Knowing how to shave is a skill that pretty much every man has acquired in his lifetime. It’s just one of those things that is done the world-round. That being said, there are a number of ways in which to get the job done – from cheap disposable razors, to top-of-the-line electrics, even to the straight-up most badass (if not fairly ineffective) bowie knife shaves. One style of shaving, however, towers above all: the straight razor shave.
Though it is not a widely practiced skill in this day and age, a DIY straight razor shave is one of the most effective ways to give yourself a baby-smooth face. But, more than that, it can also serve as a sign of an accomplished and well-learned man, as well as act as a form of meditation. Whether it serves to help your learn a deeper meaning to life or you just want the best shave ever, it’s still a skill we believe every man should learn. So we’ve put together the following guide on how to shave with straight razor.
Parker Safety Razor ($25)
Boker USA Arbolito Straight Razor ($208)
Discommon Goods The Straight Razor ($1,200)
Picking Your Razor
Weapon Of Choice
When it comes to straight razor shaving, there is one tool you will require above all else: a straight razor. And while that’s certainly pointing out the obvious, actually finding the right one for you is a lot less straightforward. For starters, you’ll want to avoid purchasing anything on the too-cheap end of the spectrum, if you can help it. After all, this is a potentially deadly tool you’ll be dragging across one of the most vulnerable parts of your body, so it’s no time to skimp. Apart from the obvious dangers associated with shoddy craftsmanship, it’s also important to note that shaving with a straight razor is practically an art. That means, as any artist (musician, painter, writer, builder, mechanic, whatever) will tell you, higher quality tools will result in a better end. That doesn’t necessarily mean that only the most expensive option will do, but you can generally assume that a higher price means closer attention was paid to the item’s construction. This is a potentially deadly tool you’ll be dragging across one of the most vulnerable parts of your body, so it’s no time to skimp.That being said, having a low-range budget doesn’t mean you’re out of luck – it just means you have to be more careful and discerning.
Another thing to keep in mind is that razors come in different widths. Unfortunately, knowing the difference between them doesn’t really help much. Sure, being armed with the knowledge of whether your razor is 7/8″ versus 3/8″ is helpful if you’ve become comfortable with it, but it’s not a number that can help you pick one if you’ve never used one before. Your best bet is to get your hands on a couple and decide which feel best. Yes, it can be said that a wider razor will require less pressure exerted when shaving, but that hardly means much to someone who isn’t well-practiced. Pick up a few and see how they feel – that’s going to be the best way to choose the size you like. Whatever the case, consider your straight razor an investment, rather than just another grooming item. Because, truly, that’s what it is.
Anatomy Of A Straight Razor
As is the case with most human tools, straight razors have a number of named parts – each of which having a specific function within the greater item’s purpose. If you’re going to learn how to properly shave with a straight razor, you’ll also need to become at least passingly familiar with these parts. Keep in mind, however, that not all razors will fit into a specific box design-wise. Some you might find will be lacking in parts or have extra bits attached which can serve to fit alternative functions or could just be cosmetic additions. Whatever the case, take the time to learn the parts and purpose of your razor’s form. The most common pieces are as follows:
Edge: Perhaps the most obvious part of the straight razor, the edge is the sharpened side of the blade. It’s this part that is used to actually cut your facial hair and is, therefore, the part that should received the most care and attention.
Pivot Pin: As with any folding blade, the pivot pin is the axis around which the blade moves out of and into the handle. While you will likely not need to constantly keep the pivot pin of your straight razor oiled, it’s a good idea to pay attention to its lubrication and to ensure that you don’t get anything caught in it that might cause it to jam or slow.
Point: Perhaps a bit misleading in the case of a straight razor, the point is the end of the blade opposing the tang. Generally speaking, this part is dull and rounded-off (either concave or convex) and its width is the measurement reference for the size of the blade – typically measured in fractions of an inch. For reference, the opposing dull side of the blade nearest to the handle is referred to as the “heel.”
