When it comes to essential man skills, knowing how to give yourself an old-school shave is right up there with making fire, managing a BBQ and understanding the offside rule. But like knowing how to darn your own socks, it’s a skill that seems to be dying out. Back in the day when a cut-throat or ‘open’ razor was the only tool a man had to help him achieve a smooth chin, patience, skill and dedication were shaving prerequisites.
The advent of the safety razor in the 1890s made things a little easier by allowing removable blades to be mounted in a handle that even the most nervous of shavers could get to grips with. But once disposable razors made their debut in the 1960s, it seemed the gentlemanly art of performing a traditional wet shave had begun to wane.
But this is one skill worth re-acquainting ourselves with. Have a go at shaving with a cut-throat razor – or a traditional safety razor if you’re a bit wary – and you will not only get an exceptionally close shave, but also achieve something even more important: you acquire a new skill you can boast about down the pub.
Here, we pinpoint the pros and cons of traditional ways to shave.
The Cut-Throat, ‘Straight’ Or ‘Open’ Razor
The modern-day battery powered shaver might seem like the perfect way to rid yourself of stubble but it’s not exactly environmentally friendly, since the whole kit and caboodle will eventually end up in land fill. In contrast, if you switch to a cut-throat razor and take care of it, it should last you a lifetime and no more will you be at the mercy of manufacturers’ costly marketing gimmicks.
As well as being greener, they’re great for tackling tricky bits under the nose and around the neck too. And they’re on trend:
“Following the release of the Bond film Skyfall – which famously featured a cut-throat shaving scene – there was a huge rise in sales of cut-throat razors,” says Daniel Davies, General Manager of Pall Mall Barbers in London, explaining the resurgence in their popularity.
“They certainly deliver a great shave but you do need to be very careful when using them!”
What To Use
Cut-throat razors can vary in price enormously, and while there are plenty to choose from, we’d suggest you prioritise brands like Mühle, Thiers-Issard, Dovo of Solingen and Revisor.
Bear in mind you’ll also need to invest in a strop (the leather or canvas strap you swipe the razor’s blade along to polish and straighten it) to get the best shave possible. It’s also a good idea to use a strop paste like Dovo of Solingen’s Mild Sharpening Strop Paste to optimise the process.
If the very thought of stropping leaves you in, well, a bit of a strop, then consider buying a Dovo or Bluebeards Revenge ‘Shavette’ instead. A close relative of the cut-throat razor, a shavette features disposable blades so there’s no stropping needed.
They’re just as sharp but are a good deal easier to maintain, which means you can also shave a few minutes off your grooming routine:
Start with a safety razor first (see below) before moving on to a cut-throat. “This will get you used to a different way of shaving,” says Davies.
Consult the experts. “Using a cut-throat razor takes a lot of skill,” warns Davies. “So my first tip would be to have a shaving lesson.” Due to the recent boom in interest in traditional shaving techniques, many institutions now offer lessons or shaving schools and there’s no better way to learn than from a master barber. Try Geo F Trumper for an hour-and-a-half open razor class priced at £75.
Choose your moment. “You can’t just do a quick shave before work with a cut-throat razor. I recommend people try it when shaving on a Sunday to get used to it and also to get used to the angle required to do it properly,” says Davies.
Strop your blades before each shave and prepare skin by lifting and softening hair with a shave cream, which has been whipped into a lather with a shaving brush.
The strop usually comes with instructions and there are plenty of YouTube videos that will give you an overview of the process.
As with all shaving techniques, preparation is everything, so apply a good shave cream like Pall Mall Barbers Sandalwood & Clove Shave Cream whipped up into a lather using a shaving brush. If you’d rather not use a badger hair brush, then try a synthetic alternative like Mühle’s Small Synthetic Fibre Shaving Brush.
Stretch the skin as taught as you can with your free hand (this is absolutely crucial when using cut-throats) and hold the blade against your skin at a 30- to 35-degree angle. Anything steeper and you risk cutting yourself. It’ll take practice to find just the right angle but you’ll be surprised at how quickly it becomes second nature.
