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The many reasons to shave with a safety razor

Welcome to the wonderful world of the badger brush and the double-edge safety-razor.

There are many good reasons to switch to the way your grandpa shaved off his beard, the most obvious one being saving a lot of money. To put that in perspective, a 4-pack of cartridge blades from the leading brand costs close to $20 now, while a 100-pack of double-edge blades can be had for around $10.

And don’t worry, it won’t take up more space in your travel bag than what you’re currently taking along.

1. My story

This wasn’t the original reason to get into it for me personally. I have the unfortunate combination of a very coarse beard combined with sensitive skin, and no matter which cartridge blades I tried, I kept ending up with irritation and ingrown hairs. It looked like I’d use a cheese scraper to shave.

Someone suggested me to go the old-school way, and I figured why not. So, like anyone these days, I went on the internet, read up on it, watched a bunch of YouTube clips, went out, and ended up buying a bunch of stuff. I got a razor, a brush, soap, a couple of blades, and even classic Bay Rum after-shave.

I followed all the instructions carefully, and after no less of an hour or so, my face was a bloody, cut-up mess. There is a learning curve here.

Shaving with a double-edge razor requires you to determine the angle of the blade yourself (the blades in a cartridge are lined up perfectly for you), and figuring that out takes some practice. It also turned out that the blade I used wasn’t sharp enough for my heavy beard, which was also something I just didn’t know then. That said, my beard was gone, and now it was time to splash on the same after-shave that outlaws, cowboys, sailors and other bad-asses from the 1800s put on their face. I put a generous amount of Bay Rum on my hands and splashed it on.

It felt good for a few seconds, but then my face started to burn. Five seconds later, it felt like it was about to melt off. My cheeks were as red as a tomato, tears were rolling out of my eyes, and it hurt so bad it literally made me dizzy. I splashed water in my face to make it stop, but it didn’t help. I was in genuine agony for at least 10 minutes before it went away.

Holy shit! Those guys from 200 years ago were some tough bastards if they went through this every day.

Later, I found out that the “shake well before using” warning is rather important. Unbeknownst to me, I just splashed pure alcohol on after I scraped half my face off by using a blade at bad angles that wasn’t suited for my skin to begin with. When used properly after a good shave, Bay Rum gives you a pretty heavy burning sensation, but in a good, pleasant way.

As I kept doing it and trying out different blades, I started to get a hang of the technique, and eventually settled on blades that worked for me consistently. Now that I’m used to it, there is no way I can ever see myself going back. I’m getting incredibly close shaves with virtually no irritation, which was something I could never achieve with cartridge blades. It’s become a fun little ritual that I actually look forward to, and I’m saving money in the process.

In short

Pros

  • A hell of a lot cheaper
  • Huge variety in blades, soaps and creams
  • Closer shaves
  • Less to no irritation
  • Better overall results
  • Fun ritual
  • Old-school aftershaves are cheap and great
Cons

  • Learning curve
  • One-time investment
  • Process takes longer

Now, let’s dive in a little deeper.

2. The one-time investment

Switching to this form of old-school shaving will require a one-time investment, but you’ll break even pretty quickly, especially if you shave daily.

Razor

A razor will cost you $20-$200, depending on how luxurious you want to go. I got this one, which is considered the “golden standard” by many, the Merkur 34C. It costs around $40, which is the average price for a “good” one. It’s made in Germany, has a heavy quality to it, looks like something a surgeon would use, and there’s a good chance it will last a lifetime. I also got a nice leather travel case with it.

If you feel like getting fancy, there’s also the pure stainless steel Seki Edge razor made by Feather that can be had for $175.

Like almost anything, you can make it as cheap and expensive as you want.
Merkur34C

Brush

Next, get a brush. These range from $10 all the way up to in the hundreds. You can get different hairs on them: synthetic, boar, superior boar, pure badger, best badger, super badger, and silvertip badger. Silvertip badger is considered the top-of-the-line and starts at around $60. The larger ones are $100+. This may sound like a lot of money, but a good brush will last for decades if taken proper care of.

