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Sunday, January 27, 2013

The Retro-Grouch Shaving Dept.

It almost feels like it was inevitable. After labeling myself as a "Retro-Grouch" for so long, it's no surprise I've picked up an old-school safety razor.

I've been shaving for 23 years. Over that 23 year span, I've tolerated but never really enjoyed shaving. But if I don't shave, I grow a beard. I've had a couple beards over the years but generally don't care for having one. (And neither does April.) Hence, shaving.

I've used your basic assortment of modern safety razors over the years, nothing particularly special. Over the past few years I've been using the razors made by Preserve. Preserve's shtick is creating toothbrushes and razors using recycled plastics, and when these items wear out, they can be sent back to Preserve for recycling. I liked that shtick. But despite all the positives, the razors just weren't cutting. (Ha!) Not only that, more often than not it felt like I was running sandpaper across my face, irritating the hell out of it. And I seemed to go through the razor blades faster and faster, yet the shave quality wasn't improving one lick. This meant I tended to shave infrequently, every second or third day instead of daily. And the longer I didn't shave, the rougher the shave could be.

So what to do? Drop the shtick and go with Schick? (Double ha!) Buy an electric razor? Hang head in shame and stick with Bic disposables?*

Or maybe go "old school?"

Now the notion of using a straight razor to shave is, uh, romantic and manly, but I don't really trust myself with a blade like that so close to my face, something that could easily kill me if I'm not careful. So I started to think about the olden safety razor, the all-steel type made by the likes of Gillette, which were especially in vogue during the middle twentieth century. Yep, very retro. Gillette and its ilk made bajillions of them back in the day, and if you peruse eBay you'll see plenty available. It would be the perfect antidote to the modern "razor wars" that have been happening for as long as I'm alive, where each year Gilette, Shick, et al up the ante and introduce a razor that's "more tech" and has "more blades". (I believe we're up to four now.)

I pondered it for a bit while still dutifully buying my "environmentally-friendly" Preserve blade refills but didn't make the jump, until the last visit to Portland by The Raving Bike Fiend. He's been using an old school Gillette for years, and waxed poetic about it. "Make sure you get one with an adjustable guard. And Wilkinson-Sword blades are the best you can buy."

So I hit the eBay in search for a reasonable-priced Gillette adjustable razor. There are many on there, but it didn't take me long to tire of the bidding wars over fifty year old shaving implements. So I went to Etsy and found a gentleman specializing in classic razors. I picked up a nice specimen for only $10 plus shipping. (Most of the nice ones went for $30, the one I got had a slight defect which made it much cheaper.)

I used the new-old razor as an opportunity to mix up my shaving routine and try some new stuff. If I wanted to go all retro-grouch, what better place to buy shaving cream from than Rivendell? So I purchased some Musgo Real shaving cream. Grant recommended a brush, so I got one for $5 from the local Fred Meyer. And of course I needed blades, so I picked up some at Freddies as well. They didn't have the Wilkinson-Swords, just some Kroger-branded generics. They came in a 10 pack for only $3, and since they're double-sided, it means it's more like 20 blades.

So before we get to the shaving part, let's talk about the razor itself. The razor itself is about fifty years old, and despite the slight defect, it still works as intended. It's all steel construction, so it's durable, and it was made in the US. Now I'm no jingoist or object fetishist, but I do appreciate well-made American items that have stood the test of time. And me being me, I'd rather "reuse" an old item rather than buy something new** like the Preserve razor, recycled plastic or not. And man, the old-school razor blades are cheap compared to the seven or so dollars I spend on a four pack of the Preserve blades. Pure steel blades are a lot more easy to recycle than the modern "plastic and aloe strip" crap of modern units.***

Anyways, since Keith had departed to lands north, I wanted to do a little more reading about lathering and shaving with an old-school razor before I tried it. The internet delivers in this department, as there now seem to be a lot of retro-grouch shaving connoisseurs out there. Now to side track a little: I definitely have an interest in learning more about lost shaving techniques, but wasn't looking to become an "expert" or connoisseur. The internet especially makes this attitude and path very easy, as there is so much info out there. One can learn a lot over the course of a weekend reading various websites and blogs. It's easy to get sucked into the rabbit hole, as my friend Steev Hise puts it. Steev recently got a fountain pen and wanted to learn how to properly use it, but after spending a little time looking, he wasn't interested in a new hobby to "geek" out on. Same with me. I've got a passing interest in this razor thing, but I already geek out enough with music, zines, comix, and Tom Baker. Oh yeah, and bikes.

And what a rabbit hole it can be. I found a particular website that had a bunch of good info and advice. But man, what a connoisseur this guy is. He starts to talk about shaving brushes and how he's spent $150 to $200 on one. A brush that's only purpose is to lather shaving cream. I think I'll be okay with my $5 brush, thank you very much. And then the dude starts to go off on male hygiene in general, especially skin care. He uses women as an example, as they "know to take care of their skin" (especially on their faces) and will spend money on products to do so. Now I'm not saying that there isn't some truth in this stereotype, but it completely misses the central issue: society expects women to "look nice" and pressures them into doing so.

