Real Shaving: a Gift Guide
A primer to the fine art of traditional shaving, and a gift guide.
By MICHAEL HAM
During the decade I’ve spent studying and writing about shaving for my blog 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 come to be known as “wet shaving”—today’s term for the traditional style of shaving your father or grandfather used to do.
Somewhat coincidentally, the growth of my interest has coincided with the public’s. Thanks largely to the Internet, demand for wet shaving products is growing rapidly, and so is the supply. One reason is that wet shaving fulfills its promises: the shaves really are better and the daily shave, once a tedious chore, really is transformed into a pleasure.
A “wet” shave begins with building a lather from a soap or cream with a shaving brush; and it progresses, for most, to a shave with a double-edge or “DE” safety razor. (Some die-hards 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 one or more after-shave potions—generally a splash, balm, or milk.
The gift list below contains, in my opinion, some of the cream of this crop. On-line vendors for nearly all of these items can be easily found through a simple Internet search on the product name. A few recommended sources are listed at the end of each section but there are many, many more.
Double-edge, or DE, safety razors fall into three main types—three piece, two-piece, and a “twist-to-open” razor with all the parts in a single piece. All of these are made with some kind of guard (the “safety” part). That can be a bar (often scalloped) or 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 week and want a razor that resists clogging.
Most razors cut with compressive force—a straight-on chop as you pull the razor through the stubble—but some razors 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 for thick beards.
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 85 years old and still a superb razor) or a Gillette adjustable. For a gift, however, I would suggest a new razor that is a cut above the norm. Here are my favorites:
. The iKon Shavecraft #102 ($80), a slant razor with a cast aluminum head, has become my “desert-island” razor: if I could have only one razor, this would be it. Slant razors can offer noticeable efficiency, and often excellent comfort, and the #102, for me, is particularly comfortable.
. Above the Tie razors ($185) are precision machined from stainless steel or bronze, and sold with a 30-day money-back guarantee. To accommodate different beard and skin types ATT provides 8 different baseplates, and if you find that your first choice is either too harsh or too gentle, you can readily exchange it for an alternative. If you’re not sure which to start with, begin with the R1 (regular) or S1 (slant), both of which tend to work well for average beards.
. The Double Open-Comb razor from Phoenix Artisan Accoutrements ($35) reprises, and improves, a classic, vintage design: the razor’s guard and cap are both made as open-comb. The spaces between the teeth of the comb leave a little shaving cream behind, which improves the razor’s glide on your face. Although priced modestly, the DOC does a fine job and has an interesting texturing on the handle: sharply defined, grippy, and comfortable.
. The Standard ($65; or around $35 if obtained in the Barber box from BespokePost.com) is made of a high-quality aluminum alloy. For me, a Standard head on a stainless steel Bulldog handle is particularly nice—the heavier handle adds agility.
iKonRazors.com – a catalog of razors and also a list of iKon dealers.
AboveTheTie.com – this site lists the whole ATT line: its various razor models, refurbished vintage razors, and some shaving supplies.
PhoenixArtisanAccoutrements.com – shaving supplies and also the Double Open Comb razor
StandardRazors.com – the main source for Standard razors
Although cartridge razors now dominate the market, well over a hundred different double-edge blades of various brands are still made in roughly a dozen countries throughout the world. How any given blade is perceived in terms of comfort, smoothness, and efficiency varies greatly from person to person. It all depends on the nature of your 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, 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¢, and most cost around 20¢. And some brands are available in boxes of 100 for less than a dime a blade. Blade life varies, but a DE blade typically lasts 4-6 shaves, longer if your beard is mild.
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 and Merkur.
As you develop preferences, save your discards—blades that didn’t work well in one razor might perform like a champ in another (if you, like many others, fall for wet shaving’s allure and find yourself with various models).
Tryablade.com – excellent source for sampling blades: you can order individual blades from a range of more than 100 brands.
A good soap should easily make a rich, creamy lather—one that’s a pleasure to smell, assumes just the right consistency, and facilitates the razor’s smooth glide. For decades, the ingredient that’s fulfilled these tasks most dependably has been tallow. Today, however, a great many innovative soap-making operations have devised effective formulas with few if any animal products.
