Real Shaving: a Gift Guide for 2023
Our primer to the fine art of traditional shaving, and an unusual—but highly usable—gift guide.
Editor’s Note: An earlier version of the following guide was published, in 2016, as a sidebar to our feature story, “Occupy Your Bathroom.” The story explores the numerous benefits to traditional shaving with an old-fashioned razor, the kind that takes simple, double-edge blades. That approach to shaving helps your face, saves you money, protects our environment, and creates a luxurious morning ritual that most people living today have never thought was possible. And please note: this applies to anyone who shaves—male, female, and anyone in between. Shaving is shaving, and to do it right, we can all use better, more ecological products. “Occupy Your Bathroom” was updated for republishing in our Fall 2023 issue on “The Art of Repair”; the same goes for this article, our 2023 holiday gift guide, which offers a plethora of grooming tools that will let you, or a favored recipient, recapture this simple daily luxury.
Written & photographed by MICHAEL HAM
During the decades I’ve spent studying and writing about shaving for my blog, Leisureguy, and for the various editions of my book, “Guide to Gourmet Shaving the Double-Edge Way,” I’ve purchased and tested hundreds of shaving products, a seemingly endless variety of razors and blades; shaving brushes, soaps, and creams; pre-shaves and after-shaves. These products constitute the tools of what’s now called “wet shaving”—today’s term for the traditional style of shaving that your father or grandfather used to do.
Somewhat coincidentally, the growth of my interest coincided with the public’s. Thanks largely to the internet, demand for wet shaving products has grown rapidly since I resumed shaving in the early 2000s, and so has the supply. One reason for this rapid growth is that wet shaving fulfills its promises: the shaves actually are better; and the daily shave, once a tedious chore, actually is transformed into a pleasure.
Before we jump into the cornucopia of superb wet-shaving products available today, it’s worth taking a moment to review the technique for a good wet shave. Without that, the products that follow might seem superfluous, and the various stages of the process overly involved and time-consuming. Not so. Once you get in the groove, a good morning wet shave can be leisurely dispatched—and the leisure is part of the point—within 10 minutes.
Today, most traditional shavers use a double-edge, or “DE”, safety razor. (Some die-hards still swear by straight razors, but with the plethora of fine DE razors available today there is no need to hazard a straight razor’s dangers.) A perfect wet shave finishes with a good after-shave lotion—generally a splash, balm, or milk.
A wet shave begins with building a lather from a shaving soap or cream with a shaving brush and warm water (preferably soft water since hard water works against a good lather). The common approach with a DE razor is to shave in three passes, rinsing after each pass and then applying a new layer of lather from what remains in the brush. The passes start with the grain (typically down), then across the grain (typically horizontally), and finally against the grain (typically up)—except in areas with in-grown whiskers; there, it’s best to avoid shaving against the grain, and instead shave across the grain in different directions. On the neck, whiskers often whorl in all kinds of directions, so flexibility is the order of the morning here.
OK, enough said for now.
The gift list below includes some of the cream of the shaving crop. Online vendors for nearly all of these items can be easily found through a simple Internet search on the product name. To make things easier, however, I’ve included links, along with a few recommended sources listed at the end of each section.
Gifts are listed in two categories:
- Stocking stuffers—low in price, and thus suitable as an adjunct to the main gift.
- Main gift—most also moderately priced.
DE razors fall into three main types—three-piece, two-piece, and a “twist-to-open” (TTO) design with all the parts in a single piece. Each of these has some kind of guard (the “safety” part). The guard can be a bar (often scalloped) or it can be coarse teeth, like a comb. The comb guard (also called an “open comb”) was the original design for DE razors, and it works well for those who shave only once or twice a month and want a razor that resists clogging.
In DE terminology, the razor is what holds the blade. The razor is a one-time purchase, blades are replaced as needed—and they’re cheap (as little as a dime each, but generally around a quarter each).
Most razors cut with compressive force—a straight-on chop as you pull the razor through the stubble—but some position the blade at a slant, which is why these razors are called “slants.” A slanted blade cuts stubble with a shearing action, which noticeably reduces the cutting effort–and often shaving irritation– especially for thick beards.
Getting a good shave requires that you know your beard’s grain direction. If this idea is unfamiliar, wait 24 hours after a shave, then feel your stubble with your fingertip. The roughest direction at each spot is against the grain at that spot. Generally speaking, “with the grain” is down, and “against the grain” is up, but that can vary. On the neck, the grain can be very erratic—up, sideways, in whorls, or chaotic—but an anomalous grain pattern can appear anywhere. I have a spot on my right jawline where the grain is horizontal.
