in a pure badger brush, while retaining the soft feel of those grades. This means a Simpsons brush can be luxuriously soft while also being a workhorse of a shaving tool, able to quickly lather up even the hardest of shaving soaps. 


....................................................

Vulfix were founded in the 1930's, in Manchester. In 1954 they moved to the Isle of Man, a British Crown Protectorate in the Irish Sea, known for it's Tourist Trophy Motorcycle event, which was experiencing a period of industrial development at the time. One of the few traditional shaving brush manufacturers to survive the decline of the shaving brush, they are now benefiting from the increased interest in traditional products and have recently moved to a new facility on the Island. In addition to the Vulfix and Simpsons brands, they also produce many "white label" brushes for other companies.

Simpsons were founded in London in 1919 by Alexander Simpson. They quickly built a reputation for quality and moved to a larger factory in Clapham (which back then was technically in the County of Surrey, but is now part of London). Their Clapham  location was destroyed in the Blitz, after which the company moved to the West Country. By the early 2000's, the then-owners were having difficulty finding new staff willing to learn the traditional hand skills involved in shaving brush manufacture. As their more experienced craftspeople retired, the owners were faced with ending the historic brand, or just as bad, compromising on quality. Luckily for wet-shavers everywhere, they offered to sell the company to Progress Vulfix, who had the skills needed to maintain the Simpsons standard. In 2008, Simpsons were bought by Vulfix, and are now made in their new facility on the Isle of Man.

*Who I've seen spelled both with and without an apostrophe. I currently favor without, as their logo doesn't have one, though I'm sure I've spelled it both ways in the past.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Interview with Neil Edwin Jagger

We recently had the privilege of interviewing Neil Jagger, founder and chief designer of the Edwin Jagger company, known around the world as one of the finest manufacturers of traditional shaving products. Neil is a designer and craftsman at heart, and clearly very passionate about his work and the promotion of high-quality English manufacturing. The full text of the interview can be found at on our website.

Saturday, November 9, 2013

The Ethics of Traditional Shaving Products Pt 1: Animal products and ingredients

In our latest shipment of shaving goodies from the UK, we received some fantastic vegan-friendly Synthetic Silvertip brushes from Edwin Jagger, and some luxurious but decidedly non-vegetarian shaving soaps from D.R. Harris made with animal tallow- a very traditional and effective ingredient, but one that many manufacturers have abandoned. Now seems to be as good a time as any to take a look at some of the options that ethically-minded consumers have with regards to traditional grooming products. For the first part, we'll take a look at vegan and vegetarian options. 

Disclaimer: I am neither vegetarian nor vegan. However, I DO put thought into decisions involving animal products, and all else being equal, I'll pick the animal friendly option. 

The Ethics of Traditional Shaving Products Pt 1: Animal products and ingredients

Back when your great Grandfather's generation was using a brush and soap to shave, wet-shaving was a decidedly non-vegan affair. All of the available shaving brushes would have been made from animal hair, and all soaps would originally have been made from processed animal fats. Straight razors would often have scales made of horn or bone and all razor blades would require maintenance using leather strops. Things have changed since then, and there are now many vegan/vegetarian friendly products for wet-shavers. Below we'll look at the vegan, vegetarian and non-vegetarian options available today, and what their advantages and disadvantages are.


Brushes

Simpson's Berkeley Best Badger Brush
Simpson's Berkeley Best Badger Brush


For a long time, the only animal friendly alternatives to shaving brushes have been nylon or ethically sourced horse-hair brushes. Nylon compares poorly to natural fibers for most purposes (Although it works, it's only real strength is that it's cheap and it dries quickly if you need to throw it in a travel kit), while horse hair, though good, has never been as popular as badger, as it holds less water and generally has less "backbone" for dealing with hard soaps (that said, I have one, and I like it for lathering creams).

Vie-Long Ethically Sourced Horse Hair Shaving Brush
Vie-Long Ethically Sourced Horse Hair Shaving Brush


However, synthetic brushes have advanced significantly in the last few years, and the latest generation of synthetic badger brushes are very similar to the "real deal". Although most men can tell the difference in a side-by-side comparison, the quality of the shaving experience with the latest Synthetic Silvertip brushes is close to that of the real thing, and many men are switching over to the synthetics. An added advantage of the synthetic brushes is that they still have nylon's resistance to becoming "musty" if thrown into a travel kit in a hurry.


Edwin Jagger Synthetic Silvertip Shaving Brush
Edwin Jagger Synthetic Silvertip Shaving Brush

The brands to consider for synthetic brushes are: Edwin Jagger, Muhle, HL Thater
For ethically sourced horse-hair, your best bet is Vie-Long.