Scale/Handle: Just like with folding knives, the terms “scale” and “handle” are references to the part of the razor that the blade folds into and which you can grasp. As a general rule, “scale” actually refers to the outer part of either side of the handle and can be made of just about any material from metal, to natural materials (like bone), to synthetics (like Micarta). “Handle,” on the other hand, refers to the entire grip-able part of a straight razor – which includes the scales, liners, locks (if any), and other attached hardware.
Spine: Opposing the edge, the spine refers to the back of the blade. Usually, this part is wider than the edge and it is the spine on which you can exert pressure in order to get a closer and/or more severe shave (as pressing on the spine will, in turn, press the edge harder onto your skin)
Tang: The unsharpened, often thinner end of the blade which connects to the handle, the tang is actually called by several names dependent upon the section to which you are referring. The thin unsharpened portion behind the edge is known as the “shank;” the backside where the spine meets the tang is called the “shoulder;” and the protrusion on the opposite side of the pivot pin goes by several names, including “talon,” “tail,” or (of course) “tang.”
Shaving Cream & More
Unless you’re hoping to get the most brutal an uncomfortable shave of your life, picking up a razor is only the first step. As is the case with safety razor and/or electric shaving, as well – the best straight razor shave is going to require a few more things to get the job done right. Sure, you can likely get by for a time without some of these, but you’ll find that you will absolutely get the best result when you’re fully prepared for your shave with these other useful and sometimes necessary supplies.
The Blades Grim Luxury Shaving Soap
Shaving soap (or shaving cream, whichever you choose) is important for two reasons. First, it serves to soften up your facial hair, making it easier to cut and actually making the cuts cleaner. Second, it helps prepare your skin for the trauma you’re about to put it through – and, yes, dragging a sharp blade across your skin certainly counts as trauma. But, you shouldn’t just use any old soap or cream, as low-quality products could have harmful chemicals in them that may end up doing a lot more harm than good. Opt for something on the higher end (or at least the all-natural end) and you’ll be doing yourself a favor. As a handy bonus, shaving cream also acts like a roadmap of the spots you have and haven’t shaved yet, so you’re less likely to miss spots.
BearMoo 3000/8000 Whetstone
As is the case with EDC knife sharpening, keeping a razor’s edge on your straight razor is of the utmost important both for the quality of your shave and for your skin and hair’s overall health and well-being. A dull razor will hurt when you shave, even if you use shaving cream, and is a lot more likely to cut you during use. In the case of a straight razor, however, you can’t just use any old sharpener to get the edge you’ll need for a close shave. In fact, we recommend against anything other than a whetstone. We also recommend against any whetstone you might use for your EDC blade, as it just will not give you an edge comfortable enough for your face. Instead, opt for something with a much finer grit, like the BearMoo 3000/8000 here. Then, you just have to follow the same steps outlined in our article on how to sharpen your knife.
Fromm Illinois Razor Strop
While a whetstone might get your straight razor sharp enough for a good shave, it will not clean up the edge entirely. Rather than taking the risk and potentially snagging your skin on a stray edge, however, you can avoid the trouble entirely by using a strop. These straps are probably familiar to anyone who’s been in an old-school style barber shop. For those unfamiliar, strops are used to round off the jagged edges of a straight razor so as to make them safe for face shaving. There’s a lot more finesse to strop honing, but the process is basically this: just as you might drag a blade edge over a whetstone, so to can you hone a straight razor by dragging it repeatedly across a strop. Just make sure you wet and wipe off your straight razor after honing it on a whetstone before using a strop, as tiny metal particles could get stuck in the leather, damaging both the strop and your blade.
