Besides a razor, you will also need a shaving brush if you are interested in traditional wet shaving. This is another task that might seem complicated at first, as there are numerous different brands, hair types, sizes, etc.
First, we will look at how to come up with a brush that meets your basic criterion. And then we will go more in-depth and view the individual properties of shaving brushes.
How to Buy a Shaving Brush
If you are buying your first brush, you should answer first these four questions:
- How serious are you about this?
- What is your budget?
- Long handle or short?
- Do you want an extra soft floppy brush or one with more backbone and added exfoliating properties?
These four questions should help you narrow it down. If you wish to try out wet shaving but you are still hesitant then you should go with something cheaper. Same holds true if you have limited funds. Then take a look at your hands. Mighty paws or smaller hands? If you have big hands, you might feel uncomfortable holding a tiny handle. Next, ask yourself what kind of sensation are you expecting? If you are thinking about words like lush, soft, embrace and caress then avoid brushes that are stiffer (like boar and pure badger) or have a very short loft.
Once you own a brush and learn to make proper lather, your preferences might change. You also start to understand how the size of the knot and loft affect the lathering. As well as feel different on your skin. From there on the decision making gets more nuanced and will be guided by your own desires.
But for those that are at the beginning of their wet shaving journey, those four questions are a good starting point.
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Shaving Brush Anatomy
Before we dive into the topic, let’s have a look at the anatomy of the brush:.
Key Elements Of a Shaving Brush
Before you buy a shaving brush, you should consider some of the variables. Five main things make shaving brushes stand apart from one another. These also determine the way the brush works and feels on your face. I will quickly cover four of them in the following section. The 5th and one of the most essential elements is the type of the bristle used in the knot. This is a huge topic on its own. For this reason, I will cover that more thoroughly in the next part.
Means the amount of hair glued into the handle. It is expressed in mm and represents the diameter of the knot, measured from the base where the hair is attached to the handle. Knot sizes can be roughly divided into three:
- < 20 mm are small
- > 20 mm but < 24 mm are medium sized
- > 24 mm are large
This is arbitrary as there is no official “rule” how the brushes should be categorized. The fact is that they do come in different sizes, and this distribution taken from the internet is as good as any.
If you are buying your first shaving brush, don’t overthink it. Bigger knot means it feels lusher on your skin. A smaller knot less so. The differences in how they hold water and release lather are unimportant if you have no prior experience with shaving brushes. Because you lack a reference point, you won’t be able to tell the difference.
Large brush – It holds more water. So when lathering, you don’t need to add as much water and it holds warmth better. They also feel more luxurious when used and due to the size are more suitable for gentlemen with larger faces. The downside is the cost. Large shaving brushes tend to cost twice as much as smaller ones.
Small brush – holds less water so when you lather you need to add more water. Also, it cools faster. The upside is that they tend to cost less.
Medium sized brush – are something in between and a good choice for your first shaving brush.
The loft is the length of the “hairy” part. It is measured from the part where the hairs are glued to the handle to the tip of the knot. The lengths vary, but roughly we can categorize lofts the following way:
< 50 mm are short
> 50 mm are long
Again this is entirely arbitrary. Most average lofts are around 50 mm (+/- 2 mm), so this is the median value of the range helping us to classify different lofts. The length of the loft determines how stiff or soft the brush feels.
Short lofts are better for palm or face lathering as they are stiffer. Due to this, they also have better exfoliating properties. But because physically they are short they can be uncomfortable to use in some shaving bowls. The downside is also that they hold less lather and feel less luxurious on your face than longer lofts.
Many companies do not provide this kind of information. It is a shame because without knowing the knot and loft size, it is tough to make any educated guesses how it’s going to behave and feel. For this reason, I recommend Razorock and Simpson. Both are excellent in quality and provide all the necessary information.
Handles are made out of many different materials. Most commonly though synthetic materials are used because they resist wear and tear better. Wood, metal and other exotic materials are occasionally used as well. But the problem with organic materials is that they tend to crack over time.
There are also many different shapes and sizes. It comes down to your own preferences. Bigger handles, for example, are useful if you have arthritis. Or you just have big hands. These are easier to hold onto. There are many different handle styles; some of the most common shapes are Persian jug, Tulip, Polo, Chubby, etc. Again this is purely a matter of aesthetics and has no effect of the performance of your brush.
