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.
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.