Sustainability touches every aspect of our lives. Yet it’s impossible to flip a switch and have every aspect of your life in perfect ecological balance instantly. So we make it a daily practice to learn, develop an innovate improvements; but to take things on in a manageable way, one step at a time.
Shaving is one such thing. It seems so superficial, almost trivial, that many might not think it an item of any concern. However a quick internet search on wet shaving reveals a huge resurgence of interest in it in the past decade. Part of this is motivated by what I would call “boutique living:” a celebration of living that is primarily practiced by the affluent with stylish gadgetry. But a large amount of the motivation in the movement is ecologically grounded; minimizing waste (and thereby conserving the resources that both create the product and dispose of waste).
While on the Ambling Full Tilt journey I didn’t shave for over six months. This was largely pragmatic. I hate shaving. And if you shave on day 1 but DON’T shave on day 2, then shaving on day 3 is more of a pain in the butt than usual. This left me in a position where I both hated shaving and made sure to do it almost everyday. I knew there would be large swaths of time without shaving in AFT. So rather than go through that miserable cycle many, many times, I decided to abandon the practice altogether while on the trip (and sacrifice any respectability that clean-shaveness can afford in our society). It was actually fun, in spite of looking like a hobo.
Another pragmatic reason for not shaving was rooted in the fact that I’ve used an electric razor my whole life; I had never touched a can of shaving gel or a razor blade. In my former life in corporate America (when I was earning a very comfortable income) I engaged in “boutique living” with my electric razor. Several years ago I bought a Braun Series 7 shaver – the most posh setup I could find. It has a cleaning and charging stand with pretty lights and a smooth, sculpted style. That station has a none-too-tiny footprint, it requires electricity, and a never-ending supply of cleaning fluid cartridges. There was no way I could take that in Charley on the AFT trip. So the fancy Braun setup sat unused in storage until I got home. Once home, I dug it out and within a couple days it was time for the big “shave-and-a-haircut.”
I pulled the beast out and loaded a new cleaning cartridge in it. After more than half a year away from this thing, I forgot just how big and wasteful these cleaning cartridges were. And it was my last one. With very limited income these days, expenses require scrutiny. The only affordable way to get cartridges was to buy them in bulk on Amazon and have them shipped. Six months ago I would have just placed the order…
After six months of no shaving and ubiquitous consideration of sustainability, I was now facing a decision: keep doing things the easy way in spite of my ever-increasing awareness of how my decisions impact our environment, or try to move to a zero-waste method of shaving. Or just never shave again EVAR. But that’s not at all practical (or pleasant).
My friend Tommy in Eugene showed me his wet shaving stash with much enthusiasm when we visited briefly in January. At the time I wasn’t even thinking of shaving, so it didn’t have an immediate impact. But as I stared at the German behemoth on the bathroom counter, the conversation with Tommy rushed back into my mind (not that Tommy’s a German behemoth). I reached out to him, he made some suggestions and I began to tumble down the rabbit hole that is wet shaving.
The Razor – Obviously a zero-waste goal means a straight razor (yes constructing the razor has an ecological impact, but a good razor can last decades or even a century or more – imagine buying one razor that may outlive you and can be passed to the next generation. But the amount of information required to intelligently purchase a straight razor (to say nothing of the skills required to use one safely and to properly maintain it) is vast. Therefore, while a straight razor was my long term goal, I couldn’t wisely jump to that point immediately. Therefore a double edged safety razor seemed the logical choice. However I wanted to minimize cost; it would make no sense to put a lot of money on a razor that I did’t plan on using long-term. A survey of recommended razors led me to reading a huge number of reviews. That led to other razor recommendations and even more reviews. Following the good, credible-sounding reviews and keeping an eye on price led me to the Lord L6.
The link above is a better choice than what I bought ($6 instead of $15… my version came with extra “Blue Bird” razors but I hate them and they probably would cost $2-$3 on their own). $30-$40 is probably a “normal” budget for a decent entry-level DE safety razor with some blades.
The Brush – The finest brushes can go for $800 or more. That sounds slightly insane to me. There are many “budget” brushes out there. But I’m not planning on replacing my brush like I was my razor. Common wisdom says to buy the best thing you can afford. In the initial stages of my search this article published at ClassicShaving.com was very informative. But how does one so inexperienced weigh the competing interests of quality and price? Synthetic brushes (and even boar hair) are cheap, but seem to always get replaced with badger brushes by dedicated users. So I reasoned I had better at least start with a badger hair brush – but what grade?. Again, sifting through seas of reviews (with a continued focus on affordability) led me to the Tweezerman badger brush.
