A version of this piece appeared in The Magazine. If you own an iOS device, go download The Magazine and subscribe to it. Trust me.
I used to hate shaving. I ranked it below flossing on my list of bathroom-related activities that I would dread. Of course, no one knew if I skipped flossing; everyone can tell if I skipped a shave.
My father taught me to shave using an electric Norelco razor, an approach I stuck with for years. My biggest problem with the Norelco electric razor was that it left me with a crappy shave. It was quick enough, but I never looked truly clean shaven.
In college, a friend introduced me to acoustic shaving with more traditional, disposable razors. Over the years, I kept up with the blade arms race, switching from two to three to four to five-blade razors over time, some with batteries that made them vibrate, some with lubricating strips, some with built in trimmers on the flip side.
I didn’t like the disposable razors much, either, but I stuck with them for years. The shaves were still fairly mediocre at best, shaving the moustache region never felt great, and I found over time that the blades seemed to get crappier: I’d need to chuck newer replacement blades ever more quickly.
Finally, I got fed up with shaves and razors of frustrating quality, and I made a change. It’s a change that saves me money, gets me a dramatically better shave, and converted me from a begrudging shaver who hated the morning shave into a guy who looks forward to it as a highlight of the morning ritual.
I love wet shaving.
What is wet shaving?
Traditional wet shaving is perhaps most easily defined as “the kind of shaving your grandfather probably did.” It involves the use of a safety razor, a shaving brush, and shaving soap, and a handful of other supplies.
The safety razor is the most intimidating part of the setup. I use a double-edged safety razor. That’s a razor that takes disposable, double-edged blades. The razor itself may be the most expensive manual razor you’ll ever buy; I use the Merkur Model 180 Long Handled Safety Razor, which costs about $35.
There are many manufacturers of double-edged blades; you’ll likely spend ten cents per blade or thereabouts. Some folks change their blades once per week; some change them every couple days. I use a blade for six shaves before I get rid of it.
That means I go through about 61 blades per year, meaning my blade cost per year is in the neighborhood of $6.
Before you ever let one of these scary looking blades near your face, you must first prep your face. That’s where the brush and soap come into play.
The brush is most commonly a badger hair brush, though horsehair, boar hair, hybrid, and synthetic brush options are all available, too. (Note: Badgers and boars are slaughtered for their meat and hair; horses merely get a haircut to provide the hair for a horsehair brush.) I use a cheap Tweezerman Badger Hair brush; I lust after some synthetics and hybrids.
While you can use a brush in tandem with the traditional shaving creams, gels, and foams that are sold in fluorescent aerosol cans, you shouldn’t. A significant portion of the joy of wet shaving comes from the slew of skin pampering, delightfully scented shaving soaps and creams made explicitly for this form of shaving. This is where the real fun in wet shaving comes in, and I use—and enjoy—many, many brands, scents, and types of shaving soaps. My favorites include Proraso, Taylor of Old Bond, and Mitchell’s Wool Fat.
Lather, rinse, repeat
The purpose of the brush and the soap is to form a good lather. Wet shaving requires a wet face; you’ll rinse your face with hot water and then apply your lather—also made with hot water—to your face. This helps open your pores, soften your stubble, and relax your skin.
I first learned to make a good lather using a shaving bowl, which is probably a smidgen easier for beginners. I now prefer face lathering because it’s barely more effort, and leaves me with one fewer thing to clean. Whether you’re using a shaving soap (fairly solid) or cream (goopy), the general process is the same: Thoroughly wet your shaving brush with hot water, give it a couple good shakes, and then rub it on your shaving supply. You will need a comically small amount of shaving soap or cream to make a good lather. With a solid soap, you’ll need a little more water to get enough onto your brush; with a cream, you’ll need about a nickel-sized amount. As you experiment and shave, you’ll quickly learn; when there’s tons of shaving later left on the brush and your face is already smooth, you’re using too much cream.
