This ultimate guide is meant for all men who want to learn how to shave with a straight razor. Not only will you get better shaves and save some money but you will also learn the subtle art how to enjoy the simple pleasures of life.
A perfect shave feels like meditation. Here we will outline everything you need to know to get you started.
For all those that are not familiar with the terminology – straight razor is a shaving blade that folds into its handle. Basic anatomy of a straight razor is introduced below:
- Cost – if we ignore the initial investment, SR will last decades. And if it is a quality razor, it will also retain value in the aftermarket when taken care of regularly
- Quality of shave – Compared to a cartridge and electric shavers the result will be way superior
- Environmental – It’s very hard to say precisely what’s the difference in the carbon footprint when using a cartridge vs. straight razor. But simple logic dictates that a razor you buy for life must have a smaller carbon footprint in the end. Compared to a razor you need to change periodically for example
- Less razor burn – .. and if done correctly you can prevent it in most cases
- Mediative – Shaving can have almost meditative qualities when done properly. With decent pre- and post-shave preparation, you will be calmer and ready for the daily challenges
- A hobby – Most men shave and see this as a mundane chore that needs to be taken care of with the added cost. Yet this could be a fun hobby. Straight razors come in different styles and designs. Not to mention they look badass
- Learning curve – usually takes a few months to get a decent shave. Standards do vary of course
- Maintenance – keeping your razor blade in working condition needs some work
- Cost – While lifelong cost is cheap the initial investment is high
- Time – takes more time to shave even when you are seasoned SR user
Choosing your first SR can seem like a daunting task at first for those that are still in the decision phase. You need to consider variables like the grind, heft, materials, etc. For this reason, we have added recommendations after each paragraph. This is to give you the best performance for your money. We highly recommend reading also [link] best straight razor for a beginner.
We now go over some of the features you should think about before deciding on one:
It means blades hollowness or lack of it.
Wedge or „flat ground“ typed razors are more suited for fellow gentlemen with shaggy beards. It is more robust and more suited for this type of shaving.
The downside is that they need more honing and may need more time getting used to. It is especially true in the difficult parts of the face like upper lip and chin.
Because the blade itself is thicker and heavier, it resists wear and tear better than its counterpart hollowed blade. But to be frank – straight razors last for generations. Even the hollowed ones so this is just something to keep in mind.
Hollow razors come with a different degree of „hollowness.“ Quarter or ¼ grind means that only 25% of the blades width is concaved. Half grind or ½ implies that 50% of the blades width is concaved etc.
Full hollow grind is a common type of grind these days. They usually produce a“singing“ sound when used – something that many purists find to be paramount when using a straight razor.
Full-hollows and extra-hollows are easier to grind and strop. They also follow the contours of your face more effortlessly making the shaving more comfortable. But are better for gentlemen with softer beards.
- good for rough, heavy beards
- resist wear and tear better
- needs more time getting used to
- stropping/honing need more work – needs more maintenance
- easier to master
- easier to strop and hone
- It goes quickly dull
- more fragile
Recommendation: ½ or ¾ for a beginner. It has the benefits of a hollow grind while retains little bit more weight and is less prone to get chips when accidentally falls in the sink.
Width of the blade or blade „size“ is something that also must be considered when buying your first straight razor. The width is expressed in inches:
8/8 = 1 inch = 2.5 cm
6/8 = 0.75 inch = 1.87 cm
4/8 is half of that = 0.5 inch = 1.25 cm
Two most common sizes are 5/8 and 6/8. The blade width is in some ways more important than the grind. It determines how you are able to access those tight places around your face like under your nose.
Smaller blades have more maneuverability and are easier to control. This means that it is somewhat easier to maintain the right angle while you shave. Again this is all relative. When you become proficient with your blade, you will be able to shave with all the different sizes. No matter how coarse is your beard or how broad or narrow is your face.
- needs more experience
- good for coarse/heavy beard
- good for wider face
- holds more lather thus needs less rinsing
- aesthetically more pleasing (subjective)
- Most new SR come in this size. You get the best of both worlds
- good for novices
- good for coarse
- good for narrow face
- Needs to be rinsed after every pass
Recommendation: Buy 5/8 or 6/8 and the one that appeals to you most design wise. It will be your hands that does the shaving not the width of the blade, so it really doesn’t matter that much.
The tip of the blade has many shapes. Most common variations are the square and the round tip. Besides these, there are also Spanish point, Barber’s notch, and French point.
The square tip has the advantage of being very precise abling you to fine-tune some areas that may be otherwise harder to reach. For example, under the nose.
Because the square tip is very sharp and pointy, it is a riskier choice for beginners. Not only you have to focus on the angle of the blade while shaving, but you also have to take care not to nick yourself with the point.
Recommendation: for a beginner – round tip
Though there are razors made out of other materials, e.g. Damascus steel, stainless and carbon steel are most common.
Carbon steel is more widely used and tends to be less expensive. It is softer against your skin and generally thought to be easier to hone. Giving them a finer edge thus better shaving experience.