$11 later I was feeling well on my way to having the right gear.
The Soap – The eternal debate: shaving cream or shaving soap? Cream is the easier product for beginners to use. But it doesn’t have the longevity of soap (both in the usefulness of the shave lather and the rate you use it ounce-for-ounce). Hard soaps are the original product, the most simple to make, the most simple to package and (again with zero waste as a goal) they are easy to make with 100% natural and biodegradable ingredients; important when you are planning to compost your grey water and use that on your vegetable garden. There are soft soaps available. They are easier to work with, but are not as easy to find in the 100% natural/biodegradable form and also require more complicated storage containers.
More searching, and even more surveys of reviews led me to Men’s Soap Company Himalaya shave soap. Ideally I would have got a bar of natural shave soap from a local soap maker that uses local goat milk. But I needed something to start with; By the time the first bar was done I would have I tracked down the ideal local source. And the reviews of the MSC Himalaya soap were overwhelmingly glowing, or betraying the fact that the users weren’t using it right (to which the customer service replied with helpful, corrective tips) or expressions that some people just didn’t like it (to which the customer service replied and offered full refunds). It seemed like a safe bet. $10 for the soap and I was getting close. But I was not done yet.
The Stand – Not the Steven King story, though the prices of stands (given what they do) can be scary. I learned it was critical to brush life and performance that the brush be dried in an inverted position. As one who has dabbled in sumi-e, this makes perfect sense. But why are they so expensive for something so simple? How hard it would be to build one. Some quick searches revealed this fantastic Instructables post from TricksyHobbit. Even the most basic stands were still $15. If I could build one I could achieve a significant cost savings considering much much I had spent so far.
First I built a prototype of my own design. Then I reviewed the step-by-step instructions of TricksyHobbit in detail and saw several design advantages. I built a second stand per these instructions. Initially I didn’t want to use a closed triangular mount for the razor for several reasons, a big one being it required two hands to insert and remove the razor. However, with that design you know that no matter what happens your razor is not going to fall off the stand. The last instruction mentioned optional painting your stand. That felt excessive at first, but the idea grew on me (and Dani was an immediate advocate). Some times you have to express yourself – and a a satin, turquoise color seemed the natural choice because all men’s care products seem to come in only black (been done), chrome (ick), or wood (not exactly compatible with a coat hanger).
Honestly, the stand I constructed is pretty ham-fisted. But when paired with the Soap Dish of Awesomeness (details below) all the stand’s short comings are completely negated. It’s quirky as all get out, but I love this stand.
The Soap Dish (of Awesomness) – Many soaps come in their own containers, but not all. The MSC Himalaya did not. What to do? There is the ubiquitous shaving mug, but finding one that had any aesthetic value, and could hold the soap (of unknown dimensions) and costing as little as possible seemed to be needlessly challenging. In our ongoing downsizing and “waste stream living” mentality advocated by Wendy Tremayne and Mikey Sklar, we have frequented thrift stores a lot lately. After a lot of finding nothing that would work I came across this magnificent bastard:
Yes, an ashtray. A horrific implement, the ashtray. Yet this one exudes hep cat style and was never actually used for smoking, thank goodness. I would go so far as to say it’s bad ass. For an ashtray. Additionally the wide base can accommodate hard soap cakes of almost any size. Another bonus feature is the grooves for cigarettes make perfect drain channels for pouring off excess water. I rounded the purchase price up for charity and took this bad boy home for exactly $1.
The Shaving Mug – Oh my, the mythos and confusion that surrounds the form and function of shaving mugs are almost overwhelming. How does a complete novice even decide what to do? The only answer is: give it a whirl and figure it out for yourself.
In a failed thrift store shopping attempt to acquire a mug that could hold a soap cake and still be a shaving mug, too, I bought a little guy that ended up not actually being able to hold the cake. It tapered more than I expected with the result being not so much a mug that held a cake in the bottom as a cake-stand that held the cake rather high in the air and also happened to be shaped like a mug.
