A lot of guys shave because they have to, but they don’t necessarily enjoy it. And it’s too bad, really, because it can be a pretty mindful process if you do it right.
If you’re one of those guys that doesn’t like it, or you’re looking for an alternative to spending a small fortune on the multi-bladed cartridges that most men use, you’ve come to the right place.
I used to be one of those guys. I shaved every day or two because I needed to, but I hated doing it and tried to get it over with as fast as I could. I tried all the latest multi-blade cartridges – 3 blades, 5 blades, vibrating razors, the whole bit.
But none of them made it any more enjoyable, just more expensive!
Seven or eight years ago, I came across an article on the Art of Manliness website called How to Shave Like Your Grandpa. It was about something called wet shaving using an old-fashioned double-edged (DE) razor blade – a razor that literally was just like the one my grandpa used when I was a kid – and a good shaving brush and soap.
Something about the idea sparked my interest and I started reading everything I could about wet shaving. That led me to YouTube, where I watched a ton of videos about the process.
It all sounded intriguing so I hopped onto Amazon and ordered all the gear I needed to get started.
I don’t really remember how much of a selection there was at the time, but there’s a ton of stuff on there now. You could spend hundreds of dollars buying different razors, shave creams, brushes, etc.
It’s funny though, most of the stuff I bought originally is probably still my favourite. I don’t know if I just haven’t found the right razor or if I just happened to pick the perfect one for me, but I’m still using that original one more than any other.
And the first brand of blade I tried is still my favourite.
I haven’t used typical drugstore cartridge blades much since then but the few times I have, I’m amazed that I used to shave with them every day. They don’t give me nearly as good a shave and they cost ten times as much as double-edged blades.
The same goes for the cans of chemical shaving foam that I used to use every day. They don’t work nearly as well as a good shaving cream with a decent brush, and I’m really not sure how I put up with them for most of my life.
Probably the biggest difference I’ve noticed is the cost, however. Those cartridge blades can cost anywhere from $1.50 to $3.00 each, compared to 10 to 25 cents each for double-edged blades.
And contrary to what the razor brands would have you believe, you’ll get a much better shave out of a single DE blade than you will from a cartridge with several blades in it. Especially when you consider that you can replace them far more often and still spend less money.
You see, one of the most important things for getting a good shave is a sharp blade. If your blade isn’t sharp, it really doesn’t matter how good everything else is.
One of the biggest problems I had back when I used those cartridges is that I would use them far longer than they’re intended. The blades start to dull as soon as you start using them, and they’re really only meant for a handful of shaves. But I would use the same one for a month or two at a time.
No wonder I was hacking my face up so much. It seems a bit counter-intuitive but a dull blade will do far more damage than a sharp one, as long as you’re careful with the sharp one and you prepare your face properly.
Component of a Good Shave
Wet shaving requires several things:
- A razor
- Shaving brush
- Shaving cream
- A few extras
In this article, we’re going to look at each of those things – what you should look for, how to choose the best one for you and our recommendations based on our own experience.
The article is broken into several parts:
- Razors & Blades
- Brushes & Shaving Cream
- Skin Care
Hopefully a lot of your questions will be answered, maybe even before you know you should ask them. But if you have any questions or want to know more about something particular, don’t hesitate to let us know.
You can comment below or @ us on Twitter. We’ll do our best to answer all your questions, either directly or with a follow-up post here. And if you want to skip straight to the spoilers, click here to see our recommended wet shaving starter kit.
The first step to a good shave is proper preparation. If you don’t prepare your face properly, it’s going to be a lot harder to get a close shave and you’ll be a lot more likely to nick yourself. The last thing you want to do is walk out of the house with scratches all over your face and neck.
And incidentally, this is just as important if you’re using a multi-bladed cartridge razor as it is when you’re using a safety razor with a double-edged blade. Spending a bit of time preparing your face for a shave is going to make a big difference.
There are two key elements to preparing your face for a good shave:
- Softening the hair
If you’ve ever had an old-fashioned hot shave at a barber or a specialty shop like The Art of Shaving, they probably started by wrapping a hot towel around your face for a few minutes. This isn’t just to get you relaxed (although it certainly does help with that too), it also helps to soften the hair on your face.
