I'm a progressive sort of guy. I like technology, especially when it makes my life more enjoyable and makes a difficult chore easier. But sometimes, very rarely, the oldest ways of doing a thing are still the cheapest and least wasteful. Such is the case with shaving.
Let me begin by telling you my own story of my re-discovery of the joys of straight razor shaving. Roughly five years ago or so, I was getting sick of shaving. I was old enough by that point that my beard was fully developed (late 20's), the hairs were thick and stiff and pretty tightly packed. Shaving with disposable cartridges worked decently well, but in order to get a good, close shave, one that didn't leave me looking like Homer Simpson only six or so hours later, I had to subject myself to razor-burn and ingrown hairs.
Growing my beard out was another option, and one that I took several times in the past 5 years, and will probably take in the future as well. And it's a decent solution with just one problem: I still had to shave. If I don't shave the straggly hairs on my neck or the hairs on my upper cheeks where the beard starts thinning out, I end up looking like a dirty hobo. In other words, it's not a well-groomed look. And of course, I was most susceptible to razor-burn and ingrown hairs on my neck and cheeks, so maintaining a well-groomed beard didn't really help with that much. Add in the other common problem with beards; they're itchy growing in, food gets caught in 'em and can go unnoticed for hours, and they still have to be regularly trimmed and maintained, and I was getting pretty desperate for some way to take care of my face.
I contemplated Nair, but didn't want to forgo the option of ever growing a beard again. Then I did an internet search for how to deal with problems shaving. That's when I (re)discovered the option of shaving with a straight razor.
I was, like many of you no doubt are, skeptical. "How," I thought, "could running a 3 inch piece of cold steel that's sharper than a surgeon's scalpel across my face be less irritating than these new-fangled cartridges?" After all, most of these new cartridges have 3 or 4 or even 5 blades that shave you smooth in a single stroke, they've got guards and moisturizing strips and little ridges of plastic that grip and stretch your skin to get at those little hairs. And people stopped using straight razors regularly, what, 50 years ago and more? Surely a straight razor can't shave better than something that's at the peak of modern science and tool design.
It turns out that I was right, but I was also very wrong. I decided to give it a try, because setting yourself up to shave with a straight razor isn't very expensive, and, if it worked, I'd never have to buy cartridges again. I went to a local antiques shop and found a couple of old straight razors that looked to be in excellent condition, which I bought for $15 each. So far, the razor itself cost about as much as a replacement pack of disposable cartridges. Now, I knew, thanks to the research I'd done online, that I wouldn't be able to shave with these razors as soon as I got 'em. They'd been banged around and handled in that antique's store for who knows how long, and I found that both of the old razors I bought were more than 60 years old, the oldest of the two was in its 80's decade.
So, I went to a Woodcrafter's and picked up a Norton 4000/8000 composite hone, spent hours watching videos and reading about how to sharpen a straight razor, and purchased a $15 leather and nylon strop. I sharpened my razor as best I could, stropped, and attempted my first shave.
And it went about as well as anyone could expect. Since this was my first attempt with a straight razor, I was actually surprised the thing took off hair. Not only did it remove the hair, it did it extremely well. On the other hand, this was my first attempt at maneuvering three inches of very sharp steel along the surface of my face. Not only did I nick myself (several times), but the razor burn was actually worse than what I'd had with a cartridge and I was nowhere nearly as cleanly shaven as I could have done with a cartridge.
But that was nearly three years ago, and I'm still using a straight razor to shave. Am I a masochist? Maybe, but I do want to report that it didn't really take very long to get the hang of it. About three months in, I was getting a closer shave with the straight than I could have done with a cartridge, evidenced by my not needing another shave until the evening of the next day when I shaved in the morning. There were still some spots I had trouble getting close, such as right around my jawline and on my upper lip, but the only razor-burn I got by that point was a direct result of trying for perfection in those areas and over-doing it. I rarely nicked or cut myself anymore, and when I did, I knew it was because I was being careless. And even from the very first shave, I no longer had any ingrown hairs.