More details will follow in The Method section below, but I learned both hard shave soap and brush need to soak in warm water before use. Most guys just fill their sink with warm water, then stick their brush, and sometime even the soap, in the sink while they shower before shaving. This uses far too much water and is not good for wood brush handles. If the brush needs to soak, a shaving mug makes much more sense than a sink. Again, more details will follow in The Method section, but there’s no need for a mug to whip up a batch of creamy lather; you can do that directly on your face. This little mug is the perfect size for soaking and holding my (at times soap-loaded) brush while all the other activities take place:
It has no intrinsic aesthetic value, but the vast majority of shaving mugs I’ve seen have had (sometimes copious) negative aesthetic value. Further, the mug is small, minimizing the volume of warming water required. After rounding the purchase price up for charity again, it still cost just $1. I dig this mug. Mini Mug o’ PowAH!
Good heavens… There are as many ways to shave a face as there are faces to shave! Where does the novice begin? I found the following links to be very helpful at that initial, cursory level:
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=KZDPEogOU34 (Thanks, Tommy!)
More detailed information is needed, of course. But these gave me a good lay-of-the-land. Since I haven’t yet braved the world of straight razors, the following Method will be very basic.
The Preparation – If you use shaving cream (or, god forbid, gel) the links above will probably be sufficient. But if you want to treat your face and make the experience actually enjoyable, a little prep work is needed. First your face needs to be warmed and (whiskers) softened. This is easily done by just taking a shower or bath before your shave. If that’s not possible, soak a wash cloth in nice, warm water and let it sit on your face. Warm it up a few times with more water and just let it soak in for a couple minutes. While your doing that also…
For hard shave soap, presoaking in warm (but not overly hot according to Men’s Soap Company) water is the best. With my Soap Dish of Awesomeness, I just lift the cake out, add just a little bit of water to the bottom of the dish, then place the soap cake back in it (so the bottom surface of the soap gets wetted). This way you can hydrate your soap cake without using more than an ounce or so of water.
For the brush, again a lot of guys fill their sink and just set the brush in it while they shower. Not only does this use an obscenely excessive amount of water, if your bristles are mounted in a wood handle, immersion will wreak havoc on the wood binding over time. Eventually it will crack completely. My little mug holds probably 3-4 oz of water to soak the brush in while leaving the wood handle as dry as can be.
When you’re ready to start, pour all of the water out of the soap dish (cigarette slots make for easy aiming while the rim keeps the soap from falling out) and pour the water out of the brush mug and wring the brush out gently to the desired amount of dryness (see next step).
Lather Up! – Obviously generating lather is not an option in my “double shot of esspresso” sized Mini Mug o’ PowAH. But I was loath to get yet another mug within which I could prep my lather. The Men’s Soap Company recommended a technique of building the lather on your face (thus negating the need for a mug to lather in). The hands-down best video I found about this was posted by Michael Freedberg on YouTube here. Given that I had a hard soap in a very shallow dish, his Wet Brush Method was impractical. But his Dry Brush Method (even though I have to hold the soap cake in the dish with one hand while I load the bristles) works perfectly. While loading the bristles it is good practice to grasp them where they join the handle and not press into the soap much while moving in a circular fashion. Also hold the brush this way if you shake it to remove water. Don’t shake the brush by the handle alone.
Remember you don’t have to have your face looking like it’s covered in whipped cream to be protected with a good soap. You can spend several minutes whipping up the most gargantuan cream, but it will not protect your face any better than a perfect swath of smooth shave soap lather. Watch Freedburg’s video closely and note the textures he manipulates.
MSC recommends 30 seconds of brush loading; this is on the upper end of Freedberg’s estimate. I use about 20 seconds of loading, though the soap is always well soaked. Pay attention to the “pasty-ness” of the lather and add droplets of water to the brush tips as you build the lather into your face. This not only whips up the perfect lather but lifts the whiskers and primes the skin for the shaving to come.
The SHAVE – I must admit I was actually intimidated buy this the first time I faced my near-40-year-old visage in the mirror covered in cream with a razor in hand, though I had never held one before. But don’t be afraid. Just don’t rush. Most of all stay aware of what’s going on with the cream (too wet? too dry? too thin?) and the razor (not cutting versus pulling too hard) and make little adjustments on little motions as you go along. Shaving is not rocket science. Nor is shaving a guaranteed, slam-dunk success. Be patient and don’t rush. You will get the hang of it. If you’re careful you’ll probably get the hang of it sooner than you expect.