It can take a few minutes to properly soften the hair. Don’t expect to splash some water on your face and be ready to go. You can wash your face with warm water (not too hot) and some type of soap that’s made for your face. Or you can take a page from the barber and soak a towel in warm water and wrap it around your face for a few minutes.
Personally, I usually shave after showering. I find that’s the easiest way to do it and since I’m going to be in the shower anyway, it doesn’t really add any time to my morning.
I have to admit though, I really enjoy the ritual of using a hot towel and taking the time to prep my face and get a really good shave. That’s usually my routine on the weekend when I have a bit of time to spare.
The second thing that’s necessary for a good shave is lubrication. This can be shaving cream, gel, shaving oil or whatever you use to shave (we’ll get into the different options available shortly) but you need some kind of lubricant to help the razor glide across your skin rather than dragging at it.
And it’s important to keep your skin lubricated as you shave. If you’ve made one pass and miss a couple of spots, make sure you lubricate again before you go back to touch things up.
Re-lather, re-oil or even just add some water. But if you try to touch up those spots without taking that extra step, you’re a lot more likely to nick your face.
Keep in mind that the point of shaving is to reduce the hair, not eliminate it all at once. It might take a couple of passes to get rid of it all, especially in spots that are harder to target. There’s nothing wrong with making a couple of passes with lighter pressure – you’re less likely to nick your skin and lighter pressure also helps to avoid razor burn. Just make sure you lubricate your face between each pass.
Even if you’re still using a cartridge razor, prepping your face correctly will make a big difference in the quality of your shave. Tomorrow morning, spend a few extra minutes softening your beard and re-lathering between passes. If you haven’t been doing that up to now, you’ll probably find that it makes for a much closer shave without really changing anything about what gear you’re using.
Razors & Blades
You’ll need several things to get started with wet shaving, but the most obvious tools are a razor and blades. There are a lot of options for both, so let’s look at what you need to consider.
There are essentially two styles of double-edged (DE) razors available – open-comb and safety bar. Technically, only the safety bar style should be called a “safety” razor but a lot of people refer to both styles that way. I’ll refer to them both as safety razors for the rest of this article for the sake of brevity.
An open comb razor has what looks like a comb, or “teeth”, along the two edges of the razor. The purpose of these is to help guide stubble through the “comb” to help the blade cut it. A safety bar razor has a solid bar along each edge that is there to help protect your skin from the edge of the blade.
The degree of aggressiveness varies depending on a lot of things, but typically an open-comb razor is going to be more aggressive on your skin than a safety bar razor will. There are a couple of exceptions to this rule but generally, if you’re new to wet shaving, I recommend starting with a true safety razor – one with a solid safety bar. They tend to be a little more beginner-friendly – the last thing you want to do is start with a really aggressive razor and wind up with a face full of nicks.
Fixed Gap vs Adjustable
The other thing that will determine a razor’s aggressiveness is the blade gap – the distance between the blade and the bottom of the razor. The wider the gap, the more aggressive the shave.
Most safety razors have a fixed gap that is part of the manufacturer’s design. You can get razors with an adjustable gap, however, so you can make them more or less aggressive, depending on your preference. This is another case where I recommend starting with a fixed-gap razor – probably a less-aggressive design – and getting comfortable with how to use it before you start experimenting with an adjustable model.
Design & Assembly
The other major difference between models of razors is how it’s actually put together. In other words, how you replace the blade. There are three styles – one-piece, two-piece and three-piece.
One piece razors are also known as twist to open or TTO designs. They have a butterfly mechanism in the head of the razor that opens up to get at the blade. You typically twist the bottom of the handle to open and close the mechanism. This is the style that comes to mind for a lot of people when they think of safety razors. The most popular razor with this design was probably the Gillette SuperSpeed:
Two-piece razors have the base of the razor attached to the handle and only the top piece can be removed to replace the blade. These are the least common of the three designs.
Three-piece razors are the most common style. There are two pieces to the head of the razor and the handle is also separate. You unscrew the handle and then take the two pieces of the head apart to get at the blade.
