Introduction: Wetshaving for the Common Man

Picture of Wetshaving for the Common Man

The process of shaving had remained relatively unchanged since its primeval beginnings--using just one blade stropped and sharpened to the most infinitesimal degree, hot water and a rich lather, a man would cut the hair right off of his face in a few steady, trained motions. It was a ritualistic activity that spawned poems, songs, dances and stories, it was a rite of passage for every boy, it was a luxury, something passed down through common knowledge for thousands of years--and then it died out.

The growth and conflict of the twentieth century thrust the world forward in its ways, pushing it toward horizons of ever-greater efficiency, ease and speed. The conventional straight razor was replaced by the first safety razors, which allowed shaving in just a few seconds without the help of a mirror. Then the stone and strop were replaced by disposable blades which didn't need to be sharpened or cared for in any way. Lather was pressurized and pumped into cans. Then there was the advent of the electric razor--which in turn forced the safety razor to evolve: fist one blade became two, two became three, three four, and four somehow became six--five for reduced irritation of the face and one Precision Trimmer (tm) for those Tough Places (C).

There are some of us who don't enjoy this breakneck progression--these Sensitive Skin razors with blades their numbers rocketing toward the triple-digits, the Arctic Rush gel with invigorating chemicals whose names are sounding ever more like high explosives. That's where the straight razor comes in, that ancient and still-perfect implement, the daily ritual of shaving with it, the rich smell of lather and hot water, the knowledge that what you are doing is very real and not bound by contracts or trademarks. All of us can do this.

It seems like our knowledge of wetshaving (that's what it's called) comes from the movies--whether it's the daily ritual of the murderous Captain Vidal in Pan's Labyrinth or the terrifying act in Sweeny Todd, where your life balances on the precarious edge of the Demon Barber's chased-sterling razor. Trust me, this is exaggeration. You won't accidentally turn yourself into pie while shaving. Nevertheless, it isn't foolproof and you'll definitely cut yourself a few times. I've never cut myself badly--in fact, using a straight razor is very safe if done properly, but:

**This guide is meant for instructional purposes only. You can do this but only at your own risk. I, the author, am not responsible for any injury you inflict upon yourself or others while attempting to do what is herein illustrated.**

Okay, with that out of the way, let's get started.

Step 1: Getting Started: Pre-shave Mindgames, the Stone, and the Strop.

Picture of Getting Started: Pre-shave Mindgames, the Stone, and the Strop.

Okay, it's the morning and you've just gotten up, you're groggy and can't open your eyes for more than five seconds at a time. Picture one, Exhibit A. While a pro-wetshaver might be able to trim his whiskers in this state, a novice would have trouble and would probably end up with some repressed memories of the experience. I recommend taking a hot shower to wake yourself up--at the same time, it' a good idea to rub the hot water into your beard and let the hair soften up. This makes it easier to get a close, non-irritated shave.

Once you're awake and ready, hone and strop your razor. Honing should be done every few months, or if the razor is dull from misuse, or brand new. Stropping should be done daily, both before and after the shave. The big rule to remember here is that you hone and strop going different directions--hone blade-forward, as if you were sharpening a knife, and strop blade-backward so you don't cut into the leather of the strop. More detailed instructions and more rules follow:

Dampen your stone with some warm water or lather. I use an Ichabod Conk hone, still produced and easily found online. Place the razor's spine on the hone and roll it down so the edge touches the hone without jarring. If you strike the edge or use the wrong angle, you'll ruin the sharpening job and possibly the entire razor. Now, keeping the razor flat with both the edge and the side of the spine touching the hone, gently swipe the razor across the surface. The razor's edge should be moving forward. Sharpen the entire edge by either angling the blade or moving it in a vertical motion as you do the horizontal swipe. At the end of a stroke, roll the razor over on its spine and do the same thing in the other direction. The rolling action is to keep the blade from contacting the hone badly. You'll also use this technique in stropping. About fifteen strokes should be sufficient.

