Updated: January 2017, added “expert recommendations” Beard types chart.
Currently, there is a resurgence of interest in the art of shaving with a straight razor. It is almost like a renaissance movement. More and more men are showing interest in using straight razors, leading to countless new books, lots of websites, and articles.
I am no Spring-Chicken, and I am proud to say that I learned to shave with a straight razor in my late teens, back when it was still somewhat common for men to use straight razors. Back then, we went to real barber shops (not a salon), with a real barber (not a ‘stylist’), who knew not only how to cut hair, but also how to give straight razor shaves, and even counsel you on the health of your hair, face, and scalp. You left feeling refreshed, enlightened, and covered in those outstanding old-time fragrances. You felt like a new man. The purpose of this article is show you the art of shaving with a straight razor. And also help you choose the best straight razor for your needs, and many other recommendations.
WHY SHAVE WITH A STRAIGHT RAZOR
I’ll start out by saying that straight razor shaving is probably not for everyone. It requires discipline, deliberation, forethought, planning, pride, and a bit of daring, as well as an appreciation of tradition. If you do not possess any of these characteristics, then you should probably stick to the junky multi-blade razors, or electric contraptions available at most drug stores. I imagine there are men who feel they are too busy, or their time is much too important to waste on shaving, primping, and indulging… and that’s OK. It has no effect on me whatsoever. I can’t speak for others, but the reasons that I shave with a straight razor are first and foremost, a deep respect for the heritage and traditions of my forebears, a desire to make sure that a time-honored tradition and art-form stays alive, and to have enough respect for myself as a person, and a man, to give myself the very best treatment, at least in this respect.
My daily shave is my Me-Time, and I guard it jealously. My days starts early, with a long, hot shower. Then I apply my Arko shaving soap (the absolute best and most luxurious shaving medium on the planet, at any price, in my opinion), a hot towel, and smoke my pipe, have a cup of coffee, and read the news while my beard soaks. Then, I revel and meditate as I execute the precise strokes needed to give myself a baby-butt smooth shave. After that, it’s time to apply some post shave balm, and one of the great aftershaves I have (my all-time favorite is St. Vincents Bay Rum, but I also like Lilac Vegetal, and most of the Lucky Tiger aftershaves…all old-time barber shop lotions…), get dressed, grab another cup of coffee, and then I am ready to face the world with confidence and a positive attitude. When my morning routine is compromised, I feel off-balance for the rest of the day.
There is no way to get a closer shave than with a straight razor, nor a more comfortable one (once you learn the ropes). There is something about the feeling of self-reliance you get from sharpening your own blade that awakens the cave-man in all of us. Shaving with a straight razor makes you feel like a man. And this is a good thing. Your mental attitude is just as important as your physical appearance. When you feel good, you do good. That is a proven fact. There are probably a lot of other reasons men may want to shave with straight razors. It is a very private and individual thing. I can say for sure that I do not know of anyone who has taken the time to learn the art, that has ever regretted it.
REVIEWS OF THE BEST STRAIGHT RAZORS
My two recommendations. There are several other razors I would recommend, but they are no longer in production, and I do not recommend that newbies try to purchase used razors if they intend to shave with them. When buying a used razor, you need to know what you are doing.
1. DOVO PRIMA STRAIGHT RAZOR REVIEW
The Dovo Prima is the modern version of my beloved Dovo Goldedge. It comes with an absolutely gorgeous gold-etched and engraved blade of Dovo’s proprietary Solingen high-carbon steel, which is every bit the equivalent of the totally awesome 1095 steel. Dovo guarantees that their razors come ready-to-shave, right out of the box. The ebony scales feel wonderful in the hand, and the blade glides like a ballerina over the face. The Prima is a little lighter than my Goldedge, at around 2 oz., but it is heavy enough to let you know it’s there. The 5/8 round tip blade is perfect for most shaves, and the tang is jimped on the back to provide a secure hand-hold in any grip. The pivot pin spins smoothly, and there is no play at all. Considering the price, this razor is a huge bargain. It is the only razor you need. If I could only have one razor, this would be it.
2. BOKER KING STRAIGHT RAZOR REVIEW
From the legendary forges of Soligen, Germany, the Boker King Cutter is a winner. One thing is certain….Germany knows how to make outstanding razors. The King Cutter is a 5/8 razor with a soft round tip that they call a Spanish Tip. It makes shaving in tight places a breeze. The blade is forged from a proprietary Solingen carbon steel that contains some silver, making it cut even better than 1095 steel. The scales are black poly, and fit the hand nicely. It weighs-In at a hefty 2-1/2 oz. and fills the hand with confidence and authority. It is backed by Bokers outstanding Lifetime Warranty. At a very reasonable price for a new one, you’ll be doing your face a huge favor.
