Thursday, March 20, 2014

The First Baby Step toward Shaving Like Grandad: Ditch the Canned Goo, Keep Your Normal Razor

I think for many shavers, the idea of using a double-edge (DE) safety razor is threatening.  It's unfamiliar, alien even, and, after all, it's logical to believe that if it were all that good, DE razors and other gear would be available everywhere just like the multi-blade gizmos are.

The funny fact is:  most of the world still shaves with DE razors.  They are effective (you can get a great shave, but the technique is a little different than with the multi-blade systems) and efficient (meaning cost effective with little waste). We don't see them in our stores, however, because selling DE gear is WAY LESS PROFITABLE for the manufacturers and sellers than selling the high-priced, multi-bladed systems. To get almost any reasonably good DE razor and quality blades, you have to purchase via the Internet, wait a little, and have the stuff delivered to your door. There is a huge variety of choices of shave soaps, creams, other pre-shave preparations, brushes, razors (that hold the blade), and blades themselves. To keep it simple, we'll start with inexpensive basics and let you carry on from there as you choose.

Van Der Hagen boar brush, Target cereal bowl,
and Van Der Hagen soap puck with left-over, drying foam
from my morning shave.
If you get an itch to just stick your toe in the refreshing waters of old-school DE shaving, maybe you would consider just setting aside the can of foam or gel, and make a shaving lather the way Grandad did. You can still use your current bladed device.  For many persons in the U.S., the items needed to lather up for a shave with bowl and brush can still be purchased locally.  Many drug stores still stock the old standby of shaving soaps, Williams.  It shouldn't cost more than $.99.  The Van Der Hagen brand of shaving soap is also available at some stores, and its puck is slightly larger than Williams and can be had as of this writing for $1.69 or so. The Williams brand is fine -- I use it, and like it -- but I think the Van Der Hagen is just a bit creamier, and I use that too.

[UPDATE: Since the preceding was written, I have come to believe that the best value in shave soap, considering both price and performance, is the Arko brand shave stick. If you use a shave stick, you can rub the soap stick directly on your wet beard and then use the damp brush to face lather; you don't need a separate lathering bowl.]

Shaving brushes are also often available locally. Fewer drug stores will carry a shaving brush, but some do. A common brand available in my region (Michigan) is a boar-bristled brush with the Van Der Hagen brand, and this should cost about $6 more or less. The last item needed is a mug or bowl to hold the shaving soap while you load the soap onto the brush. Most will be tempted to get a mug, and you can use any mug that will accept the diameter of the soap puck; this will certainly work. However, I prefer a bowl over a mug.

I like a bowl because it gives me more options.  Let me explain:

It's hard to swirl a shaving brush in a small mug and make a proper, moist, thick, firm lather.  It is much more easily done in a small bowl.  So if you use a small, flat-bottomed mug such as a coffee cup, you can swirl your wet brush around and load it up with soap, then either swirl the bristles in your hand (the one not holding the brush -- this is called hand lathering) or directly on your face (called face lathering).  I, personally, think that hand lathering is too messy, and face lathering, alone, doesn't get a luxurious lather with the inexpensive soaps I'm suggesting as a starter.  I prefer work the lather onto my face after it's already a high quality foam in my bowl.  Hence, I recommend a bowl.  Because I'm thrifty, I don't really get too fancy with things like this, and I shop for cheap and durable.  I found a good plastic bowl for this task at my local Target store.  It's five inches in diameter and two inches deep.  It is sold in sets of two bowls for $.99 -- yep, 99 cents for two.

Now a bowl like this will be bigger in diameter than any soap puck, so with many soap pucks, you can soften a side by soaking in water, then press the puck firmly down into the bowl center, pour off the water, and let dry overnight.  They will often stick in place after that (the flat side of the Van Der Hagen soap does).  The Williams soap is a harder formulation from the factory, however, has a depression molded into both sides of the puck, and even after being stuck down overnight, it will slide loose and get in the way when you start to make lather in the bowl.  The solution is to take a bit of coarse sand paper and rough up the center of the plastic-bowl bottom before you use it the first time. This will give a hard soap like the Williams brand a better surface to grab onto, and it works like a charm. Soften the puck with water, press it into the roughened bowl bottom, pour off excess water, let it dry overnight, and it will stay put.

When you go to shave with brush and bowl to make lather, here are the following steps:
  1. Remember that it is water that lubricates the shave.  The lather is just to help keep the moisture where it belongs.  So...
  2. Make sure your beard (or whatever you're shaving) is well wetted -- ideally with warm water, which can help to soften the hair and make it easier to slice with your blade of choice.
  3. Thoroughly wet your brush with warm water.
  4. Add warm water to the soap puck to soften it.  (This is especially true with a new puck of Williams shaving soap.  After a puck has been used a few times, I find that just a warm, wet brush will do the trick.  For the first couple of uses of the Williams, filling the bowl with warm water and letting it sit for a few minutes, then pouring the water off when you're ready to lather up -- that really does the trick!)
  5. Swirl the brush on top of the puck for a 15 seconds or so to load the bristles with soap.
  6. Swirl the brush around inside the bowl for a minute or two, reversing direction every couple of revolutions.  If you have the right amount of water, you will soon develop a thick, rich lather that will retain peaks almost like whipped cream. (If you're using a mug for your shaving soap, then swirl the soap-loaded brush in your cupped hand, or directly on your face, to make a thick, moist foam.)
  7. You will likely find that some of the richest lather is actually in the brush itself, and this can be squeezed out by hand as desired.
  8. Use the brush to massage the lather into your beard.  This action serves to further moisten the beard and perhaps helps to slightly exfoliate as well as lift stubble as much as possible.
  9. Use the brush to smooth the lather on your face to an even, thin, but opaque layer.  (You don't need mounds of lather; just enough to help retain moisture.)
    (When you're done shaving, excess lather in the brush can be gently massaged back into the bowl.  It will dry and make a great starter lather for your next shave.)
Then shave with razor (or razor system) of your choice.  By the way, you can add steps to the preparation ritual.  Many advocate a nice hot shower before shaving.  Others use a hot, wet towel on the beard.  Some, with sensitive skin, apply a shave oil (you can buy it or make your own) after the face is moist and just before applying lather.  The sky is the limit.  Experiment over time and find what you prefer. Enjoy the ritual.  With the steps above, I've just given you the basics.  Good shaving!

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