Alright, I'm starting to veer from the central point of this whole post. Let's get back to the shaving. About two weeks ago, I started to shave in this whole old-school style? How do I like it? So far so good. Picking up on shaving with a vintage razor didn't take as long as I thought. It's not too much different in technique, besides NOT applying pressure to face as you would with a modern razor. Does it shave any better? It feels like it does give me a closer, cleaner shave, and it irritates my face less than the razors I've previously used, which is good. Now I still do get some irritation, but it's a learning process.

So, is it better? I think so, though could it be that this has to do with me wanting it to be better, a mind over matter thing? Or is it because now I'm paying more attention to the shaving process? I don't know. All I know is I'm going to stick with it for now and see how it goes.

At least until I badly cut myself...

*My dad used to work for Bic.
**See also: most of my bike purchases.
***Also, those plain steel blades are made in the USA.


  1. Those razors went out of favor for a reason, best to keep some styptic on hand. I never understood the idea of more than a dual-bladed razor and when they added a vibrator to them it made even less sense. Just a thought, why didn't Tarzan have a beard? =)

  2. That old safety razor in your photo brings back some horrid memories for me. Growing up as a pimply-faced kid in an era before disposable razors, I donated quite a bit of blood using that thing. But it's not the memory of the cutting myself with the razor that was bad - it's the memory of the searing pain of the styptic pencil to stop the blood loss.

    However, they do give a much better shave. My barber still uses a straight razor for the back of my neck. I don't have the courage to ask him to shave my face, however. I don't think I could go back to a safety razor, which was a major safety advancement over the old straight razor.

    By the way, reading about the disposable razors made me think of Douglas Adams' "Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy" trilogy. In one of the books, he describes a planet whose society made cheaper and cheaper shoes, and therefore had to eventually devote all of its resources to making shoes because they didn't last very long. The society eventually collapsed - they passed the "shoe event horizon". I hope we don't do the same thing with disposable razors.

  3. I had a feeling this post was going to bring out all the old-timers. ;-)

    I think the big diff now is that I have many years experience shaving with a modern razor, so I have more of a feeling for how the safety razor is supposed to work, vs learning shaving from the start with a safety. And for the record, like Big Oak I was (and still somewhat am) a pimply faced kid, and even with the modern razors I cut my face shaving. And used a styptic pen. And yeah, it stung like crazy.

    I'll take the increased risk of cutting myself for the ability to get a better shave. I was getting sick of the rough shave with the modern razor, something that seems inevitable with "better" modern razors, ironically enough.

    Big Oak, good analogy with the shoes. There's a lot like that in the world today.

  4. I guess I'm an old timer, too, because I have a Valet brand Auto Strop safety razor with a patent date of April 9, 1912 on the back. Before you ask, no, I didn't buy it new. It's probably not as good as the '50s era Gillettes, but it looks cool. I don't use it because it requires single-edge blades with notches on the side that don't seem to exist any more.

    One of my colleagues stopped shaving in 1976, when he was about 24 or so. He never lets his beard get much longer than mid-chest, and he says that he's never once missed shaving. I'm not quite ready to go that route yet, but it may be inevitable.

  5. If it will help you (or your readers) I have a bunch of videos on how to use the 'old school' shaving kit. The Youtube channel is at (not sponsored!)

    1. Thanks for the links, some pretty interesting vids, and overall better than that nameless site I bashed. (Though for a sec I thought you were commenter/blogger "mantid". Where is he, by the way?)

      And mantic59, do you have opinion of shaving oils, like Pacific?

    2. Generally I'm not a big fan of shaving oils. But Pacific is the best I've tried. Village Barber is also very good.

    3. Thanks. I like using the oil while traveling because of ease and small size. Have you tried the Musgo Real I refer to? Didn't notice it in the reviews section.

    4. It's been a while since I've used MR shaving cream (you're welcome to do a review of it for Sharpologist!) but as I recall it was pretty good, especially for the low price. I particularly like MR's "Glycerin Lime Oil" pre-shave soap: it works really well for me as a gentle pre-shave cleanser.

  6. I’ve been wet shaving with a Merkur Futur razor for three years now and I love it. It used to be a drudgery to shave, now it’s a hobby: something I look forward to. I lather up with a badger hair brush using Col. Conk soap and get the best saves I had in my life. I’m using Feather blades (the Ninja blades of the shaving world). A good stypic pencil is a must have accessory when drawing a sharp blade across you throat. I finish up with a nice non-alcohol based lotion like Nivea for Men.

    I believe this is the most ecologically sound method of shaving (except maybe a straight razor, which I do on occasion). No more plastic razors in the land-fills. It’s also quite a bit cheaper and delivers a better shave, but it does require some skill.
    Welcome to the world of wet shaving brother. I wish you many close shaves! Jack

  7. I've used a variety of razors on my face over the years ranging from regular safety razors (I still have at least one floating around, but I don't use it because the blades have the potential of being hand and mouth lacerating toys for children and cats) and have never seen any sort of advantage to using shaving creams, special soaps, or brushes. No, what I use is a bar Dove soap, lathered by my fingers and wiped across my face ahead of the razor.

    I've never used a straight razor. I have my great-grandfather's razor (still sharp, 70 or so years after it was last used in anger) so I don't have any excuse (except for terror) to not use it.

  8. Outstanding! I have been doing this for a couple of years now. I recently got an adjustable like the one shown. They give a great shave. Great blog post!

  9. Cool. I use the same type get-up. Bought mine at a junk store in Minnesota in '84 for $3 and it still works fine.

    Steve Z


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