I’ve been on a bit of an article hiatus since my laptop died. I have a desktop (which I’m on right now), but I built it 8 years ago from the clearance section of NewEgg, and it sounds like it’s about to die. In the last 12 months, we’ve had 3 computers go, and this’ll be the 4th once it kicks the bucket…. fun times.
Anyway, I know that y’all are just dying for some Trashy insight, so I’m gonna try to make the concepts of this article come together. This is mostly a “look at the cool razors I have” post, but I’ll try to shoehorn libertarianism in there somehow. I love these stream of consciousness articles because it doesn’t involve any planning!
I started my post-pubescent life like most other men and women. I got a free version of the latest Gillette razor in the mail, and I ran that trial pack of blades until they weren’t even sharp enough to cut tissue paper.
I heard the common refrain from everybody. “They’ll give you the handle for free, but they’ll gouge you on the blades.” Turns out they were right. Gillette had a virtual monopoly, with Schick in a distant second, so they could charge anything they wanted for their blades. Add in a small psychological ploy to rely on consumers’ sunk cost fallacy, and you’re set for life.
There were three problems that cropped up. First, I was a broke high school/college student, so I was running the blades until they started to rust. Second, the shaves were absolute shit. Third, the shaves were a chore. Slather on the disgusting canned foam, scrape 5 dull blades across your face, have razor burn for 2 days. My skin is a bit sensitive, so a poor shave meant a couple days of sore face. How did I cope? By growing a beard. Yes, in high school, I had mutton chops and a circle beard because I hated shaving.
This seems like a good time to go on a social/libertarian tangent. There’s something about products like this that irk me, and I’m not entirely sure why. You have people with 1000 different needs from their razors, and you offer the same blades and the same orientation with the same lotion bar at the top. It strikes me like the perfectly beautiful, but completely tasteless tomatoes you can get at the grocery store. Sometimes, giving up choice in favor of the lowest common denominator results in absolute shit product, and that’s what the modern cartridge razor has become. If your cartridge razor works well for you, count yourself lucky. The cool thing about the free market is that you don’t have to follow the fickle trends of the masses. You don’t get stuck with the Comrade 4 blade because Supreme Leader Bernie decides that nobody needs 32 kinds of razors. You’re free to experiment with different types of product, both from now and from the past.
Speaking of the past, those guys really knew how to shave back then. It was a small luxury to get to shave, and it’s something that I have found immensely enjoyable, both from a “gotta do it, so might as well enjoy it” standpoint and from a “hobby that connects me to the past” standpoint. I shave with a 1957 Gillette Super Speed.
It cost me roughly $15 on ebay, and my razor blades cost a few pennies each and last me 5 or 6 shaves before they dull. Both men and women used to shave with safety razors like this.
Let’s dive into the hobby aspect of this stuff, and some of the nuances will start to come out. You’ll quickly understand why a single blade type at a single preset angle isn’t preferred.
At a macro level, we’re talking about wet shaving. Just as a quick disclaimer in case some woman happens to stumble across this site (because we know there are no female liberatarians) and wonders what the hell is going on… I’m talking about shaving one’s face, but my understanding is that it translates fine to doing legs, too. Wet shaving means that there is water involved. You don’t just slather canned goop on your face and start scraping. You don’t fire up some gizmo and hope it gets close enough that you look like you actually shaved today. Wet shaving is about preparing your face to get a close shave with comfortable results. In broad generalities, there are three phases to a wet shave: skin preparation, shaving, and skin protection. You prepare your skin to be lubricated enough to allow a razor and a blade to glide across your face without catching on the skin. You also prepare your stubble to be as erect as possible so that you lop it all off when you pass the blade through each hair.
As an aside, one reason why irritation is so common with cartridge blades is because the multiple blades act to pull the hair up out of the follicle and trim it below the skin line, resulting in irritation and a higher chance of ingrown hairs. It’s a very “close” shave, but it’s really too close.