The current mass-market standard for a good, workaday double-edge razor is the Edwin Jagger brand. Some prefer one of the classic vintage razors such as the Gillette “NEW” (now almost 90 years old and still a good razor) or a Gillette adjustable. Antique razors can be fun to use if you find an undamaged example in good condition. For a gift, however, I suggest a new razor that’s a cut above the norm.
• RazoRock Adjust, a smoothly operating adjustable TTO that’s reliable, comfortable, and efficient. ($15)
• RazoRock Old Type, a traditional three-piece razor with a comb guard. The Old Type feels so comfortable and non-threatening that it feels as though it’s doing nothing, but after three passes no roughness remains. ($20)
• Retro: Sometimes an old design is resurrected with modern improvements. The Phoenix Artisan Quantum razor, a modern reincarnation of the Eclipse Red Ring, is an example. (I once wrote a detailed review of this razor.) The highlights: two baseplates, one milder than the other; unique guard (neither bar nor comb, but ribbed); comfortable and grippy handle with a good diameter (the Eclipse Red Ring’s handle was quite skinny), and striking aesthetics with its stainless-steel handle and cap, and brass baseplate. ($90)
• Adjustables: Adjustable razors offer the benefit of accommodating not only different men—some with heavy beards, some just starting to shave—but also one man’s changing preferences as his beard changes with age, or the time between shaves varies. Here are two razors with different approaches to adjustability:
- Rockwell 6S—a stainless-steel razor with three double-sided baseplates that thus offer six degrees of shaving. The baseplates are designed for easy swapping from one pass to the next, but I stick with a single baseplate for the entire shave (currently R4; previously R3). Every baseplate is comfortable; they differ in blade feel and how heavy a beard they can handle. The razor has good heft and the handle’s knurling is comfortable. ($120, sometimes on sale for $96)
- Rockwell T2—a TTO adjustable, the successor to their first razor of this type, the Model T. The T2 incorporates some lessons learned (though the Model T itself was excellent). The adjustment is smooth and precise, and the shave is comfortable and close. Perhaps more than any other modern DE razor, the Rockwell T2 revives the design and quality of Gillette’s famous (and still findable) adjustables of the mid-20th century, built to last for generations. (normally $150, $112 recently)
• Tile-head: Henson Shaving came up with an innovative head design, which they use in all three of their razor models — two of aluminum, the AL13 and the AL13-M; and one in titanium, the Ti22 ($70). The way the blade is housed provides maximum protection and comfort while minimizing blade feel and nick risk. The design created a new branch of DE razor evolution, with The Razor Company’s excellent TRC stainless-steel razor ($80) designed somewhat along the same lines, as is the Yaqi Tile razor head.
• Slant: The RazoRock Superslant is the latest generation of a succession of slant razors designed and made by Italian Barber. This slant excels in comfort with no sacrifice in efficiency. Baseplates range from quite mild (L1) to very aggressive (L3++). I purchased the L1++ (at the link) to begin with, and I like it a lot. The head design makes the ideal angle easy to find, and the efficiency is remarkable with no sacrifice of comfort. ($130)
Another great choice—at a much lower price point (less than $30)—is any of the superb Double Slants available from Phoenix Artisan. These razors, made of tough (non-brittle) plastic, come in various colors. (And don’t worry: threads on the razors are metal, not plastic.) The razors are somewhat intimidating in appearance but are as comfortable as a sleepy puppy and awesomely efficient.
ItalianBarber.com—for RazoRock Adjust, Old Style, Superslant
PhoenixShaving.com—for Quantum, Double Slants
GetRockwell.com—for Rockwell S6, T2
HensonShaving.com—for AL-13, AL-13M, Ti22
TheRazorCompany.com—for TRC stainless steel bead-blasted razor
Although cartridge razors now dominate the market, well over a hundred different double-edge blades from various brands–most of superb quality for pennies apiece–are still made in roughly a dozen countries throughout the world. How any given blade performs in terms of comfort, smoothness, and efficiency varies greatly from person to person. It all depends on the nature of beard and skin, and on the razor being used.
Blades thus epitomize a term frequently used on the Internet shaving forums: “YMMV,” meaning “your mileage may vary.” And the only way to figure out your particular mileage is through trial and error. Fortunately, many shaving vendors offer blade sampler packets that contain a variety of brands. But note: a novice might assume “sharp” equals “good,” but it doesn’t work this way. Sharp can also equal harsh. What one wants is a blade that, with your skin and your razor and your prep and your technique, cuts stubble easily, smoothly, and without nicks.