Use a hanging leather strop for a concave or Y-profiled blade (like mine) and a block strop for a flat or V-profiled blade. As with honing, you must place the blade spine-first onto the strop and then roll the edge into contact with the leather. Do not do this like you've seen in the movies, where the barber swipes the razor back and forth like he's spreading spackle--use slow, delicate movements; roll the blade when you chance direction instead of lifting it; and remember to move spine-first, the opposite of honing. Otherwise you'll cut through the strop.
If you have a combination strop, use the canvas side first to rough out the edge and then move to the leather to fine-tune it. Again, about fifteen strokes should be enough.

Step 2: Lather: the Grownup Version of Bubbles

Picture of Lather: the Grownup Version of Bubbles

Now for the lather. This is the luxurious part. You're going to need a badger brush or substitute bristle brush for it, along with a good shaving soap. You can get shaving soap at the supermarket; I've heard that old-fashioned lye soap also works well. Is personally use sandalwood soap from an online specialty store. Sometimes it's really that lather that can make the difference between a good shave and an incredible shave.

Okay, you have your soap--put it in a bowl or mug or whatever you want to use and turn on your tap to hot. Splash your face with some water and rub it in. Once the water is burning hot, rinse both the brush and the soap in it to get them warm. With the water trapped in the brush, work up a nice thick foam. It takes practice to get a really nice lather but it's not rocket science, you'll get it. Once you've got it, spread the stuff all over you face with the brush. Make sure to cover everywhere there's unwanted hair, including low on the neck, near the ears and just under the lower lip. If you like you can let this first coat mellow out for a minute and then apply another--I like just one coat, personally.

Okay, by now you should feel nice and invigorated and ready to shave. That's our next step.

Step 3: Splitting Hairs--the First Pass

Picture of Splitting Hairs--the First Pass

Okay, now you're lathered up and ready to go. Your razor of sharp and your beard if soft. You're going to do two passes when you shave--one with the gain of the hair, and one against. The first is to get rid of the tougher hair and to take care of the free radicals that grow against the grain. The second pass is to bring it all up flush.

Most people start with the sideburns and work down to the mustache and chin area. I go the opposite way, just because my hair is toughest at the neck and chin and I like to tackle that part when the razor is sharp. If you're a novice I'd recommend using the straight razor only for the sideburns the first couple of times you shave and ding the rest with your normal razor. Once you're comfortable enough with this, move on the more areas of the face. The trickiest part of your face is probably the mustache.

Open the razor so that the handle hangs to the side, out of your way (about a 230 degree angle from closed, see picture), and grip it with your thumb and forefinger by the metal throat area behind the blade, where the razor company's logo is most likely located. That may be confusing, so look at picture one for a better illustration of this. Hold your skin taut, and starting wherever you prefer, lay the razor at a twenty degree angle against your skin and scrape it gently with the grain of your hair, blade forward. ALWAYS move it in the direction perfectly perpendicular to the blade's edge--don't make any horizontal slicing or sawing movements. This may or may not be common sense, but I figure I should mention it because if you make this mistake, YOU GONNA GET CUT. Also mind the angle. The tight angle might be hard to hold at first; you'll find yourself tending more toward a high, say forty degree, slant. This can be dangerous because an inclined razor is more likely to cut you. The razor's spine actually stays pretty close to your face--though if your angle is too tight, you'll be ripping hairs out rather than shaving them. Don't worry, this all becomes instinct with time.

When you do the mustache, always cut downwards or to either side--never up. If you foul up or slip you're going to do some epic damage to your nose. For this reason you might have to do three passes here, especially if your whiskers are tough: one down, one to the left and one to the right.

Also be careful around your ears. There are some weird contours here and you need to make sure you get all the hair without cutting yourself. When in doubt, take it slow; if still in doubt, put the straight razor aside and use your Mach 3.

After the first pass, you probably won't have a perfectly shaves face. In fact, it might barely look like you've shaved at all--but no worries, it's going to be easier for you during the second pass.