I tell you this story to show that learning to shave with a straight razor is doable, and without an unwarranted amount of pain and suffering. Should you, the reader, attempt to switch to a straight razor? Unfortunately, I can't give you a blanket "yes" or "no," it all depends on your individual situation. All I can do is provide some pros and cons, and a bit of advice about what you'll need, to help you decide for yourselves.
If you decide to make the attempt, you'll need a razor, obviously. This can be very cheap, even free if you've got a grandfather or great-grandfather who still has his old straight blade and is willing to donate it to you. You can go the cheap route, like I did, and scour the antiques stores for old blades. If you do, there are a number of brands and stamps to look out for as being good razors, and I'll provide a link at the bottom to a website that has extensive reviews of razors both old and new. You can also go the more expensive route and buy a new razor or a refurbished antique. Yes, believe it or not, they're still making straight razor blades, and not just as novelties. You'll want to be careful buying a new razor, however, as most of the cheapest new razors really are just novelties. The Gold Dollar Razors, Kreigar razors, and almost anything produced in the last 30 years that comes from Pakistan are definitely razors to avoid. Theirs-Issgard and Dovo Solingen are well-respected brands of new razors, but be prepared to pay for them, as the cheapest I am aware of is still above $100.
Everything after the razor is completely optional, but it's usually a good idea to go ahead and spring for this stuff, for a variety of reasons. In order of how good an idea it is to get it are the following:
A razor strop: You can get just a strip of clean, flat, flexible leather and it will do just fine as a strop. If you've got a flat belt with no stitching, that'll work. Many strops come with two parts, a nylon or canvas belt, and a leather belt. The nylon or canvas is more "aggressive" in smoothing out the edge of the razor, so you usually do a few strokes on the nylon/canvas, then double those on the leather. A strop is necessary to keep the edge of the razor in good shape, but you don't have to go out and buy some expensive thing. In fact, you can strop your razor on the palm of your hand or on a bunch of newspaper laid flat on a book. Stropping a straight razor is a skill just as much as shaving with one is, so you'll want to make sure that you take it very slowly at first. Whatever you do, don't try to imitate the flamboyant stropping you see in cartoons and old movies. Improper stropping can take a shave ready edge and turn it into something that feels like you're trying to shave with a hacksaw, so, when in doubt, go very slowly and if you're still in doubt, skip it altogether.
A shaving brush/shaving soap: This is getting into luxury territory. It's perfectly possible to shave with a straight razor using the aerosol shaving creams or gels you can find at your local grocery store. One thing to keep in mind: those creams and gels are designed to work with cartridges, so they often are very slippery and have less "cushion" than the soaps or creams you use a brush with. The brush helps create a lather from the soap and massage it into your face, getting the soap up under the whiskers to help hold them up when the razor comes by, as well as lubricating the blade as it glides along the skin. I will say this, however; most people who try straight shaving and pick up the shaving soap and brush, keep the shaving soap and brush even if they decide to drop the straight shaving and stick with cartridges or safety razors. Nothing beats warm lather massaged into your face with a soft brush. And if you still want to be a cheapskate, you don't have to use the more expensive Proraso or Col. Conk's. William's mug soap costs about a buck, lasts twice as long as a can of Barbasol, and once you figure it out, gives a lather every bit as good as the more expensive brands.
