10 min read
For more than 200 years, the traditional straight razor was the main method of manual shaving and remained popular until the 1950s when the quick and efficient safety razor was brought back by soldiers serving in WW2. Shortly after the "man mower," aka the electric razor, double-edge safety razors and disposable razors were the most common men's shaving products of choice.
Straight razors were almost lost to history until James Bond broke out his straight razor kit in Skyfall. In that scene, Bond is seen taking a moment from saving the world, whipping up a rich lather with a shaving brush, shirtless in a dimly lit luxurious bathroom, and shaving with a traditional cutthroat razor ever so patiently. As Moneypenny asked Bond why, he replied, "I like to do things the old-fashioned way." Moneypenny replied, "sometimes the old ways are the best." It was at that moment the art of straight shaving became romantic once again, but at that same time, very practical, and I couldn't agree more!
Since 2012, the return to straight razor shaving has seen a big resurgence in popularity thanks to the James bond film Skyfall and a growth trajectory to become a multi-billion dollar industry by 2025.
Sexy? Absolutely. But this begs the question, is shaving with a straight razor better than shaving with cartridge razors or a disposable safety razor with multiple blades? Do they provide the smoothest shave?
I will go over the most frequently asked questions I get asked and give you my top reasons why I believe straight razor shaving is superior to any other traditional shaving tool.
Many wet shaving enthusiasts swear by the fact that straight razors are superior to other kinds of razors. However, it does have disadvantages. It can be hard to learn, and there is rigorous blade maintenance to keep the blades sharp and functional.
John Rivera, Master Barber at New York City’s The Art of Shaving’s Barber Spa, shares some insights on how tedious straight razor shaving can be in an interview with GQ. He says, “If you are not willing to dedicate the time and effort to re-learning how to shave with this tool, then you probably shouldn’t use it.”
After all, shaving with a straight razor takes a more careful approach than shaving with a cartridge or electric razor. Professional barbers consider the angle, pressure, blade weight, grip, and skin prep before finally wielding the blade’s cutthroat edge on their client.
The angle and pressure of your shave, according to Rivera, determine the depth and closeness of the edge to the hair follicle in each pass. If you are a beginner, it would be best to hold blades varying in heft to determine which is comfortable for you. Remember, lighter blades need more effort and force while shaving, while heavier ones don’t.
Meanwhile, Rivera advised learning the proper grip to avoid cuts and nicks. The best way to do this is not to hold the razor too flat and steep. Keep the razor at a 30-degree angle from the face, pull the skin tight with your other hand, and shave gently in even, short strokes.
Despite its intimidating reputation–thanks, Sweeney Todd–the benefits of using a straight razor outweigh the disadvantages. Straight razor shaving is safe even for beginners as long as you shave with trust in your razor, not adding any pressure as you shave and instead allowing the razor's weight to do the work as you determine your shaving direction.
Many beginner shavers get overwhelmed with the technicalities of wet shaving, like what kind of tools they need and what kind of straight razor is the best for their level of expertise. With that, the best way to start shaving with a straight razor is with the essential wet shaving products you will need for a straight razor shave and some basic knowledge.
The essential tools you will need:
Straight razor - opt for a beginner-friendly or entry-level straight razor option without a round point such as a barberette or shavette
Leather strop - for straightening the fine edges of your blade sharp before use
Shaving brush - for lifting facial hair and creating a rich, luxurious lather
Shaving soap or shaving cream - is not a common soap; it has more glycerin for a thicker lather to create a moisture barrier between a blade and the skin.
Scuttle or shaving mug - to contain your soap for lathering and to keep it warm.
As a beginner, it would be best to start with a shavette or barberette. If you are adventurous and ready to invest in a straight razor set, start with a straight razor with a round point. Avoid any start razors with a square or barbers notch because they offer less protection than razor cuts. Do not forget your leather strop, as stropping is a must before shaving with a straight razor.