You will find that most traditional forms of shaving involve a single blade, thus reducing the likelihood of such . . . uncomfortable . . . consequences. There are four types of shaving. Cartridge blade razor (including disposables), electric trimmer, safety razor, and straight razor. The bolded ones are the ones closest associated with wet shaving. Yes, you can wet shave with a cartridge razor, but you’re only getting partial benefits in that situation.
I’m sure we’ve got some straight razor folks here in Glibertopia, but I’m not really experienced with them. Besides the barber cleaning up the back of my neck with one, and the rare barbershop shave (which is shit once you figure out how to properly wield a safety or straight razor), I’ve never really even seen one in person.
However, the principles between safety razors and straight razors are much the same. The muscle memory is different and the stakes are higher with straights, but the process involves lubing up your face, holding the blade at a certain angle, and dragging it across your whiskers.
I’m big on connections to the past. Things may be “better” in the present, but often the consumerist impulses of today result in bland mass-produced products. There’s nothing beautiful about the latest Fusion razor. It’s an uninspired amalgamation of neon plastic and chromed plastic. However, I’ve seen some straight razors and safety razors that are works of art! Craftsmen made the shaving tools of old. Assembly lines stamp out today’s shaving tools.
There’s something about using a 60 year old work of art to do a mundane hygiene task that makes it less humdrum. When you add in the other components of a wet shave, it adds a small luxury to your morning. Back in the day, men didn’t mind taking a minute and enjoying their morning routine.
Before starting your shave, it’s important to prepare. Preparation is as important as execution in wet shaving, because your razor doesn’t have training wheels anymore. You can push pretty damn hard with a cartridge razor and not be worse for the wear. Safety razors reduce the chance of slicing your face open in comparison to a straight razor, but both types of blade are very unforgiving to mistakes.
There are two types of pre-shave preparation. 1) Skin preparation, and 2) Mapping your beard.
It is important to do two things to your skin prior to shaving. You need to lubricate your skin so that the razor glides along and doesn’t get stuck. You also need to get your hair follicles to stand up as much as possible to get a close shave. There’s a simple way to do both… hop in a warm shower. Many people shave in the shower to get the maximum benefit of the warm water. I’ve never found it particularly attractive an idea, but you do you. If you didn’t just hop out of the shower, a warm, wet washcloth to the face will do the trick. If your skin tends to be dry, or if you’re a beginner prone to making mistakes, you can use a pre-shave oil or a pre-shave cream to supplement the warm water. It also adds a pleasant aroma to the beginning of your shave. Like I said, small luxuries.
In the pic, I have one of each. There’s a Truefitt and Hill pre-shave oil with a citrus scent. Next to it is a Proraso pre-shave cream with a menthol finish. I don’t really use them very much any more. Occasionally I’ll use the oil because it is the closest to real-deal citrus as I’ve ever found in a citrus scent.
Anyway, you take a sparing amount and rub it into your skin, and all of a sudden you’ve got a slippery face.
Mapping your beard
Unlike a cartridge shave, where the blades are equal opportunity offenders, single blades are quite sensitive to the grain of your beard. If you go with the grain, it’s the least uncomfortable and it’s the least close shave. If you go against the grain, it’s the most uncomfortable and the closest shave. Usually people will do 2 or 3 passes in order to get a close and comfortable shave. For example, they may do a with the grain pass, a cross-grain pass, and an against the grain pass. If you properly do three passes like that, your face will feel like a baby’s ass.
The thing is that the grain doesn’t just go in one direction. Just like your hair on your head, your beard has whorls and direction changes and all sorts of unique challenges. For example, my left cheek grain goes down, but my right cheek goes backward. Knowing which way the whiskers go helps you avoid accidentally going against the grain in some areas on the first pass.
