Get Onto The Bus
Six months ago, I observed the following in #tron:
http://www.kk.org/cooltools/archives/000979.php <-- oh dear, I may personally be suckered in by this one...
man, count me in
It has all the elements necessary
a strong technical argument, economics, a certain historical chic, and the aura of self-confident masculinity without all that messy bravado
For the next week, I did all the usual Internet research you'd expect before going off into some goofy "lifestyle" craze. I read Corey Greenberg's The Perfect Shave (which is still required reading, even though Corey has moved on a little since then), trolled through the Shavegeek Forums, and spent hours comparing products on Classic Shaving. I made some rather nice purchases based on that.
However, I've learned a little since then, and that's the main reason why I'm posting this here: so far Sneakums, Octal, and Uncle Pedro have all joined in the fun with old-timey shaving gear, and more seem to be following. Last Autumn, I'd have just thrown those three links at them and let them read up on it like I did, but now I'd like to explain what I'd do if I were getting into this today.
So first of all, just to avoid any confusion on this matter, this is not about straight razors. The trade nickname for those is "cutthroats", and I'm with Corey Greenberg when I say that they're just a step too far for me. What I'm babbling about is what people used to think of when you said "safety razor" before disposables and expensive cartridge-head monstrosities reached the ridiculous point in history when they said "Fuck everything, we're doing five blades!" (yeah, that used to be a joke. I know.)
So instead of a wicked blade like this one:
I am talking about something more civilized like this:
The razor is a dual-edged safety razor, and you load it by unscrewing the bottom, lifting up the curved hammerhead portion, and sliding a dual-edged version of a surgical razor blade onto the spindles inside. Sweeny Todd, go home!
Why isn't it better to have five vibrating blades in a single head like Gilette says? Well, there are a number of reasons most people cite, such as the cheap factory production of the multi-blade cartridges, or the tiny gaps between blades clogging with hair and dead skin. But in general the multi-blade razors are trying to emulate someone doing multiple strokes with a single-bladed razor. The results are mixed.
The one thing that takes people by surprise is how short the handle is. It's about half the length of a disposable razor's handle, and you hold it with only your fingertips. I find that it gives me much better control, although you can buy long-handled DEs.
The particularly astute among you will notice that my razor is sitting next to a rather large brush that boasts the absurd-sounding category of Super Badger. Wind in the Willows it's not.
The brush is due to the fact that I ditched cheap aerosol cans full of shaving gel or foam in favor of luxury imported creams. And you know what? The import creams are cheaper and last longer and are so much more enjoyable than the pressurized gel I used to use. They're two parts shaving lubricant and one part skin care product.
Take a look at the jar on the left:
That's the Taylor of Old Bond Street Avocado shaving cream. It's a widely-respected favorite due to its heavy use of avocado oil, which lubricates and moisturizes.
Many of the articles on "wetshaving", as the fad calls itself (what, were people really shaving dry before?) act as though the reader is a complete n00b who never learned how to shave at all. To hear Corey Greenberg and the Shavegeeks tell it, millions of men are grabbing cheap disposable razors and just mowing into their cheeks without even bothering to head to a sink or anything.
When I saw Predator for the first time, and Bill Duke pushed that blade until he bled, it was the only part of the movie that scared me. But I guess I must be in the minority, because I actually had my dad stand me by the sink and teach me to shave using a dual-bladed razor sample that was automatically sent to me around my 16th birthday (suspicious, but my mother never cared much for privacy, and signed all of us up for who knows how many sucker mailing lists).
So I learned to wet my face and work with the grain before going against it. I also had my first shave in the chair of our family barber, his expert hand scraping the weeds and peach fuzz off with a deadly cutthroat. All the same, I retreated out of fear to an electric device (derisively referred to by the fanboy shavegeeks as a "lawnmower") for many years. The acne only cleared up when I finally went back to a blade.
So there's a simple set of steps I go through to shave now, which is really all there is to the goofy term "wetshaving". Corey Greenberg acts as though it's a radical departure from the norm, although I think it's basically the same way I shaved with a Mach 3 and gel.
- Wet face with warm/hot water. This opens pores and softens hairs. A hot towel is ideal here, but you can just take a hot shower first and not dry your face.
- Build and apply lather. This is done by soaking the brush in hot water and letting it drain, then swabbing the tip with cream and whipping it in a circle in a mug or directly on my cheek.
- Shave along the grain, applying very little pressure.
- Repeat steps 1-3 if needed, going against the grain if necessary.
- Cool down by rinsing with cold water to close the pores, and maybe add an after-shave toner (that's something gentle like witch hazel, not some stinging rubbing alcohol perfume nonsense like Old Spice).
Now the shavegeeks shout loud and clear OMFG DO NOT APPLY ANY PRESSURE WHEN SHAVING. Of course I apply pressure when I'm shaving, but I sure don't shovel away like Duke up there. The way folks like Corey Greenberg make it sound, everyone's just spraying gel onto a dry chin and then pushing against their face like they're pressing air bubbles out of wallpaper.
The one thing I will say is that if you do go against the grain, that's when you have to barely tickle the surface with a feather-touch.
So you've seen the photos, and this is what I have, for better or worse. My first order was from Classic Shaving, and consisted of:
- Merkur HD Razor
- Merkur Platinum Blades
- Vulfix #2235 Brush
- Taylor of Old Bond Street Cream (avocado and lavender)
Since then I've picked up the following from various local shops:
I've been fortunate in that there's even a cigar shop on Market that carries Merkur shaving supplies without egregious markup. Nancy Boy is a local company, and folks pay good money to have their stuff shipped all over the continent (and their laundry detergent is the best I've ever used!). Most Target stores now carry Proraso in their "Spa" section, and I grabbed Lucky Tiger at Elephant Pharmacy and I've seen it at Whole Foods.
What I'd Change
Now, let's look over my original Classic Shaving order. The Merkur HD (or "hefty") is a classic, and one that shavegeeks seem to return to time and again. I like that the extra weight gives it some mass, so shaky fingers aren't a problem. When Uncle Pedro ordered, they were out of all the hefty Merkurs except the open-comb version, so that's what he uses. The open comb seems to be good for thicker hair, although it tends to shave a little closer, I'm told. That might make it not quite ideal as a "my first DE razor", but it's still a fine instrument.
The Taylor's Avocado is good stuff, although I think I'd go with rose rather than lavender for my second tub next time. The blades are something I haven't experimented with, and I'm still using the Merkur Platinums.
But the brush is something where I feel like I'd make a different choice today. The shavegeeks are all about huge enormous brushes that carry six faceloads of lather in a single dab, but they've taken it to excess. The 2235 is the model that appears in The Perfect Shave, but Corey Greenberg himself recently said that the 2234 is his favorite overall brush: it's $10 cheaper, and a little bit smaller and easier to manage.
I do feel a little out of control with my big sloppy brush from time to time, but Corey has gone on to the Wee Scot mini-brush now. He's basically using little travel brushes to lather these days, so who knows what that's all about.
Of course, I'm not about to buy another brush. Buying a brush made of badger hair kind of went against my vegetarian sensibilities as it is, so I'm not going to waste what I have. Also, the brush was half the cost of my initial purchase to begin with. My reasoning was that the razor and the blades were such a small portion of the order that if I decided that shaving with a DE was too rich for my blood, I'd still have a classy brush and creams for use with a pedestrian Mach-3.
I will say that the larger brush does hold a good deal of warm water, and it's great to get that first pass of warm lather on the cheek.
What I've Added
The Nancy Boy is another big favorite, and I loved being able to just walk into the Hayes St. store and pick up a jar (oh yes, and do try their laundry detergent!). They're a super friendly company that seems to know how to win repeat business. I'm not sure the shaving cream is as good as the Taylor's Avocado, but it's not really in the same category.
Uncle Pedro described the NB cream as "like an altoid for my face" due to the mix of lavender, peppermint, and rosemary oils in the formulation. His only comparison was Taylor's lemon/lime, which left him nonplussed.
But speaking of altoid-on-the-face, I finally managed to grab a tub of Proraso shaving soap. It's another one of the brands mentioned in The Perfect Shave, and it's got menthol and eucalyptus to make a crazy chilly numbing tingling sensation like medicated shaving cream. I'm not sure it's the best thing for a chilly winter morning, but I mean to give it a chance. It's probably wonderful on a hot day.
But the best part is that with a good brush, just about any decent hard soap can make shaving lather in a pinch! In fact, a good chunk of olive oil soap is one of the more popular hard shaving soaps, and you can use it to wash your hands or feet or use it in the shower or whatever you want when you're not shaving with it. This gives me a sort of rugged self-reliant confidence, like I could McGyver up a shaving setup in the field if I had my brush on me.
Finally, I bought Lucky Tiger aftershave strictly because Tom Waits sang about it. I know he was singing about hair products made by the old company, and I bought 1990s-inspired nuts-and-berries New Organics stuff, but that suits me fine. I get pure aloe and orange extracts and chamomile and witch hazel and all that good stuff, and in a classy looking retro bottle made to look like the old brown glass pharmacy vials. It works a champ, too.
What I Recommend To You
Okay, so after all this, you're squirming in your seat, adjusting and readjusting your ironic horn-rimmed glasses, crying out "Oh, but now I simply must get in on this hip new retro craze! Tell us what to buy!" Your consumer obedience circuits are shorting out! Just sit back, take a stress pill, and think things over.
If I were to place an order from Classic Shaving for someone new to this, here's what I'd get:
- Merkur HD Razor
- Merkur Platinum Blades
- Vulfix #2234 Brush
- Taylor of Old Bond Street Cream (avocado and maybe rose)
Uncle Pedro ordered a set like this, only with an open-comb HD and Lemon-Lime Taylor's instead of avocado. I basically told him that the citrus creams tend to be made for oily skin, and the avocado is best for dry. Well ol' Pedro slapped the dust from his rough-cut hands, and gesturing with his John Henry mallet he proudly informed me that he had "combination skin". And we left it that way as men, true to our word.
So I sent him a travel jar of Nancy Boy Shaving Cream, prompting his gushing "altoid" comment. The Nancy Boy is made with Avocado oil, although it's not the all-hallowed balm that Taylor's is. Still, it's a fantastic all-around shaving cream, and you could do so much worse and still be in the top shelf.
Aha, you say, but you are in San Francisco! You demand instant gratification! You don't want to wait around for some Angeleno importer to ship you your gear via UPS GroundSloth! You want to pound the pavement and return home with bags full of gear!
I am powerless to resist your consumer gusto! Demand no further!
I have no idea how you intend to comparison shop on brushes, so you'll just have to comparison shop a bit in person. But the rest of the gear is available within easy walk of BART stations.
Grant's Tobacconists carries merkur razors, unlabeled and uncategorized. The shopkeeper is an old Boer who knows two things about the stock: Diddly and Squat, and Bo Dilddley's tour left San Francisco months ago. I occasionally go in to buy another box of blades (mostly because I can, since it took me six months to make it through the first box) I ask to see the Merkur Platinum Blades and he always responds "Uh, I think they're all made of steel." They've got mugs and brushes and other things, but I think they only have boarbristle instead of badger.
They're by the Montgomery Street Station, North exit, across from Stacey's independent bookstore and next door to Patrick & Company stationers.
Nancy Boy moved out of their Castro digs and into a cute little shop in Hayes Valley. Stop by and pick up a jar of the Nancy Boy Shaving Cream and a tub of the laundry detergent. If you sign up for their mailing list, they give you a discount right then and there.
But generally stay away from the haberdashers and "gentlemen's clothiers" you'll find downtown. Most of those guys sell the imported English creams like Taylor's, but at stratospheric markup.
Oh, and if you live in London, just go to Taylor itself!