Technology has changed our lives radically in the last 100 years, mostly for the good. However, with shaving it’s done men a great disservice.
In the past,we had a contest between Gillette and a Double Edge Safety Razor and we have reviewed electric shavers. While each shaving style has a place, the dominant shaving method – the cartridge razor – has become so big almost purely out of the drive behind the marketing and technology of the product rather than the performance. Fortunately, a friend of mine introduced me to the best shave technology that has ever been produced – and it predates sliced bread: the double edge safety razor.
My first real shaving experience
I remember wanting to shave as a kid – my father put bath soap on my face and handed me a plastic butter knife. As I joined the puberty club in high school, a pseudo-beard sprouted. My watchful mother bought me a Gillette Mach 3, which was supposedly “the best a man can get”.
“How do I do this? Should I wait to ask Dad? Maybe Mom can help me. Ugh, that’s embarrassing… I can just put those little toilet paper spots on my face if I mess up and hide out down here until it stops bleeding.” I slopped shaving cream all over my face. Then I took a deep breath. I slowly pulled the razor across my face like I was petting a tiger for the first time. The tiger didn’t seem to mind. After several strokes, I gained confidence. At the end of my first shave, I became a man. And I didn’t have to apply toilet paper specks. I must be a natural – even grown men cut themselves shaving! (Growing up, it seemed every man on TV finalized his shave with a smattering of bloody paper spots.)
Pleased with the ease the Mach3 provided, I used that razor like a bad habit for the next decade. It’s true – I never replaced my original razor handle. Every five weeks, I pitched out $25 for new cartridges. At first, shaving was exciting. Eventually, it began to feel like a waste of time, which ripped the excitement away. I hated shaving, but without full facial hair, I felt doomed to a life of unsatisfying hygiene chores (does anyone out there really enjoy brushing teeth?).
After years of drive-through windows, pizza delivery, and scraping gum off gym floors, I landed a job selling suits – and I’m not talking department store suits – I’ve helped design a collar sold in several stores. As a haberdasher, appearance is my profession.
Stepping Up the Game – Double Edge Safety Razor
Next door to my business is a photography studio owned by a man named Ryan. Between sessions, Ryan comes over to shoot the breeze. One day, while discussing my love of pomade and vintage suits, Ryan asked if I had ever shaved with a double-edged razor. I wasn’t sure what he was talking about, but the context was enough to hook me. Ryan said he shaves with straight-up razor blades, which give him the closest shave he’s ever had; he wagered these single razor blades would shave better than whatever else I could use. I wanted to believe him, but how could a simple razor blade beat my cartridge with three blades, lubricating strips, Aloe, and Vitamin E? It was like comparing Kool-Aid to bottled Coke.
Double-edged razors are also known as DE or safety razors. Today’s cartridge razors are actually an evolution of safety razors, but most “avid shavers” (men who find satisfaction in shaving) will make the terms mutually exclusive to distinguish between the two. Years ago, barbers were the shavers. Not willing to take a straight-edged blade to their necks, men paid professionals to prep them for hot dates and interviews. With the advent of double-edged razors, men could shave at home – it was safer and easier than the straight edge. Hence, the moniker “safety razor.”
To be honest, I was less interested in the quality of the shave and more interested in the novelty of razor blades and shaving brushes. Ryan suggested checking eBay for vintage safety razors. At the dinner table that night, my wife was skeptical of such an out-dated practice. After enough online research and personal salesmanship, she realized I wouldn’t stop bugging her until I had one in my hands. I scoured eBay until I scored a pristine Gillette razor handle for $10. It’s older than I am. Talk about appeal.
Ryan gave me a pack of DE blades to get started. Cartridge shaving requires no special training, but mishandling double-edged razors may earn stitches.
Remember how nervous I was to shave for the first time? I was terrified to use my safety razor for the first time – to me, calling it a safety razor was like having a foaming, gnashing Doberman named “Snuggles.”
How to Shave with a DE Razor
- Soak your brush in steaming water; this softens the bristles. Using a brush will enhance any man’s shaving experience (badger hair is the way to go – Best Badger will do, but Silver Tip is superior). Brushes help lift hairs, which means a closer shave.
- Shake some of the water out of the brush. Using the damp brush, lather your shave soap. Let the bristles massage your face as you apply the lather in circular motions. If your soap turns into a Santa beard, you’re on the right path.
- Make the first pass with your razor. Keep it angled at about 30 degrees.
- Pull straight down. Don’t apply pressure – let the handle’s weight take care of that.
- Flex or do something else you consider manly. Maybe chop down a tree with an axe.
I recommend doing 1-2 passes with the grain of your beard and one light pass against the grain for perfect smoothness. Be careful when going against the grain – it’s ingrown hair territory (the first two passes lessen those chances).
My Shaving Experience
Having memorized those steps, and preparing for sudden death, I picked up the miniature weapon disguised as a personal grooming tool. I rested the razor on my cheek and cautiously pulled down.
“What’s the big deal? This isn’t so bad.”
I finished my shave, realizing I wasn’t going to cut my face off. The safety razor earned its name. (I later learned that safety razors have a “safety bar,” part of DE anatomy I had overlooked, which help reduce cleaving.) I smirked and puffed my chest like a parading peacock. I looked in the mirror to examine the manliest shave in town.
My face looked like I had just spent the better part of a hot date making out with a blender.
And after 10 years of shaving, I finally understood why men leave the bathroom with bloody toilet paper flags all over. The shave wasn’t even that good! Rough patches and uneven whiskers remained. Everything I read said DE razors were amazing; I must have missed something.
