Thursday, September 26, 2013

Lathering with a Soap and Shaving Brush

Ask any shaving expert what the secret to a good shave is, and 9 times out of 10 the answer will usually be "Preparation".

No matter what other pre-shave rituals you may have or products you may apply, the key to a perfect shave is always the lather, and it is from the lather that "wet-shaving" takes it's name. Whether you are using a soap or a cream, the most important ingredient in lather is water- the lathering process itself is simply hydrating the product (with a little aeration as well).  



My very first attempts at old-school shaving were somewhat paltry because of my poor lathering skills. Rather uncharacteristically, I had jumped straight into my first shave without doing my usual research, and ended up trying to shave with soapy water rather than a luxurious lather. Thankfully, there is plenty of good advice online on creating proper shaving lather, which I eventually found and followed. In the hope that it helps prevent someone else from a "soapy water shave", I'm going to add my own.

Face vs Bowl Lathering

A poll from the badger & blade forum: 41% of users prefer face lathering, 25% bowl lathering
From Badger & Blade, a large and very informative wet-shaving forum

Regardless of the method you use, the process of lathering involves a good minute or so of whisking a mix of soap and water into a luxurious, creamy lather. Traditionally, this was often done in a bowl, either one meant for the task, or something re-purposed, like a cappuccino mug. Once a good bowl of lather was created, it would be applied to the face with the brush, using a painting motion. The alternative method, arguably more popular today, is face lathering. This is pretty much what it sounds like- instead of whisking the lather up in a bowl, you use a vigorous circular motion on the face to create your lather and apply it at the same time.

The advantages of bowl lathering are: 
  • It tends to be a bit less messy
  • You can create a warmer lather, by heating the bowl
  • It feels a bit more "old school"
  • You can apply the lather a bit more economically, and hold some back for multiple passes
  • If your skin is very easily irritated, this keeps "brush against skin" action to a minimum
The advantages of face lathering are: 
  • You have tactile feedback of the quality of your lather
  • No bowl= one less piece of kit you need
  • The brush is mildly exfoliating- a wet shaver might never need to use an exfoliant product on any regularly shaved part of the face
  • Your face is better prepared (the lather is worked into the beard a little more thoroughly)
Ultimately though, it is a personal preference, and many people enjoy both approaches. Bowl lathering has the advantage of being easier to photograph (I'm a poor photographer at the best of times), so it's what I'll focus on for now. 

Creating a Lather

Prepare

Applying warm water to a shaving soap with a pure badger shaving brush
1) Use your brush to apply a little warm water to the soap

 1) Run your hot tap until it's producing very warm water. Use your shaving brush to transfer transfer a little of this warm water to your shaving soap. This will soften the soap up, and make it much easier to lather.

A badger hair shaving brush soaking in a shaving scuttle
2) Soak the shaving brush and let the bowl warm up


2) Next, run your shaving bowl under the hot tap to start warming it up. Then fill it with warm water and soak your shaving brush in it.

3) Shower, wash your face, or apply a hot towel. There are conflicting theories on why this helps to prepare your face for shaving. The majority opinion is that it helps to soften the bristles of your beard, and opens the pores.

The Lather

A badger hair shaving brush and shaving soap, after a few seconds of lathering- some way to go yet
4) After about 10 seconds of swirling the brush around the soap, the beginnings of a lather
4) Empty your shaving bowl, very gently shake off some excess water from the brush- water may be the key ingredient, but it's less effort to add water to a dry lather than dry out an overly watery one. With a good circular motion, swirl the brush around the top of the soap for 5 to 15 seconds. At this point, the brush and top of the soap should have the "soapy water" look of the picture.

A badger hair shaving brush, lathered up, next to a bowl and Taylor of Old Bond Street Sandalwood soap
5) A lather after a minute of whisking up a shaving soap- nearly there!
5) Pour off any of the soapy liquid from your soap into your shaving bowl (most of it should be on or in your brush though), and begin working it into a lather with your brush, using a steady, rapid, circular motion. Over the next minute or so, it should go from a large-bubble dish soap look, so something more like the microfoam on a good cappuccino; small, fine bubbles, and a consistency that lets it hold a bit of a shape on the brush. For the culinary minded among you, think egg whites whisked to "soft peaks". 

A shaving bowl full of lather, and a pure badger hair shaving brush ready to go. The lather on the brush has a cappuccino microfoam-like texture.
6) Another 30 seconds of work, and the lather is ready to go


6) When your lather is ready, apply it to the face with a painting motion. Using a gentle circular motion, work it well into the areas to be shaved. As well as making sure that your face is thoroughly in contact with the lather, the action of the brush will gently exfoliate, while helping to lift hairs away from the skin. The amount of lather to apply should be fairly intuitive- make sure you have a little held back for a second or third pass with the razor. 
A brush and bowl of shaving lather (much nicer than canned shaving foam), ready to go.
A bowl of shaving lather, ready to go.

Troubleshooting

If your lather is a little dry (it will lack volume, but won't be watery)- dip the tip of your shaving brush into some hot water, and continue whisking up a lather, repeat if necessary. 

If your lather is too watery, I find adding a little more soap by repeating the second part of step 4 helps. 

Hard water- The easy solution to creating a lather in a hard water area is to use creams! If you are set on using soaps, you might wish to buy distilled water, or consider having a water softener installed. Some people have found Brita filtered water helps. A search on forums such as badger and blade may yield advice on specific soaps which are easier to use in hard water areas. 

Equipment used:

Edwin Jagger Best Badger brush
Taylor of Old Bond Street Sandalwood soap
Handmade cappuccino mug
Toronto tap water

You can find everything you need to get started wet-shaving at Kaliandee.com

It would be remiss of me not to thank youtube user mantic59, whose advice was invaluable in my own learning process. 

Press Release



Press release can be found here: Kaliandee now stocks soaps by Klar Seifen

Klar products are here


Friday, September 6, 2013

Choosing your shaving gear: Straight Razors

If you've finally decided that you have to try shaving with a straight razor, you've no doubt discovered that straight razors come in various shapes and sizes, with different grinds and prices varying from around $100 to several thousands of dollars. In this post I'll be taking a look at some of the variables you'll have to choose from, before suggesting a good (if somewhat unoriginal) starter razor.

·        
Brand


Dovo Bergischer Lowe


For a good quality new razor, your choices are currently limited to those produced in Germany, France, Japan and North America.  Without some significant increases in quality, Indian and Chinese “straight razors” are display pieces at best. If you are looking at vintage razors, you can expand the above list to include the UK and Sweden- there may be others, but you are advised to do your research on forums before buying any vintage razor.  

There are now only a handful of brands still making new razors in any significant quantity. The ones I can vouch for are:
Dovo (Germany)
Thiers Issard (France)
Boker (Germany)
Ralf Aust (Germany)
Revisor (Germany)
Giesen and Forsthoff (Germany)
Hart Steel (USA)

There are also a manufacturers in Japan, though they tend to sell the Japanese style razor, which is another post entirely. A handful of talented individuals also create some very beautiful custom razors- for many beginners, these will be prohibitively expensive.

Provided you buy from a good manufacturer, you can be sure you own a razor capable of taking and keeping a shaving-sharp edge. Dovo and Thiers Issard are arguably the two most important of the companies mentioned above. Both make more affordable entry-level items and highly decorated “prestige” razors (such as the Dovo Bismarck). 

Dovo razors tend to offer more value for money than TI, and are slightly easier to hone. The difference between a basic Dovo and an expensive one will tend to be in the decoration more than the shave. Many people believe that TI razors offer a slightly better shave, while being harder to hone. The difference is not a significant one, and only likely to matter to very experienced- not to mention perfectionist- straight razor users. 

For serious enthusiasts with money to burn, TI make beautiful 7-day razor sets, and have some stunning spine decoration options, as well as stunningly expensive scale materials. Bear in mind that upwards of the $300 dollar mark, you are likely paying for prestige rather than performance.

Because of their value for money and ease of honing (and a little bit because of personal preference), Dovo is my recommendation for beginners, albeit by only a small margin.

Blade width

Blade widths are measured in inches, with 5/8” being probably the most common width. Narrower blades are more maneuverable, and very narrow 3/8” razors exist for beard trimming and hair thinning by barbers. Larger blade sizes, such as 7/8”, can “carry” more lather and need rinsing less frequently. Blade width will also affect the “heft” of the razor, and some people may favor a size simply for how it handles. I have a heavy "Wedge" razor (see below), whose heft I enjoy, but for the beginner, 5/8” is a good compromise.

