Shaving redux


Sweeny ToddIn mid-May, 2018, I published a post about my change in shaving technologies and techniques. I described why I thought it was a more environmentally friendly method, and somewhat of a homage to family tradition. Now I want to bring you up to date on my progress to date.

Before I took the step back to the double-edged safety razors like my father used, I did (as is my wont) a lot of reading and research on websites and forums. Thankfully, there’s a lot of content about everything online, albeit that quantity doesn’t guarantee quality, or truthfulness.

One of the most common themes I found is about which razors are suitable for “beginners.” Words like “aggressive” are tossed around when describing blades and razor hardware. Some models are pegged as for “experts” or “experienced” shavers only. Like they were some hard-trained marathon team, or maybe like Navy SEALs with expertise honed to sharpness matched only by their blades.

It can be rather intimidating. In fact, I was a bit hesitant and ambivalent about the whole process. It sometimes read like I was about to engage in some dangerous ritual that involved deadly weapons and secret cult gestures only with which I would be able to avoid slicing myself into bloody ribbons. Or like learning to fight blindfolded with real katana.

Maybe I’m just channelling Sweeny Todd, but I imagined Susan would rush into the bathroom, alerted by the sound of shrieks and wails, to find me bleeding out on the bathroom floor. Ambulances would be called. Emergency department nurses rushing my gurney into operating rooms screaming “stat!” and “code blue” or other such TV-hyped phrases. While I, in a haze of fading consciousness, stared at the blinking machines that counted my life ebbing away with ever-slackening metallic beeps and boops.

I’m here to tell you it’s pretty much all tosh. Diaphanous piffle, as Conrad Black would say. There’s really no mystique in it and no secret handshake shared among users.

Sure, razor blades are sharp, but they are most dangerous when being handled outside the razor. In it – well, it’s not called a safety razor for no reason. Sure, you may get some small nicks now and then when your mind wanders from the task – as you do with any razor – but it takes a determined effort to do anything more.

And when they make claims for “experienced” shavers, I can only assume they mean anyone who’s been shaving more than a week. After that, the transition from a typical drug-store, multi-bladed heavy-metal can opener-style razor takes, oh, maybe five minutes. If that. A slight change in angle, and maybe your grip, and voila: you’re there. It’s not even something you really have to think long and hard about. Which is good, given the massive resistance towards anything even vaguely intellectual today.*

I’m actually enjoying shaving these days, something I’ve done more or less automatically for decades without giving it much thought, even while engaged in it. In part, it has to do with a change of venue. I used to shave in the shower while washing, blindly feeling for protruding hairs with my fingertips, and often while my mind wandered to other things. Or while I was humming some aria or a song I’d recently learned for my ukulele. The result was, predictably, less than stellar.

Shaving was as automatic and distanced from my consciousness as farting. The whole process took a minute or two and if you asked me an hour later, I would not likely be able to recall if or when I shaved that day.

Now, it’s different. I shave after my shower, not during (helping conserve water) It’s become a whole ritual, part of the start to my day, an activity in which I do nothing else, without the distractions of phones or computers or books. I am in a bubble where the outside does not intrude. All of my attention gets focused, Zen-like, on the act. I actually think about shaving. I even look forward to that time, however brief, when I am focused.

I stand in front of the mirror, dry my hair, push it back. I open the can of shaving cream, take up my brush, stir it into the surface of the cream to pick up a small serving, then close the can. I swirl this dab clockwise in the little stainless steel bowl, along with a splash of water. When it reaches a sufficient consistency, I use the brush to lather it on my face and neck with exaggerated care.

Once the cream is allocated to all necessary areas, I grip the razor with a firm but relaxed hold and draw the blade down my face, starting at the edge of the sideburns and working my way steadily, without rushing, towards the base of my neck with short, confident strokes.

Every few strokes, I stop, loosen the razor’s top, and run the head under warm water to wash away the accumulated cream and shorn whiskers. I turn the razor to use the alternate side of the blade for the continuation.

I pass the razor over my skin with the grain and against the grain, my fingertips preceding to slightly tighten the skin, then following to make sure nothing was left behind. I listen to the sound of the blade as it beheads the whiskers, using the soft walking-in-wheat sound as a clue to whether more is needed. I angle the razor according to the contours of my face, sometimes ending a stroke with a little swoop. I lean forward for a closer look when I navigate around my goatee. Only rarely do I need to add more lather to an area already shaved.

All the time, I watch the motion of my hands in the mirror, an efficient ballet of function. All told, it takes only marginal time; perhaps five minutes, perhaps ten, for this portion. But the time doesn’t matter: the clock has stopped when I shave; time freezes for the ritual.

When I’m satisfied with the result, I clean the razor, open the head, dry all surfaces with a tissue, tighten it again, strop it a few times against an old belt I keep in a drawer for that purpose, then put it away. Every few days, I remove the blade and turn it over, so the wear is even. This is the only time I feel the need to be excessively careful: when the blade is being lifted out and turned over, and its edges dance close to my fingertips.

I run a washcloth under warm water, and gently wipe away the remaining cream, feeling the smooth skin as I do so, enjoying the sandalwood and menthol scent of the cream as it lifts off. I pat my face dry with a towel and examine the results in the mirror.

