Wes Baker

Wet Shaving

February 01, 2012

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I’ve been seeing a lot of chatter about safety razors on Twitter lately, men who are either tired of the constant expense of disposables or cartridge razors, or maybe they want some change to their morning routine.

I’ve been shaving with a safety razor for roughly five years now and throughout that whole time, I’ve probably spent a total of $340 on wet-shaving supplies. If I was instead using a Gillette Mach 3, I would have probably spent somewhere around $550. And if I’m being honest, I’ve spent too much on wet-shaving supplies since I own two razors and two brushes. You can get away with the essentials for around $110.

Gearing Up

To get started with wet-shaving, you’ll need a few things and maybe want a few others:

  • Razor
  • Blades
  • Styptic pencil
  • Aftershave
  • Brush
  • Shaving cream or soap
  • Travel accessories
  • Scuttle

That’s in order from most important to least, with the first three being what I consider “absolute must buys”; aftershave, brush, and shaving cream being “should buys”; and the scuttle and travel accessories being something you pick up later.

The Razor

First, you’ll want a razor and the name you’ll hear over and over again in wet-shaving communities is Merkur. Safety razors made by Merkur are solid hunks of steel carved down into shaving implements. Compare that to a Gillette Mach3 which is made of mostly plastic and a thin metal veneer. You might be handing down your razor to your kids one day.

There are two razors I’d recommend starting with and they’re fairly close in price.

Merkur 34C, aka HD

The 34C is what most people learn on. It’s the perfect weight for learning to wet-shave since you don’t have to push the razor into the skin or pull it away from the skin to shave. You simply rest it on your face at a 30-45 degree angle and simply let it slide down. The strangest thing about the 34C is it’s size: it’s going to look very small compared to your Mach 3, just hold it loosely by the knob at the end of the razor and you’ll be fine.

You can typically find it for $45 on Amazon.

Merkur 38C, the barber pole

The 38C is what some consider to be the step up from the 34C. It’s both longer and heavier, so you’ll be able to more comfortably hold the razor, but you’ll have to figure out how much negative pressure you’ll need to apply. I’d recommend taking a look at this razor only once you’re comfortable with the Merkur 34C.

You can pick this one up on Amazon for about $53.

The Blades

Next up are blades and here’s where most people buy what they see first and move on. Don’t do that. If every single razor blade was the same, there wouldn’t be as many brands as there are. Some are manufactured sharper, some smoother, and others duller. Everyone’s face is slightly different so different razor blades work for different folks. My recommendation is to pick up a sampler pack from West Coast Shaving.

After you settle down on a brand, then take a look on Amazon or eBay for the blades you prefer, to get the best deals. With my preferred blade and how often I shave, I pay about $0.04 per shave in blades.

Aftershave

This is a highly personal thing since some people like the burn of alcohol and some don’t. I myself don’t mind either way, but I tend towards the idea that less is more. With that in mind, I’d recommend either using a simple witch hazel or some Nivea Sensitive Skin After Shave Balm.

Styptic Pencil

I’m not going to sugarcoat this one bit: you’re going to cut yourself. Most days it won’t be bad and can be chased away with a splash of cold water, and other days they’ll just keep on bleeding. Styptic pencils are solid blocks of alum which should stop the bleeding and in the process, hurt like a bitch. Hopefully over time you’ll use this less and less, but it does help to have this in your kit.

I’d recommend picking up the Clubman styptic pencil from Amazon.

The Brush

Brushes vary quite a bit in price and seemingly less in quality. I have two brushes: a Crabtree & Evelyn Best Badger Brush that cost me $35 (and is no longer available), and a Savile Row 3824 that ran me $115. Do I notice a difference? Yes, but when starting out, a lower end brush should be fine.

What you’re looking for is a badger hair brush, as opposed to a boar hair or synthetic brush. Badger hair is softer and holds more water than either boar or synthetic, but you do end up paying a little bit more.

I’d recommend picking up an Omega 63171 for around $32 at Amazon and if you want to splurge, take a look at that Savile Row 3824.

