The Art of Vintage Manliness–Shaving


This is the first in a series of articles dedicated to trying out the common–and sometimes uncommon–things our grandfathers and their grandfathers did as part of being a man. For this article, I’d like to give a shout-out to Allen Kerr, master of the safety razor.

The era of modern shaving was beautifully summarized by The Onion in a fake article written by the Gillette CEO titled “Fuck Everything, We’re Doing Five Blades,” which was a lot more funny before Gillette actually DID put out a five-bladed razor (with two lather strips). Then it became a little sad. (Gillette even found a way to add a battery, as if winning a meeting room bet.)

Before 1901, most people shaved with straight razors for that classic Sweeny Todd shave, then Gillette put out the first safety razor which made its real money off of disposable blades, thus creating the business model of modern day shaving, as well as printers, electric toothbrushes, and Britta pitchers.

When World War I came around, Gillette brilliantly worked out a deal with the army to put a safety razor into every soldier’s hands, an act which almost single-handedly gained the consumer loyalty of an entire country of men.

Somewhere along the 1960s and 70s, that heavy metal contraption your grandfather used started disappearing. Gillette introduced replacement blades sealed within plastic, many believe so that they could keep other other companies from making blades that would fit their razors. Then, in the 70s, they started adding blades. (In depth research provided by Wikipedia).

Nowadays, a razor is a sleek, futuristic, sometimes bright looking plastic-handled thing and shaving lather grows from a can. Ideally, we’ve gotten to the this point because five blades and an aloe strip is better for you than shaving with one blade from a safety razor.

However, how many of these blades were added simply to bring novelty and attention to a brand, or to fight back in a “how many blades” war? The battery-powered razor, at least, was discovered to be a cheap trick. A court found its claims that it raised the hair up and away from the skin for a better shave to be inaccurate and unsubstantiated. I’m more willing to believe that simplicity is better here. So, to put that to the the big test: How does a Safety razor and lather shave compare to a Mach 3 and a can shave?

Brush vs. Can
Brushes are made out of many kinds of animal hair, but badger is the finest. A badger brush ranges from Cheap-ish ($20) to expensive ($180 at the Art of Shaving stores in posh malls. They also have a silver one for $1,200.) I went for cheap-ish.

Why a badger brush? Apparently, the badger hair is not only known for its great texture, it’s also very good at holding water. The hot water you put in the brush goes into the lather and then between your skin and the razor. The brush allows you to lubricate your shave in a way that canned shaving cream doesn’t, and is, according to many experts, one of the most important parts of getting a comfortable shave. If this wasn’t enough, there’s the added bonus of not getting shaving cream all over your hands, and consequently, your hair and shirt when you miss wiping off a spot.

Cheap shaving soap is at almost any drug store, I imagine for their 80-year-old picking-up-prescription clientele. But fancier soaps are popping up at random stores all over the place, you’d be surprised. For extra vintage manliness points, I have been using a shaving soap that comes in a wood bowl and hasn’t changed its recipe since 1805, when it was the choice of British royalty. (The only reason I got it was because I found it at a going-out-of-business sale).

It’s taken me awhile to learn how much water I like in the brush, and how long I need to stir up the lather in the soap. But, I personally like it a lot better than getting canned shaving cream all over my fingers. Plus, the lather can be made with hot water, which feels great while being brushed onto the face.

Once the lather is applied, however, there’s a few minutes of shaving before it dries. I’m still working on shaving with the Safety Razor faster, but there’s only so fast you want to push it.

Heavy, Weapon-like Artifact Safety Razor vs. Mach 3
I have to admit, there is something pretty damn manly about holding a heavy safety razor in your hand. First off, it’s metal, and has moving parts. You have the feeling that you could throw it at a burglar if you needed to, thus protecting your family. Second of all, it looks classy leaving it lying around a bathroom, unlike a Mach 3 razor, which looks kind of like an alien had given birth to something on your counter.

I chose for my Safety Razor a Parker 22R . It’s got a butterfly head, which means the top opens, you drop a blade in, and then close it. The device works by curving the blade so that the razor is angled nicely (it pretty much bends the razor at the sort of angle modern razor cartridge blades are angled at.)

The first few times I shaved with it, I did one of those half-and-half commercial tests, where I shaved one side of my face with a Mach 3, and the other side with a safety razor. At the time, I couldn’t determine one being a particularly closer shave than the other, and since the Mach 3 bends its blade slightly to my face,I think I could trust it for more of a uniform shave. However, after getting a little more familiar with the safety razor, I do feel like I’m getting closer shaves.

In Bernhard Roetzel’s Gentleman: A Timeless Fashion, Roetzel recommends a safety razor over a modern razor, but mentions that a replacement safety razor razor is so sharp it’s almost impossible to not cut oneself, and so dull by the third or fourth shave that it irritates the skin easily. I recently have had several bloodless shaves with brand-spanking new razors, so don’t be afraid of his criticism. PLus, getting sued to blood is all part of learning how to shave with a safety razor. (Er.. what?)

How to Wet-Shave with a Brush, Lather, and Safety Razor

1. Wet brush under hot faucet for few seconds longer than you would think. (It has to soak it up like a sponge). Hold it up until water stops dripping from it. Then, rub it circular around the soap until it the frothy lather looks like you would imagine it does, like in an old war movie. If you wish, you can add a macho apathy laced with a deep depression to give it that WWII touch.

