Intro: 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.
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
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
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
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
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
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.