Step 4: The Second Pass

Picture of The Second Pass

This time you'll be going against the grain, or upwards. It's going to feel a little different than the first pass; less like tugging on the hair and more like tugging on the skin. Technique is more important here than in the first pass, because this is where you're really trying to get every last hair. You might need to press a little harder, but don't overdo it. If your razor is sharp enough it should work just fine.

Work up some more lather and re-cover your face. The idea here is pretty much the same as the first pass, except you're going the other direction. Angle is very important here--if your angle is bad you'll get a bad shave. Remember not to shave upwards on the mustache.

Once you're done, run your hand over your ace to feel for anything you missed. Most likely there will be; I always miss the areas right under my ears. Lather these incomplete places and try again, against the grain, or if that doesn't work, from one side. Don't beat up on these areas too badly if you can't make them perfect--a couple stray whiskers is better than third-degree razor burn any day of the week.

Alright--you should have a shaved face by now. The job needs to be finished, though.

Step 5: Cleanup

Picture of Cleanup

Rinse away the remaining lather with some warm water and dry your face. You may have a nick or two and possibly some razor burn, especially if you're a newbie. A good styptic is a must--you can get a styptic pen at the drugstore. I use alum--a natural salt styptic that comes in blocks. If you have a pen, just apply it to the nicks and leave the rest. It's going to smart a little bit. If you have an alum block, wet it with warm water and wipe if over any areas with razor burn or nicks. Keep in mint that this is really going to smart. But it's nothing a real man can't handle, is it?
Wetshaving scrapes off the fist layer or two of skin cells on your face, so it'll be prone to drying. Use an aftershave or lotion to keep this from happening and to give yourself a nice smell too. I like Bay Rum, personally.
Oh, and make sure you dry your razor very well. If there's even a single drop of water on the blade, it's going to rust. Picture two shows a spot of rust on my blade that I found when I started making this instructable; it's a nasty surprise, especially if you have a really nice razor.

Step 6: Afterword: Things You Can Do to Get Started

Picture of Afterword: Things You Can Do to Get Started

I'll admit, a new shaving set is going to set you back few bucks, and you'll probably want to try it out before you commit. There are a couple low-cost and low-maintenance alternatives to straight razors: Dovo, the company who made my razor, also makes the Shavette; a pressed metal deal that uses disposable double-edged blades and apparently works like magic. To get started, I used a Fromm hair shaper (the thing they use at the barber to thin your hair) with the part that makes it safe removed. The shave wasn't great, but it taught me how to use a razor without killing myself. For a brush you can use cheap wash brush from the art supply store, and if you can't find soap, well, I think my words are lost on you.

Good luck if you decide to learn to wetshave--it's very rewarding and I find it gives me a smoother face that a conventional safety razor. It's a great feeling to learn something new, especially something that requires skill like this, and I guarantee you'll respect yourself better for doing it.



RugerDude (author)2008-08-16

cool I'm 14 so i only have some stiff hair on my upper lip but i have tried it before!

no one has commented on this page since 2010 its a shame when peoples instructables get forgotten about much like the fine art of shaving with an open blade is being forgotten

actually wet shaving has been making a come back recently

Amiga500 (author)2012-09-04

Holy crap, it's a straight razor! My husband recently fell in love with safety razors, and this is next on the list. Thanks for the tutorial, I'll pass it on.

The Rambler (author)2012-03-21

Just letting you know, I also tacked this on the

l8nite (author)2011-09-28

eeeeeeep !! I just found the SCARIEST "ible" ever !! !

korgoth25 (author)2011-09-28

Nice ible, ive been using a straight razor for about a week now and am just making sure im doing things right, so far only 2 small cuts! Although id say the most "dangerous" part is up high on my cheeks (where i got those two cuts) and not pulling my skin there. If theirs one thing i learned through this experience is pull the skin no matter what you think.

PistolShooter (author)2011-03-30

Neat Instructable and nice Dovo. I have been real shaving myself for about 3 years now. No other way.

SecretGuideToShaving (author)2010-10-24

Nice. I'm more of a DE kind of guy. Check my out instructable at

nightninja87 (author)2010-09-12

did it take you some time to learn to shave with the straight razor or was it easier for you?