The Art of Shaving After-Shave Balm
As mentioned, shaving of any kind can be quite damaging to your skin. As such, you’ll want to apply something to your face and neck afterward to soothe it and begin the process of repairing it. You’ll definitely want to stay away from anything with alcohol in it, however, as it will actually serve to tighten your pores and dry out your skin – potentially causing you both harm and discomfort. Your best bet is to get something natural (meaning no obvious chemicals or ingredients you can’t pronounce), like this sandalwood After Shave Balm from the Art of Shaving. Not only will it soothe your likely raw skin, but it will also help it start to repair itself.
Parker Badger Shaving Brush
Shaving brushes are good for two specific reasons: they allow you to more simply and efficiently lather your soap or shaving cream onto your face and they keep your hands clean – allowing you to move from one step to the next without having to waste water in washing your hands or causing your hands to feel sticky or slippery – both bad situations when it comes to straight razor shaving. This one is made by hand from 100% silver tip badger bristles (which are excellent for this specific application) and it comes with a stand to keep your brush up off the counter.
Heimplanet Monolith Dopp Kit
Whether you plan to straight razor shave every single day or you just want to save it for special occasions, you’re going to need a place to store all your shaving supplies when you aren’t using them. And since most bathrooms are already cramped and lacking in space as it is, it’s a pretty excellent idea to get yourself a dopp kit. These bags are specifically designed to house your grooming equipment, keeping them organized and clean. This one, from Heimplanet, also happens to be a superb travel option, as it comes with a handy internal organizational pocket system, can stand on its own or be hung on something, and has a removable interior mirror (for those times when you need to groom without a vanity).
Readying Your Skin
Do not, under any circumstances, underestimate the importance of preparing yourself for a straight razor shave. After all, you are dragging a blade across your face and neck – and that can serve to be quite damaging and uncomfortable if done incorrectly. Getting your skin and hair ready will go a long way toward easing any discomfort and long-term damage. And it’s actually quite easy to get it done via one of the two following methods:
Hot Shower: Probably the most effective way to get the job done is to take a hot shower. We mean steaming. The heat and moisture will serve to both open up your pores and soften your hair follicles, making them easier to cut without actually cutting your flesh. This, of course, it not always the most convenient – especially if you’ve already showered – and might be considered wasteful due to all the water lost in the process. Still, it’s a very good option.
Hot Towel: Just like you may have seen in a barber shop (or on an airplane), a hot towel can serve the exact same purpose as a hot shower, but with a bit more focus on the parts of your face and neck that you are going to shave. In this case, you’ll want to be sure that the water is hot, but not so hot that the towel will scald you. Similarly, you want the towel to be moist but not wet. Too much water won’t do you any harm, but it will be drippy and messy and require cleanup.
Proper Razor Handling
Just because, like an EDC folding knife, a straight razor has a handle and a blade, that doesn’t mean you can just grab it by the handle and start hacking away. There’s an odd-but-important way to hold the blade to ensure you get the proper shave with the right amount of precision. In fact, you don’t actually hold it by the handle at all during the shaving process. While you should keep in mind that you’ll need to adjust the way you hold it to suit the part of your face you are shaving,You don’t actually hold it by the handle at all during the shaving process. there are a few basic pointers to a proper grip.
First, your thumb (on whichever hand is dominant) is placed behind the heel of the blade – this is the basis for your grip. Then, take your index finger and place it on the back of the blade a the location of the shoulder (where the edged part of the blade meets the shank). Then, your middle finger goes right behind that on the back of the shank. Your ring finger should be placed on the tang on the opposite side of the handle – meaning that, yes, the handle fits between your second and third finger. Then, your pinkie can either rest on the end of the tang or float on its own. Alternatively, you can place your first three fingers on the shank and only your pinkie on the tang.
There’s no rule that dictates that these are the only ways to hold your straight razor, but they’re the most common grips and a good place to start. As you practice, you might find that different finger placements suit your shaving style better and that’s completely fine. This entire process is, of course, an exercise in self-education and personal preference. What works for you might be different from what works for others. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. Just remember to always be careful and aware of your blade.
