Off Topic: Beginner Guide to Traditional Wet Shaving

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Note: the original post was written in January 2017 and updated in December 2017 based on changes in the wet shaving market and my opinions.

Traditional wet shaving has been making a strong comeback in the past several years. Given the size of the market (think of ALL the men in the world), this put many companies on high alert. The result is there are quite a few products out there if you look for safety razors, shaving soaps or some sort of a kit. Here I’m going to share what I’ve learned over the past year and a bit of traditional wet shaving.

If you’ve ever thought about switching to wet shaving and tried doing some research, you must have asked yourself the following questions: what stuff do I absolutely need and what should my budget be? should I get a kit or should I get the items separately? where should I buy from? who are the reputable companies? I’m hoping to answer these questions here.

First of all, why even consider traditional shaving? I mean, shaving with the cartridge or a disposable razor and canned foam or gel works just fine doesn’t it? Well it turns out that for some people it does not. If you look at men nowadays, you will see many of them walking around with noticeable stubble (I’m not talking about people with nicely groomed beards or men doing a no shave November type thing). A single-day ‘shade’ might be a nice touch for a casual event, but a 3- or 4-day stubble is a bit off-putting and can be viewed as unacceptable in some professional settings.

Something is wrong with the modern shaving world and the evidence is right in front of our eyes. You might say that people have very busy lifestyles and just can’t find time for shaving. However, men still groom themselves: they put cologne on, they ‘do their hair’, they pick out their outfits, etc. Also, shaving can be done at any point in the day, not just in the morning when you might be fighting for the bathroom with your room mates or a significant other. Shaving regularly is really a matter of choice, not time constraints.

So why do men avoid shaving? A lot of people quote irritation when shaving with modern gear and a high cost of replacement cartridges. Both points are valid. I can’t say I’ve gotten a lot of irritation (razor burn of bumps) from cartridge razors, but this was probably because I used to shave very infrequently – every 4-5 days. By the time I put the multi-blade cartridge to my face it already felt like hell from the itching and me constantly scratching my chin and neck. So it was only going to feel better after the shave. When I tried to shave more frequently, say every 2 days, I definitely noticed some burning – it’s hard to tell whether that was the result of the canned foam or the razor burn. Whatever the cause, it could not shave regularly and didn’t look my best on most days.

Truth be told, shaving with canned foam and a cartridge razor is plain boring, it’s a chore! So if you’re looking to spice things up, traditional wet shaving might be the way to go. Many men, myself included, also find that shaving with a safety razor and a good quality soap or creme dramatically reduces skin irritation and allows us to shave more regularly. Finally, and this depends on the products you’re currently using, barring the initial investment, traditional shaving is often cheaper in the long run than the modern shaving gear.

You will need a few pieces of equipment to get started:

  1. Safety razor (straight razors are outside the scope for most beginners)
  2. Blades
  3. Shaving soap or cream
  4. Brush
  5. Aftershave
  6. Stand

First of all, a few words on where to get this stuff. The usual suspects, Amazon and eBay, might not be the best choices here, although you can search both for good deals on bulk blades and certain soaps and aftershaves. Specialty online stores are typically the way to go if you want to get good deals and save on shipping costs. Here is the list of the Canadian vendors I’ve dealt with in the past.

  • MenEssentials – a decent selection of products, although lots of items appear to be out of stock at any given time. They have a brick and mortar store on Danforth Ave in Toronto. Free shipping over $50.
  • Italian Barber – might have the largest selection of products out there. They carry their own line or products, RazoRock, that includes razors, brushes, soaps, aftershaves and other accessories. Free shipping over $60 USD (yikes!).
  • Canadian Blade Co – excellent vendor from Lethbridge, Alberta. It’s a favourite shop for many due to nice selection, prices and service.  They worked hard to add a lot of new products to their website over the summer of 2017. Free shipping over $75.
  • Gentleman’s Blade Co – a small vendor out of BC, mostly specializing in straight razors.  Their service is amazing and very personal. The product selection is not as plentiful as that of other vendors, but still very nice and they have good discounts from time to time. Free shipping over $75.
  • Top of the Chain – an online shop out of Ontario.  They work hard to bring the latest and greatest products to Canadian wet shavers.  I’ve ordered from them just once and the service was excellent. Free shipping over $60.

