Shave Like a Man
Nine months ago, I started shaving with a straight razor. I don’t use it for every shave, but a couple of times a week I drag a piece of honed steel across my face in a manly ritual that is as old as civilization itself.
Straight razor shaving was never on my bucket list. It started as a whim, but it rapidly became a challenge, and, ultimately, it became a bit of an obsession.
While getting ready to put on a history program for some summer camp kids, I was going through the Crazy Crow Trading Post’s website. I saw that they had straight razors for sale for five bucks. At the time, I had no interest in straight razors, but they were only five bucks. Almost without thinking, I added one to my order.
Naturally, when the razor arrived, I couldn’t keep myself from playing with it. The more I handled it, the more I wondered what it would be like to shave with it…a thought I quickly dismissed as stupid, if not actually suicidal. But I couldn’t get the idea out of my head. So, a few days later, I found myself standing in front of my bathroom mirror with my face covered in Barbasol shaving foam, and a naked piece of Chinese steel in my hand. I raised the blade and started shaving… if you could call it that, because it was more like butchering my face.
That cheap straight razor taught me two lessons almost immediately. First, my five-dollar, Chinese razor might have been sharp enough for a bar fight, but it was nowhere near sharp enough to shave with. Second, I learned that the blade angle needed to shave the whiskers off your face, is hardly any different from the blade angle needed to flay the skin off of your face.
During the course of that shave, I had managed to surgically remove all the skin from my face, without cutting a single whisker.
I was humbled, but I was also motivated. I knew that men had managed to shave themselves with tools like this for at least 6,000 years. I don’t believe that 6,000 years ago men’s skin was made of granite and their whiskers were made of butter. Yet, somehow, mankind managed to shave effectively with straight razors.
What they could do, I could do.
I just had to figure out how.
I turned to the internet, so you can see how desperate I was. But, among all the cute cat memes and the fake news, I found the information I needed. I learned that the steel in my Chinese razor had the structural integrity of Styrofoam, and would never give me a decent shave, but top notch modern straight razors can easily cost 300 dollars.
I get my modern razor blades from the Dollar Shave Club, so the idea that I’d pay $300 for a straight razor was completely ridiculous.
Luckily, there’s no need to lay out that kind of money. Vintage straight razors from the late 19th and early 20th century are readily available, and generally they cost about $30, not $300.
When you think about it, it makes sense. Back in those days almost every man on the planet owned a straight razor, so manufacturers produced millions of them, most of which were carefully stored away, when their owners migrated to safety razors.
I bought a turn of the century German-made razor, and I sent it out to the Razor Emporium to be honed to shave-ready condition. There is an amazing difference between a very sharp razor and a shave ready razor. If you scrape a very sharp razor over your arm, it cleanly cuts your arm hair off. With a shave-ready blade, the hair jumps off your arm before the blade touches it…that’s sharp!
While waiting for my razor to be sharpened, I picked up a badger-bristle shaving brush and some tallow-based shaving soap. So, with some trepidation, I applied that ridiculously sharp blade to my face, and I went to work.
That first shave took about half an hour, as I carefully felt for the blade angle that would cut the whiskers without leaving me standing in a puddle of blood. But, I got though it with just one small nick. I hardly lost enough blood to make a decent meal for a mosquito. I was pretty pleased with myself.
Just like I learned some important lessons from that original five-dollar, I learned a valuable lesson from my first successful straight razor shave. I learned that there are two reasons why most people don’t shave with straight razors today.
First, because straight razors are dangerous. You have to pay attention to every move you make. In nine months, I’ve only cut myself twice with the straight razor. Both times were because I accidentally touched my face with the blade. So, you really have to be mentally present. Do not try straight razor shaving if you’re hungover.
The second thing I learned is that the old saying that a “straight razor shave is the best shave you’ll ever get”, is just a myth. It is a good shave, but my one dollar, “Humble Twin”, razor blade from the Dollar Shave Club, actually gives me a better shave.
The best thing about straight razor shaving is lathering up your face with a good tallow-based shaving soap. I threw out my can of shaving foam, and now I use hot water and shaving soap for every shave. The difference is amazing. I get a much smoother shave now from my modern safety razor.
So, given that I actually get a better shave from a modern razor, you might wonder why I continue to shave with a straight razor a couple of times a week. And, I’ll admit it is a little hard to explain. I just appreciate the full process, from lathering up to stropping the blade after the shave. In a way it makes me feel connected with all those generations of men who came before me. Their lives are so different from our life today, but, when I shave with a straight razor I’m sharing a ritual with them that goes back thousands of years.