Why Use a Straight Razor?
Let's get one thing clear: shaving with a straight razor is NOT easier! Anyone who says so is either about to sell you a straight razor or has spent months practicing. Safety razors are, by, far the easier choice.
It takes a lot of practice to master the art of shaving with a straight razor. If you're not careful, you can seriously injure yourself. There is nothing to stop the razor from cutting deep into your skin. Some men have actually DIED as a result of using straight razors, though more from infections from poorly maintained implements than bleeding out. Straight razors also require more maintenance in order to keep them in good condition.
So why do men use them? What makes them so special or useful?
- A closer shave – Nothing, and I repeat nothing, delivers as close a shave as the incredibly sharp edge of a straight razor. Not even the best three-bladed safety razors can cut the hair as close to your skin.
- No replacements – As long as you take care of your razor blade, providing the proper care and maintenance (see the last section), you'll never need to replace it.
- Cheaper -- Over the years, it costs far less to use a straight razor than to use safety razors. You'll spend $40 to $200 on a high quality razor, but you'll no longer end up spending $10 to $20 on safety razor cartridges every few months.
- Incredibly masculine – I mean, does it get any manlier than that? Men who can master the use of a straight razor have definitely done enough to keep their "man card" permanently active.
- Eco-friendly – With the single blade used for the rest of your life, you are reducing the amount of waste produced by your grooming habits—from plastic wrap to packaging to the metal and plastic used for the razor cartridges.
- Calming ritual – With a straight razor, you HAVE to slow down when you shave. The ritual of shaving can be a calming, meditative activity that will help you to start your day off right. It's like the self-hypnotism of walking, running, or brushing your hair.
As you can see, there are a lot of pretty great reasons to take up using a straight razor!
Are Straight Razors Safe?
If you're worried about safety, straight razors are definitely not the safest choice. They're a single sharp blade applied directly to your skin, with no protection whatsoever. Safety razors are the much safer choice—it's right there in the name!
However, straight razors aren't as dangerous as you might think. Many experts recommend practicing shaving a balloon before you start shaving your face. You'll find that you pop a fair few balloons, but eventually you'll master the art of shaving with a straight razor. As long as you are careful, precise, and delicate, it's far less dangerous than you might think.
One expert recommends using a 5/8 or 6/8 grade razor (these numbers refer to the angle of the blade). These have the best angle, meaning they are less prone to catching or cutting your skin. They're also most widely available and economical.
Types of Straight Razor
Straight razors are pretty simple: they're made of a steel blade attached on a swivel to a handle of wood, horn, ivory, or metal. However, you'll be surprised to find they come in a wide variety of types:
- German straight razors – German razors are considered some of the best in the world, particularly those from the town of Solingen. The razors use high quality German steel, and the razors hold an edge far longer than many blades from other countries. Dovo is one of the most recognized names in German straight razors.
- French straight razors – French straight razors use high-quality Sheffield steel for the blades, and they are considered high quality, luxury razors built for style as well as function. Thiers-Issard is one of the most recognizable names on the straight razor market, and it's the best of the French razors.
- Asian straight razors – These razors were initially created to be used for shaving the head rather than face, but blades like the Japanese kamisori are excellent for getting into the hard-to-reach places around your ears, nose, and mouth thanks to their smaller size. They're harder to shave with than the European straight razors.
- Shavette – A shavette is actually a straight razor that comes with disposable blades. Also known as "feather razors", these come with handles and an attachment that allows you to secure a new blade every time you shave. They're great for beginners, and they're much cheaper than a high-quality German or French straight razor.
Straight Razor Features
When you consider a razor, you can't just look at the style of the handle or the shape of the blade. You have to consider all the features: from the metal to the grind to size to the point.
Blades usually come in either stainless or carbon steel. Stainless steel requires far less maintenance, and they tend to hold their edge longer than carbon steel. However, they are more difficult to sharpen, and the harder steel isn't as comfortable for shaving. Stainless steel razors are also harder to find, and fewer manufacturers produce them for the time being.
Carbon steel is the metal used for the vast majority of razors, thanks to the fact that are much easier to sharpen, and they can get very sharp. However, they don't hold their edge as long as stainless steel blades. They are also much more prone to rust, so they require a lot more maintenance in order to keep them in good condition.
Did you know there are more than 16 different types of blade grinds? The term "grind" refers to the hollowness of the blade. Simply put, the more hollow the blade, the thinner the edge, and the sharper the blade will be—but also more delicate.