All of this is done with an attention and care I cannot ever recall giving to the act of shaving in the past. In fact, it’s more attention that I give to many of my daily activities. And that has given me pause to stop, think about them in turn, and – sometimes – slow down and perform them more attentively.

* * * * *

Blade samplerThere’s also a lot of humbug online about blades. Your mileage may vary with each brand, but differences between them are less pronounced to my sense than some websites would suggest. I had expected them to be as different as, say, Fords and BMWs, or ukuleles and bass guitars, but I’m hard pressed to experience anything significant I can identify as outstandingly different in their operation that can’t also be chalked up to other factors.

It’s like wine: some people swirl the glass, sniff and sip, proclaiming the wonders of cherry, dark earth, currants and old leather among the grapes, a bouquet from the southern, sun-facing slopes, yet not the presumptuous vintage they imagined. Others knock the glass back and mutter, “good stuff…” I’m with the latter, blade-wise. I suspect that any real differences are generally compensated for by how you shave. A little less pressure, a little more angle – whatever the blade, you’ll figure it out soon enough.

Some sites recommend changing blades every five shaves, some once a week. I can only assume that these writers don’t clean and dry their blades after shaving, don’t flip them over nor strop them, because for me a blade can easily last three or more weeks before I notice it isn’t as sharp. And sometimes longer. True, my facial hair is not Esau-like in its thickness and density, and for those hirsute folks or who go longer between shaves, blades may be shorter-lived, but still, five shaves seems damned wasteful to me. After all, the reduction of waste was one of my goals in switching to safety razors.

Yes, yes, of course you will want to test every possible blade to find what works best for you (there are dozens of brands, if not hundreds, most of which you can’t find locally), but keep in mind that the result you get one day may not be what you get the next with the same blade. The amount of water, lather (and their temperature), how open your pores are, how quickly you shave, the type of razor, whether it’s fully or loosely closed on the blade, how your hands shake, how tired you are – and apparently whether it’s a month with an ‘R” in it – all affect the shave.

But by all means try different ones. They’re relatively inexpensive and you can buy packages with selections of blades to test for a reasonable price on eBay and Amazon.

Now maybe my experience was less dramatic because I chose a closed-comb Merkur razor reviewed as less “aggressive” than others – meaning it has less naked razor exposed. Some also call it better for beginners, so maybe it’s more of a wuss razor than the cavalier daredevils of shaving use. But I also tried letting my beard grow for a few days, and even dry shaving (no water, no cream) to see if they made much difference. Aside from the extra scraping noise when dry shaving, there wasn’t much.

So on my most recent trip to Toronto,  I purchased an open-comb razor (another Merkur, at the Toronto Barber Shop Supply store at Bay and Dundas) to test and compare with the closed-comb. Frankly I felt little derring-do when shaving with it. It felt just like more of the same, albeit a teensy bit noisier as the blade scraped my hairs away. And it needed cleaning a bit more often. But no endorphin rush from using it, not even an extra collection of nicks and cuts. Nice shave, though.

Maybe I didn’t choose a sufficiently aggressive model to put me into the ranks of the more hedonistic shavers. Next one I buy – should I be so inclined as to get another – will scream “bleed me!” on the handle if I feel in need of a morning thrill. Or not. At my age, vicarious thrills work just as well and I don’t need the adrenaline to kick start my day – tea works just as well. I think I’ll stick to my safe, closed-comb favourite.

(I also bought a butterfly-head Rockwell closed-comb as another option, but I don’t expect it to be a thrill ride, either… I just felt like adding it to the collection. Maybe I simply need to buy more… update: It’s a nice shave, too, but the short handle required a minor change in the way I used it… but it wasn’t much effort. However it did prove to me I don’t need to spend a lot to get a good razor – this one was $20!)

* * * * *

Thanks to the internet you can learn to shave by watching a YouTube video. I suppose some folks – and women are included here, too – need that if they’re not confident in learning to use a new tool, but hopefully not more than once. If you do wish to check them out,there are many to choose from – although I cannot vouch for any of their advice.

It’s not rocket science and shaving is best learned by experience and a bit of trial and error. Sort of like sex. Well, maybe sex after you’d had some talking to by a teacher or a parent. Not the sort of fumbling-groping-whoops-where does it go?-not there! action that highlighted my own post-pubescent flailing. Yes, you may get some tiny nicks, more than when you have some usage clocked (from shaving, that is – if you get them from sex you may have wandered into the BDSM department…). But you won’t bleed out on the bathroom floor unless you really work at it.**


* Don’t get me wrong: I’m not suggesting that safety razors of any sort should be handled by toddlers or curious children who think the cat would look better hairless. But for the average adult who isn’t stoned, drunk, on some prescription medicine that makes them see double, suffering a malady that makes their hands shake like a cocktail mixer machine, or you simply can’t take your eyes off your smartphone regardless of the activity you’re engaged in, then they’re not particularly dangerous, at least in relation to a straight razor. Shaving is one of the rare times I even stop reading a book – which I do even when brushing my teeth.

** No, I don’t recommend you to work at it. Suicide by safety razor is a death by a thousand cuts.

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One comment

  1. The Rockwell is a tad different, in that it has a shorter, heavier handle, so the balance is not the same as the two Merkurs. That’s neither better nor worse, but does require a short time to accustom the user’s grip and strokes after using the longer handled ones. But I like its shave.

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