Sunday, August 24, 2008

Wet Shaving: Sinfully Joyful


27 כז לֹא תַקִּפוּ, פְּאַת רֹאשְׁכֶם; וְלֹא תַשְׁחִית, אֵת פְּאַת זְקָנֶךָ

Ye shall not round the corners of your heads,
neither shalt thou mar the corners of thy beard.

-- Leviticus

Thus was I commanded as a boy never to touch a razor to my face, lest I provoke The Lord's wrath for so offending His creation. (Reportedly, He's okey-dokey with electric razors.) So please forgive the ignorance of my 2006 blog post "Read This Only If You Shave" hailing the Schick Quattro razor, confidently published as though I knew even the first thing about shaving.

Fortunately, the blogosphere worked, as helpful comments on my post humbled me with links and advice. One reader in particular, Jay Batson, set me on a new, resolute mission that I've traveled every day (except weekends and holidays) to recapture the facial smoothness of my infancy.

I remember Jay Batson from my days as a director of ON Technology (acquired by Symantec), where Jay ran engineering sometime around 1996 when we went public. (ON, at the time, was the leading seller of Novell Netware based apps, which turned out to be unfortunate...) I hadn't kept in touch with Jay, but i'm grateful that he somehow stumbled upon my blog and introduced me to the art of wet shaving:
Anonymous Jay Batson said...

IMHO, the razor is a second-order factor. You'll see an order of magnitude difference if you focus on the prep instead.

Go buy yourself a silver-tip badger hair shaving brush. Buy the most expensive bristles you can find, in a handle that matches your taste. Then, be *sure* to buy a glycerin-based shaving soap. Pop for a nice nickel soap dish, too, David -- you can afford it. Go here: Emsplace isn't the most sophisticated ecommerce site on the net, but ignore the amateur look of the site; they have the goods, and they're great help if you need to call them.

Then, before you shave, run the hottest water you can get into the cup (warming the soap), and wet the brush with it, too. Lightly shake the water out of the brush (leaving just a touch in), dump out the water, and lather up the brush.

Then lather your face. Two things:
1) You'll fall in love with the way the brush feels. It's almost as good as sex. And you can do it before you go to work and not be late for work.
2) You won't get a 1/2" thick lather like you do with shaving foam/gel. Don't sweat it; just make sure you've rubbed the brush bristles into your facial bristles for 15-30 seconds.

Then shave. Pick your razor -- it almost doesn't matter. The shave will be the most comfortable, luxurious shave you've ever had, and your shave will be as close and smooth as anything you've tried - ever.

I'm not kidding.
Solid Nickel Silver Tip Brush

He's not kidding. I tried out Jay's advice and it was all goodness. I bought a beautiful silver-tipped badger hair brush, a stand, a nickel bowl, and glycerin soap. I get a much closer shave now, and the rate of bloody injury has dropped from once a month to once a year. It feels great (not quite "as good as sex" -- maybe I'm still doing one of them wrong). And once you get the hang of whipping up a lather, it doesn't take any longer than shaving with canned foam.

It now seems laughable to pump foamy cream from a can. The manufacturers tout the thickness of their shaving cream, and thick foam is great if it comes from brushing up a lather, but most of the canned foam never even touches your skin.

Compared to canned foam, the cost of wet shaving is "a wash". There is a capital expenditure for the brush, but the glycerin soap consumables last longer than canned foam. Em's is indeed the place to stock up.
Merku 38C Long Handle Heavy Duty Double Edge Razor
Selecting the Right Razor

Although Jay dismissed the importance of selecting the right razor, straight blades have a very big following, so I recently tried switching from my vibrating 5-blade Gillette Fusion to Merkur's highly acclaimed, platinum-coated, double-edged safety razor (image right). To properly assess the new equipment, I conducted a study comparing straight blades to the mass market

This iPhone shot (right) portrays the beard I shaved off as part of this investigation--one side with a fresh stainless steel Merkur blade and the other with Gilette's state of the art Fusion. I also collected data on other days with a cleaner face, switching the left and right sides. (Unfortunately I couldn't conduct a double blind study without risking serious blood loss.)