Brushes come in a considerable price range. You can get one for under $10 or pay $200 and more. The difference? It depends on what type of hair and material for the handle is used. Synthetic brushes are generally cheaper compared to organic ones though boar can be quite affordable as well. More about the quality of hair in the next chapter.
What also influences the price of brushes is the way they are made. Handmade brushes are more costly. That’s why Simpson, the oldest company manufacturing shaving brushes, is so expensive. You have to be careful, though. Some companies advertise themselves as handmade, but in reality, they only assemble pre-manufactured components. If something is too good to be true, then probably it isn’t.
Types Of Shaving Brushes
Many things contribute to the feel and way the shaving brush acts on your skin. Some of them we already covered but probably the most important factor is the type and quality of hair used.
Badger bristle has long been the standard which other shaving brushes are compared to. Badger’s hair is graded into three categories depending on where the hairs are taken. The best grade meaning the softest hair is taken from the neck region. Followed by stiffer yet still soft underbelly hair. Last in quality, meaning mainly the softness, is the hair that is taken from other areas like sides, etc.
How any of the companies decide to call these three grades is up to them as there is now standard. I will present the traditional way the hairs are graded:
Pure badger – is the most common and cheapest grade of badger hair. They usually look dark-brown and are more coarse. Hence they feel more scratchy on your face. This kind of hair is mostly used for machine manufactured brushes and typically are less densely packed. To sum it up – they hold less water thus during lathering you have to add more water. And as stated earlier, feel somewhat hard against your skin. The positive side is that they are cheap and good for harder shaving soaps and have better skin exfoliating effect.
Best or fine badger – Taken from badgers underbelly they are generally two-toned and softer. This type of hair has a good balance between the softness and the way it holds water. It is priced between pure and silvertip.
Super or Silvertip badger – is the highest grade as far the classical grading goes. Taken from the badger’s neck, they commonly have white-silvery tips. They are very soft hence producing luxurious feel on your face. They hold a good amount of water but are not as good for exfoliating your skin. They provide truly splendid sensation and are priced accordingly.
What about Manchurian, Mountain White or super-finest, etc. Though some might argue that Manchurian badger hair is a whole new grade and softer compared to silvertip, many experts and collectors will rank it on the same level as silvertip. And some like super-finest and Mountain White seem to be just marketing gimmick.
Pros: you get what you pay for. Pricier silvertip brushes excel in most categories while pure badger can feel scritchy on your face along with other inadequacies.
Cons: they are expensive
Conclusion: If you have the extra money then go with the best badger. It is a tad less expensive than a super/silvertip badger and comes close in performance and feel.
Boar is also widely used for making shaving brushes and has its own following. Boar bristle is not graded as badger hair. But sometimes you can see the hairs ranked by their softness, e.g., premium, extra, best, super, etc. This is done again by the manufacturer as the hairs aren’t standardized. But it is true that different Boar brushes feel different.
What you will see occasionally is that different brushes come with different “percentage tops.” The percentage represents the amount of boar bristle hairs that are not clipped. So “90% tops” means that at least 90% of the hairs used have the full length. The higher number equals better quality and feel thus heftier price tag.
Boar hair has different characteristics compared to badger: stiffer, has white-yellow coloring (some manufacturers dye the hairs to give them more “badgery” look) and holds less water.
Pros: cheaper, higher end brushes with high “tops” percentage will split in time and will give you excellent lathering properties (clipped hair will not split). Some enjoy the more coarse feeling boar provides on your skin, and it does provide an excellent exfoliating effect.
Cons: needs to be broken in (gets softer and more pliable after some use), abrasive on your skin, needs more time to create the lather, smells (yes boar hair has a distinctive smell that will fade very very slowly)
Tip: before using a shaving brush made out of boar hair, soak it in hot water. Not too hot mind! It needs to absorb some water to become softer. Once broken in, it will get and stay softer.
Tip: to remove the smell from boar shaving brush leave it into water mixed with human hair conditioner. You may need to repeat the same procedure for a few nights, but the smell gets better eventually and disappears altogether.