Most „singing razors“ are made out of carbon steel as they are less robust and follow the contours of your face.
The downside is that they tend to get watermarks and rust stains if not taken care of properly.
Stainless steel has made a comeback in sorts in the last 15 years. They are more robust, much less prone to rust and getting watermarks. And while some say they are harder to hone, once sharp, they tend to stay that way for a longer period compared to the carbon steel razor.
- + less expensive
- + softer against your skin
- + easier to hone
- – Needs more care
- + less prone to rust
- + good for coarse thick beards
- + maintains the edge better
- – Harder to hone
Recommendation: For a beginner, I would recommend getting a carbon steel straight razor for two reasons. Price and the
Straight razors are highly collectible hence you can buy them from eBay, forums and other similar sites. Many prefer vintage straight razors as people enjoy using tools that have a story and history.
There are also dozens of new manufactures out there so separating the wheat from the chaff can be exhausting work. Luckily we have done this for you in best straight razor companies.
When you are buying a used straight razor, you should check the edge first. Does it have any chips? Cracks? Check both sides for rust? Is there any hone wear? What about the scales, any damage there? – The answer should be no to most of these questions. You can sand out chips and rust, but this requires experience.
For a person who is purchasing his first straight razor, I would recommend buying a new shave ready straight razor.
Why did I underline shave ready? Because many new straight razors need honing before the first use.
Why new? Because you are starting the journey into a world where we don’t cut corners. Where we are calm and focused, and the last thing you want is some old poorly honed straight razor with hone wear on it. That kind of experience may repel you ever using a straight razor again!
Now that we have gone over the basics it is time to discuss the shaving part. But before, we need to go over the pre-shave routine. It is a vital part of wet shaving and without it shaving with a cut-throat razor can feel like torture.
Pre-shaving preparations are meant to produce the most comfortable shave we can. We want our beard and skin to be soft and ready for a razor blade.
Hair consists of three parts: the inner part (medulla), the middle part (cortex) and the outer part (cuticle). Most important of these three from a shaving point is cuticle.
First, we need to break the tougher outer layer. This will enable our hair to become hydrated meaning soft, giving us easier time while shaving. So how to break the tough outer layer of a hair? Heat and some kind of alkaline!
This pre-shaving routine is an old barber routine meant to produce excellent shave as well luxurious feeling. It has some variations, but they all tend to have the same basics.
Should you always begin shaving with a pre-shave routine? The quick answer is – no. If you have skin problems like acne, then you might benefit from the routine and thus following it daily could be beneficial. But for most men with no skin problems and soft whiskers, this might be a little bit overkill.
Don’t get me wrong. I still advocate for using this routine, but you may want to adopt the shorter version for work days. Do the full routine once or twice a week when you got the time.
- Makes your hair more soft and pliable meaning it is easier to cut them and if missed they won’t cause drag. While shaving you want the razor to glide over the hairs which were missed during the first pass. When your beard is dry or coarse or both your shaving will be less than pleasant
- Skin care. Multiple latherings with a shaving brush. Followed by pulling a blade across your face several times does an excellent job of cleansing and exfoliating your skin
- Proper preshave preparation will lessen razor burn no matter which razor you are using for shaving
Is there any difference between those three? As far as the idea of pre-shaving goes the answer is no – there is no difference between them as they all provide the same thing.
They all soften your hair and in most cases clean your pores (except oil). They also add pliability to your skin as well as add lubrication between the razor blade and the skin. So what’s the difference?
The main difference is the user experience. Some enjoy oils, and some don’t. Depending on what is your skin type you might prefer soap or oil. If you have oily skin and you use a pre-shave oil, then it might result in blackheads and white bumps.
Should you use them? Again it depends. The pre-shave routine we recommend is something that most of us do during weekends when you have that „me“ time at hand. But for everyday use, you can skip some of the steps we usually do to be ready in time.
For those lazy weekends
Step 1: Wet up your face with hot water
Step 2: Lather up your shaving cream/soap
Step 3: Apply pre-shave cream/oil/soap
Step 4: Apply lather (yes on top of the pre-shave foam/oil)
Step 5: Cover your face (which is covered with lather) with a hot towel. Anything above 3 minutes is perfect. While at it, listen to music or podcasts or read ten things to do while doing your pre-shave routine. Try to relax.
Step 6: Apply a new coating of lather on your face (upon the old one if there is any left after step 5)
Step 7: Start with the shaving
Step 8: Finishing touches with post-shave products
Tip: To get a good cleansing effect you could use a coarser brush, not the softer silvertip brushes
For those moments when you almost have no time at all
If you are in „if I don’t leave in 15 minutes my boss will fire me“ late then you have to go commando.
Step 1: Take a quick shower and use a pre-shaving oil/cream. The heat and moisture from the shower will hydrate your beard and skin. As discussed earlier the pre-shave product will add lubrication and soften your beard.
Step 2 & 3: Continue with Step 2 and 4 from the previous routine
Step 4: Quick shave with the grain. Up to 2 passes
Step 5: Post-shave products
Step 6: RUN!!