There are a few other shops that I know of, but have not dealt with yet:

  • Stone Field Shaving Company – they carry some very unique products that are not available anywhere else online.
  • Fendrihan Canada – they appear to have a wide range of products and decent prices, but I’ve somehow never ordered from them.  It’s worth checking out.

Safety razor: this is self explanatory – can’t shave without a razor. You don’t want to break a bank, yet you want to get something of good quality so you don’t have to go out and get another one (unless you want to, of course). You also probably do not want to get an overly aggressive razor at first.

One of the most popular choices is Merkur 34C – it’s not cheap and will likely set you back around $60, but you will enjoy it as a beginner and maybe even in the long run (I do not anymore). This razor is very mild and smooth, you will not feel the blade on your face as you might with the more aggressive razors.

There are other choices available, including Edwin Jagger DE89, Fatip Testina Gentile, various RazoRock models and vintage Gillette razors. You could also try one of the adjustable razors, such as Gillette Slim, Fatboy or Black Beauty, Parker Variant, Merkur Progress, Merkur Futur or its Chinese clone Ming Shi or Rockwell 6S or 6C.

I feel hesitant recommending an adjustable razor to a complete beginner because a) they are generally expensive and b) it’s best to keep things consistent at the very beginning to solidify the shaving technique.  That said, Rockwell 6C might still be an excellent choice because the razor’s aggressiveness is regulated by interchangeable plates instead of a dial and so you won’t be tempted fiddle with it mid shave.

The Rockwell razors are excellent for wet shavers of any skill level, whether you buy the stainless steel (6S) or the chrome (6C) version. The price of the 6C is also beginner friendly: $65 online or $30 at Winners or HomeSense stores – consider yourself a champ if you can score one.

With all said and done, you will probably be fine with almost any razor as long as you do not pick up something as aggressive as one of Muhle’s open comb razors or some cheap Chinese junk. Your technique will develop to work with whatever razor you’ve got, as long as you give yourself a bit of time.

Blades:  a choice of razor and blade pairing can make or break your shave! I will agree with the advice many people give, which is to start by getting a variety pack of blades. There are a few reasons for this: first of all, there are all sorts of blades, ranging from relatively dull to very sharp. You will have no way of knowing how a particular blade, combined with your particular razor will work with your beard and skin.  Your initial motor skills will also play a part in this.  There are simply too many variables at play and so it will take some trial and error to figure out which blades work and which don’t.

There will be blades that you will hate right out of the gate – some will tug and pull, barely removing any stubble and some will leave your face with nicks, cuts and razor burn.  Once you find one or two blades that give you decent shaves: reasonably close and no major irritation, you should stop sampling from the variety pack and stick to shaving with just those blades.

Your goal in the beginning is to develop good shaving technique and the best way to do that is to use the same razor and blade combination repeatedly.  By fixing those variables, you can experiment with your technique and observe the results. Soon enough you should be starting to get some very close shaves with zero irritation. Once you figure out your preferences in blades, you can start capitalizing on buying blades in bulk – in packs of 100 or more.

If you’re curious about how different blades compare, you can check out Nick Shaves’ YouTube channel. He did a great blade review series that would be worth checking out for any new traditional shaver. He goes into a lot of detail explaining the shaving and lathering techniques in his videos. One thing to be aware of is he blooms his shaving soaps. This process can be harmful to soaps in the long run and, while some soaps benefit from blooming, it is generally not a required step in building a nice lather.

There is also another website that takes a more scientific approach to quantifying blade sharpness.  However, sharpness does not tell you everything about a blade as you’ll figure out by reading author’s in-depth reviews.

You might also want to buy a razor blade bank for a few bucks so you can dispose of the blades safely or just use an empty coffee can.

Shaving soap or cream: there are a few things that define a good soap – you want it to lather easily, you want the lather to be protective, slick and feel comfortable on your face, i.e. no burning. You also want it to have a good post-shave, which means your face should not feel dry or itchy after the shave.

There are generally 2 categories of products here: artisan and mass produced products.  The latter category includes many classic soap and cream manufacturers such as Proraso, Taylor of Old Bond Street, D.R. Harris, Geo F. Trumper, Truefitt & Hill, Tabac, La Toja, Lea, Arko, Palmolive, Nivea and many others.