Boar brushes are coarser and stiffer than badger brushes, and these are available in “Regular Boar” or “Superior Boar”, the latter being softer and of higher quality. As for the badgers, it goes: Silvertip > Super > Best > Pure; with Silvertip being the highest grade, and Pure the lowest. Silvertip has the softest, densest, most high-quality hairs available. Some people prefer boar brushes to badger brushes for their stiffness and coarseness. Synthetic brushes are soft, and can be considered if you are allergic to animal products. It’s down to personal preference, skin, and beard type which one is right for you.

Listed below are brushes of different hair types from reputable brands. There are other options within their product categories, and no one ever agrees which is the very best, but all these are good in their respective categories.

Badger brushes

Escali pure badger

Around $10

Purebadger
Also sometimes just called “badger”. Coarse, good for exfoliating, works well with soap. Good brush to start out with to see if this is for you.

Edwin Jagger best Badger

Around $40

Bestbadger
Softer hairs and better water retention than pure badger. A good step up.

EJ super Badger

Around $60

Superbadger
Finer, denser hair, softer and more luxurious feel. Natural hair tips only, not clipped. Always a safe, high-quality choice.

Parker silvertip Badger

Starts at $60

Silvertipbadger
The Rolls-Royce category of brushes. It has nothing but the very best hairs, the softest feel, and the best water retention available. Starts around $60, and goes up from there.

The Silvertip brushes section is where you can go crazy. You can find the large, handmade Kent BK-8, or the monster BK-12 in this category, for example. There are also plenty of brushes with handles made out of exotic materials.

Boar & synthetic brushes

Parker Boar

Around $16

Boar
Very coarse hairs, great for exfoliating the skin, good for rough beards, works well with soap. Softens overtime but is always coarser than badger.

Semogue 620 Superior Boar

Around $20

Semogue 620 Superior Boar
Higher quality hairs and softer than regular boar, but still stiffer than badger. This is a great brush if you want something high-quality and coarse.

Parker synthetic

Around $26

Synthetic
For those who don’t want to use animal products. Soft feel, but water retention isn’t as good as brushes with real animal hair.

Jack Black synthetic

Around $125

JackBlackSynthetic
A high-tech synthetic brush that is supposedly very good and comparable to high-grade badger, but also very expensive.

Travel brushes

Parker pure Badger travel brush

Around $40

Travelbrush
Brushed aluminum cylinder with the pure badger brush on a screw-on cap. When finished, the brush can be put in the cylinder, making it convenient for travel.

Kent TR2 pure Badger travel brush

Around $130

kent
Pure badger brush in a black anodized aluminium housing. A little bit compacter than the Parker. This one was gifted to me and has a permanent place in my travel bag.

Da Vinci silvertip Badger travel brush

Around $95

Travelbrush2
Retractable silvertip brush in a cylinder. Even compacter than the Parker and the Kent, and highest grade badger hairs available. Beautiful.

Frank Shaving synthetic travel brush

Around $24

FS synthetic
Synthetic travel brush by Frank Shaving. Gets the job done. Cheaper, but not as good as the badgers.

If you buy a new brush, it’ll be sterilized, and it will likely not have the most pleasant smell. The best way to “break it in”, is to whip up a lather with it, leave it soaped up overnight, and wash it out the next day. More on soap and lather later.

Lather bowl

I personally lather on my face, but some people prefer to whip up a lather in a bowl. This can be any bowl, including one you have lying around in your kitchen. There are also many cool hand-made ones to be found on Etsy.

If you’re feeling luxurious, you can also get a scuttle, which is a pot you fill with hot water, with a bowl on top of it. This will keep your lather warm. I tried using one, and it does feel really nice to use warm lather, but I found the investment too much.

Buffalo Horn bowl

Around $15

Buffalo horn bowl

Slate Moss Scuttle

Around $95

scuttle

Considering all these things are parts of a one-time investment, it’s worth it to invest in a nice brush and handle in my opinion. So let’s say we spent around a $75-$125 so far if we got nice things, but didn’t go too crazy.

And here is where the saving, and the fun, starts.

3. Soap, cream, blades and aftershave

Soap and cream

Forget the goo you buy in a can. It’s loaded up with harmful chemicals and it’s expensive. Traditional cream and soap are simple, natural products that soothe the skin, and there is an incredible variety of scents available. You will be blown away by how long a puck of soap or a bowl of cream will last you, and how much nicer your skin will feel afterward.

