Shaving doesn’t have to be painful and annoying, it can be one of life’s small pleasures. Once you’ve become proficient with the razor, you can start enjoying the closest and most comfortable shaves of your life. You can also start enjoying the Zen of straight razor shaving. Instead of rushing through the daily ritual and trying to hack away facial hair and skin, you can look forward to shaving and the joy it provides you on a daily basis.
Learning to shave with a straight razor is a huge accomplishment. I’m not going to lie to you and say it is easy. But it’s not terribly difficult either. While some people consider it to be an “art,” this was the exact same shaving method used by our great grandfathers and possibly our grandfathers. If they could do it, we can too.
That said, you shouldn’t go out and dive in head first. Like all good and worthwhile things in life, learning traditional wet shaving takes time and patience to learn it right and avoid mistakes. After all, you didn’t run before you walked, and before you walked, you had to learn to stand. It is the same thing with a straight razor. You cannot just jump right in like a modern cartridge based razor, nor is it as easy as a Double Edge razor. Admittedly this is exactly why straight razor shaving has died out as a normal method of shaving.
Here are some tips to help you get started.
Practice Makes Perfect
I know you’ve been told this over and over again throughout your whole life, but it is true. Without muscle memory, we are basically just stumbling around doing things haphazardly. While a straight razor is much more elegant than a knife, in the larger scheme of things, shaving with a straight razor is one small step away from shaving with a knife. Don’t believe me, check out this video.
So, unless you want to regret ever trying to use a straight razor, I suggest you follow my advice.
Get to Know Your Razor
Feel how it balances in your hand. Try different grips with it. Slice the air, wave it around (safely), or shave your arms and legs. Whatever you do, just get used to how it behaves. 90% of straight razor shaving is controlling the angle. If you can’t control the razor, you won’t get a good shave.
The best way I have found to learn proper angle & holding technique was to shave the back of my hand. Doing that once a day for a few days taught me how the razor worked, what angle was necessary to achieve a cutting action, and most importantly it familiarized me with the razor. Another good technique is to practice the razor strokes in the air. Yet, another technique suggested to barber school students is to shave a balloon or tomato. If you use a balloon, you might want to consider lathering with water only as it could explode.
Now, it is a good idea to shave with both hands. However it is not necessary. I’ll show you how to shave with only one hand in a later tutorial. But if you can master the non-dominant hand, you will find it to be vastly superior, allowing you to shave tough spots much easier.
Each razor has its own balance point. This is affected by things such as blade width, scale material, scale shape, blade shape, hollowness, etc.. Keep trying different grips on the razor to find the one that works best for you. Remember, it is your razor, not mine. You can shave with it however you want. Or, you could use a cleaver like the fellow above. I should note at this point that you will need a separate grip for shaving against the grain. So learn at least two grips for your razor.
Start Off on the Right Foot
Many people start off on the wrong foot. They don’t want to invest the money necessary to start off well, fail to do any preliminary research, or trust the advice of someone who doesn’t actually shave with a straight razor. What happens is that they buy a razor made in Pakistan or some other low quality manufacturer. The second most common mistake is that someone purchases a vintage straight razor without having it properly restored or sharpened.
Don’t skimp on quality. Either buy a professionally honed razor or send your razor out to be professionally sharpened. Look, you wouldn’t shave with a knife would you? Well, if you would, you shouldn’t be wasting your time reading this. For the rest of us, we want a comfortable shave. A shave ready razor is the minimum sharpness level you should be shaving with for maximum comfort. A professional sharpener ensures that shave ready means the razor is honed and tested to ensure it will shave properly. We strop your razor prior to packing it in a light coat of mineral oil and placing it in a plastic bag to ensure 100% sharpness during the shipment back to you.
It’s All About the Angle
Using a cut throat razor is all about the angle. Too high and you end up scraping skin and pulling hairs. Too low, and you won’t cut anything. A truly sharpened razor will be able to shave with a minimum of angle, depending upon the hollowness of the razor and spine wear.
The most recommended starting point is 30°. This angle should not be the starting point, but should be used as a maximum suggested angle. If you’re finding that your razor needs more than 30° to shave properly and is not a wedge, it needs sharpening.
While attaining a 30° angle may seem simple, the truth is that it’s actually quite difficult for many people. The most common mistake is to underestimate the angle you’re using or to gradually increase the angle without knowing it. This is especially true when shaving the chin. Using a higher angle than necessary is what causes irritation, pulling, and scraping.
Below are examples of a few angles, all 30° and under. The angle reference is measured against the legal pad.
A Quick Primer on Stropping
Stropping does two things: realigns the edge and slightly sharpens the razor. I say slightly because the amount of metal removed is measured in microns after a marathon stropping session. A strop is a piece of leather used to “back hone” the razor. Cotton or linen strops are also used and are recommended. A strop is not necessary, but unless you want to be sharpening your razor every other week or once a month, you should invest in one. Click here for some ideas on low cost alternatives.
