Lessons Learned from a Year with a Safety Razor
I started wet shaving with a safety razor (or a double-edged razor, DE for short) on Christmas Day 2013. That was because Father Christmas was kind enough to deliver me a brush, razor and soap. I'd never shaved with anything other than a cartridge razor and canned gel/foam before.
The past year has been something of a learning curve as I've stepped into the world of 'traditional' shaving. From humble beginnings I have jumped in with both feet though. I've been gripped by acquisition fever as far as blades and software (soap/cream) goes, I've even bought a few brushes. There has been so much in fact, that I put together a site reviewing the products as I go through them.
I'm still a novice in this area really, still learning the best techniques. I already have plenty more products lined up to try this year, and I might even try a new razor too (the one bit of my kit that has remained constant). Still, I thought I would share some of my thoughts on what I've been through.
Many people have seen the barbershop method of a hot towel, though mainly in the movies. Most of the guys I've followed tend to go for a shower first, using that to soften up their bristles. There seems to be a growing fashion for cold water shaving though, especially by those with sensitive skin. Then there's the people who wash with a normal face/hand soap or apply a pre-shave treatment (typically an oil or gel).
Personally, I simply wet my face with warm water, attempting to soak it enough to help soften the bristles and provide some hydration ahead of my lather. I've had some good results with this, though I should probably try some other techniques for comparison.
I did get some pre-shave oil for Christmas (2014), initial use has been inconclusive, but I need to give it a proper try.
I started with a badger brush, the undisputed top dog at any level (there are different qualities of badger hair, which affects the price). I have also tried some cheaper bristle and boar brushes as well as a synthetic brush. Not tried a horse hair one yet (something else that seems to be creeping up in popularity).
I have to say, my boar brush, which was much less expensive than any badger brush (under £10) has proved very good. It's pretty big (has a lot of loft) and is sturdy (good backbone) so I tend to use it for harder soaps.
My synthetic is a small knot (i.e. is small) and doesn't seem to either hold water or splay very well, so is my least favourite brush. I have heard good things about some of the bigger/more expensive synthetics, so may give one of them a whirl at some point.
I do have a craving for something with a big knot, but not so much loft as my boar, generally the price has kept me away from them though.
When you use a cartridge razor you're limited to one product from one company (for now). With a safety razor you'll find there are hundreds of blades to choose from. Some from brands you'll have heard of, like Gillette, many from companies you won't know.
They can be manufactured in some exotic places (India, Pakistan, Turkey, Eqypt) but many come from factories in Russia.
Most have their own unique properties and finding the perfect one for your razor, your technique and your skin can be a challenge. The good news is there are people out there offering sample packs so you don't have to go everywhere to try them. Once you have your favourites you can then order in bulk and be smug at the price you paid.
Soaps and Creams
This is the area I have invested the most over the last year, there are just so many types! Whether you go for a more traditional, established manufacturer or opt for one of the growing stable of artisan makers, you're generally guaranteed to get a good shave.
That's not to say that price or age is any guarantee of quality (the old guard have been rocked by poor products over the years). The range is massive, starting at under £1 and rising to figures that'll make you look twice.
I would definitely suggest checking out some of the forums (see Summary below) and reading some reviews if you're interested in trying something out. Most will work no matter what you do, but some seem to need special attention to get the best performance.
You can get some traditional products in your local supermarket (though you may have to hunt), some you'll need to find at one of the many excellent shaving stores online, as well as eBay and Amazon.
Even if you're not ready to give up the cartridge razor I urge you to look some of these out, you'll feel the difference immediately (I got my dad using some cream with a brush and his Mach3, he's sold).
I was a bit dubious about using post-shave products. I come from the old school that said skincare was for girls. The only things I did after I shaved was apply some water once I'd dried off.
As for lotions and potions, well I resisted balms for a while, but after some particularly harsh shaves early on I did relent and buy something from my local supermarket. I'm very glad I did and I'm a happy convert.
There are a lot of expensive ones out there. I don't usually bother with those, it's typically the scent you're paying for. Pick up something cheap from the big brands, or even own brand moisturiser or witch hazel. Some of the established shaving companies also offer cheap options (e.g. Arko).
The balm (or lotion, or whatever) will help soothe irritation and leave your skin feeling even softer and smoother. Some even claim to keep you stubble at bay longer too.
As for nicks, well I've tried styptic pencils in the past, I have an alum block in my den now, but neither of them seem to work for me. The best method I have found for sorting out nicks after a shave is to take a shower. Seals everything, reduces irritation, rehydrates the skin, job done.
I've really enjoyed my experience of DE shaving, it's made a chore an enjoyable experience. I not only look forward to a wet shave, I get excited about it. The only downside is you'll get carried away and end up with more stuff than you can use in your lifetime (not quite there yet...).
The received wisdom is that getting a great shave using these products is about the right combination of soap/cream, blade and razor. I'd add that it will also depend on your skin type (those with sensitive skin should avoid the sharper blades) and your technique (if you're a bit of animal, like me, stick with duller blades). Finding your perfect fit is all part of the fun though.
How do you do that? Well there's a huge community out there. Hit one of the forums (I hang out at The Shaving Room, but Badger & Blade is another good choice, though these are far from the only ones). A quick web search will turn up a ton of sites (the legendary Mantic59 has one). Obviously the various social networks have places too. Don't forget YouTube either, where you'll not only find reviews but you can watch people shave and show off techniques (personal favs include PaulH, Nick Shaves, TSE, Shave the Man, geofatboy as well as many others).
People are all too ready to offer help, advice and tips, as well get you in on things that are being passed around and PIFing (paying it forward), where kindly souls will offer up things like blades or unused products for free. As I said, a wonderful community.
My only regret at trying traditional shaving is I can't shave more than once a day.