If you are a guy who is still stuck in the corporate world like me, then you probably need to shave. And if you shave regularly with cartridge razors, then you are probably somewhat dissatisfied with the process.
I never enjoyed shaving with cartridge razors. First of all, they were always damn expensive. I have seen them anywhere from $3-5 a cartridge for the Gillette Mach 3 razors (basically, the standard of the industry). Highway robbery really. And more importantly, they never worked that well. I have sensitive skin and am prone to razor bumps. I never liked shaving with cartridge razors. Even the fancy $3-5 ones.
In short, shaving sucked and was expensive. That’s probably why I never shaved in school and just used clippers a few times a week.
I had heard of using an “old school” safety razor before, but never gave it serious consideration until my father introduced me to them a couple years ago. He had been bitten by the safety razor bug and had amassed a small army of razors, brushes, soaps and different blades. I think he gave me a starter set for Christmas one year. This is sometimes referred to as “wet shaving”.
After using a safety razor for a couple years I can “safely” say that this is far superior to shaving with a cartridge razor. But I didn’t start this blog to write about grooming. There is a personal finance lesson in here. Once you get over the initial start up costs of shaving with a safety razor (which can be minimal if you shop smart), it is much cheaper to shave with a safety razor than with disposable cartridge razors. So this is also a great frugal hack for guys that want to upgrade their shave while keeping dollar bills in their wallet.
And the odd thing is that it is not only cheaper, but you get a far superior shave. My problems with razor bumps have largely disappeared. Shaving is still a chore for me, but it’s less of a chore with the safety razor. In some cases I’d even call wet shaving mildly therapeutic (some people really enjoy it).
Wet shaving may be one of the best frugal grooming hacks for guys, right up there with cutting your own hair. The goal of this article is to give you a quick primer on the subject so you can stop throwing money away with expensive multi-bladed cartridge razors.
So you need a few items to get up and running with wet shaving. You can probably get everything you need for under $50 if you buy your safety razor on ebay or at a garage sale. If you were to buy all of this stuff brand new I think you are looking at $100-150 – so there is an upfront cost. But once you have your razor, brush, mug, and stand, expect to pay about $30 a year for consumables (blades, soap, and after shave).
Compare that with what you are currently paying for consumables and my guess is this setup will make financial sense for most people. Plus, the shave is going to be a lot better than with disposable cartridge razors.
There are a ton of safety razors out there. Companies still manufacture them, and they have been in production for decades. This is where the “collector” aspect of this activity can emerge, and if you aren’t careful you can quickly amass dozens of safety razors.
Thankfully, that never appealed to me.
There are 2 major kinds of safety razors; adjustable and non-adjustable. I was initially given a Merkur Model 178 non-adjustable razor. This is about as simple as it gets. I actually did not care for this razor all that much and eventually obtained a vintage Gilette “Big Boy” adjustable razor. I liked the adjustable, found that I was able to adjust the razor to obtain a superior shave.
If you want to go adjustable, but not the vintage route, then consider something like the Merkur “Futur”. It’s an adjustable model.
Let me close this section out by saying that this is a rabbit hole if you are into collecting things. There are so many different brands and models of razors, and the vintage element of them means there are far more models than I can possibly discuss in a single article. There are entire websites and forums dedicated to safety razors.
The blades that go into safety razors are somewhat similar to the kinds of blades you find at the hardware store. They are wafer thin double edged stainless steel blades, sold in packs of 5 that can be bought in boxes of 100.
Much like the razors themselves, each blade is different, shaves a little different, and offers the end user an endless variety of options.
Personally, I like Astra Blades. My dad gave me half a dozen different blades to try, and I found Astra suited my purposes the best. Astra blades shave nicely, and you can buy 100 for $10. That’s 10 cents a blade. I typically use one blade a week (5 shaves), so $10 worth of blades is good for approximately 2 years of shaving. You can quickly see how economical it can be to shave with a safety razor.
At any rate, if Astra blades aren’t your thing, experiment with a few others (often you can buy sampler packs on e-bay and Amazon and try out a dozen different types of blades), and then you are all set.
In addition to the Astra Blades I also like Gillette Blue blades and Pohl Silvers. They seem somewhat similar to the Astras, but I still prefer the Astra blades for some reason.
Real wet shavers don’t use shave gels or shave foams in a can. Instead, they use traditional shave soaps, and they apply them with a shave brush.
Much like razors and blades, there are a ton of different shave brushes out there. There are 3 major types: badger hair brushes, boar bristle brushes, and synthetic brushes.
I started out with a cheaper boar brush (the Semogue 830 – which can be had for around $20), but upgraded to a Semogue badger brush once I realized that I liked wet shaving. Brushes can range anywhere from $10 to $100+. I believe my brush was around $50.
Like I said, to get the full experience you will want to pick up some shave soap to use with your brush and shave mug. This soap is a lot better than the foams and gels you buy in a can at the grocery store.
Again, you can really go down the rabbit hole with this stuff and buy all manner of fancy boutique soaps.
