Ultimate Guide: How To Shave With a Safety Razor


It is easy to find an article about “best razor for a beginner,” yet so many questions remain unanswered. What are the different types of safety razors? What on earth is this aggressiveness everybody is talking about? How to shave and clean the damned thing?

This Ultimate guide aims to answer all of these questions and anticipates the ones you will get once you start shaving. Like all guides, you can skip the parts that are irrelevant for your needs. Take it more as a manual to accompany you in your shaving journey!

What Is a Safety Razor

picture of safety razor anatomy

Double-edge (DE) safety razor has many different designs. But they all have the same basic anatomy: handle and the head containing the razor blade. Razor blade is placed between the cap and the base plate. The head usually has the following parts: cap, base plate, and safety bar.

Besides these physical parts, there are properties that can be measured and which define the way our razor shaves. I have included some that we talk about here:

Blade exposure – is one of the key elements that determine how aggressive the razor is. As can be seen in the illustration above it is the part of the blade that protrudes over the shave plane line.

Blade gap – Another important factor that plays a role in the aggressiveness profile. It is essentially the space between the guard and the razor blade.

Shave plane – is a term which originates from carpentry. This is the figurative line linking the razor cap and guard. While shaving the razor rests on our skin on those two points.

Shave angle – this is the angle we need to use to shave. This should be around 30 degrees give or take 5-10.

Types Of Safety Razors

Before we can pick a safety razor, you should be familiar with different types. In the beginning, I showed an illustration of a razor and its landmarks. Those features are common to all safety razors. Now it is time to give a quick overview of different types.

3-Piece Razor

Picture of a razor showing three piece design. Edwin Jagger 89

This is a classic design. As the name implies, you have three pieces once disassembled. The cap, base plate, and handle. Because it has no mechanism inside like in adjustable razors you have fewer things to worry about. A good example is Edwin Jagger 89. Easy to clean and usually less expensive than some other designs

2-Piece Razor

Safety razor picture showing two piece design. Merkur 34c

As the name implies, you have only two pieces. The base plate is attached to the handle. The second piece is the cap. I like this a tad more compared to 3-piece because of the easy assembly of the razor. Good example – Merkur 34C

Twist-To-Open (TTO) Butterfly Safety Razor

Picture of a razor showing twist to open design. Baili

Unlike the previous razors, these usually come in one piece. The difference is how you load the razor blade. By turning the knob silos, reminding us butterfly wings, will open. Hence the name. This is by far the easiest way to switch razor blades. Don’t get me wrong, 3- and 2-piece designs are comfortable as well, but this is even more convenient. The downside is that the cleaning is harder. If the water is very hard, these razors should be cleaned regularly to avoid scale build-up. Also because of the mechanism, they have many moving parts. For that reason, they are potentially more susceptible to break down.

Adjustable Safety Razor

Picture of a adjustable safety razor. Merkur Futur

Means that you can adjust how aggressive you want your safety razor to be. If you are not shaving every day, and often need to mow down a few days worth of growth, then this type might appeal to you. For longer growth, you make the razor more aggressive. Notice the dialer with numbers under the cap. The blade gap gets wider so the razor won’t clog, pull or tear when you shave. For finishing touches and to achieve the baby-butt-smooth shave dial down the aggression. You can read exactly how it works from here.

Stainless Steel Razor

Picture of a stainless steel safety razor

Most safety razors currently on the market have parts made out of zamak (often referred to also as pot metal or white metal) covered with chrome. This makes them vulnerable to corrosion. This is not a major problem, but once the chrome coating gets damaged, it can quickly become a reality and reduce the longevity of your razor.

I don’t think that a razor that costs around 30-40$ should last forever. I mean most of us change cars, cell phones, etc. regularly so why should we expect a tool we use daily to last longer? But if you want yourself a family heirloom, then you should go for the stainless steel model. They cost more but are corrosion proof. Currently, there are several options on the market that are readily available: Feather AS-D2 , Rockwell 6S, iKon razors, Razorock. A cheaper alternative would be to go with an aluminum razor which also doesn’t corrode.

