Tuesday, July 3, 2012

The Classic Shave

Picture a young man's first shave, and you will probably imagine him standing side by side in front of the bathroom mirror with his father. They stand together with lathered-up faces, the father demonstrating the correct way to hold the razor and how to carefully guide it across the face.

Doubtless the son will nick himself a couple times, giving his father the perfect opportunity to show him that little trick where you rip off a tiny piece of toilet tissue and plop it onto the "weeper" to soak up the blood until a clot forms.

Tragically, this tradition is practically obsolete (not the toilet paper thing--people still do that). It has become one of those old-fashioned things people like to think about but no one really does anymore, like the milk man bringing you fresh milk and picking up your empty glass bottles from the front stoop. It's quaint, but it's been outdated. If anything, teaching the son to shave is reduced to a quick two-minute crash course.

The reason isn't because today's fathers are in a hurry, or they don't like to talk about shaving. It's because the modern razor has been engineered to the point where any clumsy, hormone-addled teenager can scrape one across his face haphazardly, and still come out with a relatively decent shave. The razor is no longer an instrument that requires any skill to wield, so there isn't much of a lesson to pass along.

Squirt some of this crap out of the can, smear it on your face, scrape it off with the razor. Easy.

And so you go through life, and that's how you shave: you slather some crap that smells the same as your deodorant from a can onto your face, whip out your fancy three- or four- or five-bladed engineering marvel of a razor blade, and drag it forcefully across the skin of your face, effectively peeling off your beard in one fell swoop. Your face is nice and smooth all day.

By the next day, razor bumps and ingrown hairs have disturbed the peace a little, but usually by the third day your face has healed enough to bear the drudgery of another shave. Shaving becomes a chore you force yourself through every couple of days when you can't put it off any longer.

However, unbeknownst to many modern shavers, shaving was not always this uncomfortable drudgery that it has evolved into. Shaving used to be an enjoyable routine, and a chance for a man to pamper himself without compromising his manliness. What has gone wrong?

The answer: marketing. The modern razor is a great example of how marketing has taken something that was working perfectly fine and have just gone crazy with it. Every year, marketing teams struggle to produce a razor which is completely revolutionary, out-razoring all razors that man has ever shaved with before.

Four blades! Five blades! Maybe six! A special strip of plastic for some added...whatever those plastic strips do! Put some batteries in it, and make it vibrate, or something! Can we get it to automatically dispense that blue crap that smells like deodorant during the shave? Yes!

The modern razor has had the gusto engineered right out of it. The angle of the blades makes it nearly impossible to cut yourself, but also limits the shaver's ability to...well, shave. You have to press the blade forcefully into your face just to get some hair off. Razor blade handles have gotten longer and longer to enable the shaver to purchase some extra leverage with this drawback in mind, where traditional razors had only a few inches of handle to boast.

The multiple blades are supposed to progressively slice your hair down a tiny bit at a time, enabling a close shave from only one pass ("One blade to get close, another to get even closer!"), but actually this isn't all that happens. The first blade latches on to the hair and pull it from the face a little bit before getting through.

This has two unfortunate consequences: first, it's uncomfortable for the shaver. It's why shaving doesn't feel good.

Second, pulling the hairs out from the face causes the hair to be cut slightly below the surface of the skin. While this does make your shave seem closer and smoother, this is also what causes the ingrown hairs and razor bumps. When those hairs grow back, they don't always emerge from your skin in the same way they originally did.

The cartridges for modern multi-bladed razors dull very rapidly and should be changed every few shaves. All those blades clog up with hair, skin, and that nasty blue crap you shave with.

Unfortunately, the cartridges are remarkably expensive; you end up using them considerably longer than you should because you want those suckers to last. What's worse than using a razor poorly designed for shaving? Using a dull razor poorly designed for shaving.

Now, as the marketing madness continues to it's push insane razor design to the max (seriously, how many blades is enough? Just put ten on there, and get it over with), more and more men are realizing that this is one of those cases where the old method was better.

Ah, yes: the classic wet shave. How is it different? Actually, it's different in pretty much every way.

For starters, the lather. Our marketing friends would have us buy some canned gel or cream to spread directly on our faces with our fingers. For the wet shaver, the lather is a much more serious affair.

Using a shaving brush soaked in water, the shaver summons up a frothy lather from a bar of shaving soap or a cream. Some people use a bowl or mug for sloshing the brush about until it's frothing like mad before painting up their face with it.

Once you've got a nice, fluffy lather going, you massage the lather into your beard. The bristles serve to stimulate your face and get every hair coated in soapy lather in preparation for their slicing.

