Introduction

Others have dreamed of shaving as an academic, even scientific enterprise. I'm sorry to inform you, these are the dark ages of shaving. The advent of the internet in the time of commercialism has instituted a cult of shaving "tradition" such as never actually existed in history. Maniacal self-flagellators advocate instruments of torture and insufferable soaps, while deluding the masses with pretty pictures and stories of miraculous near-epilation. A leisure class piles ridiculous, useless treasure, while cloistered ascetics dedicate their lives to ancient secrets, barely keeping the study of nature alive. Under threat of being found "sensitive" by corporate overlords and taxed with the need to buy protection, common men scrape and burn in solitary shame. Bearded hordes threaten our very civilization!

Fear not, citizen. The good news is that a close shave can be as comfortable and cheap as your haircut. The skin, physically sound and healthy, complete with all its minute nerve endings, follicular erections and secretions. A pleasure to the opposite sex, yet hostile to arachnid and yeast, lending a rediscovered sense of vitality to the wearer. (Incidentally, faceturbation: completely healthy, and normal.) Poor folk with children, pensioners, women with careers -- anyone can attain the supreme level of health and cleanliness, every day. Classic, mid-century Gillette double edge safety razors offer a mundane, yet totally rewarding way of shaving.

Safety First


If you don't know how to shave at all, and do not have real-life access to anyone who knows how to shave; if you have medical conditions that will make minor cuts a major inconvenience; or, if you just want a close shave without making a big deal of it -- choose a Super Speed from your local antique store, or a clone of Asian origin. These "twist-to-open" (TTO) safety razors typically guard the blade so well that, in order to cut hair at all, they must be turned to a narrow range of angles, which is fairly representative of an ideal. After using today's plastic junk, you might find the mechanical elements inelegant, or even ugly. You'll learn to respect industrial design, once again, when you load a sharp, smooth blade, like Astra SP or Personna, and give it a whirl.

There is simply no easier way to shave -- including cartridges. Space around the blade allows hair to be cut close, while the skin is merely exfoliated. A fixed joint between cutting head and handle applies leverage in the skin's defense. The technique is fundamentally different, but not difficult. Do not press the breech of the razor (where the edge is) toward your skin. Allow it to sink in gently, by relaxing your face as completely as possible. Do grip the razor tightly enough to drive it steadily forward at the angle of your choice, with the doors bearing some carefully controlled pressure. A firm grip and a light touch, in other words -- the very opposite of slapping a cartridge against yourself like some kind of skin planer. You'll know it's right when vibrations are restricted to the blade's edge, producing the razor's "song."

Measured Risk


For a dauntless learner who will assume personal responsibility for skin preservation, the Tech safety razor (or one of its better clones) leaves more room for discretion. It was always Gillette's most affordable razor, with the simplest, 3-piece design. Compared to any other kind of razor, it shaves much like the Super Speed. Early Gillette TTOs were, interestingly, also labelled "Tech" razors, and upscale "Aristocrat" models are still highly sought after. But today's premiere manufacturer, Feather, ironically produces only two DE razors: a plastic TTO "Popular" and the Tech-style "All Stainless," made more richly of steel. The three-piece is slightly closer to a straight razor in lineage, which can mean either greater comfort or more pain, depending on how you play it.

To begin with the Tech, choose a sharper, but still smooth blade, like Wilkinson Sword or Voskhod, to enable cutting at a lower angle of attack. Take time to learn which direction the hair grows on each part of your face, and only shave "with the grain" (WTG), in the same direction as the hair. If the razor catches and efficiently cuts the beard, while exerting a pleasant, vacuum-like traction on the skin, you are off to a successful start. If the edge misses the base of the hair and plucks instead, again, do not attempt to compensate by pressing the edge into your skin. Rather, aim the blade a bit more deliberately and try to relax the muscles of your face, resting any minimal pressure on the top cap alone. To achieve the desired effect, initially, it is sometimes necessary to install a minimum number of shims (blades without edges, cut by scissors) to widen the gap between blade and safety bar, temporarily making steeper, more Super Speed-like angles of attack available. The razor will unfortunately be rendered less forgiving, even as it remains necessary to grip firmly and proceed with confidence.