Conclusion: good boar brushes do exist like the ones made by Omega and Semogue. They will easily outrank many of the pure/best badger shaving brushes once broken in. So if you are price sensitive or just curious then go for it.
Horsehair has been used as material for making shaving brushes over a century. Haven’t seen one in your local store? No wonder. Horsehair used to be popular in the early 20th century, but its popularity declined due to anthrax scare to the point where it was almost gone from the western markets completely. Not so in Muslim countries though. A horse is considered halal meaning permissible by the law of the Quran. So horsehair brushes are much more common in Islamic countries. They are making a slow return of sorts in the U.S and other western countries as well.
Horsehair is taken from the main where the hair is very soft and tail where it is more coarse. Brushes are usually made using the mix of those two or mixing horse hair with boar bristle to give it more backbone. Horsehair brushes are more floppier and better for shaving creams. But this up for debate as one mans floppy loft is another man’s strong backboned loft.
Pros: cheap, good for shaving creams, no animals get mistreated as the hair is clipped
Cons: quality tends to be worse, strong animal odor, lathering takes time and needs practice, tends to be floppy
Tip: don’t soak the brush before shaving as it holds too much water
Tip: to get the horse “smell” out of the brush you can try hair conditioner method explained earlier or soak the brush in water-vinegar 50:50 solution overnight
Tip: If you want to add more backbone to the loft, change your grip on the handle. Instead of holding only the handle, hold the brush by the base of its loft.
Conclusion: I wouldn’t recommend it as your first shaving brush. Lathering is a skill on its own, and you shouldn’t need to worry over your shaving brush or ponder if anything is wrong with it.
For a very long time, shaving brushes made out of synthetic fibers were ignored and shunned. They felt terrible on your skin and underperformed in every sense compared to the organic hair. This dark age lasted from the 1930s till the end of 90s when serious developments took place in the land of nylon fiber. Since then, nylon fiber has become more and more “organic” in the sense of how it feels and acts. The best synthetic shaving brushes now rival best badger/boar brush at a fraction of the cost.
Pro: cheap, ethical (a matter of subjectivity: carbon footprint vs. animal mistreatment?), tries fast which makes them perfect for traveling, don’t need prior soaking before shaving, no smell
Cons: no heat retention, holds water badly, lesser exfoliating effect
Tip: Synthetic hair dries fast. If you are looking for a travel brush, then this is a great choice. Besides, they are rather cheap. So should you lose one there is less regret.
Conclusion: Good option for a beginner. You can get an excellent brush that performs as good if not better for a fraction of what badger brushes cost. Why should one then even consider other options? Badger has a story and the feel. There is nothing sexy about nylon fibers (though some might say the same about badger belly hair)
Shaving Brush Terminology
We have already covered the essentials. But if you happen to read user comments about shaving brushes, you will come across words that can be confusing. I will give you a short overview of these:
Knot density– this is self-explanatory, yet some might wonder how this differs from the knot size. Actually, it doesn’t. It is easier to measure the diameter of the knot than count each and every single hair in the knot. So the knot size is used to express the density.
Backbone – this refers to the rigidity or floppiness of the knot. If the hairs used are stiff or short, then the brush has a strong backbone and usually feels more robust on your skin. Most brushes will get softer in time and lose some of their backbone.
Lather uptake – this means how much lather the brush will uptake. Badger brushes have a good lather uptake so that there is enough lather for three passes. Those with poor lather uptake need to be relathered.
Lather flow through – this as the words suggest means how the brush releases the lather on your face. Some brushes release better than others. This depends mainly on the hair type used and density of the knot. If the brush has a lousy flow through and hogs lather, you will be burning through your shaving soap a lot faster.
Most wet shavers own more than one shaving brush. It usually starts with one, but sooner or later, curiosity will overcome you. And in time you will end up owning different types of shaving brushes.
For a gentleman who has no prior experience, I would recommend shaving brush made out of best badger. It is soft enough, has good lather making properties and is in the right price range.
If you are unwilling or unable to spend $30+, then synthetic brushes are also a reasonable option. You can get a decent brush for half what you would pay for badger.