Aside from being the easiest to maintain and clean, these models also have the advantage of being able to mix-and-match parts once you get comfortable with wet shaving and want to be a little more adventurous. You can make all kinds of interesting combinations with these “Frankenstein” razors, customizing the look and performance with different manufacturers’ parts.
The other thing you’re obviously going to need to get started is some blades. As I already mentioned, double-edged (DE) razor blades are dirt cheap compared to the typical multi-bladed cartridges you buy at the drug store. You can get these blades for as little as 20 to 25 cents each so don’t be afraid to experiment with different brands to find one you like.
You’ve likely seen DE blades before, even if you’ve never used one of these types of razors. This is what they look like:
These blades use a standard design so you can be confident they will fit your razor, no matter what brand you buy. At least, I’ve never come across any that didn’t fit precisely.
These blades all look alike but there can be differences in the cutting edge of the blade. Some brands of blade are a little more aggressive than others, so this is another thing that can affect your shave.
Personally, I like the Feather brand of blade. They’re made in Japan and have one of the sharpest edges of any of the brands that I’ve tried.
And I’ve tried a lot.
I recommend buying a bulk pack of blades from various manufacturers to get started. They tend to be cheapest this way and you can try a bunch of different brands to see which ones you like the best.
You can get a sampler pack of 100 blades for about $20 on Amazon from various sellers. The brands of blade vary from one pack to another but they typically include at least 5 or 6 different samples, sometimes considerably more.
I bought a pack of these when I first started wet shaving and I’ve still got some left, 7 or 8 years later. I settled on the Feather brand, so that’s why they’ve lasted me so long, but every now and then I still break out one of the other brands to try something different.
How Often Should You Replace Your Razor Blades?
One of the biggest problems most guys have with shaving can be a problem no matter what type of razor you use – shaving with a dull blade. It doesn’t take long for these blades to lose their edge, and when that happens, you’re much more likely to get nicks, razor burn and irritated skin after shaving.
You should really replace your blade after every three or four shaves to get the best results. But replacing 20 cent blades is a lot easier on the wallet than replacing $2-$3 cartridges.
If you shave every day and replace your blade every four days, at 20 cents a blade you’re going to spend about $23 a year on blades. Compare that to typical multi-blade cartridges at let’s say $2, which is on the low side. You would have to use the same cartridge for an entire month to spend the same amount over a year. If you replaced them every four days, you would spend over $180 a year.
Pretty big difference isn’t it?
Don’t hesitate to replace your blades more often. Your face will thank you for it and you’ll enjoy shaving a lot more.
While the vast majority of safety razors are the double-edge (DE) design, there are still some single-edge razors out there. These razors use a similar style of blade to their DE cousins but, as you might guess, there is only one cutting edge on the blades.
Single-edge razors have been around for a long time. One of the best known, the Schick Injector, goes all the way back to the 1920’s, although it didn’t really hit its stride until a decade or so later. They were sold up until the 1980’s in North America and right up until the turn of the century in other parts of the world.
In the last few years, there has been a bit of a resurgence in the single-edge razor market, with several manufacturers making new models with modern technology in them.
One of those is OneBlade. They started with a stainless-steel model several years ago and have recently started selling a slightly less expensive version. These razors use single-edge blades from the Feather company, so while they’re not very common in brick-and-mortar stores, they’re easy to find online at reasonable prices.
These razors are targeted mainly at people who shave with the standard multi-blade cartridges you find in most stores. They’ve got some of the same features, such as a pivoting head and a modern design, while offering the advantages of a single blade.
The original stainless-steel version, the OneBlade Genesis, is around $400 so I’ve never really been tempted to pick one up. I’ve been more than happy with my DE razors and couldn’t really see the value in spending that kind of money just to test it out. But now that they have a less expensive version (the OneBlade Core at $69) I thought I’d give it a shot.
I’ve only shaved with it a couple of times so I can’t really say anything definitive yet but once I’ve spent a bit of time with it, I’ll be writing up a full review. So far, all I can say is that there’s a decidedly different feel to it than a typical DE razor. It’s interesting to use something that seems completely new again after so long. Even the second shave felt more natural than the first though, so I don’t expect it will be long before it feels as natural as my go-to razors do.