It helps that double-edge blades don’t cost much. In the DE world, an “expensive” blade costs 50 cents, and most cost around 20-25 cents. Many brands, especially those most highly prized, are available in boxes of 100, which cuts each blade’s cost to for less than a dime. Blade life varies, but a DE blade typically lasts 4-6 shaves, longer if your beard is light.
Now, to the shopping: Feather blades are commonly regarded as sharpest, but many find them harsh and nick-prone. Other sharp brands are Gillette 7 O’Clock SharpEdge, Kai, Astra Superior Platinum, Personna Lab Blue, and Gillette Silver Blue. For an edge likely to be more forgiving, try Derby Extra or Merkur.
As you develop preferences, save blades from brands that didn’t seem to work. They often perform better in a different razor (noticeable if you, like many others, fall for wet shaving’s allure and find yourself with several razors).
Vendors such as West Coast Shaving, Shave Nation, and Fendrihan offer a variety of blade sampler packs on their sites, and bulk buys of myriad brands once you’ve chosen your favorite(s). It’s a try-it-and-see process, and you can start anywhere.
It’s a shame that cans of shaving cream have replaced the old tubs of shaving soap. Not only are all those cans enormously wasteful (and polluting), but their contents cannot compare with a traditional soap or shaving cream.
If a soap is good (and most are) it easily makes a rich, creamy lather—one that has a delightful fragrance, softens the stubble, smooths the razor’s glide, and leaves the skin feeling nicely moisturized when the shave is done. For decades, one soap ingredient that fulfilled these tasks most dependably was tallow. Today, however, a great many innovative soap-making operations have devised effective formulas with no animal-based ingredients, and the soaps that do use animal-derived ingredients have broadened the range (for example, using duck fat, lamb tallow, and/or emu oil. One soap in the list below actually uses donkey milk, goat milk, and camel milk).
Thanks to the avid subculture of wet-shaving loyalists, the number of small, high-quality operations making shaving soap of various kinds continues to grow, although some do occasionally close their doors. Many companies are one-person shops, which are particularly vulnerable to insurmountable setbacks (family illnesses, day-job demands, etc.).
Such fates rarely befall mainstream soap-makers, some of which have been around for centuries. This crowd includes Klar Seifen, Antica Barbieria Colla, and D.R. Harris (established in London in 1790); and shaving creams from brands such as Cyril R. Slater, Castle Forbes, and others. For a gift, something not so mainstream might be especially appealing. Many small operations make superb shaving soaps—so many that I can barely scratch the surface. I’ll list four specific soaps and four families of soaps—and then list additional makers, each with an example soap that you can read about online. But any list will soon be dated—new soaps (and new soapmakers) bubble up constantly.
As you explore different soaps, I highly recommend that you make it a practice to read each soap’s list of ingredients, which often includes useful information from the maker. In time, you’ll see a pattern in soaps you like, which can narrow future shopping expeditions.
Often, a soap will have a matching aftershave, and the set—shaving soap and matching aftershave—makes an especially nice gift. While a soap’s fragrance leaves with the lather, an aftershave carries the fragrance forward.
• Shaving soap samples make great stocking stuffers. Check out MaggardRazors.com, VanYulay.com, and WestCoastShaving.com for shaving soap samples. (All of Van Yulay’s shaving soaps are available in a “sample” size.)
- Good-prep gift
For the past few years, I have started each shave by applying Grooming Dept Moisturizing Pre-Shave. It’s a thick liquid, and rubbing a drop or two into the stubble before applying lather makes a big difference in the shave and in how good the skin feels post-shave. A tub lasts about 18 months, so the cost per shave, as with so many shaving products, is minimal. And the effect is wonderful. Also available from ItalianBarber.com.
• Solstice, by Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements (soap with aftershave). With the winter holidays falling around the time of the solstice, this is a soap appropriate to the season. Phoenix’s CK-6 formula creates a rich and slick lather that feels nourishing to the skin. And while fragrances are very YMMV, I love this one: “Sage, Sweetgrass, Cedar, Rose Absolute, and Benzoin Resin.”
• The Dead Sea, by RazoRock (soap with aftershave), a soft soap that includes minerals from the Dead Sea. Barely dampen your brush when you load it with this soap—The Dead Sea wants very little water. The fragrance is “Lemon, Rosemary, Cannabis, Saffron, Sandalwood.” The soap comes in a classic, heavy glass tub.