Soaps

D.R. Harris Shaving Soap- an animal tallow based option
D.R. Harris Shaving Soap- an animal tallow based option


All soaps are made using processed fatty acids. Traditionally, the fatty acids for high quality soaps were sourced from animal tallow (rendered animal fat), as this was a readily available source of the fatty acids needed. In modern times there has been a movement away from animal ingredients in soaps, and many big-name shaving soap manufacturers (Taylor of Old Bond Street, Truefitt and Hill, Geo F Trumper, Klar Seifen) have reformulated their shaving soaps around fatty acids derived from palm oil and coconut oil. Others, like D.R. Harris, have proudly stuck to their old formulas, on the belief that tallow is still the most effective option (their "Naturals" shaving soap IS vegetable based however).

Taylor of Old Bond Street Shaving Soap- reformulated without animal tallow
Taylor of Old Bond Street Shaving Soap- reformulated without animal tallow


These reformulations have been controversial with many wet-shaving enthusiasts, as some feel that these reformulations have changed the lathering experience of these soaps (whether the change is for the worse or not is also a matter of debate). While manufacturers can in theory recreate animal tallow's fatty acid profile using vegetable sources, it is entirely possible that some companies have done so less well than others.

Klar Seifen Shaving Soap- a very popular vegetable based option
Klar Seifen Shaving Soap- a very popular vegetable based option


Klar Seifen are definitely a brand that got the change right. Their shaving soaps have been consistently praised for their lathering ability, and not only are they committed to using vegetable oils, they are experimenting with different vegetable oil bases to ensure their products are as good as they can be.

eShave's Avocado and Linden Shaving soap- another vegetable based option
eShave's Avocado and Linden Shaving soap- another vegetable based option


eShave are also notable; as a newer company they formulated their soaps to be free of animal ingredients from the start, and they also have an excellent reputation.

Vegans and vegetarians are advised to avoid products listed as tallow soaps on the excellent Badger and Blade wiki.

Alternatives to Leather Strops

Dovo Inox Straight Razor with Olivewood Scales
Dovo Inox Straight Razor with Olivewood Scales


Provided you buy a model with scales (handles) made from non-animal ingredients, there is no reason why a straight razor wouldn't be suitable for a vegan. Things get a little more complicated when you get to the "essential maintenance" part of shaving (assuming you aren't using a straight razor that takes disposable blades- they're maintenance free).

A traditional (and distinctly non-vegan) hanging leather strop
A traditional (and distinctly non-vegan) hanging leather strop


While a razor blade may look like one perfectly smooth and fine edge to the naked eye, under a microscope it will look rather "ragged", with many little burrs and imperfections. On a sharp and ready-to-shave razor, all these little burrs are aligned with each other, forming the edge. As your razor dulls with use, these burrs become folded back and mis-aligned. Stropping is a daily maintenance task that helps to correct this, and is essential for keeping your shave comfortable.

The process of stropping involves drawing the blade along your strop, with the blade flat against the strop, spine first with the sharp edge trailing, using little to no pressure ("rolling" the razor on it's spine after each pass so as to strop in both directions). Done properly, this action gently folds any microscopic burrs in the metal back into alignment with  the edge of the blade. Traditionally, this process is done on a smooth leather surface, either a hanging strop held taught, or a paddle strop where the leather is backed with wood. Leather is considered by many to be the best material for stropping with; it has just the right combination of pliability, softness but also strength to gently fold the fine metal edge into place, and it is smooth- essential if you are not to cause more problems in the blade.

For all it's suitability, there is nothing magic about leather- in theory any material with the right qualities can be used to stop a razor. By way of example (but not suggestion as it is probably not a practical answer for most people), the birch bracket fungus was once used to strop razors.

The Razor Strop fungus- image courtesy of CaptainPixel


Probably the best, and certainly most common recommendation is a synthetic strop. At least one manufacturer makes a synthetic strop- an artisan by the name of Tony Miller (who can be found easily enough by searching for "Tony Miller strops"). His work is in high demand and limited supply, but by all accounts worth it. Synthetic strops do have a different "feel" to leather, and there is no guarantee that they work quite as well yet, but certainly they can produce a shave-ready edge.

Another potential alternative is a denim strop, although this probably won't result in as smooth an edge as leather. Balsa strops exist, but are mainly used in combination with abrasive pastes for polishing an edge.
Some brave and presumably very careful individuals strop their razors using the palm of their hands. This is not something we recommend (and not something I'm in a hurry to try myself), and is only for people with good co-ordination, patience, and somewhere distraction-free to practice. But, by all accounts, it does work.

Finally, for those willing to compromise, there are occasionally restored vintage leather strops to be found. These are obviously not vegan or vegetarian, but from an ethical standpoint, some people who would not buy a new leather item may be able to justify it, and is arguably better than letting a leather product go to waste.

If in any doubt, barber-style straight razors with replaceable blades are probably still the best vegan option. They will guarantee you a sharp edge to shave with, and are still more economical and environmentally friendly than cartridge blades.

All of the products pictured here (minus the fungus) are available at the Kaliandee store.