I’ll post more once I’ve spent some time with it.
Brushes & Shaving Cream
If the only shaving cream you’ve ever used came out of an aerosol can, you’ve probably never used a shaving brush. Some of those chemical shaving creams are okay but they don’t hold a candle to a good cream. A good cream will give you a much better shave, is better for your skin and probably comes in more (and better) scents.
When you use a quality shaving cream, you’re going to want a shaving brush as well. Part of the secret to a good shave is getting a good lather and a good brush will do that like nothing else.
Types of Brushes
Most shaving brushes look more or less the same but there is a huge difference in quality from one type of brush to another. There can also be a huge difference in price, mind you, so you’ll want to find the best brush that fits within your budget.
There are four types of hair/bristles used in shaving brushes:
- Badger hair
- Boar hair
- Horse hair
- Synthetic materials
They have different qualities when it comes to water retention and lathering ability. Badger hair tends to have the best water retention, which is important to getting a good lather. That’s not to say they’re always the best – a good quality boar hair brush can outperform a cheap badger brush, for example.
Boar hair brushes are generally the least expensive option. Most of the brushes you see in drug stores and mass market shops are made with boar hair.
Horse hair brushes are harder to find but they generally fall in between boar and badger brushes. They perform better than a lot of boar brushes but not as well as badger, although some people prefer them because they find them a little scratchy.
Synthetic brushes can be made with a number of different materials and the quality of the brush and lathering ability varies from one to another. They tend to be more consistent in quality since two brushes with the same material and design will be essentially identical. Brushes made with animal hair will vary slightly from one to another simply because no two animals are exactly the same.
Synthetic brushes can also be stronger since the fibres can be designed to be stronger than natural hair.
The other factor that might have a bearing on your choice is that boars and badgers are killed for their meat and hair where horse hair is simply cut from their manes or tails without harming the animal. And synthetics are obviously not coming from animals at all.
If that has a bearing on your choice, horse or synthetic is the way to go.
There are many, many options when it comes to shaving cream. You can get it in tubes that look like toothpaste, such as the Proraso brand:
These brands tend to be the least expensive and most widely available. You can usually find at least one or two options in most local shops that sell shaving items, even a lot of chain drug stores. That doesn’t mean they’re not good, mind you. I’ve used the Proraso brand off and on for years and I’m quite happy with it.
You can also get shaving cream in tubs, such as Tailor of Old Bond Street:
These brands tend to be a bit more expensive but you get more options for a nice quality cream. Not to mention a lot more choices of scents. I’m partial to Tailor of Old Bond Street’s Eton College fragrance but there are lots of options for finding one you like.
There are also shaving soaps, which are essentially just like a bar of soap – you use the brush to work up a lather from the soap.
The two main performance factors for a good shaving cream are cushioning and lubrication. You’re basically dragging an incredibly sharp blade across your face to shear away the whiskers so using a good shaving cream will make a world of difference.
The lubrication factor of a good shaving cream is probably the biggest difference you’ll notice compared to the foam you get out of an aerosol can. Those foams don’t really have any water in them and they just sit on the surface of your skin. They might help soften your beard but they don’t really add much in the way of lubrication.
A good shaving cream will lubricate your skin so the blade glides across it more smoothly, cutting the whiskers but not the skin underneath.
Another option is to use shaving oil instead of shaving cream. Oil will give you even better lubrication than shaving cream does and it makes the razor glide super smoothly.
Some oils are meant to be used under a layer of shaving cream while others are used on their own. These oils are typically clear so one of their biggest advantages over creams is the ability to see the spots that you might have missed or might need touching up. Shaving cream obviously hides whatever is underneath it. Depending on the quality of the oil and exactly what ingredients are used, it can also be better at moisturizing your skin than shaving cream.
Using a shaving oil can take a little bit of getting used to so I recommend starting with a good cream and get comfortable with that first. A lot of barbers that offer hot shave services use oil so if you want to see what it’s like, you might be able to find someone locally who uses it.
