Of all the shaving implements ever used, none were as finely crafted as the straight razor. Around the turn of the century, when life started moving more quickly, men abandoned their straight razors and devised faster ways to shave. Though new shaving implements saved time, something was lost — particularly the oddly serene morning ritual of balancing life and death on the edge of a razor blade. If you’re looking to embrace a meditative practice that provides a superior shave, consider learning how to shave with a straight razor. To help you get started, we’ve put together this helpful guide with help from Calen Koenig, a gentleman barber at the Brick and Mortar barber shop in Portland, OR.
Benefits of a Straight Razor Shave
As a 21st century man, you might ask, “Why should I give up my 9-blade Shaveasaurus Rex and try out a straight razor?” Calen Koenig has an answer: “I’m a big proponent of straight razor shaving, and I always encourage guys to get the tools and learn how to do it. Some of the old ways are the best ways — they’ve been outsourced for the sake of time, but it’s one of those things with more benefits than just getting a good shave.”
What are those benefits? For one, using a straight razor can seriously cut down on waste. No longer will you need to buy packages of cartridge razors and cast them into the garbage after a few uses. Switching to a straight shave can also save you money; though high-quality shaving equipment costs upwards of $250, your razor, brush, and strop will last for decades.
Selecting Your Equipment
Finding a high-quality razor will ensure a close shave every time. Koenig recommends getting a ⅝-inch blade, as it’s easier to maneuver than a thicker blade. When it comes to specific razor brands, Koenig swears by Dovo: “In the barber world, they say that German steel is the best, and I can attest to that.” If you’d rather not mess around with stropping and honing a traditional razor, you can always go for the disposable option. Feather makes excellent handles and changeable blades that are much more cost-effective than disposable safety razors.
Brush and Scuttle
Brush and Scuttle is not an adorable children’s TV duo, but rather a couple more tools you’ll need in your shaving kit. A good brush will ensure that your lather reaches under each and every whisker. “A lot of [shaving brushes] are boar bristle,” says Koenig. “Those are the cheaper ones you’ll find. But considering how the hair grows on the boar, boar hair brushes don’t really hold moisture. I would recommend using badger hair. It’s more expensive, but it’ll hold the moisture and work up a better lather for you.” We recommend this silver-tipped badger-hair brush by Baxter of California.
You don’t necessarily need a scuttle, as a mug should suffice for working up a lather. Still, you might consider getting a nice scuttle to complete your old-timey shaving set. Koenig says, “A shaving mug is good for working up the lather. Usually something porcelain. Heat it up in the water first, get that hot, and it’ll work up a real good lather.”
A strop is important for aligning the steel and maintaining the sharpness of your blade. Again, you don’t want to go too cheap. Look for a high-quality two-sided strop with canvas on one side and leather on the other. Stropping your razor is much different than honing it — you’ll need to use a whetstone to sharpen your blade once every two months or so.
Shaving Creams and Balms
Next, you’ll want to choose high-quality shaving products. Don’t use that lousy chemical stuff that comes in an aerosol can, but rather top-of-the-line shaving cream or soap that’s designed for use with a straight razor. You should also look at several pre-shave and post-shave products to reduce irritation. “I recommend an older Italian company called Proraso,” says Koenig. “That’s really good stuff. Everything smells great, and I notice a huge difference in my shave quality using that. I really recommend all their products.”
You’ll need to strop your razor before each shave. Attach one end of your strop to an immovable object, like a bedpost or a towel rack, and hold the other end with your non-dominant hand. With your dominant hand, hold your razor nearly flat against the strop, then swipe down with the blade facing toward you. Flip the razor with the spine facing the strop, then make an upward stroke with the blade facing away from you. Repeat this about 15 times on each side of the strop, starting with the canvas side.
Koenig has a few words of wisdom to keep in mind while stropping: “It could be easy to damage the blade if you’re not doing it right. In movies, you see how they go back and forth on the blade, and they’re real rough on the sharp end of the blade, but you want to be really careful, never turning the sharp end toward the strop.”
Prepping Your Face
The hairs on your face should be as soft as possible prior to your shave. If you take a shower before shaving, don’t wash your face with soap, as it will rinse away your skin’s healthy oils. Alternatively, you could soak a towel in hot water, wring it out, and hold it on your face for a few minutes. If you have long, coarse beard hair, consider trimming it before taking a razor to it. If you have medium or fine hair, you can dive right in.
“In today’s world, we’re used to doing things fast and quick,” says Koenig, “and that’s what’s nice about straight razor shaving — it gives you the opportunity to slow down and relax a little bit. It’s not something that you want to rush through. Start off with some hot water on the face; it doesn’t have to be scorching, just some water to make the face relaxed and open would do good, then follow up with a pre-shave cream or an oil.”
Soak your brush in hot water for about 30 seconds, then drop a small dollop of shaving cream or soap into your scuttle or mug. Begin churning the cream with the brush until you get a nice, thick lather. Apply the lather to your face generously. Note how good this feels. Isn’t this better than shaving with a disposable razor?
Though a straight razor comes with a handle, you should disregard it almost entirely and instead hold the blade. With a standard grip, you’ll want to fold the razor back in on itself and put your thumb just beneath the blade. Your index and middle fingers should be on the back part of the blade, and your little finger should be between the handle and the blade’s tail-like appendage. Your ring finger can be on either side of the handle, whichever is most comfortable for you. As you get used to shaving, you’ll discover how to hold your razor at different angles.
Holding your razor at 30 degrees in relation to your face, begin shaving. The first pass with the razor should always be with the grain of your whiskers. Shave the sideburns and cheeks first, then go to town on your jaw, neck, and chin. Apply very little pressure as you go; let the razor do the work. It’s important to use small strokes –Koenig says you never want to go much more than maybe a half inch or an inch at a time.
“The most important thing to keep in mind is stretching the skin,” says Koenig. “You don’t ever want to shave loose skin. You want to turn your chin up if you’re getting your neck, make sure that skin’s tight. Same thing with the cheeks — you’ll learn different ways to hold your hand over your head and pull your cheek up.”
For a closer shave, re-lather your face and go for another pass. Depending on your skin and facial hair, you might go across or even against the grain on future passes. However, Koenig offers a warning: “I would recommend for guys not to go against the grain on the neck. That’s where you’ll get ingrown hairs. You can still get a very healthy shave going across the grain.”
Koenig recommends a careful aftercare regimen: “Usually guys will rinse their face with hot water after shaving. That makes the skin expand again, and that’s when hair will get sucked back behind the swollen skin, causing ingrown hairs. I recommend rinsing your face with cold water to make it contract.”
If you’re one of those guys who refuses to use skincare products at any point during a shave, well, you’ll just have to get over it. Koenig strongly recommends using an astringent (aftershave) and following it up with lotion, which can provide a layer of protection.
If You Cut Yourself
Most men cut themselves while shaving–even when using a disposable razor and even after 50 years of the same morning ritual. If you happen to cut yourself while shaving, which you will, simply apply styptic to the cut. Clubman makes a fine styptic pencil that will stop the bleeding right away.
For further guidance on how to shave with a straight razor, we recommend getting a straight shave from an experienced barber like Calen Koenig. Every man should get a straight shave from a barber and discuss the affairs of the day. The conversations might have changed from the Prussian War to the new season of Game of Thrones, but the straight shave itself has stayed the same since the days of old.
Calen Koenig works at the Brick and Mortar barber shop on SE Hawthorne St. in Portland, OR. Visit Brick and Mortar’s website to book an appointment with him.
Follow Calen Koenig on Instagram: @electricbarbering