March 15, 2012

Am I seriously going to use this thing to shave my face?

I've been using an electric razor more or less exclusively for my whole shaving life, about 20 years. It stinks, and I want better.

The latest electric, which I bought about four years ago, is a predecessor to the top of the line Braun 790-C, which cost ~$250. I don't like it as well as the Norelco I had before that, which was a lot cheaper and lasted for around 8 years. The current electric razor is loud and gives terrible shaves. It needs new cutter heads about once a year at $35 each. The Norelco was easy to shake out the cuttings from, but this Braun is not set up well to do that. Its designed to use the charging and cleaning station supplied with the razor, which of course uses the proprietary molded plastic cleaning cartridges full of mystery blue fluid. These cartridges, even if you stretch out the cleaning, last only about 3-4 months, so a year's supply is about $20. Its annoying to have to keep ordering and changing out these silly liquid cartridges and throwing the old ones out; each one probably has 25g of plastic in it. Plus there is this lame docking station in my bathroom which I have to plug in to charge and clean the shaver once a week. But I bought it and it does the job (barely), so I suffer its depredations every morning.

 Needless to say I've been harboring a festering discontent with my current shaving setup. This year I've been trying to make some changes in routine and activity to improve my quality of life, and maybe save some money. In the vein of the anachronistic fetish that led me to want to make exclusive use of an antique treadle sewing machine, I started to check out whether one could realistically shave with a straight razor and if so how to go about it.

No one should be surprised that the internet is teeming with enthusiastic zealots in this kooky niche, just with any other bizarre niche interest you can dream up. So I started reading up. The site I've been to most frequently is Badger & Blade, which is an excellent resource for wet shaving and has been enormously helpful. I heartily recommend plenty of lurking there for anyone interested in such foolishness.

I started looking at pictures of straight razors, which can be very beautiful and elegant. My eye was caught by a type of traditional Japanese straight called a kamisori. These have a fixed handle and don't fold down into scales to protect the blade. They generally look more like a sharpened piece of old bedframe than like something you might consider trying to shave with. They have an asymmetric blade shape, so the "right" way to use them involves some interesting contortions if you are shaving yourself. In short, kamisoris looked like a lot of fun! Also, I am a great fan of our single bevel Japanese kitchen knives, which can be sharpened to a wicked edge and hold it for a long, long time, even with heavy daily use for cooking.

A posting on B&B asking for advice on how to try out kamisori shaving in the least expensive manner brought me plenty of good advice. By chance, one guy who wrote me and offered to send me a free brush and soap lived at the same coop I did in college! Another list member set me up very reasonably with a kamisori of mysterious provenance and another free soap. The blade was honed up to shave readiness by another forum member living in my area.

I ordered a piece of leather to use as a strop and got some witch hazel, aloe gel, and a styptic pencil from the drug store.

Everyone agrees that shaving with a straight razor is a skill, and that there is a significant learning curve. Starting from electric, I even need to learn simple things like beard prep and making lather. Using a kamisori has some specific skills of its own. But I will be starting slow and trying to make this work over time.

If I can do it, it will be great. Incremental costs are and environmental impact are low: a new natural brush every few years, a new shave soap a couple times a year (which I'd like to make myself eventually), a bit of natural product for aftershave. As long as I take care of it, I'll be able to use a kamisori for my whole life and it will still be useful after I'm dead. Ultimately it can rust into the ground easily in a landfill. With electrics over a lifetime, I'd be buying and disposing of a pile of 8-10 units of plastics and batteries, plus cleaning cartridges, chargers, cutter heads, and the like. The straight razor will also give me a better shave with less clatter and nonsense. And (not least, if we're being honest) its just plain cool.

Last night I tried my first tiny bit of wet shaving with this razor. It was kind of fun! I didn't try to do very much, and didn't end up cutting off much hair. On the other hand, I also did not need ANY stitches, and finished with the same amount of blood in me that I started with! So I'll chalk it up as a good first experience, and try to work my way up the long learning curve.

I've started a shave journal at B&B, if you are interested in following my progress.


Nathan Williams said...

That's definitely diving into the deep end of shaving!

I've greatly enjoyed switching from canned foam and cartridge razors to brush, soap, and DE blades; there's still a moderate amount of production and waste, but mostly in recyclable metal.

Holly Gates said...

Hi Nathan! I presume you are the Nathan I know from pika. The guy who sent me a brush, cream, and a soap to get started was also a pikan, and inquired if I knew you. Small world.

Yeah, I think DE would be a very sensible way to go. You get almost all the benefits I mentioned above, but without having to deal with sharpening and without some of the complications (and hazards) of using a straight. If I wasn't so wrapped up in the idea of the straight razor, DE would be an excellent option. Glad to hear it is working out well for you. There are tons of happy DE shavers on B&B it seems.