Rarely I am this late but it has happened, and with this routine, I have managed to be ready in 10 minutes
After you have finished lathering up your shaving cream/soap and you have done your pre-shave preparation. It is time to get down to the business!
Remember, that probably you will get some nicks if it is your first (tenth!) time shaving with a straight. And the quality of the shave will likely be somewhat a disappointment, as your expectations were up in the sky. But all good things come in time. So be patient, be focused and enjoy!
While the video above shows exceptional technique and you see a master at work there are some principles I wanted to go over.
For a beginner, I would recommend mastering at first just the simple WTG stroke. As you gain confidence, start also doing XTG and ATG. Your routine could be something like this: WTG, WTG, XTG, ATG
WTH – with the grain
XTG – across the grain
ATG – against the grain
Always test the sharpness before you start shaving. You can try to split a hair from your head. Hold the hair between your fingers and try slicing through it with your razor. If it bends and slides off from the razor’s edge it means you still have some stropping to do. If it passes the test always start shaving with the grain. Keep the shaving angle to 25-30 °.
While shaving, don’t use excessive force. The blade should be sharp enough to glide over your skin. You shouldn’t need to apply pressure on the blade. If it starts tugging the hairs on your face, it might be that the edge is not sharp enough. It could also mean that the shaving angle is above the mentioned 30°
Tip 1: If you are a beginner start shaving only your cheeks and sideburns at first. It gets harder around your mouth, nose, and chin. Gradually as your skill develops, move to those other regions.
Tip 2: this is an old barber trick. Use alum or the smaller styptic stick to get a better grip when pulling your skin. Wet your fingertips and rub them against alum, this adds friction to your fingers
Tip 3: use a sponge. Maestro Chimensch gets the credit for coming up with this. I have linked his superb shaving video above. Enjoy the master at work. Many of us have thought themselves to shave looking at that video.
Now you might expect another lengthy „overkill“ type instruction is coming up next. Well, you are in for a surprise. Pre-shave preparation is all about making the shaving smooth and irritation free. While post shave is mostly about dealing with nicks and such.
Here is a list of remedies you can try out if you managed to cut yourself during shaving or you got razor burn
- Cold water rinse or towel. Cold causes blood vessels to constrict. So all the small capillaries you managed to cut during your magnificent man shave will shrivel thus blood flow will stop
- Alum has the same effect on your blood vessels as cold water, and additionally, it is also mildly antiseptic
- A styptic pencil is basically alum block crystal that is shaped into a more comfortable size
- Shave cut healing gel/creams
- Witch hazel. Is a good alternative if Alum causes a rash on your skin and is also 100% natural. Same properties otherwise than Alum has
- Aftershave of your choice
- Peppermint, menthol and other cooling products
Straight razors as mentioned earlier are made out of carbon and stainless steel. Former needing more care compared to stainless steel as carbon is prone to corrosion. So after using your straight razor:
- Clean your straight razo
- Dry it thoroughly
- Strop it (optional)
- If you live in a humid or very humid climate then coating the blade with a protective anti-corrosion product is a good idea. Tuf-glide is one that is very commonly used.
It is dry lubricant (don’t let the „dry“ confuse you, it is still very much a liquid inside the bottle) meaning it won’t leave the blade greasy/oily and it won’t collect dust. Just cover your carbon steel blade with it every few months and let it try – that’s it!
Tip: when washing your blade avoid getting the scales wet. Moisture will stay inside of the scales and can cause harm meaning rust when left to dry
Tip: when using oil to protect the blade, use applicators like tuf-cloth, etc. Your anti-corrosion product will last longer this way as the applicator will release just the right amount of product on the blade. Also using applicator instead of fingers to cover the blade with the substance will leave your fingers intact and without the smell.
And that’s it. This is enough for your daily maintenance.
This is actually a huge topic and one I will write about in the future. But I will outline the basics here to give you an idea what to expect.
If you order a straight razor from a trusted vendor, it will be “shave ready.” This means that it has been sharpened further after it was manufactured.
This is usually achieved by using different wet stones. Wet stones come in different grit. Combining coarser and finer stones will give you a very keen edge.
The tricky part is the honing. This is something only experience will teach you. No youtube video or ultimate guide can replace years of experience. You have to maintain the right angle and pressure. For this reason, I recommend using the service of someone who is familiar with the process.
Luckily you rarely need to use wet stones when you use a strop regularly. There are two different types of strops. A paddle strop and a leather “belt” strop.
Beginners are often recommended to start with a paddle strop. Because the leather won’t buckle when you apply pressure on it, there is less chance to cut inside the strop. My own experience is different.
While it is probably true that paddle strop is safer to use, the leather strop is much more ergonomic. My hand gets less tired when I use leather “belt” type of strop than compared to the paddle strop.
In this guide we went through all the basics you need to know to start shaving with a straight razor. Some of the topics here are wider and need to be covered in more detail. I have added links to those pages where needed. I wish you a pleasant journey to the realm on wet shaving.