Straight Razors: Tips on Getting the Ultimate Shave
We love to watch our customers fall in love with wet shaving! Whether it is whipping up a top notch cream, finding the perfect post shave product, or entering the realm of “cut throat” shaving, we want to give you the best experience possible. So we sat down with our honemeister to get the skinny on taking on the straight edge.
Max gave us some pro tips for those of you thinking about getting the “ultimate” shave. And there is really no closer shave than the traditional “cut throat” way.
- First, you have a longer edge, which reduces the number of passes of the blade so you get less irritation.
- Secondly, proper technique has you stretching the skin so that you are opening the pores and pushing more of the hair follicle up to meet blade. This results in a smooth finish.
- Third, you get a cleaner shave --- literally. With a straight razor there isn’t gunk getting clogged in the head. And a clean razor means those micro abrasions, nicks, and cuts have less chance of getting infected.
No wonder it is the ultimate in wet shaving. So want to get started? Here are a few tips.
Pro-tip #1 – Get the right razor
Max says the biggest mistake he sees with a newbie is that they don’t pick the right grind for their beard type. Believe it or not, ¼, ½, full-hollow grind means something! The coarser your facial hair, the stiffer your blade needs to be. A common full-hollow ground blade is great for general beard growth removal and average hair, but if you have coarse whiskers, you are really going to want to look at a ¼ or ½ grind on your blade. That means if your five o’clock shadow starts to make an appearance just after lunch, you probably need a stiff grind. The length of blade effects the shave as well. Many start with the 5/8” as they learn to navigate the blade, but they often graduate to longer blades as they get comfortable.
Pro-tip #2 – Reduce the variables
Often a new straight shaver will want to strop, hone, and shave all at once. STOP. Don’t try to learn all the techniques at once. Focus on your shave and then add new skills as you advance. Make sure you get your razor professionally honed to start. (All our razors at West Coast come to you shave ready from Max, our expert honemeister.) Then, don’t “test” the edge with the “hanging hair” or “thumb” test. Just let the shave speak for itself. For the first 3-6 months, just concentrate on technique – basic stropping, prepping the face, and shaving.
Pro-tip #3 – Care for your strop
That little bit of leather is needed to keep your edge in tip-top shape. By running the blade along the strip you warm up the steel and work out the microscopic nicks created by your shave. A razor edge is the thinnest in the world so even a hair can leave an impression. Before every shave you need to strop. And the leather needs to be cared for. Max doesn’t recommend paste. Instead, he would suggest leaving your strop in a common area and rubbing and warming it with your hands. The natural oils from your skin are just as good as a paste – and leave less residue. Everything on your razor will get transferred to the very porous surface of the strop, so it is imperative that you keep it clean. A double-sided strop with cotton or linen is great for cleaning off the oxidation from the razor before it touches the leather. If the leather does get dried out and needs reconditioning, neatsfoot oil is your best choice.
Pro-Tip #4 – Care for your razor
Most razors are carbon steel or stainless steel. The carbon steel is beloved for its “feedback” and great shaving, but it can rust quickly without proper maintenance. The stainless option is less prone to rust but doesn’t have the nice audible nature that wet shavers seem to love. Regardless of your steel, it needs to be cared for, and that means keeping it dry. Max even dries his razor between PASSES during his shave. Because it takes time to reapply lather and get ready for the next pass, he keeps a towel handy to wipe down the razor. Keep it DRY could be the mantra for wet shavers. (Hey, ya gotta love a good paradox.) Even a stainless razor will rust and corrode over time, so never put a wet blade in a drawer or cabinet. A stand is a great option. After leaving the blade in the open position to dry completely, then you can return and stow it away. In fact, Max recommends having two razors so that you can alternate them. (Tell your wife he said so!) The steel really needs to rest about 24 hours after use, so allowing one razor to rest and dry completely while you use the other can lengthen its life. According to Max, oil isn’t necessary and only gunks up the razor and the leather for your strop. However, if you are going to store your blade for a time, then an oil is good for protecting it. Just make sure you wipe it all off before heading to the strop.
Pro-Tip #5 – Sharp vs. Smooth
As you hone your technique, you might notice that there is a balance to be found between a sharp blade and a smooth blade. Believe it or not, some shavers find their blades can be honed too sharp. When this happens they get more irritation and drag as the blade hits every little imperfection. A little bit less sharp blade will result in a smoother shave that glides perfectly. (Just like double-edge safety razor, shavers will find that there are blades that work better for them than others.)
Pro-Tip # 6 – Stropping
Nothing should ever touch the edge of your blade. As we’ve already said, a razor’s edge is the thinnest and sharpest there is. So touching it – with a hair, cloth, thumb, etc. – is just damaging it. (Of course, when you shave you are touching your facial hair, and yes, it does damage that blade. That explains why you need to strop). When you strop, you take the flat of the blade and run it back and forth on a piece of taut leather, held at about waist level, letting the weight of the blade exert the pressure. You must avoid “rolling your edge” (this is when you run the edge on the leather as you flip the blade) because if you do, it will have to be re-honed. You don’t want the edge to touch the leather. Whether you go fast or slow, you are still getting the same result, so don’t rush as you learn. Twenty-five strokes is a nice average, says Max, because you really aren’t getting any additional benefit after that. The coarse (linen or cotton) side of the strop is great for cleaning the oxidation off the blade before you bring it to the porous leather.
Getting started on your straight razor adventure is a journey into timeless techniques and meditative practices. Hopefully, these tips will get you started on the right path to shaving nirvana.
A bit about the man behind your freshly honed blade: Our honemeister, Max Sprecher, has been in the straight razor business for over thirty years -- since he bought his first straight at the age of 19. Max was raised in Antwerp, Belguim which he credits (along with his interior-architect-and-designer father) with raising his awareness of the aesthetic feel of art and design. "With a background in graphics, web design, diamond polishing and cleaving, having traveled all around the world for nearly 20 years while being highly active in the high end fashion world, I have really been blessed learning about different cultures and arts." All of this contributed to his passion for straight razor shaving. His hobby turned into a full time job honing, restoring and making custom razors. Some of his favorite products are Castle Forbes, XPEC (both shaving cream and AS), Cyril R Salter Vetiver, Simpson, Thäter, vintage Habit Rouge and Vetiver de Guerlain, and classic old Aqua Velva. "A straight razor will give you the closest shave and at the same time also give you that zen moment when you’re pampering yourself throughout the entire shaving experience."