A Styptic pencil/alum block: Ironically, this is less a luxury than the soap and brush. Let's face it, your first few tries with a straight razor will probably see you nick yourself, sometimes pretty badly, and you will often burn yourself. A styptic pencil stops the bleeding and sanitizes the area around your wound. There have been many times when I've nicked myself enough to see blood running down my face, but when I applied the pencil, I couldn't even see where the nick was after I was done shaving. An alum block performs much the same role, but for the whole face. Both styptic pencils and alum blocks are powerful astringents, and using them on your whole face after you shave will help tighten and condition the skin, as well as prevent infection. It will also let you know in no uncertain terms exactly where your technique needs improvement. You can get an alum block at any natural or organic foods store sold as a natural deoderant. It works pretty good for that too, but if you get a block to use as deoderant, keep it separate from the one you use on your face. There's one final advantage to a styptic pencil/alum block. When you shave with a straight razor, you'll need to grab your skin and pull it tight to get the best shave without irritation. This can be tricky on a wet face covered in slippery soap. Rub your wet fingertips on the alum block or styptic pencil, and you'll have no trouble with that whatsoever.
Other aftershaves/skin treatments: A lot of guys pick up straight razor shaving just because they have sensitive skin, so they tend to crow about their aftershave/post-shave treatments. Again, there's a wide range of expense you can choose. You can go all out with Trumper's Skin Food and fancy cooling aftershaves and colognes. Or you can stick with the cheap method and use plain old witchhazel. If you want, you can skip the aftershaves altogether and just stick with the alum block.
A pasted strop/razor hones: A pasted strop is just a strop that's been impregnated with a kind of metal polish. The most common kinds are Chromium Oxide, Diamond grit and Aluminum Oxide. These are used to bring back an edge that's just too far gone for regular stropping to smooth out. With proper stropping on a regular strop and proper storage of your razors, you should only need to use a pasted strop to touch-up the edge maybe once a month or once every other month. They're used by making very few (~15-20) stropping strokes on the paste. Because they're used so rarely, they tend to last a long time. You can tell when they need to be cleaned and re-pasted; when they turn completely black and look all shiny. Hones are in the same vein. They're used to bring back the edge, or to take out small nicks or cracks in the blade. If using a pasted strop, a straight blade should only need to be honed about once a year, maybe once every six months, at most. They have to be flattened, or lapped, before each use. And if improper stropping can damage the edge of a straight blade, improper honing can completely destroy it, requiring a new bevel to be set. There are places you can send a razor to be honed for $15-$20, so owning a hone or learning to hone your razors really isn't necessary at all. If you're interested in maximizing your savings for the long haul, though, it's a good idea to pick up the Norton 4000/8000 combo hone. Learning to hone, like learning to shave, isn't hard, it just takes practice, patience and dedication.
Why? That's the question I'm sure those of you who've stuck with me thus far are asking yourselves. "Why should I spend roughly $100 on new equipment and re-learn how to do something I'm doing just fine on now?" Below are the list of pros and cons, in my experience, of the switch to straight razor blades.
You can save a lot of money- A pack of replacement cartridges for a Mach 4 razor can cost $15. You'll probably buy 4 or 5 such packs throughout the year, which means you can recoup your costs in as little as three years. I don't know about you, but I will be shaving for more than three years of my life. A single straight blade, properly taken care of, will last the whole of your life, your son's life, and his son's life. Just the cartridges themselves will cost you around $3,600 in the ~60 years you'll be shaving. Add in the cost of those aerosol creams or gels, and you can spend more than the cost of a brand new luxury car on your shaving.
You can reduce a lot of waste- Think about all those cartridges you throw away. If you use canned shaving cream or shave gel, think about all those cans you throw away. With a straight, unless you break it, you'll never throw it away, and a box of William's mug soap comes in a thin, biodegradable cardboard box. The only thing you might use more of is hot water, and with proper planning and preparation, you can even end up using roughly the same amount.
It's romantic- Not so much of a pro for us practical-minded people, but a pro nonetheless. Just like you get a sense of pride and satisfaction from splitting a pile of logs by hand, or trimming your grass with one of those old push-mowers, so too do you get that sense when you finally give yourself a baby-bottom smooth shave with an old-fashioned straight.
