Shaving – The Old Fashioned Way

By Jeffrey the Barak


New things are better than old things and new gadgets are better than old gadgets, right? Wrong!

Sometimes the impetus for tools and gadgets to evolve is not to make them better, it’s to change the marketplace to receive more expensive goods. There is no better example of this than the field of men’s’ shaving. Yes the good old Gillette safety razor, invented in 1901, and the good old brush and mug are better than the modern plastic wonders at providing a good shave, and in the long run they save you money and they save your environment from many extra cubic feet of plastic landfill.

The history of shaving is a bloody one. Until the introduction of the straight razor, the ancients used shaving knives, and before that, various sharp shells, flint, and rocks. We see pictures of ancient Egyptians, Greeks and Romans without beards, and we know that their less sophisticated bearded enemies were called Barbarians, because they had beards. Through copper, bronze and iron ages, blades improved in sharpness, but not safety. Razors eventually became steel, and then in the mid-nineteenth century, they developed handles.

But this article is not meant to be a complete history of shaving. Such a history can be found at various websites following a simple web search for “history shaving”. So I will instead quickly switch to recounting my own history of shaving. As a man with a tough beard and a need to shave twice daily to remain approachable, I have quite an interest in it.

I was born in 1957 and during my childhood in the Sixties I watched my father shave each morning with what I now recognize as a Gillette double-edged safety razor with a double door screw open head. I would stand beside him and pretend to shave with my little plastic toy shaving set with paper razor blades. But my first real shave was at age 12, in late 1969. By that time I had received two electric shavers as bar mitzvah gifts, so I began my shaving career with an electric shaver.

Meanwhile, the seven decade reign of the worthy safety razor was coming to an end. Gillette had to contend with competition from Schick, Wilkinson Sword and others, and the only way to sell enough razor blades was to change, and change often. My father, by this time had acquired his Gillette Techmatic, a razor with a handle and a ribbon blade. A turn of the handle and a new section of blade presented itself. There was now a heap of plastic following the old blades to the landfill, and it continues to this day.

By the time I first tried to switch to wet shaving in 1971, the razor was in the era of the Gillette Trac II. The old tradition of father teaching son to shave had by this time been largely forgotten and the extremely effective brush, mug and soap had been replaced by aerosol cans full of foam. The combination of poorly lubricating shaving foam, the non-swiveling, easy clogging, twin-blade cartridge and the lack of instruction meant that my early wet shaves produced a lot of blood, every single time.

Through the periods of the swiveling Atra series and Sensor series I came in and out of wet shaving, usually for a short while until I bought the next new electric shaver.

Recently, I returned to wet shaving with the Schick Quattro and much better aerosol gel, and I got good results, and no cuts. I was content with my method, But then I saw a big plywood sign.

The store was not even there yet, but in the Century City Shopping Mall was a sign that there would soon be a store opening called The Art of Shaving. A whole store just for shaving! I wondered what they could sell to stay in business. Didn’t every drug store sell Gillette Mach 3’s and Schick Quattro’s? Perhaps they would sell Braun and Norelco shavers? I decided to look them up on the Internet. What I found were expensive wet shaving products and an interesting notion that perhaps shaving brushes and shaving soap might work better than the aerosol gels.

Exploring further, I found more websites selling razors, soaps, brushes, mugs etc., with more educational material and lower prices. Realizing I had never actually really shaved, the old way, I found ClassicShaving.com and purchased a large British silver-tipped badger brush, a German Merkur razor that looked like an early 20th Century Gillette, a stand, and some shaving soaps, razor blades and a mug. I was excited, and even though I was not really that bothered about the long term financial savings and lack of discarded aerosol cans and plastic razor cartridges, my (quite expensive) purchases had me anxiously awaiting the package.

My first shave yielded a comfortable and easy shave. Being careful to use a 30 degree angle, by placing the guard down first then raising the handle to 30 degrees to bring the blade into contact with the skin, and by applying no pressure, I was delighted to be able to shave quickly and easily with no cuts. The result was not as close as I would have liked, and not as close as that achieved earlier with my Quattro and Gillette gel, but it was the first try. Shaving this way takes practice. One immediate improvement was the lack of clogging. With my tough hairs and the aerosol gel, the closely set multiple blades of my modern razors were always clogging and needing to be rinsed vigorously after about three inches of shaving. But there was nowhere for the safety razor to get clogged. Soap can go straight through.

I particularly enjoyed the lathering up with the brush and mug. Without a thick layer of white stuff on my face, the glycerin based soap left an extremely slick surface and the hairs were standing at attention waiting to be cut down. I immediately had no doubt that a good brush and shaving soap will prepare anyone for a shave much better than anything from an aerosol. However, to get a very close shave will take careful practice with the safety razor.

While many aficionados will tell you that you should not strive for a very close shave and should not try to cut the whisker at a level that will be below the skin’s surface, this is exactly what the multi-blade systems have been trying to do since 1971. But do we really need to do that? The re-growth of curly beard hair can be uncomfortable if you shave too close, and no matter how close you get with your Quattro or Mach 3, it’s only close for a few hours when the whiskers you pulled out and cut at below skin level start to poke through the follicles again.

The face seems to prefer a shave that’s not so extreme. And here, a gentle practiced touch with an old fashioned safety razor can offer the most comfort, when used lightly and at the correct angle. Of course we all have different skin types, and some shavers are prone to ingrown hairs, (usually men with curly beards), or bumps, whereas others can tolerate a much closer shave. Trained barbers will always shave with the direction of the growth of the hair, as opposed to against it. For most of us that is generally down, but often the neck hairs point back to sides of the neck.