Personally, I like C.O. Bigelow shave cream made by Proraso. I use about a dime worth of the stuff for each shave, and a $10 tube is good for a years worth of shaves. This was after trying out a couple different soaps.
This step is completely optional, but I really like Osage Rub as an after shave. Osage is alcohol based, and experts will tell you to not use an alcohol based after shave as it dries out your skin. For this reason, many shaving gurus recommend shave balms (like the Nivea balm shown in the picture). I never liked Nivea shave balm – go figure. I say do whatever works best for you.
Certainly, after shave isn’t a requirement, and I know many people prefer shave balm instead (notably, Nivea shave balm comes highly recommended by folks in the know – I never cared for the stuff).
Stands, Mugs, etc.
You will also need to acquire a shaving mug / bowl, and a stand for your brush and razor. These are items you can find inexpensively online or at a garage sale or flea market.
I believe I have the Omega 226 brush and stand and I use a mug very similar to this one by Edwin Jagger.
That’s basically it. I use an old toothbrush and some dishsoap to clean my razor, brush and mug after each use. I also use a rubber stopper for my sink, and a little isopropyl alcohol to further disinfect my razor after use.
You may also want to pick up a Styptic pencil or an alum block for the occasional nick.
Entire websites are dedicated to shaving tutorials, so I won’t pretend to offer a comprehensive guide here. Plus, I consider myself an amateur. I get the job done, but there are people who take this a lot more seriously then me. I’ll briefly describe how I shave for posterity.
I like to soak my razor, and brush in hot water for several minutes before starting. I fill my shave mug with hot water and stick the brush in there, and leave the razor at the bottom of the sink in hot water.
Ideally, I do this while I take a hot shower. This prepares your face for shaving, and softens up the brush. At a minimum I left the brush soak in hot water for a minute or two.
After my brush has soaked I go ahead and dump out the water in my mug and knock some of the excess moisture off my brush. I then squeeze a small (maybe a dime size) dollop of shave soap into my mug, and work it around in circular motions with my shave brush to build up a lather. If the cream is too thin I might add a little more. If it’s too thick and won’t build a lather then I add a couple drops of water. I work the soap for 30 seconds to a minute until I have built up a nice lather.
After building up the lather I apply it to my face with the brush. I spend a couple seconds to work it in. I then grab my trusty razor and do a light initial pass over my face. I follow the grain of my beard and wash off the razor every stroke or 2 (the bottom of my sink is filled with an inch or 2 of hot water so I just dip the razor in the water). The goal with the initial pass isn’t “beard removal”, but “beard reduction”. You aren’t going for a finished product with one pass.
After the initial pass I apply more shave cream and go over my face again. You can work the razor perpendicular to the grain on this pass, or against the grain. I usually don’t bother with that and go with the grain to minimize irritation. I pay special attention to areas that need it (my neck line, underneath my ear, etc) on this pass.
Usually, 2 passes is enough for me to get a presentable shave. Some people like to do 3 passes. I say, do whatever works for you. In shave circles the goal is a “baby bottom smooth” shave. I don’t particularly care if my face is baby bottom smooth. I just want to get to the office and not have people look at me as if I were a hobo. I find 2 passes actually gives me a real nice shave.
Again, I am not going to pretend to be an authority on wet shaving technique, but I will say that it is real important not to put any pressure on your face with a safety razor. Unlike cartridge razors, you don’t need to apply pressure to shave with a safety razor. Go slow and experiment with an easy surface like your cheek first. If you can’t get a perfect shave at first with a safety razor, then finish up with your cartridge razor and watch some YouTube videos on the subject. It took me a couple weeks to get the hang of it, and I did better with an adjustable razor.
After you are done shaving the first thing I like to do is take a wash cloth, wet it with warm water, and wipe off any excess shave cream. If I missed a spot then now would be the time to take care of that.
Once I’m satisfied with the shave and have washed off my face, I switch to cold water and wash my face with cold water. This closes up the pores.
I then liberally apply Osage Rub to my face. You can use any after shave or post-shave balm that you would like.
If you nicked yourself (which should be super rare once you get your technique down), then consider using an alum block or styptic pencil to help close up the nick.
If you have to shave, I think wet shaving is the way to go. It may seem somewhat complicated and time consuming at first, but after you get the technique down it goes really fast (5 minutes?). It’s well worth the time and effort for me.
And I think that safety razor shaving is a great example of how newer isn’t always better. Just because the TeeVee tells you that more blades are better, doesn’t make it true. These old school razors are cheaper and more effective than cartridge razors.
Again, I’m not an expert. I’m a regular guy who found safety razor shaving and realized it was less expensive and better than using cartridge razors. Here are some additional resources if you want to explore the subject further:
Badger and Blade – This is the most popular shave forum on the web. They have a buy/sale/trade section which I have told can be quite addictive.
Sharpologist – This is Mantic59’s blog. He is known for being one of the first to create shaving “How To” videos on YouTube.