The number of small, high-quality operations making soap of various kinds has grown rapidly—in the current edition of the Guide is a list—still incomplete—of more than 40 different makers. These include stand-outs such as Mickey Lee Soapworks, Stirling Soap Company, Strop Shoppe, and WhollyKaw (a vegan soap).
There are also plenty of good mainstream soaps, such as Cella, D.R. Harris, and Mitchell’s Wool Fat. For a gift, however, look for a treat. These four lean toward the unusual.
. Meißner Tremonia ($25 in heavy glass tub; $21 for puck alone) is a German shaving soap (sold in the U.S. by Straight Razor Designs). They offer unusual fragrances–one called “Strong ‘n Scottish” has the smell of Scotch whisky–that are strongly present in the lather. And the lather itself is wonderful. The soap shown here is also made with wool fat (or lanolin), which offers a nice, gourmet alternative to the venerable Mitchell’s Wool Fat.
. Eufros is made in Spain by Manuel Garcia, AKA JabonMan. The soap makes a superb lather and the fragrances are very nice. Price is generally €13.80, but some special fragrances are more. Vetiver Haiti is €24, Rose Bourbon €34. (Garcia also offers aftershave balms.)
. Martin de Candre ($65) is an exceptional French soap with a light fragrance that suggests a wooded glen full of lavender and mint. Its uncommon lather is awakened by the mere touch of a brush, getting creamier as your morning shave progresses.
. Otoko Organics is an unusual vegan Australian soap, formulated by a colloidal chemist. It’s made of cold-pressed, organically grown plant extracts: coconut, palm, soy, and jojoba oil with aloe vera and pear essence. The makers say that, technically, it’s not a true soap but “a hydrating and healing emollient with anti-microbial and anti-inflammatory actions.” As such, it makes a lighter lather than traditional soaps, especially those made with tallow, but it lasts well throughout a multi-pass shave. And it can be thickened, if you wish, by using a slightly dryer brush. Perhaps most fun of all, its clean, refreshing scent creates its own aftershave, because the soap is so good for your skin that you don’t have to wash it off. Just wipe away the leftover, splash with Witch Hazel, and you’re face is nicely lubricated for the day. Otoko has long been unavailable in the U.S., until now.
. Meißner Tremonia – Available in the US from StraightRazorDesigns.com
. Eufros – Email email@example.com for availability and pricing. (Payment is via PayPal.)
. Martin de Candre – For ordering in English: frenchgardening.com/item.html?pid=GISF40
. Otoko Organics — in the U.S., through These Men Are Professionals.
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, I suggest that over time you try all four types. They all can make a fine lather, but they differ in how they feel on the face.
Badger: The finest shaving brushes have traditionally been made of “silvertip” badger hair, which offer fine bristles and soft tips. Depending on the knot’s density, the brush’s softness may be at the surface, overlaying a firm core, or the softness can extend deeper into the knot for a brush that caresses rather than scrubs your face. Which type is preferred varies from person to person, and sometimes day to day, or soap to soap, which is why many wet shavers accumulate more than one brush. (Contrary to machismo opinion on many shaving forums, a thoroughly soft brush can both create lather and apply it as efficiently as a scrubby brush. It just requires a gentler technique.) I find the badger brushes made by Wet Shaving Products to be particularly good, and the Monarch High Mountain White ($110) is one of my favorites. It has a comfortable and (to my eye) attractive handle, a soft knot with excellent resilience, and it creates lather easily. The Monarch handle also seems to be an homage to G.B. Kent, whose BK4 ($145) is also excellent and, with its nifty cylindrical red-leatherette box, offers a wonderful presentation for a gift.