You can see in the above picture the two brushes that look like huge weird makeup brushes. I’m not sharing the bathroom with Mrs. trshmnstr, so they’re not hers. Those are my shave brushes. They’re made from badger hair. Yes, they literally pluck hairs from badgers to make these brushes. You can also get boar hair brushes or synthetic brushes (think paintbrush bristles). I’ve never used either of those, but I like my badger brushes. The one on the right is a normal badger hair brush. It has enough resistance to stand up to vigorously rubbing your face, but the hairs aren’t irritating. The one on the left with the frosted tips is a silvertip badger brush. These are premium brushes due to the nature of the silver tipped hairs. The hairs stand up enough to be able to make a good shaving lather, but they’re quite soft at the tips, making for the perfect balance.
The purpose of a brush is simple, you load it up with shaving cream and you apply the shaving cream to your face. I should be more precise. You can use shaving cream (roughly the consistency of toothpaste) or shaving soap (a hockey puck shaped bar of specially formulated soap). This is where wet shaving completely leaves normal shaving behind.
You can see in this next photo a few shaving soaps. On the left is TSE Texas Leather Tallow Shaving Soap (yes, tallow as in animal fat… the best shave soaps are made with tallow), which literally smells like my cowboy boots. In the middle is Proraso Green, which has the same menthol hit like the pre-shave cream. On the right is Gentleman John Sandalwood Soap, which is my current go-to for everyday shaving. The left two soaps are a little bit creamier and aren’t really in puck form, so I use them directly from their containers. The Gentleman John didn’t come with a container, so it’s in my shave bowl.
There are two primary ways of lathering up, face lathering and bowl lathering. They’re both perfectly legitimate, but they yield different types of lather. The face lather tends to be more of a wet, slick lather, whereas the bowl lather tends to be fluffier and drier. Depending on your preference for lather, you can choose the appropriate technique.
Face lathering is my go-to. It’s easier when you don’t have a ton of space, because you don’t need additional bowls and you don’t make a foamy mess all over the counter. Face lathering is two steps: loading the brush and lathering. First, to prep for the shave, you need to add a few drops of water to the soap to “bloom” the soap (meaning that the soap absorbs some of the water and the top layer softens up. Also, I like to leave the brush in warm water while I shower. If that’s not an option, just run some hot water over the bristles, because the brush will absorb some water. Then, give the brush a single shake (you want to get rid of some water, but not all), and start swirling the bristles over the soap puck. The soap will begin to foam, but you’re only loading the bristles with the soap, so you don’t want to go too long.
Once the brush is loaded, you proceed to swirl the brush on your cheeks until a foamy lather builds. Once the lather builds, you can paint it on other parts of your face until you have built up a nice slick, cushiony lather on all the places you’ll be shaving.
Bowl lathering is very similar, but instead of taking the loaded brush to your face, you put it into a bowl and start swirling. Because of the fact that the bowl doesn’t have any moisture in it (as compared to your lubricated face), the lather tends to dry out, which makes it fluffier. Once you have a good lather built, you can just paint it on your face with the brush.
Want an added touch of luxury? Pour some hot water into a shave scuttle and heat up your lather while you make it!
I’ve written an entire article’s worth of info, but we haven’t even cut a single whisker yet. In reality, once you get a hang of things, the pre-shave portion takes 2-3 minutes at most. Now it’s time to choose a razor and blades (for the safety razors). As mentioned above, my experience is with safety razors, so that’s what I’ll talk about.
Razors come in all different shapes and sizes, but there are three most important attributes: weight, balance, and aggressiveness. The key to shaving with a single blade razor is to avoid pressing. The blade should glide over your face, and even the slightest pressure can make for a bad shave. As such, the right weight razor keeps you from having to exert pressure to get the razor to cut. Too light, and your blade will skip right off your face. Too heavy, and you have very little control and feel as you cut. Balance also influences the control and feel. A well balanced razor can be held by two fingers and you can almost feel every whisker yield to the blade. Aggressiveness is about matching your style and skin sensitivity to how much the razor tries to take off on each pass. Some folks like really aggressive razors. Some (like me) like less aggressive razors. It’s all about getting a close cut without causing razor burn. Certain safety razors have adjustable aggressiveness. You twist a selector, and the blade bends to a different angle, reducing or increasing aggressiveness.