The big rules of thumb:
- Shave with the grain and in short strokes! The more skilled you get, the more you will learn the degree to which you can bend (or break) this rule. Do not go too fast though.
- Use almost no pressure! The weight of the razor head is more than enough to do the cutting without the need of any pressing most of the time. Go slow and feel it out. Try holding the razor at its very base between the index finger and thumb only to get a feel for what the razor can do without you manhandling it.
- Maintain the right angle! There is no hard-and-fast rule for what that angle is. It is a function of two things: the razor model and the razor blade in it. There is no way to predict the optimal angle. A good rule of thumb while shaving your cheeks in the vertical direction: place the razor head on your cheek with the handle horizontal, then slowly lower the base of the handle to the floor as you let it glide down. Go slow. You will very quickly find the difference between “not shaving,” “shaving,” and the dreaded “pulling.” Do NOT use pressure in this test. If you press at a “pulling” angle you will irritate you skin if you’re lucky. Otherwise cuts, perhaps nasty ones, are in your immediate future.
- The mantra is: “Beard reduction not beard removal.” Don’t strive to get it all in one go until you are skilled. Even then I’m not sure how aggressive you can be. I’m a novice. And this is advice for novices. Plan on shaving (doing a pass) at least twice. Maybe even three times if your Harry McHarrison. I have a very middle-of-the-road beard. Not very thick but not overly thin. Two passes is my target.
- Shorten the strokes even more around facial contours.
- The longer the stubble, the more you will struggle. If you’re new to wet shaving do yourself a favor and shave frequently, once a day, but be nice to your skin. If it complains there’s either something wrong with your technique or equipment. Respect your skin. Adjust as you go along.
There are other nuggets to pick up along the way. But those are the big ones. Other helpful items I’ve found are:
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2XTh7AAlJDE (also Raoul Pop’s follow-ups I found to be very valuable. Intelligent, yet honest without pretense.)
- Rinse the razor frequently. A running tap is terribly effective, but inefficient with respect to resources. A full sink for rinsing is ineffective with respect to resources in other ways. I have found a small rinse basin and am working on a new method to keep clean, but minimize water use. But I have not perfected this yet and will have to update later after some further experimentation. Regardless rinse the razor a lot, but make sure it doesn’t carry excess rinse water into the lather on your face and sabotage the perfect lather job you were already doing.
- Beard Shaping – YES! You CAN shape your beard (or facial hair) with a safety razor. There are lots of discussion on beard shaping with straight razors online, but there are not a lot of discussions about using a safety razor. I may film a how-to video about this later. The best online advise I could find amounted to “use a fingernail to mark the shaping outline in the lather on your face before you start to shave.” It seems sound advice and I endorse it theoretically. But in practice I’ve found it to be unnecessary. I have a goatee and sideburns. Always have since I found those styles spoke to me. I was prepared to carve intricate lines on my face with my fingernail to guide my wet shaving… But when I lathered onto my face directly using Freedberg’s method (as opposed to whipping up a couple of pints of cream in a mug and then slathering that on my face), I found my beard shaping lines were already highlighted with zero effort. I may not have had the skills to cut the shaping lines, but they needed no further highlighting. Yet even as a total novice I negotiated those lines rather well. Just go slow, maintain the right water level in the lather, maintain the right angle with the razor, use short strokes and no pressure and you’ll be golden.
- Rinse – obviously you were going to do this anyway. Some preach the message of cold water immediately. Do whatever feels good. I usually do a quick rinse with warm water to get the soap totally off. Once that’s done, then I’ll do a quick cold water rinse to close the pores.
- Aftershave – This is very much a matter of preference. While most any online guide you find will stress the idea that you use an aftershave, I abhor them; I’ve never smelled one that I didn’t find repugnant. If you shave well, not only will you be nick and cut free, you should not have any irritation or razor burn. Another reason chemical-and-perfume-heavy aftershaves have no place in my play book. There might be “natural” aftershaves, but I personally never had a reason to seek them out. I used to have a fair amount of facial hair; even before the Ambling Full Tilt journey my goatee was probably about five inches long (that can be seen in the early videos we posted on our YouTube channel here). Dani lovingly gifted me with some fantastic commercially available beard oil over a year ago. I made use of that until it ran out last Fall and I loved it. When it did finally run out, Dani formulated a new recipe and assembled it herself. It was fantastic! I have zero desire to make use of any aftershave with this homemade beard oil at my disposal. A little of that moisturizes the skin thoroughly and smells fantastic. I’m a fan of tea tree oil; it’s great smelling without being overpowering. It tends to fade away naturally over a couple hours without ever being cloying or choking. It also pairs well with the Himalaya aromatics of the MSC soap!
