Saturday, April 6, 2013

Knowledge: Real Wet Shaving

My parents divorced when I was about five, after which I lived with my mother and spent a lot of time at my maternal grandparents' house when my mom was working, especially in the summer. 

My dad and I still saw each other all the time, and have always gotten along great. But, since I wasn't around him on a daily basis as I got older, I learned to shave by watching my grandpa. 

He shaved the old-school way, with a stainless safety razor, a badger brush and shaving soap. He even used boiling water, which I remember him making every morning with a tea kettle on the stove. 

He died when I was 13, after which my mom sold our house and we moved in with my grandma (who just died last October, age 100). 

I started shaving about a year later, using my grandpa's equipment that was still in the medicine cabinet. 

That stuff was lost somehow along the way as I grew up, and I regressed to a Gillette Sensor and aerosol shaving gel. 

For whatever reason (probably from reading about it on other men's style blogs), I started reminiscing last year, and resolved to go back to real, old-fashioned wet shaving.     

Now with Quadruple Vibrating Blades, Separated by Four Gyrating, Lubricated Strips!  

First, a little history is in order. 

Prior to about 1900, men shaved (or, more often, were shaved by a barber) with a straight razor. (I still have my maternal great-grandfather's straight razor in a closet. I think he died in 1957.) 

Apparently many men thought those were too dangerous to use, and they didn't want to walk around looking scruffy between barber shaves, nor did they want to go to the expense or hassle of getting a barber shave every day or two.

I say that because, within a generation of the safety razor's introduction around 1900, men's facial hair virtually disappeared and has never returned. (Past Presidents of the U.S. are probably as good a barometer as any; we haven't had a bearded president since the 19th Century, and we haven't had a president with a mustache in 100 years -- since Taft, who left office in 1913.)

The problem (for the manufacturers) with the original stainless safety razor was that they and the flat, double-edged blades they take are all interchangeable -- you can use any brand of blade in any brand of razor.


So, in the 1970s, Gillette finally figured out how to design a new blade that locked onto the razor via a unique mechanism, which they patented so no one could copy it. That way, anyone with a Gillette razor had to buy Gillette blades.


Ever since, Gillette and Shick have been in a promotional war, each coming up with more gimmicks to one-up each other -- more and more blades, blades that flex or vibrate, etc.

In other words, stainless safety razors gave way to newfangled ones not because the new ones were better for the consumers, but because they were better for the manufacturers. For the most part, none of them work as well as the old metal safety razor, especially given how much more they cost.  


By contrast, I just bought 30 Merkur blades on Amazon for around $20 shipped; changing the blade once a week, that's a nine-month supply. You'd be lucky to get one month's worth of modern blades for that same $20. (You can buy drugstore blades much cheaper, but I've found premium blades to be superior enough to warrant the extra cost.)

Regarding creams, aerosol shaving creams dry your skin because of the propellant. And applying it with your fingers mats your beard down, or raises it unevenly. Shaving soap or cream from a tube hydrates your face, and applying it with a badger brush raises your beard evenly. I got my brush and soap before my razor, and I noticed a massive improvement in the ease, speed, comfort, and results of my shave just from that, even using the same plastic razor. 

My Experience 

Probably the best indication of the old equipment's superiority is a "cold" shave (which I define as a shave not in -- or immediately following -- a shower, when you've had hot water and steam softening your beard for about 10 minutes). 

I avoided cold shaves like the plague with aerosol gel and a modern razor, because my skin would get irritated like crazy. 

As a side note: I used to shave after my shower. But, a few years ago, I started shaving at the end of my shower, while the conditioner is soaking into my hair. This allows me to do two things at once and makes me leave the conditioner in longer, rather than just standing around bored, waiting for the conditioner to work. Then, when I'm done, I can rinse my face at the same time I rinse out the conditioner (again doing two things at once). 

Then I just have to splash some cold water on my face at the vanity to close my pores, splash on some aftershave, and I'm done. 

I immediately began dreading shaving far less than when I shaved after my shower, even when I was still using my inferior equipment. 

I still prefer to shave in the shower. But, when I do a "cold" shave now, I literally get no irritation. In fact, I think the cold shave may be even more pleasurable. 

Equipment

I bought this Merkur razor on Amazon for $30, and this badger brush for about the same price. (Badger is superior to synthetic or boar bristles because it holds water much better. There are varying grades of badger, but I've found this basic one to be more than sufficient.) Add a tube of shaving cream or a puck of shaving soap,  and a bowl or mug (I bought a bowl at Wal-Mart for one dollar), and you're in business. 

You can get pucks of soap in stores cheaper, but I got mine from ClassicShaving.com for about $10 each, shipped; each puck lasts about 2-3 months. The ingredients are probably better, but I especially like the variety of scents they have. I started with Candy Cane, since I got my order at Christmastime; I put it away after New Year's, and will break it back out after Thanksgiving. Then I switched to Fresh Lime, followed by Citrus Spice (which I like better) after the Fresh Lime was gone. 

Using it

Your shaving soap puck can be permanently stored in the bowl. With cream from a tube, just squeeze a dollup into your bowl, like toothpaste onto your toothbrush. 

After getting your badger brush good and wet with the hottest water you can stand, make your lather. With cream, you can do it in the bowl. With a puck of soap, I learned after a couple of shaves that it's best to swirl the brush into the puck for about five seconds, then build the lather on your face instead of in the bowl. This minimizes waste; if you build the lather in the bowl, you'll make too much and wind up rinsing most of it away. 

If you're using a puck, all you have to do afterward is turn the bowl upside-down to drain the excess water, then rinse off the outside of the bowl and dry it off while it's upside-down, then flip it back over and put it in the medicine cabinet. It'll keep exposed to air just as well as a bar of soap would. 

You'll more than make up the up-front cost (less than $100) in future savings, especially in blades.

But, even if it were more expensive, every aspect of an old-fashioned wet shave is so much better that it would be worth it. So, given that it's both better and cheaper, it's a no-brainer. 

Give it a try. Both your face and your wallet will thank you.   

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