BRIEF HISTORY OF STRAIGHT RAZORS
Believe it or not, shaving predates Homo sapiens. During the last Ice Age, Neanderthals discovered one of the many weaknesses of living in an Arctic environment in a body designed for the tropic forests. Facial hair in particular, absorbs moisture, which quickly freezes and accelerates the process of frostbite…not a good thing in the Ice Age. They began removing facial hair by plucking it out using clam shells and other items (they were obviously a lot tougher than modern men…or me, anyway…), and cutting their hair shorter with stone blades. We have archeological evidence that bears this out. So the image of a hairy-faced, long-haired cave man is not exactly accurate. When Homo sapiens arrived on the scene, the trend continued.
As the Hunter-Gatherer cultures gave way to agriculture and the first towns and cities, another reason for shaving was discovered. Living in close quarters with others greatly amplified the spread of parasites like lice, and diseases. The Egyptians, who are usually credited with the first real civilization, became obsessive about cleanliness and hair, which was probably a good thing, since medicine was in the beginning stages. Men, women, and even children, were rendered completely hairless, from head-to-toe, mostly using depilatory creams, and plucking. Wigs and false beards were worn in public. They also bathed several times a day.
Beard types chart Facial hair types chart Beard styles chart Beard shape chart Expanded beard type chart
The Greeks, who had been wearing their hair and beards rather long, made an unpleasant discovery when they went into combat with other peoples. Long hair and a beard could be grasped by an enemy, and one quick twist would break the neck. Under Alexander the Great, new regulations were adopted requiring warriors to be short-haired and clean-shaven. The Romans followed suit, and the regulations persist to this day in most military units around the world. The Romans had the first public barber shops, and barbers commanded as much social respect as doctors and other professionals. In fact, the derogatory term ‘Barbarian’, meaning, “barberless“, or “unshaven”, was used by the Romans to refer to the hordes of bearded and long-haired tribal cultures they often encountered while building their empire. To be shaven and well-groomed meant that one was civilized.
During the Middle Ages, shaving had its ups and downs, depending on where you were, and who was in power at the time. For the most part, men were clean-shaven as a class statement, with beards being considered more crass, while at the same time being more masculine. Explorers and sailors seldom had access to barbers, so it was common for them to wear beards, and have long hair most of the time, Mustaches, beards, and long hair came to be associated with adventure and daring, while being clean-shaven and groomed indicated a higher social status among men.
Modern straight razors were developed in the 1800s, as well as modern after shaves. The first being Lilac Vegetal, a timeless and classic after-shave that is still in production (and still a big favorite with a lot of us Renaissance Men)… It was developed by Edouard Pinaud at the request of the Court of Napoleon III, to come up with something to hide the somewhat ‘horsey’ smell of cavalrymen when they came to town. Safety razors were developed towards the end of the 19th century, and electric razors during the early part of the 20th century.
The straight razor remained the symbol of the discriminating man, and is still the best shave you can get.
STRAIGHT RAZOR ESSENTIALS
There is a considerable learning curve, both to selecting, and using straight razors. The first thing you need is, obviously, a straight razor. If you are a complete newbie, I would discourage trying to get a used one on EBay, or at antique shops, at first. You should consult with barbers (real barbers, and not hair-stylists), or contact Customer Service at one of the places that specialize in classic shaving supplies, such as ClassicShaving.com . They know what they are doing, and
they will guide you through the process of selecting the correct supplies for your needs. You are also going to need a razor strop, a hone, some
good shaving soap (not any of that garbage in the drug stores…When you use real shaving cream or soap, you will know the difference….), a good badger-hair brush (not a cheap boar-hair one), pre-shave treatment, post-shave treatment, hot towels, a way to heat them (microwave ovens work fine…), and great after-shave lotions (leave the Old Spice on the shelf and get some good stuff….).
For a new razor, expect to pay anywhere from $60.00 to over $100.00. It may sound like a lot, but it is actually cheaper in the long run, because there are no blades to have to keep buying, no parts for electric razors, etc… One razor will last several lifetimes, even with moderate care. Men are shaving with razors originally made 100+ years ago (I have a few that are over 100 years old, and shave as good today as the day they were manufactured…).
WHY DOES ONE CHOOSE A STRAIGHT RAZOR?
We’ve Asked Kevin Kent, owner of KentOfInglewood.com, some tips about choosing a straight razor.
