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Old School Shaving 101

Posted by on September 9, 2011

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If you take a walk around the internet it’s pretty easy to find sites romanticizing the art of Traditional (or “wet”) Shaving.

“Traditional shaving” is the term used to describe shaving with a straight razor or safety razor, with additional implements as a strop (for a straight razor), shaving brush and shaving bowl. A traditional shaving enthusiast would not use one of the multi-blade disposable razors and definitely not an electric razor.

Is this an Old School way to shave?
Or is it only an old way to shave popularized to make a buck?

Shaving is the practice of removing the stubble from your mug (mug — good word). It is apparently easy to add a lot of tradition and accessories to this process, but at it’s heart it all comes down to getting a close shave. It is normally a bathroom practice. Like most bathroom practices, romanticizing it as an art is a bit of a stretch.

What if bidets were romanticized as an art? With websites like the Art of Traditional Defecating? (By the way, if you had to click on the link because you didn’t know what a bidet is, feel free to reward yourself with an extra trip to your hardware store.)

What if obsolete medical techniques were romanticized as an art? With websites like the Art of Traditional Leeches?

What if the IRS was romanticized as an art? With websites like the Art of Traditional Leeches?

You don’t have to visit many traditional shaving websites to see what some of traditional shaving fuss is about. Hokum. Bull. Here’s what I wanted to know: Is the shave closer? Cheaper? More comfortable? Faster? More enjoyable? And that information, along side the hokum and bull, is out there, too.

Things that are truly Old School aren’t that way only because they are old. The 386x laptop PC buried somewhere in my garage is old, but it’s not Old School. Old School is frequently old, but it’s always better.

So once again, we must cut the bull to go Old School…

Like many areas of life, the creation of bull is usually spurred on by money.

Old School Rule:  Money is behavorial fertilizer

In the online world of traditional shaving that rule means somewhere someone is thinking, “If a little bit of hype and over-romanticized advertising copy could cause a guy to spend too much on shaving, what could MORE hype and MORE copy do?” Well, this could happen — someone out there is selling a ONE HUNDRED AND SEVENTY-FIVE DOLLAR badger hair shaving brush. And get this: they don’t even give you the rest of the badger.

So let’s cut the hype, the mystique, and the overblown ad copy and take an Old School look at traditional saving. Most bloggers just write. Me? I’m sacrificing my face for you people. Here’s an excerpt from my soon to be bestseller…

“Once My Face Stopped Bleeding It Was Pretty Cool”

Preface: By odd providence I picked up a vintage safety razor at a garage sale for eight bucks. Later that week a friend suggested writing a post on traditional saving. Because this was the first post that would involve a garage sale and potential blood loss, I replied, “Sure.”

In case you’re wondering…
This post is about safety razors with replaceable double edge blades. It is not about straight edge razors. Why? One or more of my boys will frequently sit on the toilet seat lid and talk to me while I shave. (I know. Does it get more Norman Rockwell?) My sons have more than their share of boyish curiosity. If I had a straight edge razor in the house and my boys saw it, I’d have to lock it in a gun safe.

First things first. Had to learn a little. Visited Mantic59’s Shaving Journal. Probably too much detail, but “too much detail” is the exact right amount of detail you want when bringing sharp steel near your face. This site is a great resource of how-to-knowledge delivered in an entertaining manner and the videos are some of the best instructional videos I’ve seen online. I don’t know the blogger personally, but he seems to be a genuine Old School soul and has a great passion for traditional shaving. I love the story he tells about his first traditional shave at a barber shop. It was a anniversary gift from his wife. After the shave his bride reacts.

“My wife has has a sparkle in her eye and a huge smile on her face as she runs a finger along my jawline: “Ohhhhhhhh, mama likes!””

Yeah, this guy is Old School.

I already had the safety razor from the garage sale, so all I needed was blades, shaving soap and a shaving brush. Trip to Walgreen’s and done.

Day 1: Wow, wow, then more wow. My face looks and feels like a cat scratching post, a motorcycle accident or Muammar Gaddafi.

Day 2: I’m not sure if it hurt less this time or my face is building up a pain tolerance.

Day 3: Least pain. Most blood, but discomfort during process was minimal. (This is also a quote from The Journal of Dr. Victor Frankenstein.)

A friend tries to help me.
Friend: What sort of blades are you using?
Me: Blades? This things need blades??
Me (an hour later): Gillette from Walgreens

Day 4: Getting better at this. There is definitely a skill set and hence a learning curve involved. Bought a 1959 Gillette Fat Boy safety razor on ebay based on a suggestion from another friend.

Gillette Fatboy razor

A Gillette Fatboy

Days 5-8: Discovered a styptic pencil. If you’ve never heard of this, it’s a small pencil shaped stick made of a substance that stops the bleeding of shaving nicks and cuts. Also burns like a pleasant chemical fireplace poker.

Day 9 to present: Shaved with the Gillette Fatboy I bought on ebay. Ahhhh… this is the experience they talked about. The right tool for the right job makes all the difference. Pain and blood free. Considering “upgrading” the shaving brush and other shaving accoutrement in the future… “accoutrement?”… I am being sucked into the hype… but, man, that shave feels good.