Use short, gentle strokes, letting the blade do the work. You’re not quite Edward Scissorhands remember.
Always shave in the direction of the beard growth, making sure to rinse the blade in hot water frequently.
A halfway house between open razors and cartridge razors like the Gillette Fusion, safety razors are the perfect way to switch to what Davies calls a more “advanced” shaving method. People who use safety razors for the first time liken shaving with them to riding a bike without stabilisers – and they do require a little getting used to.
“With safety and cut-throat razors, I always recommend that men start off with a butterfly razor – where you twist the base and pop the blade in – then lock it in,” says Davies. “They give a greater degree of control and ensure you can maintain the correct the angle on the shave. There is no room for the blade to be offset so it’s also a lot safer, easier and cleaner to use.”
As well as looking better in your bathroom (there’s something timelessly elegant about a well-made safety razor), safety razors are economical in the long run too.
The main benefit of a safety razor is the ‘operating cost’. “A pack of ten blades can cost as little as £1-£5,” says Davies. “That’s compared to the big mass-market razors which can cost around £10 for a pack of three – this makes safety razors especially cost efficient.”
According to Davies, they’re also good for people with sensitive skin as your skin only has to contend with one blade. “The use of three- or five-blade razors can make the skin more irritated because going over the skin twice effectively means you are shaving the skin with six blades, which is way too many for most people.”
What To Use
German company Mühle offers an excellent range of safety razors, along with the blades to go with them. Taylor of Old Bond Street also produces top quality kit.
If you’re on a budget, the Timor Double Edge Safety razor (£16.99) is a good buy, but if bling’s more your thing, you might want to check out Merkur’s gold-plated Futur razor (£85). If you’re searching for something compact for your suitcase, meanwhile, Thomas Clipper’s Travel Razor (thomasclipper.com), which collapses into a matchbox, is perfect.
Safety razor newbies should opt for one with a fixed head – razors with adjustable heads allow you to customise your shave and the angle of the blade but fixed heads are easier and safer to use.
As with cut-throat shaving, prepare the skin properly. “Ideally, apply a shave cream using a shaving brush to make the hair stand up,” says Davies. Using a pre-shave scrub is also a good idea as this helps lift hairs and removes any dead skin cells that might clog the razor.
Try Pall Mall Barbers Pre-Shave Scrub or something like Kiehl’s Facial Fuel Energising Scrub.
Shave after a shower. “The heat and steam work wonders in terms of softening the hairs,” says Davies.
Stretch the skin and shave towards the direction of the stretch. If, for example, you’re shaving your neck, pop the neck back, stretch the skin and shave in the direction of the stretch. “Shaving with the grain is as important with a safety razor as it is with a cartridge one. And stretching the skin is the best way to minimise the risk of nicks and cuts.”
Find the right angle. Start by holding the razor perpendicular to the face and tilt it until the blade makes contact with the skin. Adjusting this angle slightly will create a better (or potentially worse!) shave. You’ll need to experiment a little to find the best angle for you and your stubble type but, as a rule, a 30-degree angle works best.
Don’t press too hard. If you’re used to using a razor like the Gillette Fusion, then you’re probably comfortable bearing down on the skin with it, but single-blade safety razors require a more deft touch. Holding the razor towards the base of the handle rather than further up is a useful way to prevent yourself from pressing too hard.
Position the razor so that the blades make contact with the skin and then use gentle, 2cm long strokes, rinsing the blade every two to three stokes.
Not all blades are created equal, so try different brands until you find ones you’re comfortable with.
As a post-shave treat, Davies recommends popping a wet flannel in a sandwich bag in the fridge the night before. “When you’ve finished your shave pat a little post-shave balm onto the face and then apply the flannel to close pores and refresh the skin,” he says. “Not only does it help the skin, it feels amazing too!”
Have you tried shaving with a cut-throat or a safety razor?
Let us know your experiences and share any tips you might have by using the comments box below.