Get your small amount of shaving soap or cream onto your brush, and start swirling the brush in circular motions all around your face. I generally start with thin layer of soap around my face, and then add small bits of hot water to the tip of my brush and repeat the swirling. If your brush is too wet, the lather ends up dripping down your face in annoying rivulets that won’t get you a good shave. If it’s too drive, your shave will hurt. Your shaving brush should end up with peaks of later that look a lot like the shaving cream you’d squeeze from a can. Experimentation is key.
You can always add more water to your lather. Taking water out of the lather you’ve spread on your face is a major challenge.
How to do it
Once your face is fully lathered with a warm wet soap, it’s time to shave.
If it’s your first shave, you’ll probably be a little nervous. My advice: Get a good shave with your old method the day before. Take a hot shower. Spend an extra minute soaking your face under the hot water before you shut off the shower.
Build your lather. Scrub it onto your face, adding water and swirling more as necessary. Grab your razor, and remember the three keys to successfully maneuvering the blade on your face: angle, pressure, and patience.
You want to hold the razor against your face at approximately a 30-degree angle. That is, the handle should on a 30-degree angle, starting from parallel to the floor. That angle—depending upon your razor and blade—should just allow the edge of the blade to reach your skin,which is what we’re going for.
On the pressure side, forget everything you know about disposable razor shaving. Disposable razors use densely-packed, lousy blades; you’re accustomed to pushing hard against your skin to get remove your facial hair. That’s not how wet shaving works.
Rather, you hold the razor gently against your skin. The weight of the razor—and trust that it will weigh considerably more than the plastic doohickey you bought at the supermarket—provides the oomph the blade needs to cut your hair. Instead of pressure, your method for acquiring a smooth shave is repetition.
That’s where patience comes in. You’ll make multiple shaving passes along your face to achieve impressive smoothness. When you’re new to wet shaving, my advice is to do but a single pass, with the grain of your beard. (And remember, only shave where your face is lathered. With a disposable razor, you might shave over the same spot again and again. With a safety razor, shave where there’s lather. If you missed a spot, get it on the next pass, only after reapplying lather.)
After you get comfortable with the process, add a second pass that goes across the grain of your beard—not against it. Starting your second pass requires the same prep as your first: Again rinse your face with hot water, again build a fresh lather on your face. Your brush is already loaded with lather; you don’t need to reload it with soap. Add a few drops of water to the brush and then start swirling it on your rewet face.
When you’re comfortable with the across the grain shaving pass—give yourself a couple weeks—it’s time to add the final pass, the against-the-grain pass. Once more you rinse your face with hot water, once more you re-lather from your still well-loaded brush. Now, after again repeating your “angle, pressure, and patience” mantra, you’ll carefully shave against the grain of your beard.
I love that third pass. My face looks smooth before it happens; it feels smooth afterwards.
After the shave
When the third pass is complete, I rinse my face with cold water, and then with an alum block. This is a fragile block of soap that you can buy online; it’s a naturally occurring astringent. I wet the bar with cold water, rub it all over my face, and rinse five minutes later.
The cold water and the alum block close your pores. It can help prevent ingrown hairs and other problems. I love mine. Generally, the alum block merely feels cooling. If it burns, I know that I have a shaving problem: I’m pushing too hard, my angle’s off, or the blade is dull, and I’m hurting my skin with my current shave—meaning something has to change about my process.
Finally, I apply an aftershave lotion; my preference is to choose an option that’s alcohol-free.
Building a lather, making three complete shaving passes, the brush, the alum—it’s an awful lot. There are not insignificant startup costs involved with wet shaving.
For me, though, the process is well worth it. My kids object to stubble, and they give me a kiss test many mornings to verify that my face is as smooth as it ought to be. I’m saving money on multi-bladed monstrosities from Schick and Gillette.
And the whole shaving process takes me 10 to 15 minutes from start to finish. Longer than it ever took before, sure, but a far more relaxing, rewarding, and self-indulgent process than any other approach I’ve tried. I feel like I’m caring for my face, and my face seems to appreciate the attention.
When this piece ran in The Magazine, I fielded a lot of questions about razor blades. I'll share some thoughts on blades here, soon.