Like many things a man does, shaving can be a chore, or it can be transformed into an act of artistry and style.
Whether you wear facial hair or shave down to baby butt smoothness, you can easily find a disposable razor that will clean you up quickly and neatly without nicking you into a transfusion. Those throw-away blades might come with as many as five micro-thin cutters, making sure your soon to be hairless cheeks and chin stay intact. Your whiskers never stand a chance, and you’re out of your bathroom door in minutes.
That’s fine. It works. You can do it every day and never think twice about it. But, you can make shaving into a ritual on occasion – an experience you might actually look forward to once in a while. You simply need the skill and courage to turn back the clock and perform your own cut-throat or straight razor shave.
This was how our grandfathers and great grandfathers shaved after invading Normandy or before they headed to the factory to build the first Ford Mustang. A cut-throat razor fit a tougher age for rougher men – for guys who were so busy fighting for their lives that the fact they were shaving with a deadly weapon never worried them.
With Father’s Day here, I gave cut-throat shaving a try for old times’ sake – testing out products from Bluebeard’s Revenge, the UK-based maker of classic grooming items. They make a cut-throat unit that takes replacement blades, removing the need for a sharpening via a razor strap.
Cut-throat razor shaving never really went away. You can visit a local barbershop (…if they survive near you…) or any chain of men’s grooming spots where buxom young women serve up a shave and haircut as you rest your head against their two bits.
Still, the old-fashioned way of shaving enjoyed a surge in interest following last winter’s runaway success of Skyfall. While James Bond celebrated his 50th anniversary with the most successful movie in the franchise’s history, Daniel Craig enjoyed a straight razor shave at the hands of a flirty Miss Moneypenny. As Moneypenny beheld the blade in Bond’s hand, 007 insisted that the old fashioned ways are sometimes best.
He’s a man who appreciates masculine tradition – including classic cars, cocktails and clipping his facial hair with a paper-thin sheet of steel. Since any man worth his weight in martinis on this planet secretly wants to be James Bond, that was reason enough for me to give this a try. Honoring our grittier ancestors is just a bonus.
You don’t prep for a straight razor shave by slapping on simple shaving cream. You need quality lather whipped up and applied with a shaving brush. That brush not only builds and distributes a good lather, it stands your whiskers at attention before they’re mowed down. Bluebeard’s Revenge offers a selection of those, too.
Once lathered, you need to figure out how to hold that cut-throat razor. Some grip it in a folded “V,” using the index finger and thumb to keep the blade stable. My hands feel too big for that grip, so I went with holding it straight out – the same way I’d hold a blade if I was going to slash someone’s neck. It’s a daunting test at first when you realize you’re putting something to your face that could kill.
Since you probably don’t want to commit suicide, the two most important elements of a straight razor shave are the pressure applied and the blade angle. On the pressure front, it’s pure touch. Baby it, and you’ll cut nothing. Press too hard, and you’ll slice into flesh. The only way to get a sense of how proper pressure is to attempt and practice. Learn by doing, but try to leave your nose between your eyes and mouth.
The right pressure is useless if the blade approaches at the wrong angle. Stroke the blade against the skin too shallow or flat, and the metal just scrapes off shaving cream without cutting hair. Stand it up too close to 90 degrees, and you’ll carve yourself up like a roast. My practice taught me to bring the blade in between flat and 45 degrees – shaving with the grain. With a more modern multi-blade razor, I go against that grain and get the shave over quicker. But, a cut-throat shave is all about going with the flow.
There’s the key of the experience – flow. A cut-throat razor shave is a zen experience. It forces you to slow down and focus. It unites mind and body – analysis and dexterity – by necessity. Get sloppy or rush, and you’ll injure yourself and spend the morning making out with a septic pencil.
However, if you take your time and do it right, there’s a strange reward. Shave with a modern blade, and you simply complete morning grooming. Completing a straight razor shave gives you a little sense of craftsmanship and accomplishment tying you back with men of bygone eras.
I still shave on most days with a modern, multi-blade razor. It’s more efficient. It’s safer. But, on those occasions when I have some extra time – or when I want to gather my thoughts – I turn a straight razor shave into a treat.
I doubt my Dad or my grandfather looked at it that way when they had to shave, but sometimes the old ways are still the best.