• Aces Over 8s, by 345 Soap Co. (matching aftershave) The nice thing about always reading the list of ingredients is that sometimes you get a delightful surprise. That certainly was the case with this soap, which is the one I said contains donkey milk, goat milk, and camel milk. The soap makes a lovely lather with the fragrance “Tobacco, Mint, Rose, Sandalwood, Vanilla, Cedar, Patchouli, Vetiver, Tonka bean.”
• Summer Storm, by Chiseled Face (matching aftershave). Summer Storm, whose fragrance matches the name, is pleasant for winter use since it reminds one that warmer weather is ahead. “Moist Earth, Oak Moss, Cut Grass, Pine Needles, Orange, Lemon, Ozone, White Jasmine, Lily of the Valley, Geranium, Musk.”
Shaving Soap Families
There are some soap families from which you can pick any number of interesting shaving soaps. Here are four that I think are worth exploring. For details on the individual soaps, refer to the online catalogs.
• Extro – Extro is an Italian line of interesting soap, a bit softer than most shaving soaps, offering a variety of fragrances. TheRazorCompany.com and NewEnglandShaving.com each have a good selection. In Canada, Top of the Chain also has a good selection.
• Grooming Dept – Grooming Dept makes exceptional soaps and aftershaves in several formulae: Kairos (tallow, often with lamb tallow, donkey milk, and emu oil); Mallard (duck fat and other exotic ingredients); and Nai (vegan formula). GroomingDept.com also has a list of vendors who carry the products.
• Tallow + Steel – This maker carries a small selection of interesting soaps and matching aftershaves, with a constant introduction of new fragrances from season to season.
• Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements – I listed one example above of a soap made from the CK-6 formula, but there is a variety of fragrances that use the formula. The special nature and character of CK-6 are explained on a dedicated page.
There are so many good soaps, it’s best to just list a few favorites by other makers:
Arianna & Evans (Tobacco Road and aftershave); Løthur (Bourbon and aftershave); Declaration Grooming (Unconditional Surrender and aftershave); and Van Yulay (Achilles and aftershave). But also look over the full range of their offerings—and explore other makers as well.
Shaving Soap Sources:
These soaps are often available from online shaving vendors, but you can also buy them direct from the makers:
PhoenixShaving.com – Solstice
ItalianBarber.com – The Dead Sea
345Soap.com – Aces Over 8s
ChiseledFace.com – Summer Storm
Ariana & Evans: aegrooming.com
Phoenix & Beau: phoenixandbeau.uk
Declaration Grooming: declarationgrooming.com
Van Yulay: vanyulay.com
There really is nothing like starting a shave with a good brush, well-soaked in hot water. It feels luxurious, it relaxes your skin, and it softens your beard. So this is not an item to miss.
Shaving brushes are made using badger, boar, horse, or synthetic bristles, with the “brush” part called the knot. If you get the wet-shaving bug, over time you may want to try all four types. They all can make a fine lather, but they differ in how they feel on the face. The big three are badger, boar, and synthetic, with horsehair brushes being popular in Spain.
The quality of synthetic brushes has improved drastically, and synthetics are eating into the badger-brush market because synthetic brushes offer lower prices, greater supply, and fine performance; and of course, no animal cruelty.
I focus here on boar because for a long time, I failed to appreciate their excellence—and also because you can get a first-rate boar brush at a fraction of what a good badger brush costs.
Boar brushes are the workhorses of the shaving-brush world. Italians in particular have long favored boar brushes. Boar bristles are coarser than badger, more resilient. To be effective, however, a boar knot must be well-soaked before each use.
New boar brushes have some sort of lathercidal coating, which kills the lather, making it virtually disappear by the second pass. Fortunately, the lathercide quickly fades with use, so for a new boar brush, here’s what I recommend: for a good week, load the brush with soap, work up a lather in your cupped palm, and then clean the brush (gently squeeze out the lather, rinse the knot under hot water until the water runs clear, then under cold water, then shake out the excess water).
This will also begin to break in the brush, a process that uniquely applies to boar brushes, and will make the brush gradually get better and better:., After a few weeks, the tips of boar bristles essentially get split ends, which makes the brush feel softer on the face. (As one wet shaver once commented on a shaving forum, “A new boar brush always feels awful. And just when you’re about to throw it in the trash, it gets amazing, and soon it’s your favorite brush.”)
