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Too many men today treat shaving as an afterthought, simply grabbing the cheapest disposable cartridges and canned shaving cream they can find (or worse yet, using an electric razor) and saying, "Good enough." Shaving should be more than an annoying chore born of necessity. A properly-done wet shave is a traditional manly ritual, like polishing a good pair of dress shoes, that most guys may even come to enjoy.
In this guide, we'll take a look at the three main types of men's razors used in wet shaving today and what to look for in a good razor, including things like learning curve, required maintenance, value, and of course, how likely you are to get that perfect close shave with a certain razor.
Double-Edged Safety Razors
The most common type of razor favored by men who are into traditional wet shaving is the double-edged safety razor. Gillette patented the first safety razor of this type around the turn of the 20th century and this basic design remains standard today.
As its name implies, the safety razor locks in the blade at a safe angle relative to your face, exposing only the very edge and preventing the shaver from tilting the blade at an angle which could lead to nasty cuts. Safety razors have a small learning curve and are easy to use, making them ideal for those new to traditional wet-shaving. They are not merely for beginners, however, and most experienced wet shavers still favor safety razors as their go-to grooming tool.
Furthermore, the double-edged blades used in safety razors are cheap. As Slickdealer akajester correctly points out, after the initial expense of buying a good razor (which can be had for around $30 to $40), it will end up paying for itself with the money you save. Compared to razor cartridges, which can cost more than $2 a piece, most disposable double-edge razors can generally be had for around $.10 to .20 each, with "expensive" ones still coming in at well under $1 per blade. The long-term cost-effectiveness of a safety razor is obvious.
Perhaps the only main disadvantage of a safety razor is the very thing that makes it a "safety" razor: it locks in the blade at a restricted angle. While this helps the shaver avoid major cuts, it also removes some blade control from the user. This may make getting that perfect shave difficult, particularly around the angular parts of the face, like your chin and jaw-line. Furthermore, while safety razors do help the user to avoid cuts, the double-edged blades are very sharp and are more likely to give you a slice than a razor cartridge. There is also the risk of cutting yourself when handling the blades.
When choosing a safety razor, you'll need to decide between open comb and closed comb, as well as between three-piece (or sometimes two-piece) and "butterfly" style. "Comb" refers to how the blade is presented against your face: open comb razors feature a safety bar -- the part underneath the blade itself -- that has "teeth" like a comb, while closed comb razors have a safety bar that's fully intact. Open comb razors generally allow for a more aggressive shave if you have tough whiskers or if your beard has grown out a bit, but, as Slickdeals user BloodGain notes, they will be less gentle on the skin than a closed comb. Most modern safety razors are closed comb, but many vintage models feature open combs.
"Butterfly" and "three-piece" refer to how the razor comes apart for blade changing and cleaning. Three-piece razors are more common and come apart by removing the top of the razor from the handle with the head of the razor (which holds the blade) coming apart in two pieces. With a butterfly assembly, the top of the razor opens up outward, like wings, to permit the blade to be removed, but the safety razor itself all stays in one piece. Butterfly razors are convenient and make it easier and safer to change blades, but may be harder to clean and dry properly.
Care is required while using a safety razor, but once you get the hang of it, you'll wonder why you ever shaved with anything else. Wet shavers who desire more control over their blades, however, may want to consider graduating to a traditional straight razor.
Having been in continuous use for centuries, the classic straight razor is by far the most traditional choice for wet shaving. Unlike other systems, straight razors give the user complete control over the angle of the blade. This allows for precise movements, which are particularly useful for shaving common problem areas like the jawline or under the nose. Straight razors offer more precision than any other shaving method, creating potential for the closest shave possible when in skilled hands.
Another advantage of straight razors is that they do not require replacement blades. As Slickdealer debtblag says of razors, "the frugal answer has been and always will be a straight razor stropped on leather." After the initial expense, a straight razor only needs to be stropped and honed regularly to keep shaving sharp. This reduces waste and is more economical than other razor systems in the long run. It may take awhile to see those savings, but a good straight razor will last decades when properly cared for -- decades of not having to buy and throw away disposable blades. In fact, antique straight razors are still regularly bought and sold by wet shaving enthusiasts, often requiring little more than a shine and a sharpen before being put to use.
The first big hurdle for a wet shaver interested in purchasing a straight razor, however, is the initial cost. A good straight razor can be fairly expensive, with prices for quality pieces starting around $100 to $150. Your first thought when shopping for straight razors probably won't be, "I'm going to save so much money not having to buy disposable blades!" A quality straight razor is a small investment, so be sure you really want one and have the patience to learn proper care and use before buying.
The second hurdle, and arguably a bigger one, is learning how to use and care for the blade. Straight razors are not what most would call "convenient." The learning curve is higher, as the very thing that makes straight razors desirable -- complete control over the blade -- is also what makes them harder to use and more likely to cause cuts until you get the hang of it. Straight razors also require regular honing and stropping to keep sharp, and are therefore not for those who prefer to just pop in a new blade and toss the old one.
If you're curious and just want to test the waters, however, you have another option: shavettes. A shavette looks and functions much like a straight razor, but instead, uses disposable blades. Some examples use longer blades specifically made for shavettes, while others can use plain double-edged safety razor blades (which can be snapped in half down the middle for shavette use). Certain models, like the DOVO shavette, can use both.
A shavette won't give you the same shave as a proper straight razor, but it is a good introduction to that style of shaving, and will still give you more control of the blade than a safety razor. Best of all, shavettes generally don't cost more than a good safety razor, and are a cheap way to decide if you really want to spend the money on a quality straight razor. Buying a pre-owned straight razor that's in good shape is another way to greatly reduce the initial expense.
Admittedly, straight razors and safety razors won't play nicely with every man's skin or facial hair. If this is the case with you, then razor cartridges present a third option. Disposable cartridges, while not as economical as double-edged safety razor blades, are nonetheless convenient and easy to use. Furthermore, some manufacturers, such as Edwin Jagger and D.R. Harris, also produce handsome cartridge razors that look just as classy on your shelf as any safety razor. These are a fine choice if the normal plastic handles are not your style, or if you really like the look of safety razors, but prefer to use cartridges.
Don't simply assume that razor cartridges are all the same and settle for the cheapest you can find, potentially condemning yourself to a lifetime of sub-par shaves and irritated skin. Many Slickdealers swear by Dorco razors, with some claiming that they give a superior and gentler shave than popular (and costlier) competitors. Notably, these are the cost-effective blades used by the Dollar Shave Club.
The two main disadvantages of razor cartridges are cost and shaving quality. Cartridges are simply more expensive than double-edged razor blades no matter how you slice it, with $1 per cartridge considered a "low" price. Furthermore, the shave you get with a cartridge system will likely not be as close, or as good for your skin, as with a more traditional shaving method, which is what has prompted many men to make the move towards safety and straight razors.
You may also notice that razor cartridges seem to be boasting more and more blades as time goes on. First, it was two, then three, now four and even six blades per cartridge. This is a far less precise method than using the single edge of a safety or straight razor. Companies keep adding blades to their cartridges because each individual blade is not doing the job of even one plain double-edged razor, and the fact that cartridge blades tend to pull at the hairs and skin doesn't improve things. Cartridge razors are therefore really only recommended if you have tried other shaving methods (that means taking the time to try different blades, soaps, etc.) and found that they do not work well with your facial hair and skin type.
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Odds & Ends: Shaving Accessories
Although this guide is focused primarily on razors themselves, you will need a few other things to get started with wet-shaving. Even if you stick to razor cartridges, there's no reason not to upgrade the rest of your grooming regimen.