Step By Step
Once you’ve gathered all of your gear and prepared your skin, it’s finally time to get started. Remember, before you get to shaving, you’ll want to have everything you need laid out, have access to a sink or some means by which to rinse your blade, and you’ll want to have lathered on some shaving cream and/or shaving soap over the entire area which you intend to shave. This is, as mentioned, both to ease irritation and because it acts as a guide so you know where you have and haven’t already shaved. In order to get the cleanest, smoothest shave possible, you will more than likely have to do multiple passes.Once you’ve done that, you’re ready to put blade to skin.
Keep in mind that this is a long process. Or at least it’s longer than a shave with, say, a disposable or electric razor. In order to get the cleanest, smoothest shave possible, you will more than likely have to do multiple passes. Between passes, you should re-lather with soap or cream. But, whatever your choice, remember this: you always want to start by shaving with the grain of your hair. For instance, the hair on your cheeks (barring the existence of a cowlick) grows downward toward your chin. So, you’ll want to draw the blade from the top of your cheek down your face toward your chin, as well. Lastly, you’ll want to keep the blade at about a 30-degree angle on your face to allow for a consistent and close shave. This goes for all sections of your face.
Sides Of The Face
With the razor in your dominant hand, tilt your head up and away from your dominant hand and reach your non-dominant hand over your hear or across your face and pull your cheek skin taut toward your forehead.
At an angle of 30-degrees, draw the blade downward from the top of your cheek toward your chin. As you clear the area of hair and shaving soap/cream, adjust your non-dominant hand further down to keep your skin taught on the parts of your cheek which still need to be shaved.
As you approach your jaw, tilt your head further to elongate the area, stretch the skin, and present as little angle as possible – this will ensure the least amount of discomfort and minimize possible cuts.
Rinse off your blade and repeat on the other side of your face, adjusting your hands and head tilt to suit the opposing side.
Under Jaw & Neck
Follow the same basic process as with the sides of your face, but draw the skin of your neck downward from below the shaving area with your non-dominant hand. Be careful over your Adam’s apple, as the odd angle of this part of your neck is also the most likely to easily cut.
Oftentimes, the hair on your neck will grow at odd angles. This may require you to adjust your grip on your razor, the direction of the shave, and the direction in which you draw your skin taut with your non-dominant hand. Be patient and conscientious of what you’re doing and you shouldn’t have any problems.
Spot shave as necessary and repeat the process for multiple passes.
Upper Lip & Chin
Using your mouth muscles, draw your upper lip down over your teeth (as you likely already do when shaving with a disposable, electric, or safety razor) and draw the blade downward.
Take your time in this area, as it is extremely easy to cut yourself. Secondly, avoid shaving against the grain in this section of your face, as well. The space between your lip and nose is too small and delicate to necessitate against-the-grain shaving.
Draw your lower lip upward, making taught your chin as much as possible and follow a similar process below your lip.
You may find you need to pay extra attention to your jawline, as the angle makes it difficult to cut all the hair easily. Spot shave and commit multiple passes as necessary.
Rinse & Repeat
Cutting against the grain will get you that baby-smooth feeling to your skin, but it does not come without risk. We recommend one pass with the grain, one pass across the grain, and one pass against the grain. This will limit the likelihood that you’ll cut yourself. Again, this is a recommendation and not a rule – but it is one based on experience. As long as you’re being careful and aware, adjust your shave to suit your own personal preferences. Three passes is often more than enough, and you’ll also likely need to do some spot-shaving, but that’s pretty much the gist of it. Once you’re finished, rinse off your face, dry yourself, and apply some aftershave and you’ll be ready to hit the town with the best shave you’ve ever given yourself.
Grooming Gear For Men
We’re not saying that you have to be suave and clean-cut in order to be successful, but it certainly can’t hurt. But, in order to acquire that handsome edge, you’ll need some essential grooming gear to get you there. This is some of the best.