Shaving Cream or Soap

There are a ton of options here, probably more than you want to deal with. First you have to decide between shaving cream and shaving soap. Shaving soap can be a bit more slippery at the expense of drying out your skin a bit more. Shaving cream tends to give you more of a buffer between your skin and the blade and moisturizes your skin more, but isn’t as slippery as the soap.

I have a little of both and switch based upon the season and the weather. For shaving cream I recommend Proraso for the summer, and Taylor of Old Bond Street for the whole year. Proraso smells a bit like an old barber shop, has a cooling effect and is relatively inexpensive. Taylor of Old Bond Street is a bit more, but doesn’t have a cooling effect—which is good during the summer—and comes in a dozen or so different scents. If you’re having a hard time picking, try the Sandalwood for a woodsy scent, or Mr. Taylor for an old fashioned scent.

When it comes to soap, I’ve only tried one and from what I hear, I only need to. Tabac soap has an odd name, but dries your skin a bit less than most soaps, smells nice and clean, and comes in a ceramic bowl.

Proraso will run around $11, Taylor of Old Bond Street runs around $12-$16, and Tabac is $22.

Travel Accessories

After a while of getting comfortable with wet-shaving, you’re probably going to need to leave the house for extended periods of time. Shoving your brush and razor into your dopp kit will work, but could potentially damage either. I’d recommend picking up a shaving brush travel case and a razor case for a grand total of $25.

Scuttle

Alright, so you’ve been wet-shaving for a while and you’re into it. What else can you splurge on? Well, my friend, I’d recommend you take a look at a scuttle. A scuttle is a ceramic bowl encased inside of another ceramic bowl. The inner bowl is where you put your shaving cream and the outer bowl is where you put the hottest water you can find. What happens is you make your lather with your brush in the inner bowl and the outer bowl filled with steaming hot water keeps that shaving cream hot for the whole shave.

It’s a complete luxury and is totally unneeded, but it’s fantastic to have and makes a great present for those of us who are impossible to buy for. My wife bought mine from Dirty Bird Pottery and I believe I have the 1.5 Scuttle that’s a bit bigger then the original.

Down to Business

Now that you have all of the gear that you want, it’s time to get started shaving. Everyone has a different face, so my method might not work for you, but it’s a good starting point.

Before you start, note the growth pattern of your hair. For a while you’re going to want to go with and not against the grain. For me that means shaving from top to bottom until I get to the lower part of my neck where I shave from bottom to top. I cannot stress how important this is and how if you don’t pay attention to it, you’re going to end up really needing that styptic pencil.

Another thing to keep in mind is the angle of the razor to your face. You’ll want to keep the head of the razor around 30-45 degrees off of your face. Anything outside of that range and you’ll either shave nothing (closer to 0 degrees) or start raking your face with a razor (closer to 90 degrees).

  1. Fill your sink with hot water and throw a washcloth in.
  2. Splash some warm water on your face.
  3. Create some lather using your shaving brush either directly on your face or in a bowl. Spend a minute or so working it in, but not pushing too hard with your brush.
  4. Set your brush down and rub the lather into your face using both your fingers and finger nails to really get your facial hair sticking up.
  5. Rinse your hands and wring out the washcloth and place it over the lathered parts of your face and leave it there for about a minute or two.
  6. Wipe the lather off using the washcloth.
  7. Splash some warm water on your face.
  8. Lather up once again, but only give your face a good coat.
  9. Take the razor in one hand and lightly hold the end of it between your thumb, index and middle finger.
  10. Going from top to bottom, shave your face and then your neck going in the direction of the grain. Don’t worry about removing all of your hair since you’ll be making a second pass.
  11. Rinse your face and then apply another coat of shaving cream and shave your face one more time.
  12. Rinse your face after your second pass, put on your favorite aftershave.

If you need to do some touch up with the razor to remove some hairs you missed, I’d recommend dabbing on some shaving cream and going across—not against—the grain.

That should be everything you need to get started, if you have any questions feel free to ask me on Twitter.


Wes Baker

I’m a programmer who lives in Fredericksburg, VA. I enjoy board games, puzzles, and making things work. When I’m not in front of a screen of some sort, I’m probably spending time with my wife, my son, my animals, my board games, or my books. Check out what I'm up to now or see what tools I'm currently using.