There are several ways to differentiate a straight razor: its blade width, point, grind, scales, jimps, and blade material. These features determine your straight razor's weight, balance, sharpness, efficiency, and maintenance requirements.
Here are the important parts of a straight razor you need to consider when choosing your traditional straight-edge razor:
Blade width - the distance between the top of the spine and the blade’s edge represented as a fraction (13/16, 5/8, 4/8, etc.)
Point - the tip or end of a straight razor, which can be round, squared, or pointed.
Grind - the shape and thickness of the blade’s cross-section, which can be entirely flat or concave.
Scales- the handle of a straight razor
Jimps- ridges under the metal section between the blade and the scales.
The best straight razor for beginners is one with a 5/8" size, a round point, and a full or hollow grind, preferably with jimps on the scales. These are easier to control and maneuver while still giving a precise shave.
The most common straight razor blade materials are carbon and stainless steel and even come in exotic metals such as Damascus steel. Many vintage straight razors have high-carbon steel blades, while modern straight razors have stainless steel. However, the latter is yet to fully replace carbon blades as each has unique benefits.
Here are the benefits of high-carbon steels with 0.7% to 2.5% carbon content:
Easier to harden properly
Lower melting point
Stays sharp longer
Here are the benefits of stainless steel with at least 12% chromium content:
Better wear resistance
Low cooling rate
More resistant to corrosion
Better strength against high-temperatures
Do take note that stainless steel is less likely to get rust compared to carbon steel. However, since it is softer than carbon steel, its edge does not stay sharp as long as a carbon steel blade.
There is absolutely nothing more precise than how a straight razor shaves— straight razors shave hair approximately 0.002 in.
Straight razors provide tactility and control beyond any disposable razor.
Traditional shaving can also have a meaningful impact on your physical, emotional, and financial well-being. It boosts the confidence in learning a new skill, is so luxurious and pampering, and creates a time of focus and planning for the day.
Here are the top reasons I find why you should be shaving with a straight razor:
Straight razor shaving not only benefits your skin, but it also benefits the environment and your pockets. If you have sensitive skin, you will find that straight razor shaving is more forgiving, hence why it has been so well-loved by professional barbers since time immemorial.
Skin irritation, ingrown hairs, and razor burn are common byproducts of wet shaving with any shaving tool, even double-edge safety razors, and cartridge razor systems. After all, you are pulling your hair up and gliding a sharp blade against your skin. Yet, straight razors are less irritating and are better for your skin than cartridge razors because they only use a single blade and take fewer passes for a cleaner, smoother shave.
More blades do not result in a better baby butt smooth shave. Cartridge razors are more prone to causing ingrown hairs because of the angle of aggressiveness the factory sets at the blades.
Blade aggressiveness is not a one-size-fits-all, which is one of the biggest benefits of straight-edge razors. A straight-edge razor’s aggressiveness can be adjusted on the fly and more fine-tuned with pressure. Because of the control of pressure and blade angle, ingrown hairs can be minimized if not eliminated completely.
Traditional safety razors come in all sizes and budgets, from $49 to the thousands. But with only one working part, the blade that can be sharpened, a high-quality straight razor, can last a lifetime.
Compared to double-edge safety razors, you can get away with 4-5 shaves per blade at the cost of 25 cents per razor blade or cartridge system. Over a lifetime, the only thing you need to do with a straight razor is hone and sharpen it professionally or at home, and that's a lifetime of cost shavings!
Most razors such as multi-blade razors use three single-edge razors that command multiple passes for a super close shave, dulling the blades quickly and unevenly. These razors also rarely get the job done in one pass and require daily shaving. More passes, more shaving equals irritation and aggravation to the skin. While a straight shave can last up to two or three days.
Straight razors also reduce razor burn because they shave unbelievably close down to the micro millimeter and cause less friction between the blade and skin, as they can give a close shave with a single pass.
Relaxation is one of the essences of the art of wet shaving, which is a process that a straight razor shave compliments very well—the pre-shave ritual involves hot towels and a quick facial massage.
