The conclusion I came to was that I need to simply write out a simple FAQ or troubleshooting guide for the newer gentleman and ladies, as well as some more advanced concepts for those of us who are already down the rabbit hole. (Note: all of these are questions I have received in the last year via email, text, or phone call, or found on different forums.)
My lather is too runny or too thick.
The first thing you need to do is figure out if you have hard water or soft. This is actually a very common problem that a lot of people have and don't realize it. One way to check is if you have chalky, white deposits on your shower head or sink, you probably have hard water. Hard water has an over-abundance of minerals such as calcium that can really mess up your lather. Try buying a gallon of distilled water and heating it up to shave with. This can help immensely. So you've got soft water, but your lather still doesn't whip up nicely. I generally advise people to start with less water and add more as you go rather than over-doing it right away. You can always add water, but getting water out of lather is as ridiculous as it sounds!
What kind of brush should I get?
There are four primary brush styles: badger, boar, horse, and synthetic. There are also blended hair style brushes that utilize the properties of both hairs in the same brush. Technically, they could be considered their own subset but if you understand the pros and cons of each hair style then it should be simple to determine what a blend would offer. Badger is generally softer and holds a lot more water. There are several types of badger hair as well, but there are so many companies with their own standards for what silvertip and pure mean. Boar is stiffer and holds less water. I prefer my boar brushes on harder tallow-based soaps such as Mitchell's Wool Fat. The stiffer bristles will agitate the soap more efficiently than badger, generally. Horse hair is basically described as being a halfway point between badger and boar, with a firm feeling but also very soft. Synthetic brushes are designed to imitate natural hair brushes and are targeted towards those with allergies or issues with using real animal hair.
Are soaps or creams better?
This is a great question I get a lot from the newer guys, especially initially when they're building their first set up kit. I usually tell them that creams are generally a little more expensive (although, creams like Derby are very inexpensive and serviceable) but will probably create a better lather early on in your learning window due to its consistency. Soaps are usually a bit cheaper, although higher end brands such as Mitchell's Wool Fat or Tabac can be almost as expensive as high end creams. Brands like Ogallala and Colonel Conk can be had for a few dollars and will provide at least six months of lather with regular use. The downside is that using soap requires a little more work and time to scrub off enough soap into the brush and then to work the lather either on top or in a separate container. Soaps come with different options for ingredients as well, with some being animal-fat or tallow based, or glycerin based. You can also find organic and natural soaps. Soaps can also be milled into flakes to melt into your favorite mug or scuttle, or cut to size to fit the same.
What is a strop?
A strop is a piece of leather or canvas that aligns the microscopic edge of your razor blade before you use it. A leather strop cannot take metal off the blade; this is why we hone the razor on a whetstone intermittently. The strop will only help shape the blade back to its original bevel. Most strops come with two pieces, one that is usually a fabric much coarser than the leather that serves to agitate the blade and heat it slightly before stropping. There are two primary types of leather used: horse and cattle. Horse is considered better because of its inherent ability to hold more moisture, which is key to keeping the leather conditioned. If you are a straight razor user, you need a strop because without it, you will find that the microscopic edge on your blade will not last as long, start to tug and pull, and you will end up with less than favorable shaves. With a safety razor, you can simply throw the blade away and start fresh, but with a straight razor, you must routinely and regularly maintain your blade to ensure it is working as it was intended.
I bought 100 of the same blades and I don't like them. What should I do?
First and foremost, its a great idea to pick up a sampler pack with as many different brands as possible. A lot of people ask me what the best blades are, and I usually tell them its like asking me what the best kind of food is. My answer is always the same: whatever you like the best. I personally prefer Sharks and Feather Platinums, but for others, they are far too sharp and aggressive. You're much better off getting a sample pack or even going in on a huge one with some buddies and try all of them. Remember, and I'm serious, take notes. Also keep in mind that there are minor discrepancies between two different blades even of the same brand. I hated Sharks until I accidentally brought some on a business trip and was forced to use them for a week and upon my arrival home actually preferred them by far and away to other brands. My point is to experiment.
So here is a simple FAQ guide for beginners to help troubleshoot some basic concepts. I plan to cover basic honing and restoration in my next blog, so stay tuned, and make sure to check us out on Facebook and Twitter!