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How to Shave with a Straight Razor

Old School Shaving with a Hint of Danger


shaving with a straight razor

© America Haircuts

I've had a lot of people ask me about shaving with a straight razor (also known as a cut-throat razor, for good reason) lately and, in my opinion, shaving in this manner is something better left to professionals. Manufactured blade technology on razors like the Gillette Fusion is so advanced today, you really can get a near barbershop straight razor quality shave at home, especially when combined with proper shaving technique. That being said, however, there are some guys who just have to have a hint of danger in their lives. Shaving with a cutthroat razor is a delicate art and requires time and patience, lest you end up looking like you've been in a fight with a mountain lion. If you think you're willing to stick your neck out and embark on shaving with the straight razor, here's how.

Of course, you'll want to first invest in a great straight razor. The Olive Wood Straight Razor by Dovo is an excellent choice. This type of straight razor will have to be sharpened using a quality leather strop (a quick web search will bring up several articles with the correct technique). The Feather Artist Club DX Razor is a good alternative -- it has excellent replaceable blades which give you quality without having to sharpen them yourself. I use this razor every day in my barbershops. A badger shaving brush and proper shave cream are also essential purchases.

First, you'll want to properly prep you face for the shave. Shave at the end of a shower (to soften the beard). If you prefer, you can apply a few hot towels to your face (as we do in the barbershop) to soften the beard. Next, you'll apply a quality shaving cream using a badger hair brush (I love Dreadnought or Taylor of Old Bond Street Avocado Shaving Cream for this purpose). Apply the cream in a circular motion until a rich lather is formed. I like to allow the lather to soak in for several minutes and then wipe it away with a hot towel and re-apply. You'll want to apply the final application of lather in a paintbrush style motion. The goal is to completely cover your face with lather, but keep the layer rather thin. This will allow you to see what you are doing while scraping the hair from your face with the straight razor.

Next, the shave. Before you ever take a blade to your face, it's important for you to know proper technique and know which direction your beard grows. I strongly recommend seeking the advice of a professional barber who can show you the technique hands-on. To determine the direction of growth, simply rub your hands over your face in every direction. You'll notice if you move your hand one way, there's not much resistance, when you move your hand and feel the stubble, you're going against the grain. Typically, hair grows downwards on the cheeks and sideways on the neck (although it may grown upwards on the neck as well).

To commence with the shave, hold the straight razor with your writing hand, placing the thumb on the bottom of the shank (that's the metal part between the blade and pivot pin) and your index, middle and ring fingers on top of it. Your little finger will be placed on the tang (the little piece that sticks out past the pivot pin). The handle (called a scale) will stick up between the pinkie and ring finger). Next, place the blade on your skin at about a 30 degree angle. It is important to use a light touch and keep the blade moving so it won't dig in to your skin. It is also critical to NEVER move the blade from side-to-side as you will certainly cut skin by doing so.

Using your free hand, stretch the skin so it is tight and shave with the grain. Avoid using short strokes unless you are shaving a small area -- this will keep the blade moving and reduce the chance it will dig into the skin. Remember, your touch should be light and movement should be free. Once you've shaved one side of your face, you'll have to switch hands for the other side (which can be quite awkward). The first pass should always follow the direction of the beard (shaving with the grain) and should consist of roughly ten strokes (typically two on each cheek, one down each side of the neck, one across the chin, one down the middle of the neck, three small strokes below the lip and three strokes above the lip). When you've completed the first pass, you may wish to re-lather and shave against the grain. Finally, wet your hand and feel for rough spots and touch up as needed. For more on the proper strokes, Christopher Moss offers an excellent in-depth tutorial on shaving with a straight razor, which I highly recommend reading. Should you choose to purchase a replaceable blade straight razor like the Artist Club DX I mentioned earlier, you can also practice without the blade to get the hang of the strokes.

Finally, you'll want to finish by rinsing with warm water followed by a splash of cool water to close the pores. Apply a great after-shave balm to soothe the skin. To avoid irritation, proper shaving technique is essential, no matter which razor you use. I should also note, if you're looking for that old school style shave with a higher level of safety, you may wish to try shaving using a traditional double-edge razor.

The first few times you attempt a straight razor shave, you will likely nick yourself (so have a good styptic pencil handy), but with practice you can master the straight razor shave. You'll want to keep in mind that this type of shaving is an art and is not to be taken lightly or hastily. I don't shave with a straight razor because I get a great shave with my five blade razor and great shaving cream. That, and I don't have the patience to devote the proper amount of time to the ritual every morning -- I save the straight razor shaves for when I want to treat myself to something special at the barbershop.

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