How to shave with a Straight Razor
Shaving is an art. It consists of mastering specific tools, knowing some science and maintaining a steady hand along with an artist's eye for detail, shape, shade, light and technique.
I don’t regard shaving as a quick thing. It should be done slowly, in the evening, preferably while awake and aware but relaxed, usually accompanied by a soundtrack.
In the old days, shaving wasn’t something you did at home, it was something you paid for. Men would frequent a local barber daily in the morning and start their day with conversation and relaxation, leaving them feeling good about their day.
In my view King Gillette, the man who invented the disposable razor, the one you find in a double sided razor, kind of ruined this ritual, turning it into something done hurriedly over a bowl prior to work.
Here's the thing though, this ritual was one invented with the sole aim of looking good and feeling it too. We don’t have to lose that, it only takes a bit of practice to bring this old school cool ritual home.
When I was younger I too followed the cold out of a can, crap plastic blade method. I was plagued with razor rash. My neck looked like I was shaving with a cheese grater.
After a few years doing this I relented and went to see an expert, the legendary Irish barber Liam Finnegan, in the Waldorf barbers on Westmoreland street in Dublin.
A Dublin institution, the Waldorf is like visiting the past. White coated barbers mill around 100 year old chairs in an underground basement. The sound of 1930’s jazz plays quietly and constantly, and the smells in the air are from another time altogether.
Here you enter that last bastion of the old ways of mens grooming. Fire is used to prevent split ends, real straight razors are used instead of those Shavettes with the disposable edges.
I paid for my first straight shave that day, noting how much smoother my skin felt. The next day, when I should have expected the rash to appear, it didn’t. day three came and still I felt fresh as the day I’d been shaved.
A week later I went back, made sure to get Liam again, and proceeded to quiz him relentlessly through another shave. He agreed to teach me the dark art, and started me out with a double edged blade, ww2 style. “Shave just your cheeks until you get used to the angle, don’t press too hard, and do multiple passes, and don’t forget you need to make sure you go through the whole setup before the blade touches your face” he told me.
Over the course of a year I learned to use the double edge blade, not that hard really, and graduated to using my first straight razor, the king of shaving implements.
I’ll save the learning details for another post, for now, let's focus on how I shave now.
In advance I’ll say this, while I am using a straight razor, this method can be used with any razor, even those soulless 5 blade ones, though it'll take less time and be less enjoyable, and won't have the same results.
Things I assemble prior to a shave:
- Straight razor
- Shaving brush
- Shaving oil
- Shaving bowl with soap
- 3 small face cloths
- Dublin bay aftershave
- Temple bar beard balm
First things first, make sure you have access to hot water and a quiet room.
Get your phone out, pick your favourite Jazz album (or any other relaxing music you like, I tend to go for kind of blue or Coltrane’s a love supreme)
I start with stropping the razor. Check the blades in good nick, attach the strop to something sturdy, pull back on the strop tightly and gently with your razor hand run the blade back and forth 50 times each side.
Once the blades stropped it's ready to go, put it somewhere safe and go get your face cloths.
I usually keep one in a small plastic container in the fridge for when I'm planning a proper shave, sometimes I’ll cut the routine in half and just get on with it but this is as much about enjoying the process as it is removing hair.
The other two should be rinsed in water, wrung out, then microwaved for a few seconds, providing you with some hot towels. Pop them in a container, run back to your quiet jazz filled room, and on to the next bit.
Run your hot tap for a few minutes, when it's good and hot, pop your shaving bowl under the tap for a second, then get to work with the brush. Make a lather in the bowl, adding water by dipping your brush and letting the runoff in. The aim is to get a good lather made of as much water as is possible.
Once that’s done, wet your face with plenty of hot water, rub a few drops of shaving oil into your bristles, brush shaving soap suds liberally all over the areas you are shaving, and sit on the toilet, lean back, and place your first hot towel over your face. Sit back, breath deep, enjoy the jazz in the background and wait until the towel cools down a bit, then go in with the second towel.
By now your pores are open, the hair has warmed up and soaked in some of the soap and water and your face is clean and ready to go. Wipe the shaving soap off your face, splash again with lots of hot water, let it drip off.
Take a half pipette of shaving oil in your hand, spread it liberally all over the areas you are shaving, and rub it in gently. Once done, lather up your face again with more hot water and shaving soap using the brush.
Ok, you're ready to go. Straight razor in your dominant hand, making sure you are holding it correctly, begin by very lightly removing the shaving soap from your face. Don’t think about the hair, some will come with it. You should imagine at this point what it would take to take just shaving foam off a balloon with a razor, go super light. Follow the grain, short slow strokes, don’t go back over areas already shaved, you’ll be doing a few passes.
Once you have shaved the right half (assuming you, like me, are right handed) hold your razor in your left hand (expert mode) and do the same on your left side.
My neck on my left side has an odd pattern of growth, so here my first pass is done using my right hand going from low down up to the chin line. It's important to follow the grain on the first pass.
Make sure you get to know your patterns of growth, as doing so reduces massively the risk of irritation.
Now your first pass is done, wash your face again with lots of hot water, clean your razor blade and handle, and lather up again, oil first, then soap.
This time, you’ll want to go across the grain, again super light. Cross grain here means going generally in the same direction as the grain, but pulling left or right, sort of diagonally. Be super careful here, your razor has to be flat blade going only in the direction you are moving, if you move the razor edge along your skin, you will get cut, and we don’t want that. The flat edge moves perpendicular to the area you are shaving. Use your hand and raise your elbow to get the desired angle.
Now that pass is done, wash, oil and lather again.
You're into the finishing stage, all your hair is gone, it's time now to get that baby soft feel.
By now you know the drill, wash, oil, lather. This time you want to go very gently, very short strokes against the grain. Remember not to put pressure on the blade, a light touch is required.
Post Shave Routine
Once you're done, it's time to clean up. Run the cold tap, splash liberally on your skin. Get out your fridge cold face towel and park it on the toilet and place it over your face.
After a few minutes it's time to splash your face with your chosen alcohol based aftershave, I use Dublin Bay, the whiskey kills bacteria, cloves have antibacterial effects and its smells oh so good.
Let the aftershave dry for a few minutes on your face, then spread a moisturiser liberally on the freshly shaved skin.
And that’s how it's done, slowly, in stages, taking care and paying attention to your needs. It’s a ritual you might only get to enjoy once or twice a week, but doing it this way makes what used to be a chore into something that’s truly your time again. Give it a try, I guarantee you it’ll make you a more relaxed, happy, less rashy person.