2. Apply to face in circular motion, inventing your own method for not getting lather up your nose. Some recommend an up-and-down motion to stimulate the hairs. I haven’t noticed a difference. Find which one you prefer. If this is your first time, I recommend doing everything longer than you would imagine. Hold the brush in water longer than you would think, rub it in the lather longer than you would imagine, apply it to the face a long time, etc.

3. Start with the razor at an easy part, like the side-burn and side of the face. Don’t push down hardly at all, but allow the gravity of the tool to glide it down your skin. Start off with the razor at a 45 degree angle or less (In other words, so the handle gets closer to being parrallel with the floor, and the razor close and closer to being parallel with your skin.)

The Art of Manliness (the inspiration for this series’s title) website has this to say about it:

Angling your razor is probably the trickiest part. The proper angle is somewhere around 30 and 45 degrees. To get the proper razor angle, put the top of the razor head directly on your cheek, with the handle parallel with the floor. Now slowly lower the handle until the blade can cut your whisker. Practice on your arm if you’re not comfortable practicing on your face.

The key here is that you will have to change the way you shave–slower, and with less force than a modern razor, which are designed to let sleepy, bumbling modern men rake it across their face in an ape-like fashion while flinging poo.

4. Shave with the grain, and if you want additional smoothness, shave across it after having first shaved with it. Shaving against the grain can easily lead to burns or ingrown hairs with a safety razor. Try to limit the amount of times you run the razor over your skin; you can scratch an itch with a Mach 3, but a safety razor only needs a few passes, and additional ones will really irritate the skin.

5. If it starts to burn or hurt, reduce the angle. A modern razor doesn’t require you to think about the angle much, but it’s what the Safety Razors and Straight razors are all about. If it still hurts, or your face it drying out, splash hot water on your face, and re-lather your face. The secret to the wet shave is to keep your face moist. This might take a few dunks in the sink.

6. When done, splash lots of cold water on your face to close your pores, and PAT your face dry, don’t wipe it. (This is especially true of hotel towels and low-grade sandpaper.)

It’s in the long-term costs that safety razors and lather make sense. A new Mach 3 is only $8, whereas a new safety razor ran me $20ish. But I can get 100 safety razor blades for $17, whereas eight Mach 3 razor replacements costs that much. A Mach 3 razor blade would have to last at least 10 safety razor blades for that to be worth it, but a safety razor blade, if all four shaving angles are used, would probably only take two or three to get the same mileage as a Mach 3. New shaving soap can be cheap or costly, but either one can last for hundreds of shaves, whereas a can doesn’t.

Also, a pile of used safety razor blades and soap scum is a whole lot less waste than a pile of shaving cans and Mach 3 blades.

Current Conclusion
I’ve recently realized that my shower and shave have become a sort of thirty minute spa. The room full of shower steam and heat, the shaving process now has a lot sensations it didn’t always have. There’s the smell of the soap and the feeling of the warm lather on the face, followed by the gentle scratch of the razor. Basically, I’m beginning to understand that a big part of having a “satisfying” shave means having a relaxing one. I remember reading one time that a man should spend at least a few minutes everyday looking at himself in the mirror and reflecting on himself and where he is in his life. I’ve recently found myself doing that more often because of the ten or fifteen minutes I now spend shaving.

I’m going to continue shaving with the safety razor, especially when I’m at home. For traveling and on-the-fly shaving, however, the Mach 3 is nice to have around. In doing so, I think I’m taking the best of both the past and the present, and getting the added bonus of screwing over The Man. (Not that The Man will notice the 0.0000000031 drop in The Man’s Gillette stock.)

Finally, now that I’m beginning master the safety razor shave, my final goal is this:

Provided they have internet in the hospital, I’ll write about it.

See also
The Art of Vintage Manliness Introduction

10 responses to “The Art of Vintage Manliness–Shaving”

  1. That Art of Manliness article about learning to shave like your grandpa* is what got me started, and now I’m enjoying shaving like I never have before. In fact, since I don’t have a good travel setup, I’m still using the Mach 3 and aerosol shaving cream when I go out of town. My shave at Lindy Focus went quicker than I’ve been doing it lately, but it so much more disappointing. And so it might because of travel that I’m not planning on graduating to a cut-throat.

    You might want to check out an alum bar. It’s a great step 7 (or 6b).

    * I don’t know how my grandfather shaved, but I know for a fact one of my cousins was using a safety razor when I went to visit Israel back in ’88.

  2. I shave with a straight razor. It really is the closest shave I’ve ever gotten. If you do buy one I would recommend talking to your barber about a brand. Chances are they will know best. I have a model that uses disposable razor blades, so I don’t have to sharpen it all the time. Basically you take a double edge razor and snap it in half or you can buy single edge blades. My friends back at school, yes I’m still in college, are always amazed at the savings that these styles of shaving bring about. Also, I don’t think they understand why I use a razor that is tricky to use. It is all about the experience, shaving is not a chore. Remember most nicks happen when the blade stops.

    Also, I very much enjoyed the Balboa lessons you and Kate taught at TC Balboa Festival 2010 just a few days ago. I am pumped to go learn more Balboa moves

  3. I started shaving with a straight in November 2011. I have over 20 now – mostly vintage, but a couple of new ones.

    If you’d like a “Silver Tip Badger” brush, I’d be happy to make one for you – would be less than $30 and in Georgia hardwood.

    Oh…they now make a 6 blade razor…

  4. Everything is very open with a really clear clarification
    of the issues. It was really informative. Your site is very helpful.
    Thanks for sharing!

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