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


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.


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

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