Quick note: If you’re trying to save money and are not sure you want to stick with a straight razor, I suggest not purchasing a real strop until after you become committed. Use a leather belt instead.
Stropping should consist of 100 back and forth strokes on a leather strop prior to shaving. You can strop the night before, but for optimal results, strop right before you shave. The spine of the razor leads the blade, otherwise you’ll cut into the leather. Flip the razor over by rolling on the spine. To avoid cutting into the strop, start the roll just before you stop the stroke. That way when the razor comes to a stop to go in the other direction, the edge will be off the leather, minimizing the risk of cutting. Also, don’t lift the razor up. That is bad. Click for a more detailed guide on stropping.
Beard Prep is Key
As the title says, beard preparation is the key to a successful attempt at straight razor shaving. Skimping on preparation will only cause unnecessary trouble down the road. That said, if you don’t have the time, you don’t have the time.
Many people shower or wash their face right before they shave. This is a good practice. Not only does the soap and water clear any dirt on your face, but the hot water will seep into the hairs and soften them. Making for an easier cutting medium. Another option some people use is the hot towel method. You know, the same method used by luxury spas or shaving barbers. To replicate the luxury, microwave a damp towel and wrap it around your head. Make sure you don’t microwave it too hot, you don’t want to burn your face.
Some men prefer to go a step further and use a pre-shave oil or cream. Recommended products can be found in our straight razor shaving equipment guide. Still others utilize both a pre-shave oil and do a pre-shave lather. A pre-shave lather is just that, a lather that you don’t shave with. You just let the lather sit and soak for a few minutes prior to wiping it off.
Whatever you choose, what’s truly important is that you stay away from canned goo. Not only does it cost you money and kill the environment, but it doesn’t work as well as traditional shaving soaps. Investing in a quality brush and soap will pay you dividends in the long run. Our favorite soaps can be found here. Not only in better shaves, but in savings as well.
Your First Straight Razor Shaves
Before you begin shaving with a straight razor make sure you will not be distracted. Turn off your phone, lock the door, put the kids to bed, send the wife out to get groceries, etc.. This is extremely important because distractions are what leads to bad cuts. Now, take a breath and heed the following advice.
Shaving with a straight razor is not a competition, not even against yourself. You get no points for finishing faster; in fact if you rush the learning process, you will develop bad habits. If you don’t manage to finish, you are not alone. In fact, I don’t recommend you attempt to shave your entire face or try to achieve a “normal” shave for your first straight razor shave. While some people are skilled enough to do so, there is no reason you have to. There is no stigma attached to finishing with a DE razor. If you don’t finish with a straight, you haven’t failed. In fact, you took your first steps to a better shaving method.
Learning to shave with a straight razor isn’t something that happens overnight. It takes a certain amount of skill and familiarity with the razor to perform properly. Go slowly and train yourself to handle the straight razor properly. Once you have mastered the art, you’ll never look back. You will join the ranks of the few and proud straight razor users. Trust me, the work is worth it.
For your first shave, I recommend you just try to shave your cheeks and only with the grain. If you’re feeling adventurous, try an across the grain pass. But by no means should you try to do an against the grain pass. Doing an against the grain pass is extremely difficult with a straight razor and is where all weepers come from. Don’t worry about getting the offhand side with your offhand. Shaving with your non dominant hand is extremely difficult.
For your second shave, you should try to shave a little more. Don’t worry if all you can accomplish is shaving your cheeks. Your off-hand is likely lagging far behind because of lack of use. Again, not an issue. If you have to shave using only one hand, that is acceptable. There is no right way to use a straight razor. All your trying to accomplish for the first few shaves is two things: 1) just getting comfortable with the razor, how it feels, and how to use it; and 2) whether this is something you want to stick with.
The next area to add is the section from your jaw line to neck. This is a difficult area. Most men’s beards grow downwards, so use a downwards (WTG) stroke. Focus on your dominant hand first. Don’t try to use your non-dominant hand. Meanwhile, continue shaving slowly and working on your non dominant hand and mastering the WTG pass. I’m not going to tell you not to do an ATG or XTG pass as it’s up to you, but if you don’t manage to do these, you are not alone. You are also not alone if your offhand learns extremely slowly. It took me six months for my left hand to catch up with my right hand. Even today I still shave with my right hand where shaving with my left presents no clear advantage.
The next area to tackle is your chin and moustache area. These are the most difficult areas to shave. I recommend not tackling these areas until you are getting good results from the other areas. The only personalized advice I can give you is that each chin is different. What works for me might not work for you. The best advice I can give you is to go slowly, and use a lot of trial and error. For the moustache, I highly suggest only going for an XTG pass. Some people report that it’s possible to get baby’s butt smooth on your chin with just a couple of WTG pass.
The rest of the learning process is rinse, lather, and repeat. Once you’ve mastered the WTG and XTG passes, you can then move on to against the grain. With practice, dedication, and concentration, you will achieve the perfect shave. Shave on my friends!