The costs are comparable. The Merkur razor handle is more expensive but the blades are cheaper. Neither razor nicked my skin more frequently or worse than the other. How close a shave did I get? The two razors performed equally well, but the Gillette "shaved off" a few seconds of work each time, perhaps because one needn't be so cautious with it around the corners. In addition, the Merkur blade takes at least an extra minute during the tri-weekly process of installing a new blade. So at the end of the day I'm back to the Fusion. Jay was right again.

Recommended Accessories
Proctor Silex K2070 1-Quart Automatic Electric Kettle, White
As Jay had pointed out, the warmer the water the better. I went so far as to equip my bathrooms with a $14 Proctor and Silex fast-acting water heater for hotter, faster and more energy efficient water.

LEGAL DISCLAIMER: Never apply boiling water to your skin. Submerge the brush, shake it out, swirl it along the soap surface, and test the temperature gently before rubbing it on your cheek. Better yet, forget the water heater and never put anything but ice water on your litigious face.Em's Lathering Shave Cream

I also recommend a travel size shaving brush with cover. Soap bowls can get messy so I travel with a TSA-compliant 2 ounce cream pump (lots of choices here) that works only with brushes.

Other ideas that have been suggested to me over the years include:
  • Nick-relief styptic powder, available for $3 (hat tip to Rob Chandra). Sure beats the toilet paper method.
  • My Philips Norelco Ear/Nose Hair trimmer was a gift from Brad. He also gave me a Philips Norelco BodyGroomer. I'm not sure why. The instructions specifically warn against facial use, but when I had my beard I used the thingy as a trimmer with great results.
  • The lip wipe. Woody Allen taught me this move in one of his early films (Bananas, I think). Once your face is lathered up with soap, wet a finger and outline your lips with it to prevent accidental ingestion.
Once you get the hang of wet shaving, both you and your wife will enjoy the change. Just don't tell your rabbi.
Blogged with the Flock Browser


  1. Anonymous11:27 PM

    I'm a recent convert to the Merkur razor. I've been using the shaving cream and aftershave from Nancy Boy in San Francisco (and Best shave I've ever had.

  2. Anonymous2:22 AM

    I read an article in a mens magazine some time ago about making blades stay sharper longer. The trick is to store the blades in some sort of oil when not in use.

    Apparently the baldes become dull through both use and oxidization and the oil prevents the oxidization, hence a longer productive life.

    A quick search pulled up this:

    Invest the money you save in Gillette stock.

  3. I find the Norelco BodyGroomer magnificent for beard trimming. Of course, I hate having a beard, but I have the same genetics as you so after a few days I have to make a choice as to which I hate more - a beard, or shaving.

    Watch the BodyGroomer video on Amazon (search for the product) - it'll give you a few more ideas what you can shave with it.

  4. Anonymous6:39 AM

    Cool article!

  5. Anonymous8:26 AM

    Also not to be underestimated; the desirability of pre-soaking, and post-shave moisturizing.

    (Good grief, did I just say all that?)

    In all seriousness, not that I heed this advice with any regularity, but shaving within 1-2 minutes after a shower (softens hairs) and applying any aloe-based lotion post-shave does wonders.

    This spoken from the perspective of (another?) curly levite beard-wearer.

  6. Anonymous2:02 PM

    Thanks for sharing David. I'm a hairy Iranian dude so I've spent some time trying different approaches to shaving too.


    Air Shave Gel by Tend Skin. It is a super slippery gel that does not foam -- just apply a thin layer to your face.


    1. Shave in the shower. More steam and hot water to go around. I've read that very hot water will swell your skin and occlude your facial hairs so don't go too crazy with the hot water. I use a cheap shower mirror from Walgreens. It barely manages to not steam up but it is cheap and works well enough.

    2. Shave three times at once. First, quickly cut off the bulk of the hair with last week's razor -- cut with the grain of the hair. Put in a new razor and quickly shave a second time -- this time against the grain. Finally, carefully shave a third time -- again against the grain. On the third shave, don't use the mirror -- use your free hand to feel your face and find the rough patches. This will also help you find the direction of hair growth and shave directly against the grain -- the hairs on your face grow in different directions.