So, should you use cream or soap?

Cream and soap have a different feel. It’s down to personal preference which you like better. I use both, depending on my mood. I recommend you try and see what you like better.

Cream

  • Easier to create a lather with than soap
  • Creates a thicker lather than soap
  • Usually scented stronger than soap
  • Protects you better from cutting yourself up than soap
Soap

  • More slippery, makes the blade slide better than cream
  • Gets deeper into the beard than cream
  • Generally easier on the skin than cream
  • Lasts longer (saves more money) than cream

Like with blades, you can start out with a variety pack to figure out what you like. Or you can just get some time-tested classics Like Tabac Original soap, or Taylor of Old Bond Street sandalwood cream.

Colonel Conk Soap variety pack

Around $12

Colonel Conk soap
Four different scents of soap. Lime, Almond, Amber, Bay Rum. Great to find you what you like. Does not come with a soap bowl, so get one separately (can be had for $8.95).

Tabac Original shaving soap

Around $18

Tabac soap
Can’t go wrong with this one. Classic scent and a soap that creates a great lather. Price is a little steep, but it’s a lot, and it comes in a nice ceramic bowl that can be used forever.

Taylor of Old Bond Street sandalwood shaving cream

Around $15

Taylor of Old Bond Street soap
My current favorite shaving cream. Creates a very thick lather with ease, and has a pleasant smell.

Old Spice shaving cream in a tube

$5 & cheaper on eBay

Old Spice cream
My travel shaving cream. Low ratings on Amazon are from people who miss whatever it used to smell like. It suits me personally just fine and I like the scent.

There are a ton of different scents and types to try. It’s fun, as variety is the spice of life. I’m actually looking forward to trying something new when I run out of my Tabac soap. Maybe something with coconut, lime, or mint.

Blades

razorblade
This is where you will save the most money.

A pack of a hundred blades will cost you around $10-$30 (depending on brand), and each blade can be used around 3-5 times, depending on how coarse your beard is. Quite different from the $20 you pay for a 4-pack of Gilette Fusion cartridge blades.

Again, there are a ton of different flavors here. It’s a very good idea to start out with a sampler pack, to figure out what works best for you. Everyone has a different skin, and everyone has a different beard. I settled on Gilette Silver Blue, which are very sharp blades, but not the sharpest. I also use Feather blades when I haven’t shaved in a while, as they are insanely sharp and have no trouble cutting through a week-old beard. A lot of people like Astra blades and the affordable Derby blades.

The best way to find which is best for you, is trying out a bunch of them. Just because I like or don’t like something, doesn’t mean it’ll be the same for you. Everyone’s skin and beard is different. eBay is a great place to find good deals on blades.

My personal findings from four years of wet shaving

The sharpest, bar none

  • Feather – One of my favorites, as it’s easy to achieve that perfect clean shave with them. Their incredible sharpness also means they’re unforgiving. Angle in too much, and you’ll scrape the top layer of your skin off. They are so sharp you barely feel it when you slice yourself. Careful with these.

Very sharp

  • Gilette Silver Blue – My current favorite and daily driver. Smooth and close to Feather blades in terms of sharpness.
  • Gilette 7 o’clock super platinum – Great blade. Smooth and sharp.
  • Wilkinson Sword – Great blade. Smooth and sharp.
  • Astra – Used these for the first couple of months. Great “beginner’s blade”, as they’re sharp but also forgiving.

Sharp

  • Shark – Gets good reviews, but not sharp enough for me
  • Derby – Gets good reviews, but not sharp enough for me
  • Merkur – Came with the razor. Tore my face off. Bought another pack a year later to make sure it wasn’t my fault. Same results.

Alum

Alum is a mineral salt that is a natural antiseptic, that has been used for over 4000 years. An alum block, or a travel-sized styptic pencil, is great for sealing up nicks and neutralizing razor burn. Just rub it over the cut or irritated skin, and it will stop the bleeding and soothe the skin immediately. A block costs next to nothing and will last for years.

Some people like to rub the block over their entire face after shaving, as it will close up the pores, sterilize the skin, and give a “tight” feeling. I personally do not do that, as I find it to be too much of a good thing. Besides, I use aftershaves that also do that trick.