Shaving Brush - A proper shaving brush will help prime your whiskers for shaving, and generate a thick, creamy lather. Conventional wisdom has typically recommended badger bristle brushes, but lately the community has warmed up to the cheaper boar bristle (and in countries like Italy, boar brushes are standard), with some even claiming boar is superior once broken-in. Whichever you choose, we suggest avoiding synthetic brushes. A stand is also highly recommended, as a brush should always be stored upside-down for proper drying.
Shave Soap - Ditch the canned shaving cream and find a good shaving soap. It smells better and is nicer on your skin. You have a lot of options here, from shaving soap bars (or "pucks," given their round shape) to cream soaps. A shaving mug or bowl is recommended for lathering, and an old coffee cup will do if you don't feel like buying one. If you have sensitive skin, feel free to try some pre-shave lotions or oils, which may help.
Aftershave - As with soaps and creams, you have a lot of options here as well. Nivea makes a popular aftershave balm for those with sensitive skin, and Pinaud-Clubman is favored by many others for its old-school barbershop smell. Some shavers also swear by an alum block, which is rubbed wet onto the skin for a few seconds and then rinsed off. Alum can help calm and soothe the skin, while also plugging up any small nicks. Aftershaves are generally inexpensive and a bottle will last you awhile, so try a few and see what you like.
Bottom Line: Brands, Deals, and Where to Buy
DOVO & Merkur - This German company manufactures straight razors under their DOVO brand and safety razors under their Merkur brand. Merkur offers a wide variety of safety razors, from entry-level examples, such as the highly popular Heavy Duty, to higher-priced adjustable models.
Parker - Parker produces low-cost safety razors and shavettes made in India, which are a popular choice for new wet shavers. Parker safety razors mostly feature butterfly-style "twist to open" construction.
Edwin Jagger - A popular English-made razor brand, Edwin Jagger offers excellent safety razors at various price points similar to Merkur's product lines.
D.R. Harris - D.R. Harris manufacturers higher-end safety razors in very classic old-school styles. A good English-made option for someone wanting something a little special. D.R. Harris also produces its own full line of wet shaving soaps, creams, aftershaves and more.
Feather - Japanese Feather blades give true meaning to the phrase "razor sharp." Arguably the closest shave you can get with a safety razor, although perhaps not the best blades for a beginner.
Derby - Made in Turkey where wet-shaving remains common, Derby blades are a staple among those who use safety razors. Packs of 100 blades can be had for around $10 online.
Astra - Made in Russia, Astra is comparable to Derby as a no-nonsense, hard-working, double-edged blade. These, too, can easily be found for $.10 per blade.
Personna - Another popular brand, Personna blades are made in Israel. Slightly more expensive than Astra and Derby, but still inexpensive at around $.15-.20 a blade. Many shavers swear by them.
Dorco - Dorco offers a great value in razor cartridges. As mentioned, many Slickdealers favor them over competing cartridge brands.
This is only a handful of the razor manufacturers out there, and we strongly recommends that you try out a number of blades to see what works best for you. As Slickdealer clarkkent06 notes, "Every person prefers a different blade." Most online retailers offer sampler packs, which generally include two blades from each of the most popular brands. This is a great and economical way to give each blade maker a trial period and find out what you like.
Due to the recent resurgence of classic wet-shaving, there are quite a few online outlets, such as West Coast Shaving, Maggard Razors, and Classic Shaving, where you can snag some excellent deals. Some companies, such as Dorco, run promotions right on their official websites as well. Vintage and pre-owned straight and safety razors are another option for saving money in some cases (though many of these are collector's pieces, and will obviously be quite expensive), and can still found be in excellent condition. Be sure to set up a Deal Alert to receive an email when a good deal comes up.
Finding a good razor and developing a proper shaving routine not only gets you a closer shave that is better for your skin, but it can also make your daily grooming regimen less of a chore and more of a traditional masculine ritual that you will come to enjoy. Like wearing and caring for selvedge denim, wet shaving is something your forebears did right -- and so should you. Your face will thank you for it.
Images courtesy of ©iStock.com/ValuaVitaly, West Coast Shaving, D.R. Harris, and Classic Shaving.
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