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 the landfill. May we suggest time travelling back to the days of Sweeney Todd (minus the East End gnarliness) and try a straight razor, also known as a cut-throat, instead? Providing you take care of it, it should last you a lifetime and no more will you be at the mercy of manufacturers’ costly marketing gimmicks. Plus you’ll get a damn good shave.
Back in those bygone days a straight razor was the only tool a man had to help him achieve a smooth chin. Patience, skill and dedication were shaving prerequisites. Like double-edge razors, the straight razor is now having a resurgence in modern barbering thanks to it achieving the closest shave possible and taking care of those niggly bits under the nose and around the neck.
“Following the release of the Bond film Skyfall – which famously featured a cut-throat shaving scene – there was a huge rise in sales of straight razors,” says Daniel Davies, general manager of Pall Mall Barbers in London, explaining the resurgence in their popularity.
Yes, you can visit an old-school barbershop to get the experience, but if you master the basics you can also do it without leaving the comfort of your own bathroom.
What You Need To Get Started
At the risk of sounding like Captain Obvious, the first thing you are going to need is a razor. Cut-throat razors can vary in price enormously, so it pays to know which brands are the best to go to.
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 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.
Preparation is everything when it comes to getting the perfect cut throat shave so make sure you buy a good shave cream like Pall Mall Barbers Sandalwood & Clove Shave Cream (if you’re prone to allergenic breakouts invest in a cream that is non-scented) to whip up into a lather using a shaving brush.
Traditionally brushes are made out of badger hair as that is the closest to human hair in that they are both made out of the same protein and both split which softens the bristles over time. This is why the brush requires a period of breaking in, but do remember to run it under cold water after use so it doesn’t start splitting too quickly. A good quality brush should last you up to a decade.
If you’d rather not use a badger hair brush, then try a synthetic alternative like Mühle’s Small Synthetic Fibre Shaving Brush. Also carry some after-shave with you to help cool down your skin after the shave and reduce irritation.
The Shaving Technique
Stropping & Prep
Before anything else, wash your face but avoid using an exfoliating scrub, says shaving educator to Ruffians barbers Oran Lasocki. “Using a gentle face wash will give you a clean, blank canvas to closely shave but I feel the use of an exfoliating scrub in the areas you are going to shave is unnecessary,” he explains. “You tend to remove two to three layers of skin when shaving with a straight razor, and you do not want to start the shave with a raw or over exfoliated face.”
Strop your blades before each shave and prepare the skin by lifting and softening hair with a shave cream. Whip the lather on your face using upward strokes from the brush to prick the hair up. A common mistake in shaving prep is to pat the shaving cream down on your face, which will make the hairs lie flat against your skin and can cause ingrown hairs. Whip the lather up on your face rather than in a bowl, as a good quality shaving cream will contain a bevy of essential oils and nutrients that you want to keep as much of on your skin.
As for the strop, it usually comes with instructions and there are plenty of YouTube videos that will give you an overview of the process.
How To Hold A Straight Razor
To hold the straight razor, put your first three fingers on the back of the blade and your pinkie on the tang, the upward curved metal bit at the end that looks like a little tail. Put your thumb on the side of the blade near the middle.
Shaving With A Straight Razor
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. Don’t be scared of coming over your head with your free hand to really pull the skin as tight as it can go and use short, gentle strokes, letting the blade do the work. You’re not quite Edward Scissorhands remember.
When shaving your neck lift your chin as high as it can go and pull the skin down from your neck. Pull your nose up to snag those tricky hairs under the nose.
“Remember to use your wrist for movement,” says Lasocki. “This will guarantee fluidity within your shaving style by creating a natural and comfortable motion.”
When you feel a bit of resistance from the blade on a particular hair, lift the blade up and come at it from a different direction. Always shave in the direction your facial hair grows, making sure to rinse the blade in hot water frequently. Do not shave against the grain of the hair (upwards), as this can create ingrown hairs.
Remember to choose your moment, too. “You can’t just do a quick shave before work with a cut-throat razor,” says Davies. “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.” Overall, the whole process should take anywhere between 15 to 20 minutes.
Where To Get Lessons
If all else fails you can always consult the experts. “Using a cut-throat razor takes a lot of skill,” says 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.
The Best Straight Razor Brands
German brand Dovo was founded in 1906 in the city of Solingen in north western Germany, an area that is as synonymous with straight razor making as the Champagne region in France is with delicious bubbly. As such, Dovo is one of the best, with an array of straight razors from the plain to the extravagant with mother of pearl coatings and intricate decoration. Most of the blades come in either stainless or carbon steel, which is more flexible than stainless and easier to sharpen but doesn’t last as long.
Made in Japan, there’s no doubting the sharpness of a blade from Feather. They’re simpler and easier to use than the delicate straight razors made by Dovo with a large tang to rest your little finger. Usually made out of stainless steel, they also have a range of blades with a rounded shape on the razor tip to disperse the pressure on your skin and lessen the risk of cuts.
Having made blades for the past 50 years, the American company Parker is another go-to for anyone looking for a tidy investment in a straight razor. Every part of a Parker straight razor is created and assembled in the USA by one of its craftsmen, while the prices tend to be a quarter of those from Feather and Dovo.
Thiers Issard is a French cutlery manufacturer that also happens to have a long and illustrious history with the straight razor. Established in 1884 by Pierre Thiers, who came from a family of master razor makers, it traditionally makes its straight razors out of Sheffield silver steel, a superior form of carbon steel. Its workers are also so skilled that they are the only ones permitted by French law to manufacture blades using a unique lead hardening process that creates the sharpest blades around.
Revisor is another straight razor manufacturer from the German city of Solingen. One of only five manufacturers still in the city (there were close to a thousand in the 1950s) the brand was founded after Dovo in 1918. A little cheaper than the razors from its neighbour, the blades are no less beautiful but you have to buy them from their quite old-fashioned website via an order form (although the odd blade can be bought from third-party distributors).