Speaking of which…

Old-school aftershaves

It’s also worth considering switching to old-school aftershaves. My daily driver is currently Old Spice, and I love it. It’s a classic, manly scent, and a lot cheaper than the fancy stuff. This is an entire world of it’s own, though, and it’s very personal what you like or don’t like. Because they are relatively cheap, it’s also easy to try different ones out. I’ve tried these out over the years.

Old Spice

Around $7

Old Spice aftershave
My personal favorite. Spicy, manly smell. Gives a nice burn after splashing it on. It gets some hate because they supposedly changed the formula along the way, but I don’t have any problem with it, and keep coming back to it.

Tabac Original

Around $20

Tabac aftershave
A classic scent. Gives a light burn, and has a leathery, musky scent that’s noticeable, but isn’t too strong. Very classy and cool. I use this one for special occasions.

Ogallala Bay Rum

Around $20

Ogallala bay rum
Pure old-school bad-assery. Ingredients are alcohol and tears of Chuck Norris. Gives a serious burn, and makes you smell like a guy who’s about to start a bar-fight and kick everyone’s ass. Bay rum is made by different brands and has many varieties. I just happen to use this one. Shake well before using (!).

Aqua velva

Around $7

Aqua velva
One of the ultimate classics. Gives a fresh feeling when splashing on, and is mild on the skin. It has a fresh smell that’s great for the summer, but will also work in other seasons. My default travel after-shave, as the bottle seals up well, and is space-efficient.

Pinaud Clubman

Around $7

Pinaud Clubman
Cooling sensation after splashing on. Soothes the skin. Masculine, fresh barber-shop-smell and has a hint of citrus. One of the most popular old-school aftershaves. Don’t let the price fool you, this is great stuff.

The best part: you can buy all five of these for the price of one bottle of Hilfiger/Armani/Ralph Lauren after-shave. These are excellent products at affordable prices.

4. How to & technique

You’ve got everything you need now, and now it’s time to put all these wonderful new products to good use.

You are on full manual-mode now, as you will need to whip up and apply your lather, and figure out the right angle of the blade during the shaving. And yes, you will cut yourself in the beginning, but in a couple of weeks, you’ll shave your face like the men of the Greatest Generation.

Pre-work

Fill up your sink with warm water, about as hot as you can handle without burning yourself. Put your brush in the water to let it soak, and put your razor in there to let it warm up. It’ll be more comfortable that way. Grab a washcloth, soak it in the water, and rub it on your face and beard for a while. Don’t be gentle here. The warm water will soften the hairs, which will help the blade cut through them more easily. You’ll also exfoliate the skin, which will help fight irritation.

Whipping up soap & lathering up

Grab your brush and shake it off a little. You want it to be nice and wet, but not completely soaked and dripping. Rub it into the bowl of soap or cream. Don’t violently mash it in there, as that will damage the brush, but circle around with the grain of the hairs. Do this until the soap or cream starts to dissolve a little and soak into the brush. This will go a lot quicker with cream than with soap. You will probably use too much in the beginning, which is fine. You will find the sweet spot eventually through experience, and every soap/cream is different.

Now that your brush is soaped up, it’s time to apply it to your face. Paint across your cheeks in up and down and circular motion to get the soap in there. The lather will probably be a little watery, and it will get better on the second lathering-up. If you have an especially rough beard, you can use the washcloth to rub the soap into your beard even more. After you did that, paint across your face again to add another nice layer of lather.

Shaving with a safety razor

And now it’s time to take the blade to your face. The moment of truth.

Everyone has their own way of doing things, and this is the way I settled on. You’ll find your own ritual eventually.

Rinse and re-apply lather after each pass. There’s a good chance your brush has enough soap or cream soaked in it for all the way, especially if you have a large super badger or silvertip badger brush. If not, rub it across your soap or cream again.

Pass 1
1On the first pass, move from top to bottom with the grain. Use short strokes, and turn the blade around to use the other side when it feels “filled up”. This will happen pretty quickly, as this is the pass where you remove the majority of the hairs. Shake it off in the water, and repeat.
Pass 2
2Go inward to outward, starting from the middle. I always start under my nose.
Pass 3
3Go outward to inward, starting from the sides. Make a funny face, so your skin will be tight. After this pass, you already have a pretty damn close shave.