Boar: Boar brushes, the workhorse of the shaving-brush world, are typically more resilient and less costly than badger brushes, and Italians in particular favor them. Boar bristles are coarser than badger, and a boar knot must be soaked before each use. Some boar brushes have plain white bristles, others have a stripe dyed to mimic the look of badger. I recommend plain knots, since the dying seems to weaken the bristles. A new boar brush will kill lather, but that tendency vanishes over a week or two of use. Initially, boar bristles feel coarse on the face, but over weeks and months of use the ends of the bristles split and the tips soften.
Two exceptional boar brushes are the Omega 21762 ($37), quite soft for a boar brush, and the Semogue Owners Club ($25), whose knot has the stiffness more typical of boar brushes. Because of differences in the bristles each company uses, an Omega brush will hit its stride after a couple of weeks of use, Semogue after a couple of months. (Frequent soaks and workouts in hot water, or by making practice lathers, expedites the break-in.)
Horse: Horsehair occupies the middle ground between badger and boar. Coarser than badger, finer than boar, horsehair has its own distinct feel. As with boar, a horsehair brush requires a good soak before each use. Unlike badger and boar, however, horsehair brushes are cruelty-free—a by-product of routine grooming rather than slaughter. Tail hair is stiffer, mane hair is softer, so brush-makers combine the two. Plain brushes, without the dyed stripe, have stronger and more resilient bristles (and don’t turn the lather gray in the first few uses). Like the horses they come from, these brushes vary in color, and a chestnut brush in the sun shows beautiful coloration. The best source is Gifts and Care in Spain (horse brushes being a Spanish specialty), and the Vie-Long 13061S ($30 outside the EU) is a particularly nice model with a chestnut knot.
Synthetic: In recent years the quality of synthetic brushes has greatly improved. Since no animal fibers are needed, synthetic brushes can be pumped out in volume, driving down costs. The result: excellent brushes at low prices. Synthetic bristles do not absorb water, so they dry quickly, and the brushes vary greatly in quality and feel. The “angel-hair” synthetics, first introduced by Plisson and now available from many vendors, are as soft and resilient as the best silvertip badger at a fraction of the price, though the synthetics don’t feel quite the same on the face. Plisson offers the greatest variety of handles, but Chiseled Face, Fine Accoutrements, RazoRock, and Stirling Soap Company all have excellent angel-hair synthetics available as low as $10.
. WetShavingProducts.com – A good selection of brushes beyond the Monarch
. VintageScentsLLC.com – A good source for Semogue brushes
. GiftsAndCare.com – The mother lode of horsehair shaving brushes
. Blaireauxplisson.com/en/39-shavingbrushes-fiber – A broad range of synthetic brushes
. FineAccoutrements.com – Fine offers several synthetic brushes along with other shaving supplies
. Italianbarber.com/collections/brushes-vegan-synthetic/razorock – good synthetics at low prices
An aftershave’s fragrance, unlike that of a shaving soap, lingers. It’s a quintessential matter of personal taste. For a gift, therefore, samples are your best bet. And many companies offer them.
Splashes come in a wide variety. Some are witch-hazel based, best for those with sensitive skin; others are alcohol based, best for those who like a more bracing splash. Krampert’s Finest Bay Rum ($15) is a good splash that’s also somewhat moisturizing. Thayers is the classic witch hazel splash, blended with aloe vera and either with 10% alcohol or alcohol-free, in various fragrances (all short-lived) at $8-$10 for 12 ounces.
Balms are more moisturizing and protective than splashes and tend to be relatively thick. One particularly good one is Institut Karité 25% Shea Butter Aftershave Balm ($25 for 250ml—use only a small dot).
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 ($30-$40, depending on the fragrance), 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.
Sources for samples:
. Samples.manmachine.co (UK)
. Shavedash.com (UK)
Please read our feature story, “Occupy Your Bathroom.” Written by Craftsmanship‘s founding editor, Todd Oppenheimer, the article explores how Above The Tie Razors were born, and why a return to shaving gear of this kind 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. (A note to the uninitiated: In the wet shaving world, “BBS” means skin post-shave that is “baby bottom smooth.”)
If you want to dive more deeply into the 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.”
If you’d like to poke around 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:
Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving the Double-Edge Way – explains the benefits of traditional shaving 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.