The blades themselves are also seen as aggressive or not. Feather blades have a reputation for aggressiveness, but I happen to like them in my Gillette Super Speed because it mellows their aggressiveness. Others are less aggressive. Most likely these differences are due to minute differences in the manufacturing tolerances, despite the fact that the blade’s form factor has been standardized for 80 years.
One of the great things about shaving with a safety razor is that besides the initial investment in the razor (about $10 for each of mine on ebay), the blades are super cheap. I’ve gotten deals under 10 cents per blade, and each blade usually lasts 5 or 6 shaves, if not more. However, like any other hobby, you can get lost in all of the options and spend hundreds of dollars on shave equipment. There are some rare vintage razors that go for over $100.
Shaving is very much an exercise in muscle memory. It’s quite similar to knife sharpening in that you need to find a proper angle, hold it at that angle, and make smooth strokes. You know it’s right when you can hear the blade cutting the whiskers. It’s a soothing sound. Unlike what you’ve likely learned shaving with a cartridge razor, it’s not about pushing down and dragging across half of your face. That will end with blood everywhere. With a safety or straight razor, it’s about smooth short strokes with almost no pressure. You only exert enough pressure to keep the blade from skipping when it hits the next whisker. I’ve found that when in doubt, you’re using too much pressure. The goal is to “reduce” the hair rather than “eliminate” the hair. This is why you do two or three passes. The first pass takes the stubble down lower, the second even lower, and the third down to the skin.
Also, this is a literal razor blade. Razor blades cut you if you drag them sideways along your skin. Your short smooth strokes should be directly perpendicular to the blade’s edge. Turning corners is an advanced move for when you stop cutting yourself.
After a bit of practice, you start to be able to feel when a blade is getting dull. Before then, replace your blade on a regular basis. Usually 5 or 6 shaves is about as much as you can get out of a blade. If you have an old house, there may even be a blade depository in your bathroom. It dumps all the used blades into your wall for the contractor to find when you decide to remodel the bathroom.
After you shave and wipe off the excess lather, you’re not quite done yet. Your face is in an “open” state due to the warm water, the lather, and the razor. One refreshing way to close up your pores is to splash your face with cool water. If you have a couple tiny nicks that are thinking about bleeding, sometimes this step will convince them not to bleed.
Once you’ve rinsed your face with cool water, it’s time to apply after-product. This is purely optional, but I find that my face thanks me. I have extremely dry skin, so this is the perfect time to add some moisture and avoid redness, cracked skin, etc. In come two categories of after-shave. In front is Clubman Pinaud, which is a traditional Home Alone aftershave. It’s alcohol based, and it’ll let you know if you nicked yourself. To me, this is the smell of a barbershop, and it lingers with you for the rest of the day.
Behind the Clubman is some Tea Tree leave-in conditioner. I forget who recommended it to me, but this stuff is the absolute best at moisturizing my face. I just rub it in like lotion, and my dry skin issues go away within a couple hours. It doesn’t linger like Clubman, but you can still smell it a couple hours later.
Also, while you’re cleaning up, rinse out your brush and get as much water out as you can. I hang mine alongside my razor to air dry the rest of the way. I also leave the soap container open to air dry.
But what if you got a boo boo? Bleeding is a part of learning to shave, and it sucks. Rather than sticking toilet paper to your face or bleeding everywhere, get yourself a styptic pencil or an alum block. They both contain chemicals that help your blood clot up and stop the bleeding. They aren’t magic, so don’t start rubbing your jugular while you’re bleeding out, but they’ve stopped cuts where the blood was dripping down my chin before.
I’ve never found out the right way to clean the styptic pencil. I usually rinse it off under the faucet, but the pencil doesn’t play well with water.
All of this to say, nobody needs 32 different kinds of razors. In Progtopia, we’re all gonna be stuck with shitty off-brand disposables and silly-string for shaving cream.