Basta (author)nightninja872010-09-12

It definitely took time. Half of it is about getting your shaving technique right, the other half is getting the sharpening technique right.

agis68 (author)2010-09-06

The last decade I learned to use the original razor and now Iam using it always. Recently in a Greek village I visited an old time classic barber shop and the employment show me a trick for making cheap a rich foam for shaving. He used for basis a common soap mixed with water and then he dropped about 2 spoons of cooking soda!!!. The mix was really thick and rich and very good.....When I visited England some years agoI bought exactly the same soap like yours in sandalwood. But now i forgot it could u tell me plz the brand name????

Basta (author)agis682010-09-06

A lot of brands make that one bowl. I can't remember which brand mine was, but The Art of Shaving, Truefitt and Hill, and Taylor of Old Bond Street all make a clone of it. I know for a fact that The Art of Shaving has the bowl and sandalwood refills in their stores and online.

agis68 (author)Basta2010-09-06

thnx for your reply...

antagonizer (author)2008-07-24

Great shaving instructable. I've been using a straight razor now for about 2 years and would never even consider using disposables again. My only comments, to you, would be that you're sharpening your blade too often. Once every 10 shaves should do it, or else you could 'over sharpen' and simply make a brittle burr. Also, you're stropping too much. If you're using it to refine an edge after sharpening with some jewlers rouge, 15 strokes is good, however stropping should ONLY be done just before shaving, and only 4-5 strokes. The idea is to 'line up' the burr, not put an edge on it. Other than that, fantastic instructable!

Basta (author)antagonizer2008-07-25

Thanks for the comment! I've seen some disparity among peers when it comes to honing/stropping--some seem to think that the razor must be stropped multiple times before/during/after a shave, while others say to only strop every 3-4 shaves. Your method seems to take the middle ground, which I like. I'll have to look it up a little, and I'll probably end up editing that part of the instructable.
I assume by sharpening you mean honing? If so, I don't do that every time I shave--probably more like once a month. I may not have made this clear in the instructable...I'll have to go back and check.

Gksarmy (author)Basta2010-04-27

I too agree with antagonizer. Honing should only be done 1-2 times a YEAR as i understand it. But stropping i've heard is good before every who knows?

Basta (author)Gksarmy2010-04-27

Probably comes down to personal preference. I know that my razor is really hard to put a perfect edge on, but once it's there it wears out in about two months and needs re-honing. I strop before each shave, 10-15 strokes on the canvas side of my strop and 15-20 times on the leather side. Still, I've heard to strop once every four shaves, and others say strop every day, 20 times on canvas, 30 times on leather, and 40 times on newspaper for cripes sake. I don't have that much time in the morning.

finfan7 (author)2010-04-11

This is an excellent Instructable but there is one thing I would mention.  Something my father taught me is that it's really the burr on the edge of the blade that simulates an even sharper blade than the razor actually is.  This means that when you strop you should always strop in one direction only.  This is what builds the burr.

Basta (author)finfan72010-04-11

The burr is a really important part of the razor--without it, the razor would seem very dull. To the best of my knowledge stropping on both sides is to maintain the burr, not to actually sharpen the blade. The burr gets deformed and requires reshaping after each shave, and that's what the strop is for. Most people will also tell you to let the blade "rest" for 24-48 hours after you use it, otherwise the burr can become fatigued and fall off.

Then again, I've never tried stropping one side of the blade. It could definitely work, though I've never heard of it in practice.

Nick11255 (author)2010-02-27

very nice, i will definitely ask for a set for my birthday... just went on ebay and the razors are either $5 or $300 watev thanks

Basta (author)Nick112552010-02-27

Ebay can be a great place for razors, as long as you look for the right thing. Best are old used ones still in god shape, like this:
But new production razors can be tricky. Cheap razors are made of stainless, and that's bad. Always go for carbon steel. Dovo (the brand of my razor) makes some really good ones.