Back to the grindstone – what else was there to know? Sometimes there isn’t anything else to know – you’ve just got to practice. For the next month, every time I shaved, my wife used her hand to grade my progress. She said each shave got better than the last. If a woman caresses your face and approves, you’re on track.
At one point, I’m fairly certain I reached shaving nirvana. No nicks. Very little razor burn. No more ingrown hairs. And of course, the ultimate test: my cheeks felt like Dean Martin sounds – in case you’re not familiar, imagine riding a tube down a calm stream of melted honey butter. Now turn that into a voice.
I said I’m a haberdasher – oddly enough, I hated suits until I had one properly tailored The safety razor is your well-tailored suit. Every time I use my DE, it’s an experience. Having a real shave has turned my chore into a ritual: I anticipate lathering my soap and I love the frictionless second pass.
Potential applicants to the brotherhood of safety razors should know: using a double-edge blade does take more time; especially at first. Once you get it down, DE shaving is hardly slower than using the ol’ hack-and-slash cartridges. However, in a rush one day and curious to see if my DE blades were actually better for shaving (or if I’d only converted myself out of novelty), I pulled out my old Mach3 Turbo.
New technology and classic style were about to duke it out.
The venue? My face.
The referee? My wife.
That morning’s shave felt and sounded gritty, like trying to polish sandpaper with itself. My shave was indeed quick and easy, but the ref called a foul on terms of rough play:
“Tucker, what happened?”
She didn’t know I’d used my old razor – but her tone accused me of betrayal.
The next time I whipped up a lather in my shave cup, I felt like I’d been There and Back Again.
Advantages & Disadvantages of Double Edges Razors
I must admit – cartridge razors are not worthless. They are quick, though not as quick as electric razors. I’ll still use one if I’m racing to work and can’t possibly wait for a quality shave. They are easy and safe. I consistently struck out in Little League – as a teenager, if I could swing cartridge razors around my face without killing myself, anyone can.
In my opinion, the most redeeming quality of cartridge razors is that long beards are no matter. This is the one place DE razors fail – if I haven’t shaved in four days, it pulls. It tugs. It’s painful. If I have vacation beard, my first shave is with a cartridge. Once the overgrowth is trimmed, it’s back to a real shave.
Cartridges may require no skill, but they come with a price: For eight Mach3 Turbo cartridges you’ll pay $25. For a third of that price, a mere $7.50, you can buy 100 Derby Extra razors.
I’m not kidding. A third of the price, four times the razors, and a shave your special lady friend won’t forget.
Typically, people shaving with cartridges use shaving cream out of the can – gross – that stuff can clog your pores and it hardly lubricates. Plus – what is that stuff? Shaving soaps or creams to lather yourself lubricate better, can be much cheaper, and can be better for your skin.
Safety razors provoke less ingrown hairs. How? Imagine peeling a potato: one blade gets the top layer off. What if your potato peeler had two blades? As the second blade peels a little more after the first, you’re now wasting good food! What if your potato peeler had – no joke – six blades?
Now imagine that potato is your face. One blade is enough for me.
You know what makes me feel tough? Increasing weight at the gym. Want to know what makes me feel really tough? Applying shave soap with a brush in the gym’s bathroom. It’s like tripling whatever you lift.
Who knew satisfaction lurked behind my morning chore?
Safety razors often stow away in dark corners of beauty stores, but I recommend shopping online. My entire shaving outfit cost $25 – the same price as my replacement Mach3 blades. The next investment, new DE blades, was less than $3.
As with all things, if you want the best of the best, you can pay as much as you’d like: Handles alone can cost $160, and I’ve seen $55 shave soaps. Some men prefer bespoke suits, but I’m more of a well-tailored off-the-rack kind of guy. The results are similar, but a canyon separates the final costs. I’m content supplying myself for the next 6 months under $15.
DE Shaving Gear – What to Buy for a Great Double Edge Shave
- Feather: 100 for $38.50
- Derby Extra: 200 for $14.90
- Wilkinson Sword (available in convenience stores): 5 for $1.33
- Kent BLK12 Traditional King-Sized (Silver Tip badger): $199.90
- Edwin Jaeger Best Badger: $46.43
- Parker w/ Rosewood handle (boar): $15.88
After trying several blades, I prefer the Bic Chrome Platinums. You’ll find that different blades have different “aggressiveness” – the Bic blades are not as “safe” (aka dull) as some blades, but they also aren’t as sharp as others (such as Feather blades, which many men prefer). And my favorite soap is currently Col. Conk’s Bay Rum: not only does it lubricate and create a foamy lather, but it quickly became a favorite scent of mine.
The DE community is tight-knit and shavers are usually more than willing to give advice. I’ve literally had a random stranger call me to ask about safety razors because his wife’s boss told him I use one.
People respect the double-edged shaver.
Safety razors are not for everyone: just like how a hard day’s work, standing your ground, hauling wood, and opening doors for beautiful women aren’t for everyone. To each his own, I suppose.
Shaving with a double-edged razor does take more time and effort, but the returns pay in spades. If you can’t put a little extra effort into your appearance, don’t expect any edge on the man who can. If you have any questions, I’ll be listening to Johnny Cash and working a firm pomade into my hair.
What are your experiences with double edge razors? What gear to you use? Let us know in the comments below.
This is part of a series about traditional wet shaving. Make sure to read the others as well: