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Saturday, May 3, 2014

Safety Razors, Sometimes the Best Tech is Low-Tech


Well time for something a little different. In a world that’s increasingly becoming more and more high-tech, I’ve decided to opt for a piece of technology that is decidedly low-tech. Perhaps you've also been as frustrated as I have with the rising cost of cartridge razors and their blades. Maybe you've even read this satirical article and wondered how many Gillette executives actually think that way. I know with prices of $20-$30 for an eight pack of blades, I’m no longer enamored by promises that the latest razor with a vibrating handle, tilting head, five blades, and now even a ball head, is going to give me the best shave experience of my life.

With countless other interests aiming to take a chunk out of my wallet, I’ve decided to go back to a century-old technology. The tried-and-tested double-edged safety razor. These have seen a resurgence as of late, with some people touting what I call the “spa experience” of shaving. For me, the motivation is much more basic. I simply want to save money, while still getting an excellent shave. If you have similar interests, read on to hear my experience and find some useful resources to help you get started as well.

The Tools

In order to get started, you’ll need an entirely new shaving kit. It might seem like you're spending a lot when the whole goal was to save money, but I promise you that you’ll be saving in the long run. There are seriously a plethora of options to choose from, so many in fact, that you might get a bit frustrated trying to decide what to pick. Below is simply the combination that worked well for me, but don’t be afraid to experiment. If you want to attach a monthly shaving cost to this method, I estimate you’ll spend no more than $7 a month if you shave every other day like I do. As you hone your technique, you’ll probably be able to stretch things even further.

Merkur Long-Handled Razor with Guard (~$35): This is a German-made razor with very solid build quality and a nice weighty feel to it. The weight will help you shave without giving in to the urge to apply pressure. I’ve seen this recommended elsewhere and I am happy with it. I chose the long handle model simply because I was used to it from cartridge razors. 

Feather Razor Blades (~$16 for a 50 pack, or $0.33 per blade): If there is any aspect of double-edge shaving that has a lot of options to choose from, each with their own nuances, this is it. By all means, please do try this suggestion as I find these to be excellent Japanese-made sharp blades with good durability. However, don’t buy this 50 pack right away. Try a smaller 10 pack until you decide if you like them or not. On the first shave with a new Feather blade, I find these to shave as easily as a hot knife through butter, so don’t apply much pressure or you will cut yourself. I've only pushed these to four shaves per blade (two passes per shave) but it's entirely possible you might see more use out of them. Other blade brands range in price from about 10 to 50 cents per blade.

Proraso Shaving Soap (~$10): Italian-made with a nice smell. I expect that this would last most people at least four months if not more. There are tons of alternatives in the form of creams, gels, foam, shaving sticks, etc. I chose the shaving soap as I really like the lather it produces and the way my skin feels after using it. Poke around on a bit on sites like Amazon and you’ll find wide variety of other shaving soaps. Do keep in mind that this takes longer to lather than a cream.

Proraso Pre-Shave Cream (~$11): When I first read about pre-shave cream I thought, “I don’t need that foo foo crap. This isn't a spa!” Well it turns out I really did, and it really helps. When switching to a safety razor, you have to remember that you no longer have the lubrication strip from the blade cartridge to keep the razor gliding over your skin. This helps prep your face for shaving, as well as keeps the blade gliding smoothly. It feels and smells nice too! This is again Italian-made, and I expect it will last at least four months.

Proraso After Shave Lotion (~$10): This will help reduce your skin irritation after shaving and leave you with a fresh feeling. Yet again, it smells nice! I stuck with the Proraso line of products because I enjoyed the smell, but you may very well not like it, so shop around a bit. Many of the products I list in this post are best found online, but you can easily find a nice after shave anywhere as they aren't unique to double-edge shaving. I chose a lotion because I have oily skin and didn't want to use cream that might promote acne. 

Tweezerman Badger Hair Shaving Brush (~$13): Look at any shaving site and you’ll see recommendations for a badger hair brush due to their ability to retain water in the bristles and how the stiff bristles help prepare your face for shaving. This was a nice option for a good price, but you'll spend a lot more if you want a silvertip badger brush with a fancy handle. 

Escali Brush Stand (~$23): This is another one of those “foo foo” items I didn't think I would need at first, but after reading some of the resources mentioned below, I realized that a shaving brush can break down if you stand it upright too often. It is best to hang it upside down to dry. This stand is solid and matches the finish of the Merkur razor nicely.

Lather Bowl (~$7): You don’t really need to buy this particular bowl, it’s just a bowl, but you may need something to create your shaving lather in. The more you learn about this type of shaving, the more you will hear about face lathering (lathering directly on the face). Some swear by it. I didn't like it much, so I use this bowl. If you don’t want to buy anything, find an old coffee mug.

Styptic Pencil (~$4): This little miracle stick has been a lifesaver. When you first start shaving in a completely different way than you are used to, you WILL cut yourself. Don’t be afraid, it won’t hurt much at all, but you will do it. This will stop the bleeding instantly and prevent you from having to walk around your house with toilet paper stuck to your face.

Lessons Learned

It was tempting to title this section “The Technique”, but I really can’t do that. I am not an expert, I simply wanted to share my newfound revelation with the world in hopes that it can help someone. We’re also not born with cookie cutter face shapes, or hair that grows uniformly in the same direction. The specific technique will vary a great deal from person to person. What I can do though, is tell you what I experienced in hopes that it will save you a bit of time.

My first shave with the Merkur was Ah-mazing! Perfectly baby-smooth shave, no nicks, and my face felt like it was glowing from the ingredients in the shaving soap. I have no idea what I did right that morning because I cut myself repeatedly for the entire month that followed. Every. Single. Time. I grew very frustrated and tried blade brand after blade brand. I tried a new blade every time. I tried different shaving creams. I tried recommendations I found for three and even four pass shaves. Finally I even pored over a thread that got very specific about how to pass the blade over my face. Nothing worked. I cut myself particularly badly on that last attempt.

So what was the problem? Well, things changed dramatically when I did these specific things:
  1. I started using a pre-shave cream with each pass whereas I never had before. I don’t know how I made it by without this on my first double-edge shave, but I think I got lucky. This made a world of difference.
  2. I learned how to make a proper lather using the recommendations in this thread.
  3. I stopped applying pressure and let the razor’s weight do the work.I figured out the proper blade angle. You’ll usually be told to shoot for 30° relative to the face. That can be hard to visualize, so you need to get a feel for it. See this thread for more info.
  4. I found the right blades for me.
  5. I settled on a two pass shave technique. Many advocate more, but I just don’t have the time or patience for that. I do one pass vertically from top to bottom, re-lather, then one pass across and against the grain. Sometimes I do a very localized third pass for trouble spots like the chin and jawline.
  6. I rinsed off with cold water when finished to close the pores.
  7. I started using an aftershave.
  8. I SLOWED DOWN. This is very important as this type of shaving will take longer (at least in the beginning). The whole process currently takes me about 20 minutes (as opposed to the 7 minutes a cartridge razor used to take). The added length sometimes gives me the urge to move too quickly.
I still do nick myself on occasion, but it’s a usually a very small nick that is easily stopped with the styptic pencil and I feel no irritation like I did before I took the above steps. My biggest is piece of advice is don’t give up right away. There is a reason people don’t shave this way anymore. It requires skill. However once mastered, I’m convinced it’s the way to go. It will take most of you a long time to improve. I've been at this now for three months and I only just now feel like I'm starting to get the hang of it.

Resources

If you've made it this far and are thinking about taking the plunge, don’t just take my word for it. My aim here was only to whet the appetite of those who are out hankering for a smooth, inexpensive shave. I urge you to take a look at the links below and get some additional advice from those with far more double-edge shaving experience than I:
Well, I really hope you enjoyed my post. Please do share your experiences and tips regardless of whether you are new to using safety razors, or if you’re a seasoned pro that’s been doing it for decades. I really want to hear your stories!