    3. I only shave once a week, so my skin is not bothered by this 3-shaves-at-once approach. I used to get razor bumps on my neckline but that stopped once I stopped applying any kind of aftershave or cream after I shaved. I just towel dry my face.

    Let me know if you try any of these tips and how they work out for you!

  7. One more thing: Re-apply shaving gel between each one of the shaves.

  8. Anonymous2:36 PM

    Leave the razor in a bath of rubbing alcohol, not oil, between shaves. It keeps the blades remarkably sharp by preventing oxidation along the edge. I've gone from <1 week per blade to at least 3 weeks per blade, and with fewer nicks.

  9. Anonymous2:57 PM

    Any sense of whether or not this can work on your whole head?

  10. Anonymous4:04 PM

    Also worth trying, the Feather double edge blades, noticeably sharper than the Merkurs, which are already pretty sharp.

  11. Anonymous5:03 PM

    I used to wet shave every day (sometimes twice if we were appearing in public that evening) until many years ago when I grew a beard during an extended vacation and decided to keep it.

    The best part of owning a beard is changing your facial-maintenance frequency from daily to weekly. Also, no more potential incidents of facial disfigurement and repair before rushing out of the house or hotel for that important meeting.

    Highly recommended if your wife or partner can tolerate the texture.

  12. Anonymous5:40 AM

    i agree with the earlier comment, the key to the perfect shave is preparation. It is best done after a hot shower in order to soften the beard and open the pores. A richer lather is achieved with the use of a good quality badger haired shaving brush.

    Quite simply, the more thorough the lathering process, the better the shave. Move the brush in a circular motion and back and forth over the skin, against the grain of the beard to produce good lather. Spend time on the lathering process, up to 2 or 3 minutes. This should produce one of the smoothest shaves you have ever had!

  13. Allen G1:20 PM

    Shaving against the grain may not work for people with sensitive skin like me. It may give you a close shave but it puts you at risk of cutting your skin. I also find it necessary to use Taylor shaving cream for sensitive skin to prevent irritation caused by shaving.

  14. My boyfriend got into Wet Shaving about 6 months ago, he ordered some products from Classic Shaving Kit which I believe was the brand The Art of Shaving, he absolutely loves it!! I appreciate the smoothness of his face just as much as he does!!

  15. Bonjour from Paris David!

    Just caught this post and it put a smile on my face. Made me think of the scene on American Psycho (Shaving version)!

    You are spot on with your choices incl. Fusion. I absolutely swear by a post-shave application of 99% pure Aloe Vera Gel (Lilly of the Valley or Jasons). Keeps me looking not a day past 41 at 43 :-))

    Feel free to ping me the next time you & yours are in Paris:

  16. Shaving using the straight razors or double edge razors means giving myself time to unwind. I could say that, most of the time, I get my wonderful ideas while shaving.

  17. Anonymous11:32 PM

    Man, your friend is an idiot. Head over to Badger and Blade and learn how to really shave. Again, your friend is an idiot. Starting off with a Silvertip badger brush is moronic.

  18. Anonymous11:03 PM

    Hey guys! So I have been in the shaving business now a few years. I work for a company that recently opened a store front in Chandler Arizona. Anyways, I wanted to reach out and maybe see if I could help some of you fall back in love with Wet Shaving! We make shaving soap, aftershave, cologne and a shave oil that seems to be working miracles. We also sell brushes , 208 & 800 straight razors, DE and now selling kits for the holidays. I'm looking for some people to send samples to. If your interested feel free to check up our webpage! If you want to try out a sample of soap for free please send me your information at

  19. I have a Merkur that I have been using for the past two years along with a brush and shave soap. It was great and loved the old school shaving experience. I kinda got tired of using a brush and shave soap and ditched it recently for an electric shaver. This article makes me miss shaving old school.

  20. Electric kettle indeed a good accessory. To keep your water warm.