Vintage Razors

These are the original forefathers of our modern razors. All modern razors use the basic designs that were invented at the beginning of the 20th century. These days thanks to the engineering software the designing and manufacturing of new razors is much more nuanced. While the anatomy remains mostly the same as in the early 20th century, there are plenty of subtle changes that result in a much comfortable shave.

This doesn’t mean that all vintage razors are inferior though, on the contrary. Many proclaim that they are way superior compared to modern razors. And for this reason, these razors are still widely in use. They are generally believed to have better build quality and made out of superior materials. Something that in the light of the previous paragraph is a somewhat dubious claim.

I believe this view is biased to some degree. Let’s face it; all the bad apples have already broken down. So the ones that are still circling most likely have superior build indeed. In 50 years we might talk about current Merkur razors the same way.

Benefits Of DE Shaving

There are numerous ways how to shave. Some of these benefits are shared, and some are unique to the safety razor:

+ You will be saving money

The initial cost aside, your yearly expense is around $10. Depending on how often you switch razor blades of course. On average it is recommended to do so weekly hence four blades in a month. Blades cost around 20 cents a piece when bought in bulk. Twelve months in a year and voila you come up with $9.60.

+ Environmentally friendly

Because you will not be using disposables or cartridge razors your ecological footprint is smaller.

+ You get a closer shave

If you find yourself the right razor it will be one smooth, efficient shave. Very close, comfortable and irritation free. I would recommend Edwin Jagger 89 or Merkur 34C; both are excellent beginner razors. If you have a very coarse and thick beard, then you might need something more aggressive. An adjustable or open comb razor might suit you then better.

+ Can reduce razor burn

If you use mild safety razor like the ones, I just recommended with a fresh razor blade. Understand the reasons why razor burn develops in the first place. And use proper pre-shave preparation. Then there is a high probability that your razor burn days are behind you.

+ Can turn into an awesome hobby

This has happened to countless men. First, you get curious about DE razors. What is it that makes them so special? You read some more and finally end up getting one of the entry level razors. Soon you will be having the best shaves of your life, and you start to wonder. What if I get another? Soon RAD (razor acquiring disorder) kicks in, and you will be buying new razors with regularity. Don’t worry. This is as pleasant as a hobby can get so enjoy the experience.

Disadvantages Of a Safety Razor

There aren’t many, but there are some downsides to using safety razors.

Learning curve

Finding the right razor + blade combination with your razor takes time. It also needs some experimenting to find and prepare the shaving lather with the right consistency. And once you start shaving, you need to use minimal pressure and correct angle. This can be hard at first if you have used all of your life disposables or cartridge razors.

Shaving takes more time

It is paramount to prepare your facial hair before shaving. This is good advice regardless if you adopt DE razors or not. Also to get the best results you need to do multiple passes.  This means re-lathering your face every time. And once finished you need to rinse your razor and other equipment you used. It all adds up so if you come from disposable razors and have used foam from the can then prepare yourself. It will take considerably more time.

Your wife/gf/bf may soon get annoyed

Ha-ha, right? Not, if you have 10+ razors lying around with various shaving soaps and creams. Multiple brushes and a shaving scuttle/mug. All this stuff needs space. You might be able to get away with it if your other half has a lot of cosmetics, face creams and so on lying around as well. She could empathize with you then. But should you develop a severe form of RAD (razor acquisition disorder), start thinking about how you will store all this equipment. And make a peace offering for your missis.

How To Choose a Safety Razor

There are two main things that you should consider. What is your budget and what kind of hair do you have.

If you are not sure what type of razor you should get, also read Types of razors.

Safety razors come in different price ranges. While the average price is around 30-40$ the prices can go as high as 100 and more if you wish a stainless model.

And if you cherish the caveman look but every so often need a proper shave. Or you grow very thick and heavy beard then you might want something more aggressive.

The opposite is true if you have soft whiskers, your beard growth is slow, and you shave daily. Then you might want something that is mild or moderately aggressive.

All else is mostly cosmetics and a matter of personal preference. Some enjoy TTO and some 3-piece razors. Because the latter usually has more handle options many prefer this type of razor. Take Edwin Jagger 89 for example. It has dozens of different handle design to choose from.

