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Wednesday, Nov. 16, 2011

Shaving With a Touch of Zen

Turning the mundane into an event

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In the world of men's shaving, more isn't always better. A plastic multi-blade cartridge razor gives no better shave than one sharp straight razor in skilled hands. Nor do foams and gels from disposable cans come close to the luxurious lather whipped up in a scuttle with a brush and a quality shaving soap or cream.

The wet shave with the straight razor also comes wrapped in a colorful ritual that turns a mundane activity into an event. Brush on silky-warm shave lather, strop a straight razor and then float in a blissful state of Zen. Your face will thank you for it, and so will your spirit. That's how it is for me. The morning shave is like a gentle tap on heaven's gate.

The straight razor, also known as the cutthroat, is not for everyone—not unless you have the patience and tenacity to hone your skill with the blade, and a little extra time to devote to your quality of life. If you absolutely hate shaving, with this you might just change your mind. I can't wait until the morning shave.

So what do you need to start? The essentials include a quality, shave-ready straight razor, a strop (a belt of leather and canvas to maintain the blade), a respectable badger hair or boar bristle brush and lather shave soap or shave cream. With a styptic pencil for little nicks, a pre-shave product, an astringent such as alum and your aftershave of choice, you're all set with some of the incidentals.

Some wet shavers make lather directly on the face. Others prefer lathering in a shave bowl—a latte cup will work—or a scuttle. I'm not much for face lathering, unless traveling, and prefer to use a scuttle, a type of ceramic shaving bowl that also keeps the lather lusciously warm by using the double boiler hot water system.

Mine is the German-made Schwarzweisskeramik scuttle. The Dirty Bird and the Moss round out the top three names in hand-thrown scuttles.

Which straight razor I use on a given morning depends primarily on mood. My modest collection of 30 straight razors comprises various models, mostly in the 5/8-inch and the 6/8-inch blade sizes, with round, square, Spanish, French and dreadnought points. Straight razor blades measure in eighths of an inch from the spine (top of the blade) to the cutting edge. The 6/8-inch-size razors tend to be the most popular with aficionados, although I suggest starting with the 5/8-inch round point.

Years ago hundreds of manufacturers in Europe and the United States produced straight razors. Most are gone, except for the German Dovo and the French Thiers-Issard, among a few others. My stash of straight razors includes four beauties by Wacker, several from Dovo, Boker and Revisor, plus Dubl Duck, Hess, Shumate, Filarmonica, Wostenholm and Busch.

Finding Vendors

For the most part, straight razors start around $80. Custom-made razors by Robert Williams, Mastro Livi, Joe Chandler, Alex Jacques, Josh Earl and, from Japan, Iwasaki Kamisori are exquisite, but on the pricey side. I suggest saving those for later.

Online vendors are about the only places for new straights razors. Straight Razor Designs (straightrazordesigns.com), Classic Shaving (classicshaving.com), Vintage Blades LLC (vintagebladesllc.com) and the Shaving Shop (shavingshop.com), among others, offer a wide range of models. Since aficionados prefer a sharper razor edge than what comes from the factory, these vendors further sharpen the blades by a professional and present them as “pre-sharpened.”

Some vendors also make it easier for beginners by featuring starter kits with razor, strop, brush and soap or cream.

You can find quality used and vintage razors in the classified sections of online forums that focus on traditional shaving. Antique shops are another source of vintage straight razors, but you should know the difference between quality and junk. The same goes for those found on eBay.

The forums furnish a wealth of information on traditional wet shaving with the straight razor and the double-edge safety razor, as well as all the advice you can stand from experts. Straight Razor Place (straightrazorplace.com), Badger & Blade (badgerandblade.com), Shave My Face (shavemyface.com) and The Shave Den (theshaveden.com) are worth a visit.

Some YouTube videos on traditional shaving also are a good source of information.

How long it takes to master the art and the craft of straight razor shaving depends on your skilled hands and willing heart. Don't expect the best shave in the first week or so, because there is a long learning curve—with a few nicks as a bonus. It will happen, though, little by little, and then you're hooked.

You should be on your merry way after about 100 shaves, by which time you'll wonder why you didn't start earlier in life. Then again, it's never too late to start. I had wanted to shave with the straight razor since my 20s, but life got in the way and I did not start until my 60s.

And not for a moment have I looked back at the multi-blade plastic cartridge razors.

Obie Yadgar was Milwaukee's most familiar voice in classical music as an on-air host for WFMR.

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