DIFFERENT STYLES FOR STRAIGHT RAZORS
There are a few styles available. They differ in subtle ways, and one is not necessarily any better than the other. It comes down to what you like. There are 3 main types of straight razors: For all practical purposes, you use all three types exactly the same.
1. EUROPEAN STRAIGHT RAZORS
These are the ones most people are familiar with, from Sweeney Todd, to the Barber of Seville. It is a blade mounted on a pivot pin that allows it to be rotated inside the handle (called scales) to protect both it, and the unwary who may handle it carelessly. They come in several grinds, and tip shapes. They are made by companies like Dovo, Dorko, Double Duck, Genco, Wade and Butcher… They will give you, your children, and your grandchildren absolutely wonderful shaves, and can quickly become treasured family heirlooms. I have a Dovo Goldedge, a Wade and Butcher, a Boker King Cutter, and a Genco…so far. One caution, though…there are a lot of cheap junk razors out there that are totally useless. Avoid any off-brand razors, or any made outside Europe, or the US.
Created due to health concerns from professional barbers using the same razor on several men. These consist of 1/2 of a standard double-edged safety razor blade mounted in a clamping mechanism attached to a handle that allows the blade to rotate into the handle just like a straight razor. In a lot of areas, health laws require the blade to be discarded after each shave and a new one installed. Of course, in your own home, you can do as you wish. These are sort of like the best of both worlds between straight razors, and safety razors. They shave just like a straight razor, but you never have to strop or hone them, making the learning process a bit easier for newbies. A blade will usually last for 5-8 shaves. They are also more convenient when traveling, since you don’t have to find a place to hang a strop. They are especially popular with Health Care professionals, since the blades are only used once. Some of the best models are made by Parker, and cost less than a straight razor, around $30.00, as a rule.
3. ASIAN STRAIGHT RAZORS
These are very small, delicate, and are great for getting into small places like under the nose, and around the ears. Many hair stylists use these for their unequaled precision. The really good ones are all from Japan. There are also disposable models with a blade permanently mounted, and ones you can change the blades on. Unquestionably, the very best ones are the incredible Japanese Feather Artist Club Nothing on the planet shaves like these things. But don’t expect them to be cheap. A new Artisan can set you back $300.00 or more. They are worth every penny, I own 2 of them myself.
THE 2 AVAILABLE GRINDS ON RAZORS
I mentioned grinds before. Mostly what you will find is a hollow grind, where the two sides are concave, and a Scandinavian grind , where the bevel is straight from the middle of the blade to the edge. They all shave the same, and sharpen the same . It’s a matter of personal preference.
DIFFERENT SIZES: HOW TO CHOOSE THE RIGHT ONE
When you see a razor that says it is sized as a 3/5, or a 4/5, that is the measurement of the width of the blade, expressed in 1/8” increments. So an 8/8 blade is 1” wide, and a 4/8 blade will be 1/2” wide. Does the width of the blade effect the shave?…No, as long as they are stropped to the proper sharpness. Smaller blades are a little easier to strop, but not significantly. The difference is that an 8/8 blade is heavier, beefier, and more of a bulldozer that will plow through any beard, no matter how tough. 8/8 blades feel manly, powerful, and great in your hand. But, the larger blade makes it more difficult to shave under your nose, around your ears, etc… without mishaps. It is harder to see where you are shaving. Smaller blades are more maneuverable, and make it much easier to see where you are shaving. In my opinion, a 5/8 blade is perfect for just about anyone, and what I recommend. You can experiment with other blades later, after you have a better idea of what you are doing. Like most of us, you will most likely wind up with several razors of different sizes. Straight razor shaving is addictive.
DIFFERENT TIPS YOU CAN FIND
There are different tips as well. The most common are square tips, round tips and Barber’s Notch.
Square tips are just that. The end of the razor makes a straight drop to the edge, allowing for more precise edging, such as in shaping around beards and side-burns, but they require a bit more attention, because you can dig the point into your skin, causing bleeding, and perhaps a bit of profanity. With a little extra care, square tips are great.
The other common tip is the round tip, which is my favorite. It is exactly what the name implies. The end of the razor makes a sweeping convex curve to the edge, without creating a sharp point. This makes shaving a little easier and safer.
A 3rd, less common point, is the Barber’s Notch. The end of the blade makes a concave sweep to the edge, providing a place to put a finger for more precise cutting. These are only useful if you will be shaving another person. You fold the scales all the way over, and hold the razor directly by the spine of the blade with your fingertips, placing your index finger in the notch for control. I do not recommend this for anyone but professionals and experts. You should not attempt to shave another person with a straight razor until your are very, very proficient.