There is also the debate should you get a new or a vintage razor. If this is your first or second safety razor, you should consider a new one. Vintage razors are bought from other users from places like eBay. You never know what you get until you have it and they often fetch higher prices than new ones. And should it turn out you dislike the razor, you can’t return it unlike an item bought from Amazon for example.

Razor Blades

Razor blades are an integral part of safety razors. At first, all your attention will go to choosing the right tool for yourself. Once you start shaving, you will be occupied with the technique and worrying if your lather is with the right consistency. This is the way it should be.

After you have gained some confidence should you start tinkering with different razor blades. Otherwise, you can’t tell if the better shave quality is due to your improving technique and better pre-shave routine or really the blade works for you better.

Picture of razor blades

Sample Pack

Numerous different companies produce razor blades. The easiest way to get a taste from each of these is to buy a sample pack. These usually contain samples from all of the major brands. Names like Astra Superior Platinum, Feather, Derby, Personna, Shark, Gillette, Voskhod, Polsilver, etc.

I generally recommend that a novice try 3-4 brands of blades in his razor, pick the one that seems best, and stick with that brand for a few months. Then do systematic exploration. Some brands in some razors for some people are awful, and there is no reason to suffer through that“.

Michael Ham , author of the “Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving”

Does it really matter what razor blade you use? I think it does. So do most other safety razor enthusiasts. It is rather uncanny how one blade gives you a smooth, pleasant shave while blade from another company causes razor burn.

The reason for this is that razor blades have different profiles. Thickness, width, grind, and coating play a role.

Which One Should I Buy

If you are at the very beginning of your shaving journey, I would recommend something that is widely considered mild. A classic beginners razor blade is Astra. Once you progress, you might wish to try out something sharper like Feather. But honestly, the best way is to buy a sample pack. This way you can sample through and find yourself the right blade.

How Long Will One Blade Last

The rule of thumb is that one razor blade lasts around seven days if you shave daily. For me, it is five shaves, after that the shave quality starts deteriorating.

Generally, this depends on what type of hair you grow and what kind of blade you use. Men who have thick, coarse and fast-growing beards usually need to change blades more often. Because the blade gets duller more quickly. Also, some blades tend to hold the edge better than others.

How To Dispose Of Razor Blades

The best practice is to adhere to local waste sorting rules. Most countries though do not specify where you should throw your used disposable razors, cartridges or razor blades. So they usually get thrown inside regular trash.

Throwing away individual blades can be hazardous. You should wrap them inside something once you throw them away. Otherwise, they can rip open your garbage bag. I often put them inside empty food packages for example. But more often than not they stack up on my shelf where I keep my razors. This can get dangerous when the stack gets big enough.

So the best way to store them is to build or buy a razor blade bank. These inexpensive containers will keep them safely in one place until you can throw them away. You can also take a metal can and make a hole inside the lid and use that as a bank. Ugly but effective! Remember also to keep the bank/can somewhere where small children can not reach it.

How To Shave With a Safety Razor

Before you start shaving, you need to do pre-shave prep. You can read about it here.

Shaving Lather

What truly makes wet shaving enjoyable is using the true lather. Not the stuff that comes out of the can but lather you build up using a brush, soap or cream and a mug. Of course, you can use canned shaving foam as well. It is a good option for those days when you are in a hurry, or you go traveling, and you wish to pack lightly. But creating your own lather takes the shaving to a whole new level.

in terms of shave quality and enjoyment, it goes like this:

Worst: cartridge razor + canned foam
Better: DE razor + canned foam
Better yet: cartridge razor + true lather
Best: DE razor + true lather

I highly recommend reading Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving which covers in great detail how to choose the right toolset and how to create the perfect lather.

How To Hold The Razor

showing two different ways how to hold your razor

Both grips shown above are illustrations. The right grip is the one that feels comfortable and firm in your hand

There is no rule to this, but there are two commonly used variations.

First is gripping the razor by the tip on the handle. This ensures that the weight on the razor is doing the work. Your hand controls the shaving stroke direction and angle but avoids adding pressure.

The second option is to grip the whole handle. Because DE razors can be quite heavy, this grip gives a better sense of security. The downside is that at first, you may push the razor too much against your skin. That can irritate the skin and cause nicks.

This comes down to the handle size also. If you prefer the first option, then this works better with smaller handles. The second option is better for longer and heavier razors. At the end of the day, the grip is a matter of personal taste. Both give the same result.