- Full hollow refers to the entire blade being ground into a concave shape. They are the most common types of blades, thanks to the fact that they can be easily honed and achieve an incredibly sharp edge. However, they are more prone to nicks and cuts, and are definitely not for beginners. They may make a lot of noise while shaving, which is why they are known as "singing razors".
- Half-hollow refers to ½ of the blade being ground into a concave shape. They are difficult to find, but they are very easy to hone and very forgiving when shaving (meaning lower risk of cuts). The hollow grind makes the blade very maneuverable and gives you that scraping sound that makes shaving with a straight razor so fun.
- Quarter-hollow refers to ¼ of the blade being ground into a concave shape. Also known as a "partial wedge", this grind is ideal for men with heavy beards. The blade is also very forgiving, making it ideal for newbies. The blades are easy to find, easy to maintain, and easy to use.
- Full wedge refers to a flat-ground razor that has no concave shape to the steel. Also known as a "Scandinavian grind", this produces very little noise and is able to cut through even very thick, coarse hair. However, they're far less available, and they can be difficult to shave with. They're also difficult to sharpen/service due to their wedge shape.
The width of razor blades can range anywhere from 3/8" to 8/8". The wider the blade, the heavier it will be.
For heavier beards and thicker hair, heavier blades are a good option. For maneuverability and safety, a thinner, lighter blade is the better choice. Wider blades have a hard time getting into the hard-to-reach places, but lighter blades tend to struggle with coarse and thick whiskers.
For beginners, it's recommended to start with either a 5/8 or 6/8 blade. This will give you enough maneuverability while still enabling you to slice through heavy whiskers.
Blades come with a wide variety of points, but most are one of the six below:
- Square points are perfectly square, and they're ideal for shaving precise edges into beards, moustaches, or goatees. The square point is more likely to dig into your skin, increasing the risk you'll cut yourself.
- Round points are rounded at the end, which makes shaving easier and safer. You're less likely to dig the point into your skin, but you sacrifice precision edging with the rounded tip.
- Spike points are similar to square points, but with one side longer than the other (the "toe"). These points are ideal for hitting the hard-to-reach places, such as beneath your ear lobe or your nose. The risk of cutting yourself is significantly higher, though.
- French points have a rounded upper edge and a square lower edge, giving you both precision edging and greater safety. On the downside, it's challenging to find razors with this edge.
- Spanish points have a somewhat rounded tip, but there is a notch in the middle of the tip. These are highly stylish blades and collector's items, but less practical, as they are more likely to damage your strop.
- Barber's notch points have a tip more rounded than square, but with a notch in the middle. The blades are easily maneuverable and offer good precision, and are less likely to cut. The barber's notch also makes it easy for the barber to open the blade without risking cutting themselves.
Straight razor handles come in a broad range of materials: ivory, horn, wood, and metal are the most common. The type of handle you choose is more a stylistic choice than practical.
Tools of a Straight Razor Shave
In order to shave with a straight razor, you need a few tools:
Straight Razor – You can't shave without the razor itself! Don't cheap out and buy the low-budget ones, but look for a razor that is made of quality steel, with the right point (see above), and has a good edge. Low-quality razors will irritate your skin and increase the risk of nicks and cuts.
Razor Hone – You can't use a simple whetstone to sharpen a razor blade, but you need a special honing stone to do the job. Most whetstones have a very coarse grit, but you need something between 4,000 and 8,000 grit (like a woodworking whetstone) for the job. You can find ceramic "barber hones" or simple stone straight razor hones.
Strop – The strop is the length of leather or canvas that is used to smooth out the blade's edge after you finish stropping it, similar to how you use a synthetic cloth to buff up your shoes after polishing them.
Shaving Cream or Soap – DO NOT use shaving foam (the canned stuff) for a straight razor shave. Always use either a thick cream or old-fashioned shaving soap. These shaving products nourish your face and infuse your skin with a layer of moisture that will reduce nicks and cuts.
Brush – You must have a brush (made with either boar or badger hair) in order to lather up the cream, apply it to your face, and raise your whiskers for easy shaving. Don't bother applying the shaving cream with your hands, but always use your brush.
With these five tools, you have everything you need to get the job done!
How to Sharpen Straight Razors
Before you can start the actual shave, you need to sharpen (hone) the razor. Very few razors come pre-sharpened, and even pre-sharpened razors should be honed in order to refine that edge.
To hone your straight razor:
- Wipe your whetstone clean. This will get rid of any dirt, grime, or metallic particles left over from previous uses that could interfere with the honing process.
- Lubricate the stone. Oil and water are both good options, but shaving lather works in a pinch. Lubricant will stop the blade from heating up, which could warp the blade. Lubricant also helps to get rid of the grit or metal particles created by the honing process. (Note: If you're using a ceramic barber hone, lubricants aren't necessary.)