Now that I’m enjoying traditional shaving, let’s break down the experience.

Money

Despited the initial outlay of cash ($35 vintage razor on ebay, about $15 for brush and soap), shaving with a safety razor is cheaper in the long run. The blades are far cheaper than quality disposable multi-blades and last as long or longer — your mileage may vary.

Time

The safety razor shave takes longer, but it’s a negligible difference. Most of the extra time is taken up working the soap into a lather. Two or three minutes more.

Closeness of shave.

No contest. Safety razor wins. Not just smooth. It’s smooth.

Convenience

If you’re at home, both are the same. If you fly, you’ll run into trouble. TSA says “no” to double edge blades for carry on, but you can have them in checked luggage. I’ll call this a tie, as only you know how much you’re on the road and whether this is a significant factor.

Cool factor

I’m forty-seven years old and still think about things like “cool factor”. I am (or at least partially am) the world’s oldest teenager. There’s an undeniable Old School Cool factor to lathering up the brush and using a razor you don’t throw away but could pass on to your sons.

Enjoyment

This has to be about as subjective as it gets, so with that disclaimer, here we go. The process has a feeling of being both slightly self-indulgent and self-disciplined. You can’t shave with a safety razor absentmindedly without cutting yourself big time. As odd as this sounds, this concentration adds enjoyment to the morning because it engages the mind more than standard mindless methods. In essence, creating the lather, the pace of the shave, adds another small layer of ritual to the morning. Good ritual, by it’s nature, is deliberate and unrushed. Maybe I’m being sucked into the traditional shaving hype — if I am, so be it — but deliberate and unrushed are Old School qualities that I want in my morning.

The verdict?

Cost less. Lasting value of the razor. Enjoyment. Closer shave. Cool factor. Traditional shaving is definitely Old School.

How to get started (or at least how I got started)

  • Visit Mantic59’s Shaving Journal. This site has what you need to know. Watch the videos and you’ll walk away ready and shaving smart. I’ve praised it already, but this site is one of the best niche sites I’ve seen.
  • Pick up a Gillette Fatboy on ebay. There are other razors choices, of course, but I’m speaking from my  personal experience. And you could spend more money and buy a new razor, but I’m betting my readership leans towards the old and classic and not the new and pricier.
  • Pick up shaving soap, brush and blades. You can get them online, at a speciality shop or (at least if you’re in the US) you can get them at Walgreens. There are no doubt better sources than Walgreens, but for sheer convenience it’s tough to beat for most of us.
  • Start shaving.
  • Don’t forget to treat yourself to some Old School Bay Rum aftershave.

That’s it. Now shave your mug.

Keep it Old School, my friend

The Old Man, Chris Dixon

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17 Responses to Old School Shaving 101

  1. gregarious119

    Oh yeah…And I just had my first barber shave last month on vacation. Needless to say, it will become a vacation tradition from here on out. SO relaxing and smooth.

  2. gregarious119

    Couple things:

    1. I’ve taken a blade or two through my carry-on luggage with no problem. I just keep a new, wrapped blade separate from the razor.The TSA searched me and asked about our baby food jars and they never asked about/noticed the blades. (Not an endorsement, just experience). I figure worse thing that could happen is they take the ($.25) blade.

    2. Amazon is a fantastic resource for DE Shaving. Taylor of Old Bond St. creams are fantastic with a brush. Feather and Derby are popular blade brands. You’ll see lots of Old School men in the comments recommending and giving tips about scents and stuff.

  3. village barber UK

    Fantastically funny piece Chris!
    As a traditional barber in the UK for over 30 years, I can certainly agree with you that the modern ‘shaving fraternity’ have gotten slightly carried away with the grammer and can lose the ‘newbies’ with their over-the-top ramblings.
    I also agree that mantic59 has produced some good, educational videos which are well worth a watch, especially if you’re new to ‘real’ shaving.
    Men sadly have forgotten the pleasure that can be had from a well executed shave using only a quality DE and good products. This is due to a large extent by the, at times, farcical advertising from the big manufacturers in the shaving industry (5 blades and an electrical pulse?!).
    I make mention of this on my own website; http://www.thevillagebarber.com/?pid=3
    Thanks again for a great piece!

    • The Old Man

      Iain,

      Thanks for the kind words about the post. Good to hear from a barber with over 30 years of experience at the chair. I enjoyed the link you posted, particularly this comment:

      “The simple truth when it comes to a good, comfortable shave lays in the preparation of the beard before shaving. It’s something that simply should not be rushed. So what if it means getting up five minutes earlier in the morning, you won’t regret it!”

      Correct shaving, like most things Old School, takes a little more time, but it’s worth it.

  4. dcormier

    The TSA only says no to safety razor blades in carry-on luggage. You can check them with no problem (and I have).

    http://www.tsa.gov/travelers/airtravel/prohibited/permitted-prohibited-items.shtm#4

    • The Old Man

      You’re 100% right. I knew checked in luggage was OK, but because I don’t check baggage when I fly, I was thinking in those terms when I wrote the post. Thanks for the heads up! I’ve made the appropriate edit to the post.

  5. mantic59

    Thanks for the shout-out!

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