Time: In my mind, this is the biggest con to shaving with a straight. I'm more than four years into shaving with a straight, and I still can't shave as fast as I could with a cartridge. You have to take your time, and you usually have to shave, relather, shave in a different direction, relather, then shave in a third direction to get the closest possible shave with a straight. This takes time. It does take a lot less time now than it used to. I used to spend an hour shaving with my straight. Now, I can get a good close shave in 20 minutes. Some folks out there who are really good can shave with a straight in about 5 minutes, which I feel compares well to cartridges. But you'll take some time getting to that level of proficiency. You may find, like I did initially, that it's better to shave in the evening, so you're not rushed in the morning, or you may have to get up earlier to get your daily shave done.
Experience: Let's face it. Most of us don't grow up with our dads teaching us to shave with a straight razor anymore. When we first pick up a straight, we don't really know what we're doing. As a result, you're gonna get some bad shaves while you're learning, and you'll be learning for a long time. Every razor is a little bit different, and every face is a little bit different, and both change over time. Any moron can shave themselves with a cartridge, but it takes skill and patience to shave with a straight.
Acquisition disorder: If you catch the straight shaving bug, you're gonna have to exercise some discipline. There are some very pretty straight razors out there, many of them custom made. You can spend over $1000 on a seven-day set. Once you've figured out your razor and your face, you're gonna want to see how other razors perform. The same thing goes with hones, especially the natural stones from China or Belgium or Arkansas. Only you can decide how much you want to spend, but if you're in this to save money and reduce waste, it's best to stay off the 'Bay.
If anybody is still with me, and thinks giving straight razors a try might be a good idea, I have a few last suggestions. First, read, read, read. When you think you've read enough, read some more. The two best places to go on the web are Badger and Blade and the Straight Razor Place Forums. Especially at the latter, you'll find essays and videos that will definitely help you not only make up your mind to give it a try or not, but guide you in your first attempts. (their community forums could definitely use a stronger progressive influence as well, but that's largely irrelevant to this diary).
Next, I'd highly recommend heading to Whippeddog and picking up his sight-unseen newbie razor package. You get a strop, a pasted strop and a razor that the owner picks out for you, sharpens and tests to be sure it's ready to shave with, all for less than $50 if you don't mind dings in the handle or a bit of tarnish on the blade. And if you don't like the razor you get, you can send it back and trade it in for a different one for only $15, which is less than the price to hone a new razor. I'm not affiliated with the owner of this site, nor am I getting anything in return for plugging him, but he does have an excellent reputation and his business model is to provide new straight razor users with an inexpensive introduction to the art.
My own preference for brushes and soap is the $5 boar brush you can get at CVS or Walgreens, and William's mug soap, but if you want to splurge, you can get the silver-tipped badger hair brushes and fancy-schmancy tallow soaps to go with it. If you still want to save some money on the brush, I'd suggest building your own using a badger hair knot from The Golden Nib and a handle of your own make, or one you buy from various dealers.
And of course, you can get all of this stuff in the Classifieds section of both the Badger and Blade, and the Straight Razor Place.
My final, and very last piece of advice (I promise) for those daring enough to try this: don't throw away your disposable razor or cartridges. You'll want them to clean up after your first few shaves. It's better to stop shaving while it's still comfortable and clean up with your cartridge than push through with your straight and butcher your face. That'll just get you discouraged and it'll be days before you'll heal enough to shave again. I still have my disposable razor in the medicine cabinet, and I still use it to touch up occasionally or when I just don't have the time to spend 20 minutes on a shave. You're still reducing waste and saving money, and the more often you can put the straight blade to your face and take off some whiskers, you're learning more about how to do it properly. Using the cartridge to clean up or finish the job means you can try again tomorrow, and maybe do it better. Pushing yourself too far with the straight means days of downtime healing, and fear and apprehension when you do try again, so keep the crutch and don't be afraid to use it.
The following video is not of me, but of a man called Lynn Abrams, the owner and operator of the Straight Razor Place website I mentioned above. In it, he discusses and demonstrates the techniques involved with actually removing hair from your face with a razor.