I’ll be honest, I have wet-shaved exactly three times at the publishing of this article. But given the ardor of the first instance and the resounding success of the second, I am very confident I’m not barking up the wrong tree.
- Shave #1 – I had never touched a razor or shaving cream in my life. I then employed the apparatus you’ve read about and gave it my first go. It was not a 100% success, but there was no element of failure in it. I whipped a dry-brush-method lather onto my face using a brand new brush and brand new soap. Not an easy task for the novice. To stack the deck against myself I tried this without shaving for seven days. DO NOT DO THAT. Seriously. If you want to try wet shaving for the first time, do it the day after you have shaved with whatever method you normally had been using. END RESULT: My lips were burning as I couldn’t scrape the non-broken-in blade across my 7-day whiskers with the novice-crafted lather. I gave up with 2/3 of upper and lower lips shaved. BUT!!! I had never attempted this before, and even though the lips were not quite finished, I had zero nicks and zero cuts. 97% of my face was clean shaven and in fantastic shape.
- Shave #2 – to make life as forgiving as possible, I decided to shave the day after my Wet Shave #1 with the old Braun Series 7. I weed-wacked the remaining lip whiskers down. The following day I revisited the wet shave without the need for any more machete methods. The second wet shave on the third day went perfectly! Don’t get me wrong, I’m slow. I think the two-pass shave might have taken 20 minutes. But I’m a novice. With the conclusion of the second session I not only shaved every part of my face with NO nicks No cuts NO irritation and NO missed beard-shaping lines, it was fun and two full passes took far less time than the first try which never amounted to two full passes.
- Shave #3 – I’d like to claim I wanted to up the stakes, but honestly I just got too busy. So I had two days of growth to work through. Short story, even though I had twice a much growth to remove as in Shave #2, it still took only two passes and those went faster than Save #2, even thought it was a simpler shave.
- Three Months In! The basics above all hold true! I’m much more accomplished now than when I started. I’ve nicked myself exactly three times in that time and it was my own fault. The only real update is I’ve gone as long as seven days without shaving and wet-shaved with basically zero issues. The “basically” comes in because after the initial Lord blade was used up I had to rely in the terrible Blue Bird blades. Additionally I started using the Bigfoot Shaves Twist which is MUCH more aggressive than the Lord L6, which requires some skill to wield. All that has inspired a new direction and now I am compiling reviews!
- Also Favorite Day Living has receiving some demo products from companies to test and review in the near future – Those are being added to the new review page as I can get to them. Keep checking! I’ve also added a rinse basin to the toolkit in the interest of water conservation. The initial results are very pleasing! I’m still dialing in that portion of the routine in, but I will update this article once I get it totally figured out.
I still need lots of practice to become proficient. But the early results are wonderful. I think proficient shavers can finish a session in 10 minutes or less, so wet shaving need not dominate your morning schedule with a little determination.
My goal is to move on to a straight razor. This is a huge undertaking. StraightRazorPlace is one of the best repositories of knowledge I’ve found. Once I find a style I want, finding a shave-ready blade will take even more time. Once that’s done I have to acquire a strop and hone. Then I have to learn how to use all this equipment. I believe honing can only be learned with access to a person already skilled in the art. There are salons in Boise that offer straight razor shaves, so they must be partnered with reputable sharpeners; I will have to network to find someone to mentor me. Once all that is done I will be able to hopefully devise a truly zero-waste shaving method.
Any updates along these lines will be posted here. I certainly have enjoyed the challenges and rewards of wet shavings so far! And I certainly hope this article can help others make the transition to a more responsible AND ENJOYABLE shaving practice.
Reviews of shaving equipment can now be found here!
Please submit feedback and questions here and I’ll do my best to respond to them in a timely fashion. All the best!