I tend to lean heavily towards the artisan soaps: they typically feature simple and clean ingredient lists, which I find important.  Because the product is in such close contact with your skin, you really want as little as possible of the preservatives and other ingredients that could cause irritation. Also, when comparing the artisan and mass produced products in the same price range, the performance of the artisan products is typically much, much better.

Below is a non-exclusive list of soap makers that are probably the most popular as of December 2017.

  • Barrister & Mann (B&M) – a bit pricey, but a very good performer, check out the Latha line for great value products.
  • Catie’s Bubbles – amazing scents, nice slick lather, does not work very well for me personally, but many people love it.
  • RazoRock – very inexpensive, easy to later, nice overall performance and many good scent options.
  • Stirling – good value, supposed to be one of the slickest soaps on the market, many great scents available. I’m not a huge fan because they tend to dry my skin.
  • Tallow & Steel (T&S) – quite expensive.  I have no experience with this soap, but some people are crazy about it.
  • Elvado Creams – I have no experience with these, but would like to try because the reviews are favourable and the prices are good (can be found at Winners)
  • First Canadian Shave Soap – the old formula is hands down one of my favourite.  The company changed hands recently and it’s not clear whether the old formula soaps will still be produced, but if you can get your hands on them, you will be pleased. I hear positive things about the new soaps the company has put out, so things are looking good.
  • Soapy Bathman – very good soap with an incredible $/oz value and some really good scents.  If you’re looking to stretch your dollar with shaving soap, do not overlook this soap.

Below are some of my favourites that typically do not get much attention, but I think are well worth your consideration.

  • Soap Commander – one of the most solid performers out there.  It’s one of the soaps that will not leave my rotation under any circumstances.
  • The Sudsy Soapery – a bit of a unique soap because of a rich ingredient list. More importantly, I find the performance to be excellent, above and beyond many others.
  • Jeeves of Hudson Street – it’s basically perfect for me: great value, exceptional performance, nice scent. Some people cannot get it to work, so perhaps there are consistency issues?
  • L’Occitane Cade – sold at L’Occitane’s brick and mortar stores.  Excellent value, scent and performance.  If you are ever near one of those stores, be sure to check it out.

Brush:  I am an almost exclusive synthetic brush user, so my knowledge of animal hair brushes is limited, but I do own a couple of boar and badger brushes. I think an inexpensive synthetic brush is a great choice for a beginner: they require very little maintenance and perform quite well. One could also appreciate that no animals are killed in their making.

My preferences in synthetic brushes are RazoRock Plissoft and Yaqi (available on Ali Express).  Both brands include a number of brushes that differ in knots, knot sizes, handles, shapes, colours, etc. However, no matter what brush you choose, you should be pleased and you’ll probably only end up spending around $15, maybe as much as $25 if you’re willing to splurge ;).

The trick with boar brushes is they require a bit of a break-in period and, before they are fully broken in, their performance can be a bit disappointing.  They are also not much cheaper (if at all) than most of the synthetic brushes and it begs a question whether they are worth the hassle unless you really love how they feel and perform. Reputable brands are Omega and Semogue.

Badger brushes are nice, but the ones of good quality are generally very expensive. That might not work for new wet shavers, who usually price sensitive.  If you’re looking for a good brush at a reasonable price, check out Henri et Victoria, Semogue (Owner’s Club), Zenith, and Yaqi. The RazoRock silvertip badger brushes are almost certainly made by Zenith, based on the looks and model numbers.

Aftershave:  I am still in the process of exploring the world of aftershave splashes, tonics, witch hazels and balms, so my recommendations should be taken with a grain of salt.  I also find that this is a category of products where the YMMV rule applies ever so strongly.

My preference lies with alcohol based splashes because their antiseptic action helps me avoid any sort of infections and break outs. In this category I like the Proraso Eucalyptis and Menthol (Green), Clubman Pinaud Virgin Island Bay Rum, RazoRock One X and Old Spice Original. Do not confuse the last one with the Classic sold at pharmacies and grocery stores. You can find and buy the Old Spice Original aftershave on eBay from sellers based in India, where it is still made.

Many of the artisan soap makers also carry lines of afteshave splashes and balms. Fine Accoutrements aftershaves stand out with their amazing scents and longevity, but they lack in skin conditioning ingredients. One could probably place them in a cologne category if it wasn’t for their light menthol kick.