As you shop for a brush, it’s helpful to know how the different sizes perform. A taller brush, which is one with a longer “loft,” will have a pleasant supple resilience; a shorter loft will be stiffer and feel firmer on the face. When I recently took a close look at a few good boar brushes, it inspired the following recommendations.
• Zenith 80B XSE – a natural-bristle brush with a solid white-plastic handle. This brush has a fine knot (64mm loft) with a good feel. The brush costs €7, an extremely modest price for excellent quality. ($7)
• Omega Pro 48: This brush has a natural knot, with a 70mm loft, and is unexcelled in performance and feel on the face. Some judge a brush by the handle—and this one has a chrome finish, made of the same plastic as used in Lego blocks, but to me, that is akin to judging a book by its cover. I prioritize the brush’s performance and feel on the face, and on these measures I have found no boar brush better than the Pro 48. ($17)
• Zenith B02-A28: This brush’s bleached knot has a loft of 64mm, enough to provide pleasant resilience, and its solid aluminum handle will appeal to those who want a brush with an impressive appearance. It is a very good brush, about on par with the Zenith 80B XSE listed above. ($15)
• Zenith 507U XSE: The olive-wood handle on this brush is strikingly elegant, and the natural-bristle knot is extremely good, though its 56mm loft means it will not be so supple as its longer-lofted brethren. Still, it is quite serviceable, and it is a beautiful shaving brush. ($20)
Zenith brushes – YourShaving.com
Omega brush – ItalianBarber.com
An aftershave’s fragrance, unlike a shaving soap’s, lingers after the shave is done. A fragrance’s appeal is a quintessential matter of personal taste—YMMV in spades. For a gift, therefore, samples are your best bet. And many companies offer them.
Splashes come in a wide variety. Some, like those from Tallow + Steel, are witch-hazel-based, best for those with sensitive skin; others are alcohol-based, good for those who like a more bracing splash. However, alcohol is not so good for the skin, and when I use a splash I add a couple of squirts of Grooming Dept’s Aion Hydrating Gel to mitigate the effects of the alcohol.
Thayers is the classic witch hazel, blended with aloe vera and either with 10% alcohol (for an “astringent”) or alcohol-free (for a “toner”), in various fragrances. It can be used as an effective and inexpensive aftershave splash, just be prepared for its fragrance to disappear after a few minutes.
Balms are more moisturizing and protective than splashes and tend to be relatively thick. One particularly good one is Grooming Dept Rejuvenating Serum. Use only 1-2 drops.
Milks are thinner than a balm; thicker, and generally more protective and moisturizing, than a splash. The venerable D.R. Harris offers a variety of aftershave milks, a very nice finish to a wintertime shave.
Many of the soap-makers listed above also sell aftershaves, including some that match the fragrances of their soaps.
• Aion Hydrating Gel: good on its own, but I routinely use a couple of squirts with most aftershave splashes
• Grooming Dept Rejuvenating Serum: use it as an aftershave balm; apply 1-2 drops and your skin will feel amazing.
Maggardrazors.com – samplers
If you haven’t already, please look at our feature story, “Occupy Your Bathroom.” Written by Craftsmanship‘s founding editor, Todd Oppenheimer, the article explores how one small but highly skilled American maker of traditional razors, Above The Tie, was born and what led to its demise. The article also explains why a return to traditional shaving gear can save your face, your pocketbook, and the planet all at the same time.
For a taste of one online dialogue between Michael Ham and someone who thinks there is no point in switching from the simplicity of canned shaving cream and cartridge razors, see this post. (A note to the uninitiated: In the wet shaving world, “BBS” refers to skin that, post-shave, is “baby-butt smooth.”)
If you want to dive more deeply into the highly opinionated world of wet shaving, please see the sidebar to the right, “The wide, rich, argumentative world of Internet shaving forums—and the experts and vendors who feed them.”
And if you’d like to poke around the posts on Michael Ham’s shaving blog, which contains years of daily observations on his tests of hundreds of different razors, blades, brushes, shaving soaps, and aftershaves—look here. (From there, you can also pick from Ham’s prolific posts on many other topics.)
Last, his book, “Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving the Double-Edge Way,” now in its 7th edition, offers a fuller explanation of traditional shaving’s benefits and provides detailed guidance for the utter novice, including someone who currently hates shaving but has not thought of trying something other than cartridge razors and canned foam.
Michael Ham, now retired, worked in various roles: textbook writer, teacher, director of admissions, programmer, and product marketing manager.