SeanPatrick (author)2009-02-18

When my dad taught me how to shave (it's been awhile) he told me that if you shave against the grain you'll get ingrown hairs. Has anyone experienced this? I've always just shaved with the grain.

paise (author)SeanPatrick2010-02-23

Against grain/with grain depends on length of beard/mustache. If longer, shave w/the grain 1st then on the 2nd pass shave against the grain for a smooth shave; believe me, it's the closest shave a man can get. FYI: It helps to add a heated towel to the face 1st to soften the hair & make the skin more pliable to movement b/c it takes precision to shave w/a traditional blade as it is extremely sharp. It's also nice to add a bit of man-scented lotion to the face to prevent drying out the skin. A manly scented non-greasy oil is best but I'm not sure if anyone sells it anymore.

Basta, thanks for adding these directions. Shaving w/ a straight blade, strop, brush, & lathering soap has become a lost art-form. I'm glad to hear someone still uses it. Maybe someone will read your instructions & pick up true shaving again then convince others to try it too. I'd like to see this type of shaving come back.

An elderly man in the neighborhood where I grew up developed Parkinson's, which caused his hands to shake so bad from the tremors he couldn't shave himself as he had since he was a young boy. Since I shaved my paternal grandfather using this method, I offered to shave him & even trimmed his hair when it needed it. I learned to shave w/a straight blade by applying lathering soap to a blown up balloon. Once I should shave consistently w/o bursting the balloon, I could shave any man who wanted a straight blade shave.

I ran into the elderly man I used to shave back in the day some yrs after I left home. He was w/a nurse helping him shop b/c he had Alzheimer's; it was fortunate for me that he wasn't sun-downing b/c while he couldn't remember my name, he could remember all those times I shaved him & cut his hair. He told me how much he appreciated my taking up time w/such an old man when clearly I probably had better things to do; however, I told him it was not only my pleasure to help him, I enjoyed spending time w/him, hearing stories of his childhood & young man days, & well - his life story. I adored him. When I told him this, he broke out in tears, wrapped his arms around me, and hugged me tightly. He said I did for him when neither of his two children could be bothered. I was more like his daughter than the daughter he had. That made me cry. It was nice to know I made such an impact on his life considering the impact he made on mine.

Basta (author)paise2010-02-23

That's a wonderful story. I think there's also something about the ritual of shaving the old way that resonates more deeply with us than the modern, topical method does.

I've heard about the balloon trick. Never tried it, though. I HAVE tried to shave the fuzz off a peach, and that's tricky to say the least.

monkeeeee001 (author)SeanPatrick2009-08-19

I have never gotten ingrown hairs by shaving against the grain. I've also found that shaving with the grain produces an extremely poor shave, mostly because you are essentially just flattening the hairs that have grown.

Not everyone gets ingrown hairs by shaving against the grain, but it does happen.

If your experience is that you're just flattening the hairs when shaving with the grain, then one or more things is happening. One is that you're not lathering correctly... especially in the case of a wet shave... as the lathering process encourages the hairs to stand up and the shave soap holds them that way. Another could be that your razor is slightly dull... even out of the packet, most cartridge style razors fall into the dull category compared to a properly kept straight razor and if your facial hair is of substantial thickness a cartridge razor can be made useless after one or two passes (I've actually chipped the edges of Gilette Fusion razors before I switched over to a straight razor). Finally, it may just be that you're sporting facial hair that's still too close to peach fuzz for a razor's edge to bite into when going with the grain (a problem I had when I first started getting facial hair, I never could have anticipated the wire brush that grows out of my face now)

H3xx (author)SeanPatrick2009-10-02

I really don't have a grain. The hair on my chin grows like moleskin. 0_o

dmcgraw7 (author)2009-09-17

Nicely done. I am ready to give it a try. Thanks.

Jake-off (author)2008-12-29

great instructables. i just bought one and i was very thankful for this. but what do you do with the lather on your blade?

Basta (author)Jake-off2008-12-29

You mean during shaving? Just rinse it off under running water. Don't get the rivet point wet as water can stay under there and rust the tang area.

