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Wednesday, Jan. 13, 2010

Straight Razors: Bringing Joy to Shaving

Razor aficionados master the craft of the blade

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Grandpa most likely went straight every morning. Straight razor, that is. His father before him probably shaved with a straight razor, and so did his father. Long ago it was the way men shaved.

They lathered up with the shaving brush and some good-smelling soap, swiped the straight razor multiple times across the hanging leather strop and then wielded the sharp blade over their face with the skill of a master swordsman. Even after King Gillette introduced the double-edge safety razor in 1904, grandpa and others held on to straight razors for the best way to shave.

It still is for many of us who take pride in our BBS: baby bottom smooth. “The one great thing about the straight razor is that it calms down your life and makes shaving a pleasure,” explains Lynn Abrams, straight razor authority and co-owner of Straight Razor Designs, an online shaving product shop.

Straights require more than just stropping and shaving away. Beard preparation with brush and soap is essential. The shave is done, generally, in three passes: with the beard’s grain (WTG), across it (XTG) and against it (ATG).

“It produces one of the closest shaves you can have,” Abrams says. “Touch your face and you get a velvety, sticky soft feeling. And in most cases, people who have shaved twice a day their entire lives end up shaving only once a day with a straight razor. It’s that nice a shave.”

With all the so-called convenient methods of shaving available to today’s men, aficionados will say the art of traditional wet shaving with straight razors is less about convenience in the modern sense and more about a personal feeling of individuality. A straight razor shaver who finds the daily shave a burden is unheard of. Most of us can’t wait to lather up.

Also important for some is the idea of going green by eliminating the disposable waste that comes with plastic razors, multi-blade cartridges and shaving foam dispensed from cans. The cost in the long run is something to consider, too: The straight razor, strop and brush can last a lifetime, and a puck of quality soap will go for at least six months.

“They’re also nostalgic,” Abrams notes. “Men remember their parents or relatives shaving with a straight razor.”

For many of us, the straight razor also carries a distinct element of sweet and sentimental romance. Remember the old-time barbershop on a Saturday morning, where a haircut and straight razor shave came with all the day’s news and commentary by the locals? My first barbershop straight razor shave was worthy of an emperor. Over the years little has changed in the ritual: Whip up luxurious lather, strop the razor and take time to enjoy one of life’s delights.

 For those plagued with in-grown hairs, razor bumps and razor burns, straight razors arguably help reduce, if not fully alleviate, the problem by cutting stubble above the skin rather than below, as multi-blade cartridge razors are believed to do. “You have one very sharp razor, where you control the angle in the shave,” Abrams adds.

It takes skill and patience to master the craft of straight razor shaving. And it is not for everyone. While not part of the counterculture, Abrams says, straight razor shaving is not in the mainstream either. Yet the art continues to grow worldwide as men, young and not so young, discover the art of straight razor shaving to be alive and well.

“Part of it is just the awareness that other people are shaving with a straight razor,” Abrams says. “Ten years ago, when I went looking for straight razor information on the Internet, there was none.”

Because of that, Abrams started the first straight razor forum on the Internet. Straight Razor Place (straightrazorplace.com) offers information and advice on every element of straight razor shaving, from how to get started and links to instructional videos to where to find products. Top online vendors include: Straight Razor Designs (www.straightrazordesigns.com), Classic Shaving (www.classicshaving.com) and Vintage Blades LLC (www.vintageblades.com).

There is a big choice of razor brands, including top lines such as Dovo, Thiers-Issard, Wacker and Boker. Custom-designed straight razors by Robert Williams, Mastro Livi, Josh Earl and Tim Zowada produce works of art. Prices range from about $75 for a good, no-frills brand-name razor all the way to $1,500 or more for a custom. Vintage razors such as Dubl Duck, C-Mon and Filarmonica are also in demand.

“Basically you need a straight razor, a strop, a brush, a mug and a soap,” Abrams says. “You can buy a complete starter kit for under $150.”

What follows is a short learning curve, with a small serving of nicks and a whole lot of pleasure, as grandpa would say.


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