Straight razors are more tactile and do not have set razor angles, giving you complete control of your shave, better feedback, or blade aggressiveness, closeness, angle, pressure, and direction.
There is no dilly-dallying with a cutthroat razor, and you must be completely focused at all times. Yes, it can be time-consuming, and why in a mindless world, people switched to cartridge systems to save time.
Using a straight razor is like driving a sports car. You must be mindful of the power you hold. The angle of approach, the pressure, and the focus required mental understanding and muscle memory, similar to playing an instrument. This concentration level is an exercise for your brain and a great way to start or finish your day with self-care or to prepare for an intensive meeting. It's a mental warm-up for the day.
Straight Razor shaving is a fun and exciting world to be part of and a great way to interact with other enthusiasts. Getting the best shave of your life is only part of the fun, just like experimentation and collecting other gear. No wonder people often have dozens of straight razors in their collection and custom display cases for them! Straight razor shaving is more than a chore; it's a lifestyle.
You can easily lay the straight razor’s edge on your skin and see the grain of your hair growth. By following the hair growth in the first pass and going against it on the second, you will get a closer and baby-butt-smooth shave.
Straight razors are made to last for generations, and people still buy vintage straight razors today and refurbish them. They are also made sustainably using natural materials, unlike disposable razors made from plastics. Hence, straight razors are better for the environment due to the lesser carbon footprint from manufacturing and replacing billions of razors each year, reducing the number of plastic safety razors that fill up landfills.
Whether an expert shaver or a beginner, getting nicks and cuts is inevitable—no matter what kind of razor you use. Once faced with such a dreadful dilemma, do not just let the wound bleed.
Here is how to treat nicks and cuts at home:
Apply firm pressure on the cut by pressing a clean finger over it.
Put a cold compress or ice cube above the area and press firmly.
Use potassium alum block as a natural antiseptic and astringent to stop the bleeding.
Dab some witch hazel on the bleeding area as a natural alternative to alcohol.
Seal the nick with a natural unscented alcohol-free aftershave balm.
If the bleeding is continuous and getting heavier, go to the nearest hospital for professional medical help.
Every straight razor shaver must own at least one strop for the cutting edge ready for a shave. However, you will learn that it comes with a certain learning curve, which means that your first leather strop may well get scuffed or damaged over time.
One thing to remember is stropping a straight razor does not “sharpen” the blade at all, it keeps a sharp edge. It “polishes” or straightens the microscopic fin of the blade that gets damaged when cutting. In short, it brings the blade back in alignment. It's very important to strop before or after you begin to shave.
Honing a straight razor is the act of sharpening the edge by removing steel to form a new edge on your blade. Note that this differs from stropping, which re-aligns your edge between shaves.
I consider honing your straight razor the pinnacle of sustainability and self-reliance. Once you have the skills and the gear, you can keep your blade sharp for generations to come.
How to know if your blade is sharp enough? After you strop your razor and align the razor's edge, test the blade against a small area. If the hair simply pops off, you are good to go.
The benefits of using a straight razor come from its blade, and a dull blade will be useless and dangerous to the skin. Hence, it is necessary to use a strop before shaving to re-align any buffs on the blade’s edge and hone it every 3-6 months to keep your straight razor sharp.
To get the closest shave of your life, you must have an extremely sharp razor's edge before shaving. A dull blade is not only dangerous but also completely useless. Always strop your razor before you shave during the pre-shave ritual.
Shaving with a straight-edge traditional razor will elevate your grooming experience to new heights unknown. Straight razor shaving, if measured by performance alone, is far superior to cartridges or a disposable cartridge razor, second to double-edge safety razors. The shave is closer, smoother, irritation-free, recession proof, and environmentally sustainable. It is what a grown man shave is all about! Granted that you follow the correct wet shave ritual, the right technique, and you use the right products for your skin type of course. I can guarantee that you will experience shaving on a level you might not know, with the full therapeutic benefits to your body and mind. I think every grown man should, if not must, shave with a straight razor at least once in their lifetime.
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