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.


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.


 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.  


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.