Before there were electric rotating heads and quadruple-action blades, men started their mornings with a simple ritual that required their full attention. Otherwise, they were in for a nasty nick.
Straight razors were actually the norm in shaving until manufacturers began creating safety razors and double-edged razors in the early 1920s. Indeed, in many vintage and antique stores around the world, it was not uncommon to find drawers upon drawers of straight edge barber razors because they were expected to be able to offer a hot straight razor shave with a haircut.
Today, barbers still offer the service. Once you experience the whole ritual—warm towels, shave oil, shaving cream, and the badger bristle brush—you’re likely to throw away that can of aerosol and that three-bladed piece of plastic that never quite gets that spot under your chin.
But, can you do it yourself? Admittedly, learning how to shave using a straight razor has a steep learning curve and takes some time to master. But, if you’re willing to risk a few nicks and cuts in exchange for the kind of close shave you’ll never get otherwise, here’s what you’ll need.
While the best blades still come from Germany, Japan, and France—countries known for making top-of-the-line knives, cutlery, and steel—there are numerous options and opinions when it comes to buying your straight razor. Some say getting an exclusive, vintage blade made in Solingen, Germany and having it resharpened and re-honed is the best way to go. Solingen is also home to Germany’s two great knife manufacturers, Wusthof and Henckels. Others prefer contemporary brands like Dovo, Thiers Issard, or Hart Steel. Dovo is a good starter blade, while Thiers Issard and Hart Steel are prized for their decorative scales and Damascene blades.
One final word when looking for razors: don’t be afraid to buy the best you can afford. Chances are, if the razor is to your liking, you won’t have to buy another one ever again. A Thiers Issard fits the bill because with proper maintenance and the occasional visit to the sharpener, it will last a lifetime.
Apart from the blade, which is the most important investment, you’ll need a stropping belt to keep your razor blade sharpened and in shave-ready condition. Invest in a quality shaving brush and ditch tubed shaving cream in favor of high-glycerin shaving soaps and creams. Now that you’re suitably armed, it’s your moment of truth: stretch the skin taut and shave against the grain for the closest, smoothest shave. If you really want to avoid mishaps, shave oil is a good safeguard.
Remember too that the different parts of the face require you to use the different parts of the blade—the rounded edge for the smaller, trickier area above the lip, and the straight middle area for the cheeks and under the chin. Stretching out the skin, shaving at different angles, or tilting your head in different directions are tactics you can use to get the job done.
This article first appeared in Vault Magazine Issue 2 2011.