Building a proper lather on your face takes a good three minutes or so, which feels like a long time for anyone used to the simple smear of gel method. Even so, if I could offer only one piece of advice to the modern shaver, it would be to get a shave brush. The benefits of properly preparing your face before a shave cannot be overstated.

That's right, keep your quadruple-bladed technological wonder shaver if you must, but do yourself a favor: get a real bar of shaving soap or a real shaving cream and a brush (traditionally made with hair from badger or boar fur, but synthetic brushes are getting really good these days for anyone with vegan sensitivities), and build up a good lather on your face before you shave.

Once you get the hang of it, you'll find that building the lather actually feels quite nice, and will likely improve the quality of your shave.

But what would a shave be without...well, a shave? To finish the job: a razor.

In my opinion, razor technology stopped improving after the double-edged safety razor, although some purists will settle for nothing less than the manliest of facial landscaping tools, the straight edge razor.

Unless you want to boast pretentiously about the unequaled quality of its shave to all of your less-manly friends, and spend all of your spare time honing the blades to ultimate sharpness on long strops of leather while manliness practically beads up on your brow from the effort, this may be more extreme than necessary.

A safety razor is actually not that hard to use, you just have to be more careful than with a modern razor. The shaver manually controls the angle of the blade with the way he grasps the razor and draws it on his face.

To use one, you have to re-learn some bad shaving habits that modern shaving has taught you. For starters, the razor is meant to be drawn across the face with hardly any pressure at all. This is why the handles on traditional razors are often so short. You really just need to grasp it with a few fingers, like a pencil or a spoon.

A wet shaver makes multiple passes, each pass reduces the length of the beard. It's like mowing your lawn a couple times on progressively lower lawnmower settings, except hopefully not such an insane waste of time. 

The directionality of hair growth becomes very relevant in wet shaving. One must be intimately familiar with the pattern of their beard to properly whittle down the hairs. For the best shave you want to make the first pass with the grain to avoid irritation. Subsequent closer passes may be across or against the grain for extra closeness.

Some enthusiasts have gone so far as to physically map out their beard growth. Like a real map, on paper. I am not convinced that actual beard mapping is necessary, but I suppose it really depends on how advanced your obsessive compulsive mannerisms are.

Double edged razors are simple and easy to maintain. A good one could easily outlive you; plenty of people today are shaving with perfectly good razors from the sixties. They are constantly on Ebay--if using people's old stuff is something you are into, I say go for it.

Replacement blades are about seventy-five cents or so each, making replacing a dull blade very affordable compared to multi-bladed cartridges which cost anywhere from two to six dollars each.

Also, there is considerably less waste, which may or may not be a relevant detail for you, depending on how selfish and closed-minded you happen to be about how much plastic crap people throw away every day because it's become worthless to them.

Wet shaving takes longer and requires some degree of skill and method to do properly. It's sort of like shoe-tying in a Velcro world.

A standard three-pass shave, from lather to final rinse, takes a full ten minutes. Obviously it will take you longer if you shave slowly, or are predisposed to distraction. Ten minutes is like five times longer than the modern shave. If you are a time efficiency zealot, this may not seem worth it.

But really, ten minutes isn't all that much time. You'll find you can actually get a much closer shave than you are used to with far less trauma to the skin of your face. Your face will feel nice when you are through with your shave, instead of feeling like you just rubbed sandpaper on it.

The act of shaving doesn't have to be an uncomfortable chore. It can actually be a very enjoyable part of your grooming routine. Isn't it acceptable to pamper yourself in this, the manliest of rituals?

[Those curious to learn for themselves how to shave I direct here.]


  1. Loved this post, took me back to when I was 1st married (over 3 decades ago!) and I'd watch my hubby shave. In fact, he'd gotten a "wet shave" from a local barber on the morning of our wedding! I hope this will inspire some guys to try "wet shaving," experience it, branch out, try something new, etc. I personally will probably stick w/my disposables, since for me they're dirt cheap and last between 6 mos. to a year. Learned about through my financial hero, Clark Howard (http://www.clarkhoward.com/news/clarkhoward/deals-money-saving-advice/save-bundle-womens-blades-shaving/nCfz9/)

    1. Wow, one disposable razor for a year? Now that's economical! I imagine the skin of your leg is a bit tougher than the skin of your face--I would not be happy shaving my neck hair with an old disposable razor. Of course, if women switched to a three-pass shave for their legs, it would probably take them an hour to finish! I suppose it's a case of different strokes (literally) for different folks!