The straight razor is making a big comeback in the world of shaving. A small portion of this resurgence comes from folks who realize that the investment will pay off when they no longer have to buy blades again. Ever. A much larger portion of new straight razor users are in thanks to the “shaving scene” in the recent James Bond movie, Skyfall. Daniel Craig is shaved with the assistance of Naomie Harris and a Dovo #41 stainless steel razor. Beautiful people, sex, and sharp metal objects…what’s not to like? According to the straight razor manufacturer, Dovo, their sales have increased by more than 400% since the showing of that movie. The problem with these new users is that many of them will end up buying junk and doing nothing better than slicing themselves up, or will not understand what they’re getting themselves into and will end up not sticking with it. Straight razors are a great way to get an amazingly close shave, but they do require a new set of skills and a lot of patience. Just to get started you’ll need a good quality shave ready straight razor (most straights are NOT shave ready out of the box and will need to be professionally honed before use), a strop to maintain the edge, a shaving brush and some good quality shaving soap or cream. The key to all of this is the good quality SHAVE READY straight razor. If your razor is made of junk steel or not properly honed then you’ll end up feeling and looking like you shaved using a tin can. While straights can be found on eBay, etsy, and in antique shops unless you know what to look for those areas should be avoided. There are simply too many duds out there. Find a reputable dealer with shave ready straights to buy your gear from and be prepared to deal with a long learning curve. While I have been using old school razors for a while now, I have only been shaving with a straight for about a month. Below are my experience to date, hopefully my thoughts, failures, and successes will give you a good idea of what to expect and what to avoid when you first learn to use a straight razor.
I’m like a lot of traditional wet shavers, once I got the hang of safety razors and had played around with a lot of different gear I found myself wanting to expand my experiences and began looking at straight razors. I initially put the idea out of my head by pointing out to myself that straight razors and their accompanying gear are significantly more expensive than safety razors and that paying for honing services once or twice a year would actually cost more than the amount that I would spend on double edge blades over the course of that same year, but those ideas didn’t last for too long. I quickly realized that a well maintained straight razor and strop will last longer than I will and are worth the extra initial expense. I also figured that if I learned to hone properly then I would be able to completely cut out the expense of blades or honing services. I already had a collection of soaps, creams and brushes, so that would not add to my costs. I have a three year old daughter and have played baseball for years, so I already had mineral oil (A.K.A. baby oil) to use on the blade and neats foot oil to use on the strop. A gift and careful searching of antique stores and eBay turned up a few decent straight razors for a fraction of the price that a new one would cost. Whipped Dog provided me with a strop kit and barber’s hone that was well priced and effective. Once I had the necessary basic gear, I had absolutely no other excuse…except that my razors weren’t as shave ready as I thought they were. I attempted my first shaves using a straight razor and was extremely disappointed. I knew that my technique wouldn’t be perfect, but those first shaves might as well have been done using a tin can. No real hair loss and lots of irritation. I was very frustrated, but I did some more research and decided that my razors just weren’t honed properly. I took the necessary steps to correct the main problem and sent my Union Cutlery off to Larry at Whipped Dog to be honed (The Union Cutlery was the thinnest of my razors, and I figured that if I couldn’t shave with a professionally honed full hollow, then there was no hope for me at all). My first few shaves with this newly honed razor were about what you would expect of a new straight razor user: sloppy, but effective. I was able to ACTUALLY shave hair off, but I also managed to get some bad razor burn and several nicks. I tore up my strop trying to get that particular essential skill down and thought that I might have had to replace it altogether. Holding the razor actually took a lot more effort than I ever would have thought, its geometry was just so alien to me. Thanks to my difficulty holding the razor properly I kept applying far too much pressure on the blade without realizing it and angling it far too aggressively. My enthusiasm was high, but my skills were low. I decided to take a few days off to let my face heal and to just get used to holding the razors while I worked on my stropping technique.
Well, it’s a few days later and I have made a new attempt to shave using a straight razor. All I can say is that I am glad that I took a step back and took some time to evaluate things. I still have a hard time getting my right side, because I just can’t seem to get the angle quite right when attempting to go against the grain on my jaw line. I am ambidextrous thanks to a kindergarten teacher who didn’t know how to teach left handed children, but for whatever reason, trying to shave using a straight razor in my right hand is a no go…I guess the natural dominance of my left hand comes out when I try to master a new skill using my “off” hand (I switch hands constantly when I eat or write and I can shoot, throw, bat, and catch with either hand, but apparently not shave with either hand). I’m not massacring my upper lip anymore, but I have to be VERY slow and deliberate, especially around the nostrils. I’m not as bendy at 33 as I was at 23, so my back is killing me as I unconsciously lean over the counter to try to get the angles right…my mind seems to believe that if I get closer to my mirror self that I will somehow be able to adjust easier. On the up side I have my stropping pretty well down, and have now sanded all of the battle scars off of my poor man’s strop. I have also added a Col. Conk/Dovo hanging strop with a linen back to my arsenal (I got it off of eBay in like new condition for the amazingly low price of $20, which is a hell of a lot better price than the $60 it goes for at most online vendors’ sites or the insane $90 price that The Art of Shaving sells it for). I really like the little strop and have an easy time using it, in spite of its small size. I am getting much less irritation than I was when I started and received zero, count them, zero nicks today. I’m not actively trying to go faster, but my improved technique and amended expectations have made me more efficient, so my total shaving time for a two pass shave is down to just over twenty minutes, which is MUCH faster than it was when I started, but no where near the five to ten minutes that it takes me to do a three pass shave with a safety razor. I am still taking it slow, but I am improving and looking forward to better and better results.
Today I used a superlather of Pre De Provence soap and eShave White Tea with great results, this was exactly what I needed to jump back into straight razor shaving. (A superlather is created when a soap is lather together with a cream in order to produce a thicker and more interesting final result.). My superlather was thick and creamy and left my skin feeling soft, smooth, and with a pleasant after scent. The large loft on my Omega brush allowed me to have plenty of lather loaded up so that I could refresh as I needed rather than having it dry out as I took my time with my shave. I did a two pass with the grain/against the grain shave followed by a cold water rinse and ended up with a damn fine shave. Not quite baby butt smooth, but I’m OK with that, it will come with practice. Very little irritation and no nicks. A good overall shave, and a happy return to the wonderful world of straight razors.
Pre: Hot shower & warm water splash
Razor: Union Cutlery 5/8
Brush: Omega 11137
Soap: Superlather of Pre De Provence and eShave White Tea
Post: Cold water rinse
While my Union Cutlery is a vintage blade and is not generally available for sale, here are some good links for the purchase of good quality, shave ready straight razors, all of these vendors will have good quality strops as well:
Here’s a link for the Omega 11137 boar brush:
Here’s a link for Pre De Provence soap: