Off Topic: A Practical Guide to Traditional Wet Shaving

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Traditional shaving has been making a strong comeback in the past several years. Given the size of the market (think of ALL the men in the world), this put many companies on high alert. The result is there are quite a few products out there if you look for safety razors, shaving soaps or some sort of a kit. Here I’m going to share what I’ve learned over the past several months of traditional shaving.

If you’ve ever thought about switching to traditional shaving and tried doing some research, you must have asked yourself the following questions: what stuff do I absolutely need and what should my budget be? should I get a kit or should I get the items separately? where should I buy from? which are the reputable companies? I’m hoping to answer all of those questions here. I’m not going to get into much detail on the actual technique because there are already some very good references, which I will mention as I go.

First of all, why even consider traditional shaving? I mean, shaving with the cartridge or a disposable razor and canned foam or gel works just fine doesn’t it? Well it turns out that for some people it does not. If you look at men nowadays, you will see many of them walking around with noticeable stubble (I’m not talking about people with actual beards or men doing a no shave November type thing). Now, a single-day ‘shade’ might be a nice touch for a casual event, but a 3- or 4-day beard in a professional setting is a bit off-putting. Something is wrong with the modern shaving world and the evidence is right in front of our eyes. You might say that people have very busy lifestyles and just can’t find time for shaving. However, men still groom themselves: they put cologne on, they ‘do their hair’, they pick out their outfits, etc. At any rate, shaving can be done at any point in the day, not just in the morning when you might be fighting for the bathroom with your room mates or a significant other. Shaving is a matter of choice, not time constraints.

So why do men avoid shaving? A lot of people quote irritation when shaving with modern gear and high cost of replacement cartridges. I can definitely agree with that – the cost of something like Mach 3 replacement cartridges is ridiculous. I can’t say I’ve gotten a lot of irritation (razor burn of bumps) from cartridge razors, but this was probably because I used to shave very infrequently – every 4-5 days. By the time I put the multi-blade razor to my face it already felt like hell from the itching and me constantly scratching my chin and neck. So it was only going to feel better after the shave. When I tried to shave more frequently, say every 2 days, I definitely noticed some burning – it’s hard to tell whether that was the result of the shaving foam or the razor burn. Whatever the cause, it would be fair to say that I didn’t look my best on most days at work.

Truth be told, shaving with canned foam and a cartridge razor is plain boring, it’s a chore! So if you’re looking to spice things up, traditional shaving might be the way to go. Many men, myself included, also find that shaving with a safety razor and good quality soap or creme dramatically reduces the skin irritation and allows us to shave more regularly. Finally, and this depends on the products you’re currently using, barring the initial investment, traditional shaving is often cheaper in the long run than the modern shaving gear.

You will need a few pieces of equipment to get started:

  1. Double edge safety razor
  2. Blades
  3. Shaving soap or cream
  4. Brush
  5. Aftershave
  6. Stand (Optional!)

First of all, a few words on where to get this stuff. The usual suspects, Amazon and eBay, might not be the best choices here, although you can search both for good deals on bulk blades – more on that later. Specialty traditional shaving online stores are the way to go if you want to get good deals and save on shipping costs. Admittedly, there are more choices in the US than Canada, but do not despair fellow Canucks. In my opinion, Men’s Essentials and Italian Barber are the places to shop if you live in Canada. There are other stores, but the 2 above seem to have the best selection of products and best prices. Men’s Essentials will ship within Canada for free on orders over $50 and Italian Barber will do the same on order over $60, but in USD. There are a lot of reasons why you should place your first order with Italian Barber, despite having a higher free shipping threshold. The main reason is their in-house brand, Razorock, which can be your single solution for all traditional shaving needs.

Razor: this is probably the most important piece of equipment for a beginner. You don’t want to break a bank, yet you want to get something good (so you don’t have to go and get another one!). You also do not want to get an overly aggressive razor at first.

One of the most popular choices is Merkur 34C – it’s not cheap and will likely set you back around $60, but you will not regret having it! It’s fairly efficient at cutting down the stubble, but you will not feel the blade on your face as you might with some other razors.

Dorco Prime Starter Set is not a bad choice either. The razor is so-so, but it certainly isn’t bad and it comes with Dorco Prime Platinum blades that work really well with this particular razor. It also comes with a travel case that will fit other razors. At $25 USD or cheaper, if you can get a discount, and very reasonable shipping rates, this is a pretty good deal.

You might also want to shop around the above 2 websites to see if there are any other razors you might like. Italian Barber, for example, has a decent selection of budget Razorock razors. You will notice though, that razors in particular can get very expensive – a Wolfman razor (head + handle) goes for 300 USD and it’s always out of stock. Traditional shaving hobbyists are a bit crazy.

Blades:  this is the most crucial piece of the puzzle for a good shave. Contrary to the advice many people give, I would not recommend getting a variety pack. There are a few reasons: first of all, the variety pack will have all sorts of blades, from relatively dull to very sharp. You will have no way of knowing where a particular blade lands on sharpness scale without doing more research. Dull blades might sound like a safe choice for a beginner, but the tugging and pulling they produce will cause irritation. Some of the least aggressive blades, such as Derby, Treet or Big Ben will only work well in aggressive razors, especially ones with slanted heads. Very sharp blades are unforgiving of bad technique, so you will want to stay away from the likes of Feather, Kai or even Astra. This leads to the second point: your goal in the beginning is to develop good shaving technique and the best way to do that is to use the same razor and blade combination repeatedly until you get consistently good shaves. A good shave is, obviously, one that is close and irritation free.

My recommendation would be to get a 25 or 50-pack of middle of the road blades (in terms of sharpness). The likes of Voskhod, Personna Lab Blue, Dorco Platinum, Gillette 7 O’clock Super Stainless are all fairly smooth blades that will give you close and comfortable shaves once you learn how to handle the razor properly. If you are looking for more options, check out the Nick Shaves YouTube channel. He did a great blade review series that would be worth checking out for any new traditional shaver. He goes into a lot of detail explaining the shaving and lathering techniques in his videos. One thing to be aware of is he blooms his shaving soaps, which is not something I think is necessary nor would I recommend it. You can check out this video from the Traditional Shaving Evangelist (TSE) explaining the possible issues with the process.

You might also want to by a razor blade bank for a few bucks so you can dispose of the blades safely.

Shaving soap or cream: there are a few things you will want from your soap: you want it to lather easily, you want the lather to be protective, slick and feel comfortable on your face, i.e. no burning. You would also want to have a good post-shave, which means your face should not feel dry or itchy after the shave. The last one is tricky because it also depends on the aftershave product(s) you choose to put on.

Your best bet is to go for so-called artisanal soaps. The reason is when you’re putting something in such close contact with your skin, you really want as little as possible of the preservative and other ingredients that could cause irritation. Below is a non-exclusive list of soap maker brands that you should feel safe buying from. The average price is about $15-20 per 4 oz tub (yes, most of the soaps come in plastic tubs and you don’t have to get a ridiculously overpriced shaving mug).

  • Barrister and Mann – a bit pricey, but a very good performer, check out the Latha line
  • Catie’s Bubbles – amazing scents, nice slick lather, the post shave might vary by scent
  • Razorock – cheap! the XX scent is gorgeous, these soaps lather like champs.
  • Soap Commander – haven’t tried this personally, but it’s very well reviewed
  • Stirling – not available on on ME or IB, but very affordable, so might be worth it even if you end up paying for shipping. Available on Maggard Razors.
  • Mike’s Natural Soaps- same as Stirling
  • Many others!

The one non-artisanal product you should get is Taylor of Old Bond Street (TOBS) Sandalwood shaving cream. It’s a classic product that is almost a rite of passage for any traditional shaver. It performs really well and smells great too.

Brush:  I’ve only used synthetic brushes so far that is my preference because they are very low maintenance and no animals are killed in the making process. Razorock Plissoft is an absolute champion of synthetic brushes and you will only pay $15 or less.

Nick Shaves swears by boar brushes – there is a lot of room for personal preference in traditional shaving. The notable brands there are Omega and Semouge, but I don’t remember the specific models.

One thing to note is no matter how good the soap or creme you use, it will be very difficult to lather with a poor brush. Same as with razors, choose your shaving brush wisely or you will have to spend more money and buy again.