Pass 4
4
This is the pass that will give you that perfect, smooth shave. This is also the phase where you’re most likely to hurt yourself. It’s okay to skip this one the first couple of times, until you get a little bit of a hang of it. This phase will also tell you if your blade is sharp enough. If you did the entire lathering process properly (very important) and the previous passes also, going against the grain should be painless and smooth. Here you can make long strokes, as the majority of the hairs is gone at this point. If it hurts and pulls with a fresh blade, it means you need a sharper one.

I usually get 3-4 shaves out of one blade, and on this pass I always find out whether it’s time to switch to a fresh one again.

Final check & pass
Grab the washcloth, and wipe your face clean of lather. Next, lather up again, and run your hand over your face. That way, you can feel where it’s not a 100% smooth yet, and you can go over it again if necessary. Some guys have their beard grow into different directions, especially in the neck. This is true for me, and that part gets a seperate last pass. Again, this is different for everyone, and you’ll figure this out from personal experience.

I also do the back of my neck blind during this last pass. I use my left hand to mark where my hairline starts, and the right one to shave up to that point.

Alum & aftershave

Grab the washcloth and rub it across your face. First do this with hot water, and then with cold water. This will exfoliate the skin and close up the pores. It is a great way to prevent ingrown hairs. After that, carefully rub cuts and nicks with your alum block or styptic pencil to seal them up. Dry off your face with a towel, and you’ll already feel all freshened and cleaned up.

And now you will get the reward for your hard work: splashing on aftershave. Save it for after the shower if you take one after shaving. Either way, use plenty of it, and be sure to cover all the places where the blade has been. Feel the burn!

Congratulations, you’re now officially a (somewhat) distinguished gentleman!

Brush & equipment care

After you’re done, do the following things to ensure you’ll enjoy your products for a long time.

  • After shaving, carefully squeeze the brush to get the most soap out of it. Put it under a stream of water to wash it out. After the soap is gone, shake the worst water out of it, and rub it on a towel. Be gentle and wipe with the grain to prevent damaging it. Put it upside-down in a brush stand or a brush/razor combo stand (a lot of brushes come with one of these) to let it dry out efficiently.
  • Take the blade out of the razor, and dry it off if you’re planning on using it again. If you leave it wet, it will corrode the blade, which will not make your next shaving experience pleasant.
  • If there’s excess water in your soap/cream bowl, pour it out
  • Dry off your alum block/styptic pencil. They will disintegrate if left out wet. It is a salt, after all.

Final words

As you can tell, getting into this takes some time and energy. On the other hand, I don’t know anyone who will ever go back to cartridge blades after adopting this way of doing things. It’s become a nice little ritual I’ve come to enjoy, and I have fun trying the enormous amount of products available. I get incredibly close shaves with virtually no irritation, which was my initial reason to switch, and I save money in the process.

The only downside I can think of, is that it takes a little longer than using a cartridge blade. Then again, I enjoy doing it, and I’m pretty quick at this point, so it’s not really a downside.

And now it’s your turn. Take the leap, and I promise you won’t look back.

Footnotes

My gear

Razor
Merkur 34C “heavy classic”
Leather travel case with felt lining

Brush
Kent BK4
Kent TR2 Travel Brush

Blades
Gilette Silver Blue – Daily driver
Feather Hi Stainless – For when I haven’t shaved for a while

Soap & cream
Tabac Original shaving soap – When I feel like using soap
Taylor of Old Bond Street sandalwood shaving cream – When I feel like using cream
Old Spice shaving cream (best prices on eBay) – For travel, as it’s the size of a tube of toothpaste

Photo credits

1 by [Sir] Bali
2 by András Bögöly

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About Diederik

Diederik is a guy from Rotterdam, The Netherlands. He quit his job when he was 29 years old and traveled the world for over 18 months as a digital nomad and bartender. On this website, he posts his travel photos and experiences, records podcasts with interesting people, and shares his general thoughts.

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High-quality content is added to The Polarizer at irregular intervals. If you don’t want to miss anything, sign up for the mailing list for free to get a notification when new podcasts or articles are posted.
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