As a hairdresser, I always dreamed of barbering. Actually, I obsessed over the art and craft of traditional shaving. With no master teacher knocking on my door, I decided several years ago to learn on my own face. What better way to start? And what better place than the beach, on a nice vacation? I’d bought a supremely sharp new blade. I’d clocked countless hours of YouTube videos. I was ready to use a “real“ razor in a “real“ way. I shaved with confidence–and without a single cut. My face felt a bit raw, but I’d expected a closer-than-usual shave. A “real”man’s shave. Smooth as silk. I strutted out to the beach for a walk in the sun. And then the burn began. It tore across every inch of my face until I dashed into the cool relief of the waves. Saltwater waves. Razor burn quite like that never happened again, as I made it my business to develop a lighter touch. But other things–nicks, scrapes, missed patches, full-on cuts–happened often as I learned this ritual that now sets my day right, each morning. May my painfully-earned experience be of service to you as you discover the masculine beauty of the traditional shave.
My Air Force Dad used plastic disposable razors, a can of Gillette shave foam, and a splash of Old Spice aftershave. Naturally this is what I started doing as a teenager in the 1980‘s–minus the aftershave. And at some point I abandoned the can of foam for simple razor and warm water in the shower. I wasn’t sure how my friends were doing it, because no one talked about shaving. Why would we discuss a mundane task when we had Tom Waits to analyze? In my early twenties, I began wearing a handlebar mustache, and people assumed I was into shaving as an art form. Uh, no. No clue. Although friends and relatives gifted me with various shave soaps and razors over the years, no one ever knew how to educate me on the shaving process.
And it is a beautiful–might I even say sacred?–process. The fun of the shave begins in preparing for it. Ideally, you start with a hot shower and then stand at your bathroom sink, enjoying your solitude. Begin your journey with a high quality brush. Although there are many good synthetic choices these days, I am partial to the traditional silvertip badger hair brush. An entire column could be written on this fine subject. While some brushes cost hundreds, you can get a nice silvertip badger brush for about fifty bucks at West Coast Shaving. A good brush will work the cream into a rich lather and stand up your whiskers to greet the blade. I use a warmed shaving scuttle when serving a patron in my shop, but at home I simply lather in the palm of my hand. Then I heat the brush in hot water, gently squeeze out the excess water, create lather in the palm, and push the bristles in circular motions across my face. What a luxurious and masculine feeling.
If you’re new to the shaving brush and cream, benefit from my beach-burn and use your old razor with its familiar touch. Also, good idea to run the blade under warm water, as nobody likes to drag a cold piece of steel across his face. On your first pass, follow the natural direction of your hair growth. If this is your first time with a single-blade safety razor or a straight-blade traditional razor, then short and light strokes are crucial. Trust the razor to do its own work. (And maybe don’t shave at the beach.) When the first pass is complete, you can use the brush to apply any remaining lather to your face. At this point, if you want a closer shave, lightly stretch your skin as you give it a second pass in the same direction, or go against the grain for a different technique. (Rarely is it necessary to shave against the grain, though.) When you’re satisfied with your shave, splash cold water to close your pores and pat dry. I highly recommend a moisturizing aftershave lotion to restore ph levels and soothe your freshly-shaven skin. Following the lotion, I like the invigorating finish of an aftershave splash. It brings memories of my father and his routine, plastic razor and all.
A bit about the razor. Much has changed since the days of clam shell, shark tooth, and flint. There couldn’t be a better time to explore options. But unless you have a lot of leisure, money, and patience, I don’t recommend starting with a traditional one-piece straight razor and strop. You’ve got the rest of your life to get there. A good safety razor will have you enjoying your traditional shave now, without getting discouraged and calling it quits. My favorite is the Merker Progress, which allows you to adjust the angle of the blade by turning a dial at the handle. Blade angle and sharpness determine how the razor will respond to the details of your face and skin type. If you want one of the sharpest on the market, I recommend my favorite, the Feather blade, made by Jatai in Japan. If you want one a little less aggressive and good for sensitive skin, the Astra blade from Russia is your friend.
Perhaps you simply must learn the ways of the straight razor. It calls you. When you’ve been shaving with plastic cartridges and move to an old-school single blade, the big difference you’ll notice is that this new razor has far more heft in the palm. And it is sharp. The kind of sharp that teaches you to be patient and careful. You’ll discover with a little time that a light touch saves you from razor burn and other discomfort. I’d start with Jatai’s Artist Club, which looks and feels like the traditional straight razor you crave. I appreciate its replaceable, easy-to-load blades everyday at my shop. A good early blade option for the straight razor–one I wish I’d known about at the beach–is Jatai’s guarded Feather that puts a little buffer between your skin and the blade for some peace of mind as you learn.
And learning will take time. The quiet ritual of brush and single blade–prepare, lather, shave, soothe–is well worth your effort. May you lean into it with relish.
Cheers and happy grooming!