RAZOR MAINTENANCE: THE EXPERT RECOMMENDS
HOW TO STROP AND HONE A STRAIGHT RAZOR
Stropping and honing can seem a bit intimidating at first, but it’s not as bad as it appears. All you are doing when you strop is straightening the edge to get a clean cut. The edge becomes bent as you shave, and this has the effect of ‘dulling’ the blade. As opposed to actual sharpening, no metal is removed from the blade.
Beard types chart Facial hair types chart Beard styles chart Beard shape chart Expanded beard type chart
The reason a lot of men give up on straight razor shaving is an inability to achieve the correct sharpness, and this is usually because of a crappy strop. There are tons of low-quality strops out there, made from mystery animals, or even synthetic leather. You need a stiff strop made from the best quality smooth leather available. A strop has a leather strap, and sometimes a softer strap made from linen or canvas, supposedly to heat up the edge from friction, and make it easier to strop. I never use the soft strap, but you can if you want. Also, there are stropping compounds and abrasive pastes you can use that are supposed to make stropping easier. I never use these either, but again, it’s your razor, Strop it like you want. The very best strops are made from bullhide. Horsehide is next. Lastly, latigo leather makes great strops. I wouldn’t recommend using anything less than these. You will not be happy with the results. Things to look for in a strop are good strong D rings, snaps on the strap so it can be easily changed when it wears out, and no cracks, textures, or tears in the leather.
To strop, the strop need to be held very tightly so that is does not flex when you run the razor up and down. This will give you a dull rounded edge. The strop needs to remain perfectly straight throughout the entire stopping process. If you want to use the linen or the paste, apply the past directly to the linen per the directions. Lay the razor flat on the linen while holding it tightly, with the razor edge making contact, on the side closest to you, with the edge facing you. Slide the razor away from you smartly to the end of the linen. Rotate the blade on the spine until the other side of the edge is flat against the line, then draw the blade smartly towards you. Repeat this rapidly 20 or 30 times. The idea is to get the edge warm from friction so that will sharpen easier (in theory). Next, stretch the smooth leather side of the strop tightly, and repeat the same moves you made on the linen, usually around 50-75 strokes. A stroke is up and back. If the razor drags or pulls when you shave with it, strop it on the leather more times, until it glides over your face like a bobsled on black ice… You will need to strop your razor several times during a normal shave. If you are using a shavette, you can skip all of this….
A razor needs to be honed about once a year, or more if you use it a lot. You need a sharpening stone. There are two types, water stones, and oil stones. You want a water stone for your razor , because they are harder, and allow a much finer edge. Belgium Blue and Coticule stones are also very good. I would not use anything other than one of these 2 on my razors.
In my opinion, the very best available is the Norton Combination 4000/8000 grit stone. It has given me the best results over the years. To use, you simply submerge it in water until the bubbles stop (15-30 minutes). The case is also a bench-rest for the stone, so all you have to do is set the stone back on the case. Start on the 4000 grit side. Sprinkle a little water on the surface of the stone. Place a small piece of electrical tape along the spine of your razor to keep it from being scratched. Now, with the edge facing away from you, lay the razor flat on the stone. Putting very gentle pressure on the blade, push it away from you, to the end of the stone. At the end of that stroke, rotate the blade on the spine to where the edge is facing you, then pull it back towards you. Repeat 20-30 times, then flip the stone over to the 8000 grit side, and repeat. Your razor should now have a factory edge back on it. All you need to do is strop it a bit, and it is shave-ready once again.
If using a Coticule/Belguim Blue stone, set the stone on a damp towel so it does not slide while you are sharpening. Simply spray some water on the surface, and follow the same steps as for the Norton, except for soaking.
You should periodically give your razor blade a light coat of mineral oil. Just rub a bit on the blade every so often when you are finished shaving with it (after you have cleaned and dried it first, of course). All you need is a very thin coat. You will be rinsing it off before you shave with it the next time. You should always rinse your blade well before using it. A little alcohol on them before use doesn’t hurt either. Infected nicks aren’t a lot of fun to deal with…
LAST WORDS: IT’S YOUR TURN
I hope this helps you to get started with straight razor shaving. I wish I could go into more of the aspects of straight razor shaving, such as shaving techniques, hot towels, pre-shaves, aftershaves, treating nicks, collecting, etc…, but space limits me here. I could write an entire book on the subject. Check back often for future articles. If you have never had a straight razor shave, go out and get one. You will be amazed at the difference in the way your face feels, and how you will feel. Then get a good razor and some basic supplies, have a little patience, and learn how to do it yourself. It can give you a whole new attitude on life.