A Brief History
The history of the shaving brush is a bit of an obscure one. A handful of historical references point towards the origin of the shave brush coming out of 18th-century France. However, several other references date before this and come from countries all around the world, so it’s quite difficult to say with confidence from where and how the shave brush emerged. But we do know that this - coupled with the introduction of the straight razor design of around the same time - it revolutionized men’s shaving.
Previously, shaving was done almost exclusively by barbers, unless depilatory creams were used to scrub the hair off. The shaving soap was lathered with a sponge or the likes, squeezed into the barber’s hand and then applied to the client’s face. Traditional shaving brushes were then introduced, and typically made with the hairs of European or American badgers, but because of animal protection policies, most badger hair is now obtained from China. By binding and gluing these hairs densely into a handle, the badger hair more efficiently whips up a lather than a sponge or hands, as it more effectively introduces air into the lather and helps the lather in the brush to retain water and prevent drying. This makes it ideal for getting a close, 2- or 3-pass shave in good timing, as you will not need to keep adding water to the lather between the passes.
What to Expect
When looking to purchase a natural-hair shaving brush, there are a few things that you should expect. The extent you’ll experience the following in your brush will vary depending on the hair grade. With most true animal hair shaving brushes, there will require a break-in period, during which three main things happen:
- The Badger Funk: Remember, this is hair from an animal, and will smell as such. Even high-end shaving brushes will not have been processed to remove the stench. That’s on us wet shavers, but take heart! It should only take 5-10 lathers to get this out.
- Shedding Hairs: Whether hand tied or done by machine, there are bound to be a few loose hairs in the brush knot. During the first few weeks of use, any weak, brittle, or loosely-glued hairs will shed out of the brush. This is perfectly normal and is of no concern, since most shaving brush knots contain upwards of 20,000 hairs. So even 20 lost hairs is a minute percentage and will not affect the performance of the brush.
- Splitting Hairs: If possible, lathering should be limited to the tips of the hairs/bristles, so as to avoid damage to the glue or center of the knot. Over time, the abrasion of lathering against a rough bowl or stubble will cause splits ends on many - if not most - of the hairs, resulting in a finer texture and a more pleasant lathering experience.
Now, there are multiple grades of badger hair, and even different types of hairs/bristles used in today’s market. As with most things, these different brushes come with their pros and cons, and that’s where personal preference comes into play. Read on to find out which brush is best suited for your style or habits, or if you’d just like to learn a bit more about each grade!
Pure Badger: Regarded as the coarsest of all badger hair grades, pure badger hair is a great economical choice for those who’d like to try out a true badger hair shaving brush without emptying their pockets. The “pure” grade hair shaft is easily distinguished from others, often being pure black or dark grey in appearance. They also may have what’s accurately known as a “3-band” appearance: a literal 3-banded color transition from grey/brown, to black, then back to grey/brown at its tips. Though coarse, pure badger hair will splay somewhat easily. This will mean that the circular lathering motion will be more exposed to the center of the knot, where the hairs are glued together. This may work the hairs out of the glue if you’re not careful, so make sure to be gentle when lathering, and use only the tips to generate the lather. The extent to which pure badger hairs split is minimal, but the brush will still soften over time.
Best Badger: Quite the step up from pure badger is the “best” badger hair grade. Best badger hair is noticeably softer than pure badger, and is also lighter in appearance. Almost all modern best badger brushes are 3-band in appearance, but with a lighter color scheme. Best quality hair features great “backbone”, a word used frequently with brushes to describe their resistance to splay. This characteristic aids in the brush’s ability to lather hard soaps quickly and with little pressure added, aiding to the life of the brush. This, combined with significantly softer hair, makes best badger shaving brushes a highly desirable, middle-of-the-road shaving brush at a good price point.
Super Badger: Super badger hair is noticeably softer still than best badger, and typically features a lighter 3-band color scheme than best grade hair. Super grade hair is harder to come by, and has a great balance of great backbone yet soft tips, so will thus come at quite a high price point. Many manufacturers bleach the tips of this grade, giving it a “2-band” appearance and a gel-like texture against the skin.
Silvertip Badger: The crème de la crème of hair grades, silvertip badger hair is highly regarded as the softest grade, and so will also come at a premium price point. Thisgrade typically features the common 3-band appearance, but with silvery tips that give this brush its silky-smooth feel against the skin. Because silvertip badger hair is so fine, it will splay quite easily, so lathering up a hard soap may take some extra time if not densely-packed. However, many find this a worthy trade-off because of its luxurious, cloudlike feeling.
Boar Hair/bristle: Boar bristle shaving brushes are incredibly economical. It is not uncommon to find a decent boar brush under $10 USD and, after its break-in period, many do truly find this to be a tremendous value. Boar bristles are very coarse upon first use, so keep this in mind if you like to face lather but have sensitive skin. I personally have found that soaking the brush in cold water for 2-3 days does help soften the hair, even before its first lather. Boar brushes will benefit the most from a break-in period, but keep in mind that the process may take a couple months to complete. However, after this time, you will have a brush that is at the top of the backbone chain and has a reasonably soft canopy.
Horse Hair: Horse hair has been used in shaving brushes for quite some time as well, but is quite unique in many ways. Badger and boar hair is obtained after the killing of the animal, where the primary use for the animal is for consumption or, in the case of many badgers, to prevent destruction of crops and produce. Horse hair, however, is obtained only via capturing the remains of lost hairs when brushing the mane of the animal. The hair itself is very stiff - as with badger - but is very fine, and is typically much softer at the tips. The hair comes in a range of color, but is most often dark brown or blonde. For those concerned with animal ethics but looking to obtain the benefits of a natural hair brush, look no further.
Synthetic: Synthetic shaving brush knots are composed essentially of finely tapered plastc fibers. Their history dates back to the early 20th century when there was a sizable case of anthrax poisoning due to lack of disinfection of badger and horsehair shaving brushes. The use of synthetic materials thus eliminated the risk of infection while shaving. Though poisoning is no longer a concern, synthetic brushes continue to evolve, and are highly praised for their incredible softness, ease of drying, and no smelly break-in period. Their quick drying time and value price makes them a great travel option. However, if you’re in need of a 2-3 pass shave, you may have to add water and quickly relather between each pass, due to the brush’s effective water release. Nowadays, this is a great alternative for the utilitarian, value shopper, enthusiast, and animal lover alike!
With the number of dedicated wet shavers out there, as well as the incredible advances in technology, handle material, shapes and more, there is most likely a shaving brush out there that will fit your need. It’s up to you to decide which one in the sea of options is the right one to get the job done!