Riding The Guard

Once you start making the shave stroke, you need to be aware of the angle you use. Some razors work better with steep shaving angle. Others with a shallow angle. Steep angle means that you are riding the guard.

Most razors are designed to be mild or moderately aggressive. Usually when you shave your cheek touches both the razors guard/safety bar and the cap. To make it a tad more aggressive you lower the handle. This will make the angle between the surface of your face and the razor more shallower. Your cheek is now only touching the guard.

Riding The Cap

The opposite is true if you wish to make the razor less aggressive. You increase the angle between the face and handle. You essentially are now riding the cap, and the shaving angle gets shallower.

showing steep and shallow shaving angle

Shaving Angle

Changing the angle can feel at first counter-intuitive. Your brain somehow anticipates that when you ride the cap, the razor should get more aggressive. This is not so as can be seen above. Some razors tend to shave better at a steeper angle, but most are designed to work best at 30-degree range.

Care And Maintenance Of DE Razors

Most safety razors have some parts made out of pot metal which tends to rust. Only expensive stainless steel models are free of this affliction.

To prevent that happening razors are covered with chrome. The quality of the chrome varies. Merkur, Edwin Jagger, Muhle, Rockwell, and Vikings Blade, for example, have a very thick and quality chrome finish. Cheaper Chinese and some Parker razors, however, have a much thinner coating.

Once the coating cracks and water has access to the inside corrosion can kick in. This is a bigger problem in a humid climate where the air is saturated with water. To prevent this, you should always handle your razors with care. Shaving while showering is probably the most common way for how people drop their razors. Wet soapy razor is an accident waiting to happen.

Also keeping your razor on a stand is a good idea. Besides protecting it from falling from the shelf, it is a convenient way to store it. And it looks tidy as well.

Sterilization

You could sterilize your razor using boiling water or strong alcohol. But why? Do you really believe that germs on your razor will somehow harm you while your body is literally filled with them? It has been estimated that bacteria make up 1-3% of our body mass. Killing them on your razor is just a waste of time

Cleaning

Soap and shaved hair will cling to your razor and needs regular cleaning. Some users advocate using vinegar or bleach. While vinegar removes hard-water deposits, it smells awful. Bleach will ruin a razor so should be avoided also.

Best way to clean your razor is to stick with Merkurs own recommendation: “Regular maintenance with a soft brush and the occasional degreasing with hair shampoo or dishwashing liquid prolongs the lifespan of the metal razors and removes matte spots.”

Drying

After you have cleaned your razor, you should pat it dry. In colder areas where the air is less humid or if you have central heating, you could leave the mower to air dry. Just remember to shake away the excess water that clings to the razor and blade.  But if you live in an area where you have high humidity, then you should always pat it dry. Take care not to damage

Fighting The Rust

If by some misfortune the chrome coating has cracked on your razor. Or you can already see the coating bubbling then your razors days are numbered.

This doesn’t mean that you should throw away your razor though! It can still last for many years if you properly care for it. If you see that the coating is bubbling, try to remove it. It is doing this because it is rusting underneath.

Trying to sandpaper the rust away can be complicated and not entirely effective. Better to immerse the razor into a mix of water-vinegar-salt and let it stay there overnight. Smelly business but necessary. After that rinse it and immerse it again, but this time into water-baking soda mix. After that, it should be easy to remove the rust if it hasn’t already fallen off by itself.

This goes against what I wrote in the cleaning part I know. But once the protective chrome coating is damaged, there is no need to be overly gentle with your razor. I am afraid you are now fighting a losing battle and better to be aggressive.

Now that your razor is free of corrosion you still have a problem. Because most razors have some parts made out of pot metal, it will start rusting again. To protect it rub oil (e.g., olive oil) over the cracked place after shaving.

Vinegar, baking soda, salt and bowl is what you need to remove rust

Summary

I hope this piece of writing was useful to you. Some of the topics that were covered here might not have crossed your mind yet. As mentioned in the foreword take it more like a manual. Bookmark it and always return if you happen to get questions or issues when using your safety razor.

Also, read Why Do I Get Razor Burn and How To Avoid It and Types of razors.

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