Sep 062010
Shaving with a straight razor

Two years ago my quest for the most eco-friendly shave led me to the Straight Razor.  I bought a reconditioned 70 year old razor to give it a try, and was soon convinced of its supremacy.  Although they are sometimes called “cut-throats” by people who wish to denigrate their safety, there is no better way to shave.

Razor on shaving soap box.

My 70 year old reconditioned razor, with wooden soap box and shaving brush.

I wanted to share my findings and some of the useful information that helped get me started, but thought it best to wait until I was sure that I could actually use a straight razor day after day.  It didn’t take me long to decide that my straight razor was here to stay, but shaving with it became such a normal everyday activity that it hardly seemed newsworthy.

But then, on a weight-restricted cycle adventure, I temporarily switched back to disposable razors.

It was terrible.  The silly plastic handle felt all flimsy in my hand.  The shave was sloppy.  The pathetic little blades got all clogged up after every stroke.  The plastic safety frame made it difficult to trim edges, and didn’t stop the razor from cutting me regularly.  On top of all this, I had to throw it into landfill after just a few shaves.  The experience convinced me that straight razors certainly are worth writing about.

Disposable razors are inherently distasteful for anyone trying to minimise their resource footprint and live sustainably.  When Gillette invented them in the early 1900s, he sold the razor handles at a loss and then made his money off the disposable blades.  In other words, his business model depended on the inherent generation of waste.

And disposable razors come in award-winning levels of gratuitous packaging that also gets thrown straight out.

My original thought had been to try and find a traditional double-edged safety razor, which only needs new blades rather than bulky cartridges.  But I quickly came to the same conclusion as this Sydney Morning Herald article: why not go all the way to a straight razor?.

Of course, like anyone else who calls a double-edged safety razor “traditional” I had absolutely no idea about where to start with straight razors.

I went looking for help.  This Mother Nature article about how to use a straight razor was helpful, as well as being a fun read.  A website called the “Knifecenter” provides solid instructions for straight razor use, and includes some useful details about razor types.  However, it’s probably hard to go past RazorCentral for the definitive straight razor reference.

After a false start with an old razor on eBay that needed lots of work (and I still haven’t sharpened to a usable state), I found reconditioned shave-ready razors at The Invisible Edge.  In the same parcel I bought a strop and some Kent (“by appointment to Her Majesty the Queen”!) shaving soap.  There is no stronger protest against the disposable culture than a vintage razor!

Here’s a casual visual guide to shaving.

Shaving brush in soap

The first step is to lather up some shaving soap on the brush. I've been using this tub of soap for more than two years, and only recently began to see the bottom.

brushing lather onto face

After a few swirls around the shaving soap pot, the soap can be lathered on with the brush. This can feel a bit weird if you're accustomed to shaving cream from a can, but is a lovely face massage.

Brushing the razor on the strop restores the microscopically sharp edge that you want for a good shave. I do this while letting the shaving soap soften my beard.

After re-moistening the shaving brush and lathering up the soap again, it's time to shave. Pulling the skin tight helps give a smooth result and prevent cuts.

Shaving with a straight razor

Make sure to move the blade perpendicular to it's edge, not slice it sideways. The exposed blade of a straight razor makes it easy to trim edges and shapes.

And that’s all there is to it.  Obviously practise helps build these skills and increase speed.  At the beginning I would lock the bathroom door to make sure that nothing could disturb my serious concentration, but now I can plan the day while shaving half on autopilot.

There is no big punchline here to finish on.  I’ve already given my verdict right at the top: I think straight razors are the best way to shave.  They are long lasting and environmentally friendly, they give the best possible shaving results, they are fun and rewarding to use, and are interesting and elegant tools.

I’m going to keep on shaving with my razor till it wears out.  Considering that it’s already had one round of three-score-and-ten years, I could be in for a long wait.

  10 Responses to “Shaving the bristles off a prickly eco-dilemma”

  1. Wow, I’d never really thought about using a straight razor. I admire your out of the box thinking Lachlan. Currently I use an electric razor that gives increasingly mediocre results so I’ve been contemplating changing my system. A couple of questions:

    How much should one expect to pay for a starting kit? My quick conversion from The Invisible Edge website indicates around $AUD220.

    Now that you’ve gotten used to using a straight razor how long does it take and is there a rushed morning option? (I’m inherently disorganised in the morning and tend to forget to shave at times, particularly on the pre-dawn starts).

  2. Hi Lachlan, Ben and I enjoyed reading this. So, I was just wondering if you came across any eco-friendly female shaving options in your researching? Other than growing our the arm and leg hairs, of course!?

  3. I’ve never actually used an electric shaver, Adrian, but I presume that they would be quite convenient. A straight razor is certainly much slower to start with, but the process speeds up as the movements become more natural. I now find my straight razor to be faster than a disposable safety razor, as I only have to rinse the blade about 4 times rather than after every stroke. I’ll time myself tomorrow for you, so that we have some solid figures to discuss.

    My rushed morning option is usually to skip shaving. Working in a research physics lab means that nobody minds if I accumulate stubble.

    I had long since forgotten what I paid for my razor, but my records indicate that it was $187.56 for the razor, strop, and Kent soap. I already had a brush. The Invisible Edge traditional starter kit is about $220, but I think it includes a brand-new razor. I’m sure it would be great, but I was looking for a vintage blade to make an anti-consumption statement.

    My strop, yellow strop maintenance paste, and Kent soap total about $110 on that website today. One of the cheaper shave-ready vintage razors is about $85, which leaves a bit of room to buy a brush and not go above the kit cost. I think you’re unlikely to get set up for much less than $200.

    Yes, this is expensive – but the equipment is designed to last. I’ve not had to pay any further shaving costs for more than 2 years.

  4. Good question about female shaving options, Rebecca. I did read of girls using straight razors on their legs, and I can confirm that this does work – no, they were not my legs! Clearly it can be a bit tricky around knees and shin bone, but not really any worse than a chin. The same technique of pulling the skin to the side of the angled bone will help.

    I’m not sure about armpits. The hollow shape would be hard to reach with a long straight blade, and it’s an awkward place to see clearly.

    As for being eco-friendly, I wonder if waxing might be better than shaving? A non-toxic water soluable wax with re-usable fabric strips might have a significantly smaller resource footprint than disposable razor blades. I think we might need more female input on this one.

  5. It took me seven and a half minutes to shave this morning. Is this a long time?

  6. G’day Lachlan, I would suggest a DE (safety) razor for your lady friend, that way she won’t need to try working a cutthroat around the curves of her armpits, and the DE will also do her legs. The only waste from these are the metal blades that, if disposed of properly, can actually go through the recycling. I put old blades in a sealed tin. Punch a hole in the base of a tomato soup can, drain the contents into a container for use later, then punch a slot in the top of the can, rinse and decorate to taste. One recyclable blade bank.
    Electric razors use foils or blades of sorts and these do wear out and end up in the dump, they also use electricity which uses coal or water to be generated, which isn’t really a ‘green’ option. As well as giving a poor quality shave.
    The cutthroat (This is what they are called in Australia, and is NOT denigrating at all. Straights are what Americans call them.) is best for the enviroment, as you have already pointed out, use less water and a smart user will also find a variety of natural and bio-degradable soaps and lathers. A vegan can use a vinyl strop to save the animals if they like, but the production of the vinyl adds to the overall death to the planet anyway. Whereas animals die of one cause or another so why not use leather and think of the animal as having died of old age. Leather is also bio-degradable. Well done on your blog mate. Just so you know, I’ve used most methods to shave, but nothing can top shaving with a cutthroat. I use a DE for the days I’m running late. It is the next best thing to cutthroats…Once you’ve married the right blade to the razor at least. Takes a trial of a sample pack to find the blade that’s just right for the individual. After that, it’s like a taylor made shave.
    Hope that isof some help to you and your readers anyway mate.

  7. As Lachlan’s wife, I’d like to point out that it was NOT his “lady friend” asking about female shaving options!

  8. Thanks for the post. I came online to look for an eco razor. As a lady I am a bit concerned about all the waste… I am thinking a DE razor will do the trick for underarms, and thanks to Mick I’ll know how to recycle them now as well!

    I initially was planning to buy a straight/cutthroat for legs and continue with disposables for underarm… but I think a DE will do all jobs.

    I hope any females who have trialled non-disposables will feel free to put their experiences on this comments thread…

    I am considering a straight/cutthroat still, though. I see them simply as being less waste. Feedback welcome!

  9. Not sure if people are still checking this, but for the ladies;
    My wife has shaved with both cut throat and straight razor (and i have shaved her legs with a straight, which of corse is her preferred method) and she has found safety razors best (double edge razor). They are much easier to do underarms, and just a little quicker and easier for legs. But shaving legs with a straight razor is certainly done.
    The main thing is, make sure you have a proper lather, it makes all the difference.

  10. Hi Lachlan. I’m just about to buy my first straight razor and accessories. I’ll be in NY for 3 days in a week and then in London for a day before heading to India where I’ll live for 3 years. I’ve read that options in India aren’t great. So I want to buy mine online and have it delivered either to NY or London. I don’t necessarily want to get the cheapest one, because I do want it to last, I’m committed to mastering this low footprint way of shaving. Which model(s) do you think are of sufficient quality to do the job well and last for years, and not expensive (I don’t want to pay extra for purely cosmetic costs like some fancy wood for the handle or anything). The Invisible Edge sells their “classic” model which has their logo ingrained on the blade. Is this good enough quality? It runs for £63. I couldn’t find an option on that website that said “reconditioned” as you mentioned. I just need to buy my razor and accessories soon because I’m running out of time for shipping! Please help!

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