I have a bit of a retrogrouch streak, which is odd for somebody who earns a living working in technology. New might be faster and cheaper (for the manufacturer, but not always the consumer), but faster and cheaper aren’t always better.
As a broke college student, I went shopping for razor blades. I was a Gillette user, and decided to give the store brand blades a try to save a few bucks. I never made that mistake again. It was like shaving with a putty knife – and old rusty one that had been put to use opening beer bottles. About the same time I took a job working for a company that made statistical manufacturing software and Gillette was a customer. The sales guy mentioned how tight Gillette’s quality standards were and how hard it was to turn out millions of blades of high quality, which Gillette did of course by using our software, and I was from then on a dedicated Gillette Sensor guy. That was until last year.
I was down in SF, and I forgot my razor. No problem, I’ll just head down to Rite-Aid and buy another. The handles are traditionally nearly free as they are only a vehicle to sell more cartridges. But I couldn’t find a handle that took that old two bladed cartridges that I had been using for the last 20 years. Instead there was a new handle that only worked with 3 bladed cartridges. There is a reason these cartridges are held in a locked display case – they cost more per ounce than a hand made Samurai sword. At the same time, I felt that Gillette’s quality wasn’t what it once was, and these f-everything-we’re-doing-five blades were just a marketing gimmick to put more money in Warren Buffet’s pocket.
There had to be an option other than paying Gillette’s blade extortion fee, so I did some research on ye' old internet. Little did I know (well this is the internet) that there is a whole community of people who dedicate themselves to the pastime of shaving, although I had never considered shaving a pastime myself (more like a dreaded morning task before running out the door). I added “safety razor” to my wish list, and last Christmas my wish was granted with my first wet shave kit including a classic double edge safety razor.
Since then, I’ve become a convert to classic wet shaving with a double edge razor and traditional soaps and creams. Not only do I get a better shave (if I’m careful) the overall cost is lower than cartridges razors. It costs about $100 to get started with a high quality wet shave kit, but then your savings increase dramatically as replacement blades cost pennies rather than dollars. And with time, I’ve actually come to enjoy shaving.
So here’s my recommended starter shaving kit, all available with free day two shipping with Amazon Prime (I’m an Amazon Prime junkie, but that’s a story for another day).
If you want advice on wet shaving technique, and you can get over the fact that you are watching some dude wearing a towel in his bathroom shaving, I recommend mantic59’s channel on youtube. After watching his video’s I’ve gone from considering a tourniquet to stop the bleeding, to something resembling a pretty decent shave.
The Four Key Items
The basic classic wet shave kit consists of four items. The double edge safety razor, blades, a brush, and soap. If you are really daring you could go for a straight razor, but I’ve yet to take it that far. If are just getting started you might want to opt just for the brush and soap, as I’ve found these items make the greatest improvements over aerosol shaving creams.
Gillette invented the modern double edge safety razor (which originally cost a ½ weeks salary (according to wikipedia)), but they are made no more. No matter. The German’s have come to the rescue with the Merkur HD. It is a high quality, non-adjustable razor, with an easy way to replace blades. I found out the hard way that not all razors have easy blade removal.
There is some confusion about the model number on this razor, but the 178 and 34C are the same razor. I think the HD is a tough razor to beat, and is probably all I will ever need. It has an all metal construction, and it feels like a fine piece of German engineering in the hand. The only reason I could imagine upgrading is if you want to attempt an insanely close shave and need the adjustability of a higher end razor. For me the HD shaves as close as I want to get.
Wet shaving is called wet shaving because you use water to create a lather with soap or cream. Even if you don’t want to make the move from a cartridge razor, I recommend getting a brush and some high quality soaps and creams. This alone can make shaving much more enjoyable compared to the goop that comes out of aerosol cans. That stuff is nasty as hell.
Good lather is much more important than I understood, and is one of the reasons I got terrible shaves when I first switched to a DE razor. To get a good shave you need a good lather. And to get a good lather you need a good brush.
I don’t actually own this brush, but I do have a high quality badger brush. But I have done some research, and I think this brush is good bang for the buck, and have bought it as gifts. If you have a little extra money in your shaving budget, you might want to consider an upgrade to an Edwin Jagger Best Badger Brush.
The brush is likely to be the most expensive part of your shave kit, and you can go crazy here spending hundreds of dollars on a brush.
To cut away your whiskers you are going to need some blades, and these are the finest Japanese razor blades made by a company that also makes surgical scalpels. I got these in my first shave kit, and knowing nothing of them, I proceeded to use them to rip the skin off of my face (but that had more to do with the fact that I didn’t know what I was doing). These are far sharper than any other blade I’ve tried, but with the right technique, they also give me the best shave. They cut so cleanly you can hardly tell you are shaving. The drawback is they are the most expensive blades currently on the market. Almost all blades are now made in developing countries for their local markets, and quality is all over the place. I hoped to find some less expensive blades of equal quality (part of the justification of all this is to save money on the blades), so I tried a bunch of other blades, and have generally been disappointed.
The best bang for the buck on blades I have found are probably Derby’s. They are less than half the price of the Feathers, and the quality is pretty decent. I shaved with a Derby today and it worked fine, but the Feathers set the standard.
Soap is a personal thing, but I find that high quality soaps are what make shaving less than a dreaded daily chore. Tabac is one of the few [tallow based soaps|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tallow] still widely available (and when I say widely available, I mean you can get it from Amazon Prime in 2 days). I linked to the soap that includes the bowl. Once you’ve used up the soap, you can replace it with puck that is approximately $10. That might seem like a lot for soap, but considering that most tallow soaps are in the extreme high end of the market, it is actually a pretty good deal, and it lasts forever (for me about 6 months, but you could stretch it further).
Tabac has an old school barber shop scent that goes well with the shaving technique used by your grandfather. I like it. Other people hate it. But I think it is worth a shot because it is the best bang for the buck in a tallow based soap, and it makes a hell of lather.
If you are just starting with classic wet shaving, it might make sense to try a cream. They are a little easier to create a lather with, and you might want to use an old bowl to do so (again see mantic’s videos). Musgo Real is the product that first turned me on to wet shaving, as it is sold through Rivendell Bike of all places. The folks at Rivendell have exceptional taste in retro-grouch bikes, so I thought they might know a thing or two about retro-grouch shaving, which they do. This is a great cream which contains lanolin. The scent isn’t as strong as the Tabac, and it is easier to apply. It is good when you are in a hurry. It also doesn’t last as long, which makes it more expensive.
Another cream and/or soap you might want to try is Proraso. It is very popular and widely available, but I haven’t found it to be worth the money. The “soap” isn’t a finely milled soap like Tabac. It is more like a dense cream in a plastic jar. Considering that Tabac is available in refills at a lower price that Proraso, I’d go for Tabac personally. With that said, the menthol in Proraso is kind of nice after a long, hot bike ride. It cools the face.
I’ve tried a few other soaps along the way, but I haven’t found them to be an improvement over Tabac and Musgo Real.
When you first start shaving with a double edge razor, you are bound to get some razor burn. Witches Hazel is a nice finish. Thayers doesn’t have alcohol, so it doesn’t burn. I use Thayer’s, but my technique has improved, so I can generally get away with out it.
It is a bit eccentric to spend the better part of the evening writing about shaving (although it wouldn’t be the first time I’ve been accused of being eccentric), but for me wet shaving is about mastering a classic technique, saving money, and starting my day with something I actually look forward to. I think there is something to be said about using high quality products like Merkur razors, Feather blades, and Tabac soaps everyday. It puts me in the right mindset to create new products.