Our instincts, and yes, even our experience, tell us that if we shave up, against the growth angle, we’ll cut the whiskers shorter and get a closer shave, but we will also be inviting razor burn and nicks and cuts as the blade takes that rough ride up the steps. It seems the skin experts want us to sacrifice the potentially closer shave for the more comfortable drag in the direction of growth, downward. But as everyone really knows, a close shave can be easily had if we lather up two or three times. The first pass can be in the direction of growth, the second across the direction and the third, against the direction. But you know what? Even three shaves like this with a safety razor is less irritating to the skin than a single pass with the multi-blade cartridge.

After a few days of carefully shaving in the correct direction, with the correct tool and following a good brushed on lather, I began to get results comparable to that which I achieved with the Schick Quattro. In fact I believe the shave is now just as close with the single razor blade! But remembering that each Quattro or Mach 3 cartridge is a plastic device that comes in a plastic protector, which is itself in a plastic rack of the back of a plastic handle holder, and that those cartridges are about $2 each, I can’t help thinking again about the savings in money and plastic waste that switching to a safety razor will bring. And we won’t even begin to discuss the new Turbo razors that use disposable batteries to make them vibrate.

True, each pack of ten razor blades comes in a little plastic box and even these blades can cost from 15 cents to $1.50 each, depending on where you buy them, but that little box is a tiny amount of plastic by comparison, and the blades are double sided, making them last longer than a modern cartridge. And each cake of soap in that mug can last as long as a few cans of gel or foam and only costs from $1.50 to $6. The brush and mug can last a lifetime, if you’re already an old geezer like me. Again, no landfill. In fact I just bought 100 Israeli blades on Ebay for $15, and there is no plastic box at all.

It seems strange to talk about saving money after spending $80 on a stand, $90 on a brush, $30 on a razor, $12 on soap, $4.50 on a bowl, and $4.50 on my first pack of blades, but the blades and soap will last a while and the rest of my purchase may last longer than I do. In fact, if you decide to buy a shaving brush and a safety razor, bear in mind that they can last forever so try to get everything right in your order. No sense buying a less expensive pure-badger brush to save money, when for a little more you can get a silver-tipped badger brush. You will get into this, and you will end up upgrading, so it will save you money to get the best brush the first time out. Unless you lose your brush or your razor, they may be the last you’ll buy. So consider if you want the original design, or a thicker handle, or a longer handle, or a butterfly opening top. The best selection will of course be online, not at the mall or the drugstore, so try starting at classicshaving.com and then do a Google search for the competitors. Choose your tools carefully.

A pack of 12 Mach 3 cartridges is around $22 these days, and a can of Series Gel is around $3. It’s very hard to calculate, but I guess that after about 3 years, I’ll get my investment back in savings. But once again, that’s not what it’s about. We have to shave and it’s a drag, so why not enjoy it with good tools and materials, and why not spend a few more minutes a day doing it with care and skill?

After decades of putting up with the need to shave, I now look forward to it. Shaving the right way is fun.

One day I shaved my right side with the safety razor and my left side with the Schick Quattro. The results were quite interesting. The modern razor felt safer and faster. But it needed a lot of rinsing or it just didn’t get to the skin at all due to all the hair stuck between the four blades. And also with the Quattro, I could sense tugging, in other words, it felt as if the hairs were being shaved progressively shorter, just as on the famous Gillette television commercial animations, (the reality of which is under dispute to this day). But following the rinse and the pat dry, the side of my face shaved with the Quattro had not in fact shaved me any closer than the side shaved with the safety razor. Not closer, just faster. Perhaps the imminent release of Gillette’s five-blade Fusion razor is the proof. All these blades are nothing but marketing. Each manufacturer trys to get one blade ahead of the other.

So now to the question that many readers who have made it this far will be dying to ask. Why didn’t I go the whole way and learn to shave with a straight razor? Why didn’t I get into honing, stropping, and all the rest? Well I thought about it, but quickly realized that King Gillette’s innovation was called a safety razor for a reason. I think it would only be a matter of time before I dropped the straight razor and did something nasty to my willy, or my foot or something else that happened to be in the way. Too risky for me I’m afraid.

So in all likelihood, I will stay with my brush and safety razor for my daily shaves, but I will also keep my Quattro and can of gel for traveling, and for shaving things that are not my face, as I still can’t picture putting a double edged safety razor anywhere near my “personal hairy areas”.

Jeffrey the Barak is the publisher of the-vu

4 Comments

  1. Update: 2008
    I still use all of the things in this article, but on days when I’m in a hurry, I use a Gillette Mach 3 (better than the Quattro) instead of the double edged. It is faster and does a nice job. But when time allows, it’s the old DE for me.
    (author)

  2. Kinda funny, Kinda odd…. I heard about the art of shaving form a friend who bought her brother some shaving stuff for chrirstmas… I looked into it online, and right away, was interested…. This past week i got my first shaving kit, and already like it alot better……. I will be upgrading my brush, and getting a different mug, and shaving alot more frequently.

    I don’t know, i think it has alot to do with the whole appeal of taking time out of a hectic life, to get back to time honored traditions, and pamper myself a little, not with just a closer shave, but touch of nostalgia. as well…… Sean T. Age 32

  3. good afternoon… This is not a reply it is a question, I hope that’s alright…I recently purchased a vintage shaving brush that I can’t seem to identify
    the item is made of aluminum, and the bottom is stamped… NYC… USA
    … Sterilized… In the center is a swastika. If you can possibly be of any assistance
    in helping me identify the shaving brush, I would be most appreciative…
    Thank you very much… Richard Andrews

  4. I just Googled “Swastika Shaving Brush” and found many discussions about them. They are common brushes and the question is when were they made, because prior the the use of the symbol by the Nazis, the symbol had entirely different meanings, and it had nothing to do with the Nazi ideals. You should be able to find out everything with a short search session.

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