The Journey Begins


Only accommodate the nature of your hair and skin; do not try any fancy moves or "aggressive" adjustments yet. If your hair is so wispy that you can't feel any traction, even though the hair is being removed efficiently, opt for the cheapest Supermax SS or Racer blade, or the store brand in your locale. Some would argue, and reasonably so, that this isn't really a problem, but... for learning purposes. On the other hand, excessive drag is never to be tolerated, because the injury it causes, "razor burn," is more painful than a cut and will linger long after the shave. The most hopeful solution is better beard preparation, as waterlogged hair cuts more easily. Cutting power can be technically increased by putting tension on the skin behind the blade (see "Advanced Placement"). True bluebeards may yet have to opt for the sharpest, priciest Feather blades to cut through the resistance.

Typically, the beginner presses too hard on the razor when the blade is pitched high, AND fails to tension the skin for sufficient force when the blade is pitched low. Especially one who starts in middle age, with a Tech. So don't fall into the familiar trap of believing that the right blade is going to solve everything. We just need one that isn't impossibly rough on you, to start, as you work toward a more disciplined, low-angle approach.

However, it is entirely probable that any unfamiliar Tech clone is sub-standard and needs to be replaced. Fraud is rampant, sadly, and the Tech designs aren't as easy for Chinese manufacturers to execute as the Super Speed. (The mainstream-fording Weishi TTO seems to have erred the other way: top quality "fit and finish," but so gentle, you're likely to push down to get a closer shave.) Since nobody knows how to shave anyway, the international market is a great place to dump defective product. But why bother switching, if you're still gonna burn? Which is why I started flea marketing, in part. If you bought from me, you should at least be able to rule out a bum razor as the cause of your problems.

Pursuing Excellence


For greater closeness, most wet shavers will choose to add "passes," lathering and shaving again. But for the time being, aim only to get a somewhat uneven, "socially acceptable shave." Do not progress in "beard reduction" until your shave is entirely comfortable, not only right after applying aftershave, which has an anesthetic effect, but throughout the interval between shaves. That is, let skin reduction curb your enthusiasm.

This point cannot be emphasized enough: a painful shave is never a success.

There is a fine layer of dead skin cells at the surface, the stratum corneum, which yet has a vital function in the organ and ought to be nurtured. It can easily be amputated by shaving, without any immediate sensation. (We're not even talking about blood, which indicates that you've cut through the entire epidermis.) As you gain skill, you must unlearn any cartridge- or electric-based pain tolerance. It isn't manly, stoic, or noble. It only holds you back from a completely healthy post shave. The ideal tactile result, to borrow an old-timey term, is "velvety." Don't worry about the hair you feel when rubbing the wrong way with your fingers. Assure the recovery of your skin by waiting until the entire beard is palpable, when stroked WTG, before shaving again. In time, a temporary illusion of complete hairlessness may be achieved, but be patient. Punishing the skin won't help you learn any faster.

Meanwhile, explore shave prep and lather with a brush and soap. Familiarize the multiple uses of shaving oil: oil cleanse, pre-shave, moisturizer and blade preservative. Are you up to using alum and alcohol splash? Witch hazel, U.S.P., may suit you better, and if so, you'll probably also like cold water shaving. You will inevitably learn how to staunch a wound with styptic, triple antibiotic ointment and toilet paper, too. Just don't make it a habit. When your skin is effectively decongested, exfoliated, and relaxed, it will flex around the blade better, allowing you to lose the shims. Many men experience a complete change in the condition of their skin, actually caring for it for the first time in their lives.

Shaving Correctly


This is the time to begin using skew strokes to better address contours and shadowy spots around the chin and mouth ("buttresses"). Keep the edge oriented in a WTG direction, but move the razor straight down, "North-to-South," to start gettting a feel for it. The slight slicing action lowers the thresholds of angle and pressure at which the cut is initiated, allowing the edge to miss the skin more cleanly. It also effectively widens the gap, like shimming, so don't do both. I personally believe that you can and should use oblique strokes pretty much everywhere. If your blade or razor doesn't allow it, then change equipment. Even if you're one of the lucky majority who can get away with direct strokes, you'll get a lot more life out of your blades, and gain a subjective sense of correct stroke alignment. Just take care not to let the skin get too slack; if the forward motion gets hung up on the hair, the sideways motion may continue.

An "against the grain" (ATG) pass strikes beneath the emergent angle of the hair, from a direction opposite the first pass, for a closer, "damn fine shave." The tendency of the blade to deflect into the skin when shaving ATG must be carefully controlled by skewing, leverage, or high momentum. Even then, it isn't for everyone. A blade can flex skinward in point locations and simultaneously raise the skin, gouging out each follicle. The preceding beard reduction leaves stubble unobstructed and erect, which helps, but having the sense to maintain consistently low traction is paramount. Under the chin, where hairs are deeply embedded, "lift the blade" by increased leverage, that is, pressure on the top cap and a lower cutting angle. On the neck, where follicles may be visible as bumps under the skin, stand the razor lightly on its guard to "buff." Skew the blade against your turkey neck, gingerly lifting hairs away from the underlying skin before the cut.