Jake-off (author)Basta2009-01-01

ok thanks, I was just curious, i was watching monty python meaning of life and i saw john clease just wiping it off on a cloth

wiz0floyd (author)Jake-off2009-07-28

That works well too. I just use the washcloth that I'm going to use to wipe my face later. I recommend putting the spine into the cloth when you do that, for obvious reasons.

crazyndhed03 (author)2009-05-04

Thanks for the sharpening tips! I have a vintage straight razor, just picked up a stone and strop. Tried them out, but didn't have the right angle. Thanks!

Lesenthe (author)2009-04-11

Great instructable. I've been using a straight razor for awhile now. Nothing's more manly than shaving with what amounts to a really sharp knife. :) The one piece of advice I can add here is not to try it on your scalp. I prefer a smooth dome, and tried it just the once. It's a pity I didn't take pics, because the damage was pretty impressive.

Larzid (author)2009-03-02

Excellent instructable, i read somewhere that in ancient times they used olive oil instead of lather, any way, i did it a few times with the most unlikely equipment, a German steel utility knife (when i was in culinary school i used to have my knives really sharp and used a strop instead of a steel) and the olive oil and always got a perfect shave. the reason i did this i because you had to come into class with a clean shave every day or they would make you shave with those nasty 10 razors for one buck things and water (horrible shaving experience).

Basta (author)Larzid2009-03-02

That's cool, I never really thought of using oil but I'm sure it would work. Maybe I'll try it some day. I can imagine using a small French chef's knife, too--I used to work in a restaurant and even their cheap pressed blades could reach close to a razor-sharpness honed correctly, at least enough to skim the hairs off your arm. I'm glad I don't go to a school where they force you to shave.

awoodcarver (author)2008-07-25

Very nicely done ...I learned with a straight razor and still use mine .... my son now 14 is starting to grow a few whiskers and I have pulled out a old razor and need to put a new grip on it and show him how to sharpen and strop it as well as shave ... I do agree with Ant you seem to be stropping too much ( but we all are taught / learn differently )....I may take pics and do a Instructable on the grip as well as cleaning rust off old blades ... your sharpening of laying the back and front on the stone was right on it is a built in angle guide ..I do find my straight razor gives a better closer shave then disposable but these old safety razors come in a very close second

SeanPatrick (author)awoodcarver2009-02-18

I'd love to see that instrucable, I have a couple razors I picked up at a junk shop and they shave great but they could do with a good cleaning and one needs a new handle

Thornburg (author)2008-07-24

Nice job, just that ever since Sweeny Todd, I haven't been much of a fan of shaving like this. Good work though, very nice details.

inventer (author)Thornburg2008-07-25

You should see (SRP) Good instructable...Keeping your blade sharp is as much, or more of a challenge, then shaving. The SRP folks (I'm a member) are helpful. Studies have shown to strop 30 strops before each shave, (stropping after shaving doesn't matter) Hone as needed (maybe once every other month, or more if needed)...which is much more challenging then sharpening a knife. IMO you need a pasted strop too for the best shave.

SeanPatrick (author)inventer2009-02-18

I find it's actually easier to hone a razor because the spine serves as a built-in angle guide.

mg0930mg (author)Thornburg2009-01-18

Yeah, scary. I still might try this.

AnarchistAsian (author)2008-10-21

wow, nice, i want to learn how to do this before i learn to shave normally...

slucepan (author)2008-08-28

A very good instructable indeed. when sharpening a strait razor you shouldn't have to do more than about 4 strokes across the stone once in a while. Try shaving a little fine hair from the underside of your for arm to see how it cuts before stropping. If you can feel a bit of a burr or edge on the razor knock it down with the strop. small dings can be honed out however big dings may need professional honing. If you keep a good angle shaving and roll the blade a bit with the couture of your face you will prevent a lot of dings.

meddler (author)2008-07-24

I'm to afraid to use one of these, i would look strange with out a nose......

Weissensteinburg (author)2008-07-24

Very well done! I've wanted to learn for a while, so maybe i'll get one of your alternative suggestions.

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