- Set the stone on a flat surface. This ensures a smooth, even hone.
- Place the razor on the stone. Lay the razor flat on the hone so both spine and edge are touching. Sharping this way ensures a long bevel and a deep edge.
- Push the blade away from you. The first sweep will push the blade from heel to point forward across the hone. Use moderate pressure, and let the blade's edge lead the stroke (point the direction you want the blade to go).
- Pull the blade toward you. Keep the edge on the whetstone and flip the blade over so the spine is away from you, then pull the blade toward you, using moderate pressure. Again, draw the blade from heel to point.
- Hone until it's sharp enough. If your razor is in good shape, you'll need no more than 8-10 passes per side to get it sharp enough. Test it by running it gently along a moistened thumbnail—if the edge of the blade digs in smoothly, it's sharp enough. If it sticks, it's too sharp.
Note: A quality blade can last up to 8 weeks without needed to be honed.
To see how it's done live, watch this video: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=n87zEIfbgOM
But the sharpening process isn't done when you finish honing it. Now you've got to strop the blade to put the finishing touches on it.
To strop the blade:
- Set up the strop. Bench, loom, and paddle strops are held in your hand, while hanging strops are secured to a doorknob or hooked into a bathroom drawer.
- Pull the strop tight. Immediately after honing, you ONLY need to use the leather side of the strop. Pull it tight to ensure a straight, sharp edge.
- Place the blade flat on the strop. This time, you want the spine to lead the motion, not the edge. For your first pass, place the blade flat on the stop with the spine nearest you and the edge away.
- Pull the blade toward you. With the edge pointing away, pull the blade toward you until it reaches the end of the stop.
- Push the blade away. Flip the blade over (spine away from you, edge near you) and push the blade down the strop until it reaches the far end.
- Repeat as needed. You'll only need 15 to 20 strokes in each direction to complete the honing process.
Note: Don't rush this part! Take it slow, and focus on smooth strokes of the blade. You'll build up speed over time, until you'll be able to strop the blade in 30 to 60 seconds.
How to Use a Straight Razor Properly
Now that you've done all the prep work of honing and stropping the razor, it's time to get the hard part: the shave itself!
Step 1: Prepare your face. Start off with a hot shower, or apply a hot, moist towel to your face to open up the pores and soften the hair. Next, apply a pre-shave oil, and finish with a layer of shaving cream or soap. Let the lather sit for 2-3 minutes before shaving.
Step 2: Grip the razor properly. This is the tough part! The simplest grip is as follows: rest your index, middle, and ring finger on the back of the blade, just above the joint. Place your thumb along the side of the blade, as close to the middle as you can comfortably reach. Your pinky finger will be tucked under the tang of the blade. This grip will help you hit your face and neck, though you'll need to adjust it for your upper lip and around your mouth.
Step 3: Stroke it right. Focus on slow, consistent strokes that go with the grain (in the direction of hair growth). The blade should be held at a 30-degree angle, and DO NOT apply pressure. The razor should be sharp enough to slice through the hairs without the need for you to press. Make sure to strop the edge (canvas side first, finishing with the leather side) between each stroke, and rinse the blade well between strokes.
Step 4: Shave from right to left. Start with your right cheek, shaving downward in short, smooth strokes. Move on to your jaw, then down the right side of your neck. Move on to your left cheek, down your jaw, and to the left side of your neck.
Step 5: Upper lip, chin, under chin. Always start with your moustache and upper lip, then move down the sides of your mouth to shave your lower lip and chin. Finish with your neck directly beneath your chin.
For newbies, stick with one pass, as that will help to reduce the risk of cuts, nicks, and razor burns. However, for a more detailed shave, do one pass with the grain, then follow it up with a pass across the grain (sideways) and one against the grain (upward).
Warning: ALWAYS wash your face and re-lather with each new pass!
Storing Your Straight Razor
It's vital that you take good care of your straight razor to keep it in good condition! Here's what you need to do:
- Rinse the blade to get rid of any hairs, skin oil, and lather residue.
- Wipe the blade with a soft cloth to eliminate all moisture and debris.
- Rub blade oil over the steel to protect it. Most straight razors are carbon steel, and will rust if not treated with oil.
- Store it in a cool, dry place where the bathroom's moisture won't reach it.
- Let the blade rest at least 24 hours between shaves, but try to use it at least once a week.
NEVER, EVER, EVER shave with a rusty or spotted blade! If there are rust spots, replace the blade—no sense risking tetanus to save money.