Finally, a square ATG stroke digs as deeply as possible into the follicles, extracting hair before the cut, for a "baby-butt smooth" shave. Before going full depth -- and there is such a thing as too deep, for the hair root should be considered an internal organ of sorts -- be sure to rub some shaving medium into the follicles, with the same circular motion used to apply preshave. You don't necessarily have to lather again, but don't attempt any "pickup" stroke without rubbing first. Here, it is the mere angle between the hair and the wall of its own follicle that is being exploited! If you're not up to that level of precision, again, just give it time.

Basic Competence


At any rate, with a complete set of motor skills, one can experiment with blades in earnest. Smoother, less sharp blades might leave some pick-ups, but dig deep for closeness ATG by virtue of their ability to slide safely down the hair shaft, to skin level. If unable to effectively overcome hair resistance at that point, they could still snap at you inside the follicle. When sweat flows and hair tries to regrow, a late-onset razor burn flares up. Sharper, picky blades miss nothing at low angles, and protect from ingrown hair by not cutting too deep ATG. But even less aggression toward the skin on your part will earn an immediate, cartridge-style burn. In time, you'll be able to shave with just about anything, if mindfully controlling the razor.

Remember, always: comfort and health, not epilation, is the ultimate goal of shaving. Leave the roots! Immature hairs can be exposed by exfoliation. Like plants, they grow down and up simultaneously. Do not try to eliminate them, or your edge will be planted in the dermis. Technical improvement occurs in an endless cycle of more complete hair removal, followed by better skin preservation. One progresses on an upward spiral, so stay flexible. There is no pattern that suits everyone. Personal habits can emerge over a period of years.

Back To The Future


Marketing by social media strategy (SMS) will meet you at every turn, suggesting that a different razor would remove hair more efficiently. It is hard to ignore, unless you've actually had that miraculously irritation-free, didn't need to shave for three days, effortless with nothing but soap shave that everyone's talking about! Generally speaking, anchor-style razor heads use low exposure and a large gap to bend the skin, lifting the hair. Will that work for your neck? Open comb cutting heads use little exposure, but oscillate the skin between the teeth when slid. Is your skin that tough? More modern designs try to maximize cutting head activity in a balanced way, supplanting aspects of technique, while straight razors offer a closer shave the old school way, with nothing but blade. Could any of those be the ultimate tool?

I believe it is certainly worth investing $10 in a shavette; preferably one with a metal tail, light scales, and greater length than the typical "hair shaper." You'll learn more about razor geometry than you would buying all those other razors, thus minimizing lost time and money. Some especially well thought-out beginner kits include a DE shavette, which is perfectly instructive. The Personna long hair shaper blade, descendant of the venerable Weck, offers a more straight-razor-like experience. My best was with a 62-mm Tondeo-style blade. (Those are the cheap options.)

You will want to hold back a bit on your sliding stroke technique. Keep the blade fresh and the angle low. Re-think shaving ATG under your nose. But it's not like removing the bulk of the blade holder turns a razor into a skin peeling machine. Quite the contrary! It is rather difficult to get a razor burn, even as the risk of nicks and cuts increases, because you can feel the edge going awry, and stop or adjust immediately. As "sensitivity" is revealed to be a function of angular error, and not skin quality, shaving becomes simpler, in a way. One begins to understand why barbers are generally regarded as magicians!

Then, I'd also have to give the green light to trying a slant, which is the opposite idea: a razor that holds traction high and constant, by applying many angles of pitch simultaneously, supported by a greater contact area to balance it. When one is not yet particularly cognizant of tension vectors, that, too, could be a good learning experience, a safe alternative to shims. Slants give the feeling of shaving with a multiblade virtually, or many different razor designs at once. An experience not to be missed, if you like your shaves to be effortless.

Finally, a vintage Gillette adjustable can subdue any DE blade, whether it's a good brand for you or not. It combines the ease of the Super Speed, the versatility of the Tech, and a little heft to go with your well-developed technique. Having retired from razor shopping, you'll want something like that to keep your mind active, as you mature into an old-timer who just wants to milk a blade, not caring to impress anyone.

But in the end, I think you will agree that nothing gives a better result than the classic, perfectly designed Tech or Super Speed. And so, there you have it: your journeyman degree in shaving. Go forth in comfort and smoothness, brother... to the remaining "Disquisitions."