Grind

Hollow ground razor on the left, near wedge on the right.
My Hollow-ground Dovo on the left, and a near-wedge Wade and Butcher on the right


The grind is essentially the thickness and end-on profile of the blade. A thicker blade is better for very thick, coarse hair, while a thinner grind will provide much more tactile and audible feedback. With a quality, full-hollow grind, you can often hear and feel individual hairs “pop” as they cut. 

The thickest grinds available are the full wedge and near wedge, rarely seen except for vintage barber razors. They are harder to hone as much more material is in contact with the stone, so much more steel needs to be removed. While a hollow grind is light, agile and gives you a better "feel" for your face, a wedge grind is a heavy duty tool, with less feedback but plenty of hair-removing firepower.

We recommend half hollow grinds for beginners, as they have a good compromise between heft and feedback. If your hair is not especially thick or coarse, a full hollow grind would also serve you well.

Blade shape

Anatomy of a straight razor
Anatomy of a 5/8" Round point straight razor


There are many parts to a straight razor blade- the toe, point or tip, shoulder, heel, tang, tail... The part most relevant to your decision should be the toe, the end of the blade furthest from your hand, where the blade meets the face. A square toe is far easier to nick yourself with (my first experience with a square toe razor was not pretty), but in experienced hands is better at getting into those “hard to reach” contours. A rounded toe is the safest option for a beginner, and still allows for a very close shave. You will also see "notched" or "dreadnought point" razors- I mainly like them because I think they look cool, but the purpose of the notch is to give you somewhere to put a finger so you can use the razor with both hands. This can be useful for certain tasks, such as shaving below the nose, but is in no way essential.

Wade and Butcher straight razor with a square point
Wade and Butcher straight razor with a square point (or "toe"). The point drew blood on it's first use, though we're on good terms now.


Steel Type

Different manufacturers will use specific steels for their models, but your basic choice is between stainless steel and carbon steel. Stainless steel is harder- this makes it more difficult to hone, and therefore unlikely to take as sharp an edge as a carbon steel blade. The upside to this hardness is that it will keep its edge for longer- if you plan to send your razor out for honing rather than doing it yourself, this may be an advantage. Stainless steel is more resistant to rust, but not immune, which is why my personal collection does not contain any stainless steel blades.

Carbon steel is softer, and takes a little more maintenance, but will take a much sharper edge when honed with skill. Carbon steel blades need to be carefully wiped dry after use, and it is recommended to oil them periodically.

Carbon steel is the more usual choice for a beginner, as it will be easier to hone when the time comes.

Decoration



Blade decorations can include engraved patterns on the spine, such as those on many TI razors, as well as the more common engravings and gold wash designs on the side of the blade. Decorations will have no effect on the shave, but spine decorations may complicate honing. Ultimately, decorations are entirely up to personal preference- but if you have a highly decorated razor in mind, it is worth investigating how easy it is to hone.

Scales

The handle or “scales” of the razor (absent on Japanese style razors) is largely an aesthetic choice. Some very exotic materials are available from rare woods to fossilized mammoth tusk. As with blade decoration, scale choice will not usually have any effect on your shave, and while the highest quality razors usually have higher-end scales to match, there are some excellent razors with plastic scales.

My recommendation

Dovo "Best Quality" with cream handles
Dovo "Best Quality" with cream handles



At the risk of being stunningly unoriginal (and maybe a little self-serving), I recommend the Dovo "Best Quality" as a good starter razor. It has a 5/8” blade, half hollow grind and a forgiving, rounded toe. It is a cheap model to opt for if you are unsure if straight razor shaving is for you, and even if you do move on to more exotic models, you will probably want to keep it around for travel, honing practice, or just old time’s sake. A Dovo Best Quality was my first razor, and still has a place in my collection.

In second place would be the basic Thiers Issard "Special Coiffeur", which has most of the same things going for it as the Dovo, the difference between the two is mainly one of budget and personal taste.

Bear in mind, all this advice is on the assumption that you are buying a razor for shaving your face. I know a few brave people who shave their legs with straight razors- for that task, a larger blade and a thicker grind would be entirely appropriate. A Thiers Issard with an extra heavy grind would do the job pretty well.


p.s For those who are interested, my rotation consists of:

1) a Dovo "Best Quality"
2) a vintage hollow ground "Sprock" razor
3) A plain razor which I believe is an unbranded "Best Quality", or a Boker
4) a vintage Wade and Butcher with a near wedge grind, which badly needs new scales.