I use my Thayer’s alcohol-free Witch Hazel as a face (and sometimes body) tonic, which I put on before bed – it does seem to help, especially in the winter.  However, I do not use it as an aftershave.

As far as aftershave balms go, the one that really works well for me is Cade from L’Occitane. I also quite like the Weleda balm, but the herbal scent might not be for everyone; it’s also on a pricey side. In the future I would like to try balms made by the artisans: Stirling, Soap Commander, Henri et Victoria, Soapy Bathman, etc.

Stand: I think that having a stand for your razor and brush is fairly essential. It will save a bit of precious bathroom counter space and will improve the aesthetics of your setup. Hanging the brush upside down will prevent water from getting deep into the brush’s knot and doing damage.

You could find stands at some of the vendors listed above or on Amazon.  It’ll probably set you back $20-25. If you’re skillful and creative enough, you could make one yourself.

Lathering/loading bowl: depending on whether you decide to build lather on the face or in the bowl, you might want to invest into this item.  You could also use it as a loading container for hard pucks of soap or samples that come without a tub or a bowl. My suggestion would be to start without a bowl and decide whether you need one after a few months of shaving. The main reason is there are many different categories of items on the market from plain bowls and mugs to fancy scuttles, so you might want to figure out what it is exactly that you want to buy.

Social media/education: you will have noticed that this post did not touch on wet shaving technique. This is a topic that’s been discussed a lot online and there is no point in beating the dead horse back to life. If you’re looking for tips and pointers, check out the following YouTube channels:

Mantic59 is a great pioneer of the wet shaving YouTube videos, you’ll notice that most of them are produced with an old school voice over. There is a lot of really good advise in his videos that could save new wet shavers from a lot of frustration.

Michael Freedberg’s videos mostly deal with product reviews, but he did a short series a few years ago where he explained some of the basics. I do find even his review videos quite informative: he’s always got some interesting insights and sports quirky humour.  Admittedly, I started appreciating his videos more when I have myself become more of an intermediate wet shaver.

Con doesn’t have a ton of material on his wet shaving channel, but he’s incredibly fun to listen to. Check him out.

There are others of course, but I’ve listed the guys I enjoy listening to. A lot of the other channels: Ruds Shaves, Another Cut Above, Paul H, Kevy Shaves, Ken Surfs, The Clean Shaver are just not my cup of tea.

Peter Charkalis (Shaving with Charky) made a couple of really funny videos, you can find them here and here.

If you’re Canadian or reside in Canada, you might want to check out the Canadian Wet-Shavers facebook group. There are a bunch of really good guys on there, who you could buy, sell and trade with. The posts are a good combination of SOTD pics (enabling) and informative discussions on gear, technique, etc.

Putting it all together: if you’ve reached this point, you should be fairly well educated for a complete beginner. You’ll certainly have much more information than most of us had when we started, so you can make better choices at selecting and purchasing gear.

When I first wrote this post in January of 2017 I expressed an opinion that almost any new wet shaver should place their first order on Italian Barber for many reasons. After several months of self deliberation, I came to a conclusion that you should take the knowledge presented herein and do a bit of shopping yourself. However, I would still recommend Italian Barber because their RazoRock products are super high value and you could easily fill your order from a single source (think of the value of saved time).

Doing online research and shopping around is part of the fun in wet shaving, so I strongly encourage you to do so. I’ve presented my sample kit based on products listed on Italian Barber. Could you do better? Maybe not, but you should definitely try!

  • Razor – RazoRock Mission $20
  • Blades – 90 Blade DE Sample Pack from IB $36
  • Brush – RazoRock Plissoft 24mm $13
  • Soap – RazoRock “What the Puck?!” Blue $8
  • Aftershave Splash – Razorock Blue Barbershop $13
  • Aftershave Balm – Soap Commander Honor (or similar) $16
  • Stand – RazoRock Chrome Razor and Brush Stand $20

Total: $126 of which $53 is upfront investment and the rest is recurring cost, but all those items typically last for a long time.

I don’t know how much you’re currently spending on gear, so you’ll have to do your own math to see if it’s worth it for you. Except, the math doesn’t factor in an improved experience that traditional wet shaving brings. Did I mention that the wet shaving process is a lot of fun?

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