Aftershave:  this is an area where I don’t have much experience. I’ve used Adidas and Gillette aftershave splash products for years and they worked fine. My preference is definitely with alcohol based products because I like to disinfect the freshly shaved skin to avoid any sort of infection. I’m currently using the Old Spice Original aftershave with sandalwood scent. I also started using the Nivea for Men Post Shave Balm, I find that it helps keeping the skin moisturized, especially in the Winter.

There are a lot of other products I would like to try including witch hazels, tonics, etc., but at this point I’m content with what I have and do not intend to buy more until I run out.

Stand:  this is obviously completely optional, but if you have the money, I’d recommend buying a razor and brush stand. It will save a bit of precious bathroom counter space and will improve the aesthetics of your setup.

West Coast Shaving website has really nice chrome plated stands, but they do not provide free shipping to Canada. You might find something that catches your eye on Amazon or at a local store, but you don’t have to break the bank for this.

Stuff you will not need:  as I mentioned at the beginning of the post, there are a lot of traditional shaving supplies on the market and sometimes it’s hard to know what you actually need. Here are things that you might choose to purchase later, but should not spend money on as a beginner.

  • Shaving mug/bowl – this is by far the biggest offender. Pay $30 for what? If you end up buying a puck of soap by itself, use one of your old coffee mugs and save the money.
  • Pre-shave oil – shouldn’t need this if you are using a quality soap with a lot of slickness, but you be the judge.
  • Alum block – Nick Shaves swears by it, but I haven’t found a use for it.
  • Styptic pencil – same as above.
  • Expensive stuff – self-explanatory

The next question is how much should you expect to spend on all of this. Let’s start with a bare bone budget that only includes the essential products. If you’re not sure whether you want to start traditional shaving, this will give you an idea of the minimum you will need to spend, but still get quality stuff. All the prices are taken from the Italian Barber website, rounded up to the nearest $5.

  1. Razor – RazoRock Heavy Duty looks a lot like Merkur 34C, not sure how it feels, but the reviews are good. There are other options for a similar price. $25
  2. Blades – a 100 pack of (very safe) Voskhod blades will last you for 1-2 years. $15
  3. Shaving soap or cream – Razorock XX (or similar) $10 on sale
  4. Brush – Razorock Plissoft $15
  5. Aftershave – you can go for Thayers Witch Hazel or an aftershave Splash from Clubman Pinaud or Razorock. You could also get a Razorock soap + splash combo. $15

Total: $80 of which $40 is an upfront investment that you will not have to spend again for a while and the rest is recurring $40/year cost of shaving (the aftershave and the soap might not last for an entire year, but the blades will likely last for longer, so it’s hard to tell what the exact annual cost is).

If you’re fairly certain that you would like to start traditional shaving and can afford to put in a bit more money, here is what you could get:

  1. Razor – Merkur 34C, you will not regret it. $60
  2. Blades – a 100 pack of (very safe) Voskhod blades will last you for 1-2 years. $15
  3. Shaving soap or cream – Razorock XX (or similar) $10 on sale + Catie’s Bubbles Le Piment De La Vie $20 + TOBS Sandalwood Cream $20.
  4. Brush – Razorock Plissoft $15
  5. Aftershave – you can go for Thayers Witch Hazel or an aftershave Splash from Pinauld or Razorock. You could also get a Razorock soap + splash combo. $15
  6. Post shave balm – couldn’t find anything cheap on IB, but you could pick this up from Shoppers Drug Mart of The Body Shop for about $10.
  7. Razor and brush stand – try Amazon or West Coast Shaving, shouldn’t be spending more than $25 including shipping.

Total: $190 of which $100 is upfront investment and the rest is recurring cost. You shouldn’t be spending $50 on shaving soaps every year, but with the addition of post shave balm the ongoing cost goes up to $50/year.

I don’t know how much you’re currently spending on gear, so you’ll have to do your own math to see if it’s worth it for you. This doesn’t factor it an improved experience that traditional shaving brings. If you go from shaving every 3 or 4 days to shaving at least every other day, you will look and feel better. Did I mention that the traditional shaving process is a lot of fun?

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