Plus, if you’ve never had a hot shave from a barber who knows what they’re doing, I highly recommend it. It’s incredibly relaxing and is a cool way to treat yourself to a “spa day” without spending a ton of money. A lot of local barber shops offer the service and there are some chains that have locations in many larger cities. If you’re in Las Vegas, I recommend the Art of Shaving in Caesar’s Palace.
Proper skin care is as much a part of your shaving routine as the razor and blade. You can have the closest shave in the world but if you don’t take care of your skin properly, the end result is not going to be good.
The vast majority of the skin care market is targeted towards women. In fact, a lot of guys hardly give skin care a second thought. Maybe splash some aftershave on when the shave is done and that’s about it. That might be better than nothing or it might make the situation worse, depending on your skin and just what you’re using.
Pre-Shave Prep Work
If you’ve ever gone to a barber for a hot shave or seen it done on TV or in a movie, you’ve probably seen the barber wrap a guy’s face in a hot towel before the shave. This isn’t just for show, it’s a critical step.
The hot towel hydrates your face and softens up your facial hair before you start shaving. It seems logical that the hair is easier to cut if it’s softer, right?
One of the easiest ways to deal with this is to either shave while you’re in the shower or right after getting out of the shower. That way your skin is well-hydrated and your beard will be about as soft as it’s going to get. If that doesn’t work for you, the next best thing is to wrap a hot towel around your face for about three minutes before you start to shave.
During the Shave
The most important thing about taking care of your skin during the shave, and avoiding nicks and cuts, is to keep your skin well-lubricated while you shave. That means water or oil.
If you’re shaving with cream, it’s important to lather up the cream with plenty of water. Not so much that it’s a runny mess, but enough that it lubricates your skin and helps the razor glide across it rather than scraping at it. This can take a little bit of trial and error and it can also vary a bit from one shaving cream to another. It won’t take long to “dial in” your lather though, just experiment with it a bit to find the right combination of cream and water.
The brush is important in this step. Some types of brushes – badger hair in particular – are better at holding water. So when you lather up the cream, that water transfers into the lather. As you spread the cream on your face, the water comes with it.
If you use shaving oil, don’t just apply it once and leave it at that. It will depend on the oil and how much you use but chances are you’ll need to apply more to touch up spots you missed or to make a second pass. Don’t skimp on the oil you use, it’s helping to protect your skin while you shave.
Post-Shave Skin Care
A step that a lot of guys miss after they shave is to use a cold towel to close up the pores on your face. The hot towel before you shave helps to prep your skin, the cold towel afterwards helps to seal things up. If you start with a hot towel, you can just hang it on the towel rack or lay it out on the counter while you shave. By the time you’re done, it will probably have cooled off enough to use it again as your cold towel.
I like to rinse my face off after shaving as well, before the cold towel. I use lukewarm water (no soap) to wash away any hairs that might still be hanging around after the shave.
Another option for post-shave is to use an exfoliating scrub. These scrubs are designed to clean away the dead skin cells on your face and they can help keep your skin looking healthy. They can be hard on your face however, especially if you have sensitive skin, so I don’t recommend using them more than two or three times a week.
Once you’ve closed up your pores with the cold towel, you can finish off with an aftershave lotion or balm. Traditional aftershave, which is often more of a cologne than an aftershave, can feel like it’s really effective. Splash some on your face after shaving and you’ll feel the burn – it just feels like it’s working.
But the burning sensation is caused by the alcohol in those aftershaves, which is not the best thing for your skin. Alcohol can cause your skin to dry out and if you use it too often, it can do more harm than good. Instead, try using an aftershave balm that moisturizes your skin. This will help keep your skin looking and feeling much healthier, and lessen the effects of aging over time.
Beyond the post-shave care, make sure you’re using sunscreen when you’re outside exposed to the sun. And use a good quality face wash every day to keep the natural oils in your skin under control. This will also help keep your skin looking healthy and avoid skin problems like acne.
Developing a good skin care routine can take some experimentation, and you’ll need to spend some time actually taking care of your skin. But it doesn’t have to be a lot of time, especially once you get comfortable with the process. And the time you spend now will pay off in spades down the road, when your skin is looking great and you look years younger than you really are!