Learning to Shave With A Straight Razor: A Woman’s Guide

19 minute read

Sustainability is a central concern we have aboard the Caravan, not just because we care about the planet and the next generation, but because it is something of a necessity in our lifestyle.  If we have a lot of trash to throw out, we cannot remain for long in any free, remote locations that we love so very much.  That means that one of the great challenges we have run into before we even move in has been how to shave.

If we were going to live on the road 150 years ago, only men would have to worry about how to shave, but we are 21st century performance artists.  We need to shave our legs, armpits and so forth to meet with popular expectations of female performers, and we honestly personally prefer to shave ourselves anyway.  With conventional, modern shaving options, we would generate a lot of trash from heavily-packaged, expensive razor cartridges that don’t easily recycle and are lubricated with shaving cream products that are often poisonous to the environment. This looks like a job for an old, proven method: straight razor shaving.

There isn’t much out there to help women shave with straight razors, partly because curiosity on the area is typically from men.  I know I haven’t met many girls are interested in trying it, though I’ve seen a few express interest on forums [edit: Apparently my Facebook page is loaded with women who are interested; who knew?].  I’m hoping that others will be inspired by our experience and research to do just that.

There are tons of great guides online for straight razor shaving for men. I will therefore focus on two things: body shaving for women and being cheap without wrecking yourself with a bad shave.

Why would I try this?

  • Unlike modern, cartridge-based razors, a straight razor is something you can use repeatedly for years.  Many razors were passed down in families and are still good.  It is the least wasteful way you can possibly shave your body.  
  • Shaving with a straight razor is a focused and mindful process that leaves you with a sense of accomplishment in a job well-done.  I can’t say I ever felt that way after raking a cartridge over my poor skin.
  • The attention and care with which you must shave, as well as the before and after care, tends to give you a really good shave with fewer skin problems.
  • You get serious bragging rights, even among the guys.

Why doesn't everyone do this?

  • It does take a few minutes longer to get the same job done even once you are good at using a straight razor.
  • Buying the razor and the other things you will need is often prohibitively expensive, despite the long-term savings from not buying disposables.  I have more to say on this later, because I got around a lot of this expense.
  • While I’ve been nicked less often using a straight razor than using cartridges, you will get cuts when you are learning, most likely.  Those cuts have a potential for being more serious than anything possible with a cartridge, so care is needed.
  • Some people really cannot use a straight razor with enough dexterity because they have physical disabilities that prevent it, but they can use a cartridge.
  • Some of us never actually seriously considered the option.

How do I get started?

The biggest downside of straight razor shaving is that you have to invest in some things up front whether or not you actually commit to using it all for the long term.  Some people try using disposable blade straight razors first (also known as “shavettes” after a brand name for one such product), but then you are not really getting experience with honing, stropping or the blade you would actually be using if you get a reusable model. In favor of disposables, only the blade edge is disposable and is easily recycled.  However, considering the fact that you still need shaving soap or cream, a disposable blade handle (~$30) and possibly a brush and all that stuff anyway, I didn’t go that route.  If you are interested, there are many fine articles on the topic on the internet.  I’ll link at least one at the end, just in case.
Presuming you are going to jump right in with a reusable razor, this is what you will need (if you went disposable, just leave off the razor, strop and hone):
  • A canvas and leather strop (often these come as a set).  There are many types.  I prefer the hanging strops because they don't take up significant space.  It's just a strip of canvas and a strip of cowhide with handles on the ends to hold them taught.  Nothing too special is needed, but quality is a good thing.  Amazon reviews help.
  • A sharpening stone or hone.  You cannot expect to use a razor more than a month and a half or so without this, and you probably won't get away without using it before your first shave either because no antique comes shave-ready and neither do many new razors.  The vast majority of the current straight razor users use the Norton 4000/8000 grit Japanese style waterstone.  Go head and look up the price.  It will hurt a bit.  The only way around that price is to go old-style.  You can use an antique, ceramic barber's hone, which takes longer to hone with more work, or you can use a hard black Arkansas stone. I use the latter option because I am cheap.  A hard black Arkansas stone is made from natural novaculite, and is one antiquated option for honing the edge of surgical tools and razors.  It will take you longer to work with than the Norton stone, but it will accomplish the task of the 4000 grit side.  The 8000 grit side adds just that much more polish and precision that you cannot get from my method.  I'm okay with that.
  • A shave brush.  Can you dispense with this?  Yes.  Should you dispense with it?  Not really.  A shave brush hydrates the hair, whips up your shaving cream, applies it with just the right amount of water mixed in and feels nice.  You are dragging a super-sharp knife over your skin.  If your skin isn't prepped right, it won't glide.  That blade will hop, stick and hack over your skin. The results of that are not pleasant.  A good shave brush is either boar bristles or badger bristles.  The badger ones are better and absolutely amazing.  For the vegans out there, I have no idea what to tell you.  I have used synthetic brushes of various types to try out the idea, and they were awful.  If there is a vegan out there who can help point me (and thus our readers) to a quality synthetic brush, contact me!  I want to know.  Until then, a boar brush is between $4 and $15.  A badger brush is between $15 and $80.  Quality of brush matters, but there is this one I found (and use regularly) here that is really quite good but cheap: Perfecto Badger Shave Brush on Amazon
  • A mug or bowl.  This is for your shaving soap (mug and/or bowl) or cream (bowl).  You will see how to use it later, but this is basically for whipping up a lather with your brush.  Since I prefer the simplicity and biodegradability of soap, I use an old, chipped-up enamelware mug I got in a garage sale for extremely cheap.  I sanded off the rust and covered the chips with epoxy.  I'll never drink out of it, so it's perfect!
  • Shaving cream or soap.  I like to use soap, as I mentioned earlier.  Dr. Bronner's Castile soap bars work in a mug if you cut them in half, but the lather of a Castile doesn't stay for long.  If you have a good badger brush, the lather comes out good enough that I was able to use it with sensible reapplication when needed.  My apologies to the vegans on that Catch 22.  For those of us who aren't vegan, William's Shave Soap is extremely cheap, available and has precious little in it that I worry about putting into the environment (while not being absolutely perfect).  If you want a place to start searching for your perfect cream or soap (with cream, you whip it in a bowl or in hand to make your lather), you can look at this page: "The New Guys Guide to Inexpensive Soaps and Creams".  In fact, if you can get past the fact that the page is very much written by and for men (mostly older men), the wiki and forums on Badger and Blade is quite good.
  • And finally, you need a razor!  Here's the trick with shopping for a straight razor, beware of kitsch!  As with any "old world" tools, there are always people out there to sell you "gift" versions (aka. junk that looks pretty).  You can get a good idea of what sharp, shave-worthy razors should cost and look like on www.straightrazordesigns.com.  They cost a lot, have a sensible blade size (generally 5/8") and will be something you can pass down to your daughter (which may make your great grandfather roll over in his grave).  As I have stated previously, however, I am cheap.  No way am I spending $150-$200 to shave my legs when I'm paring down my life and trying to live simply.  It just would feel weird to me.  I will say that if you get a quality razor from there or a number of other shops (some of the same razors are also on Amazon for a bit cheaper), you will know that you got the right one, and you will know what sharp is supposed to be like.  My way is more fun, cost effective and gets you something just as good, but takes more care, research and possibly haggling to get there. You also need to really know what you are doing with a hone. So, what I did was poked around the bins at antique shops that didn't specialize in shaving gear until I found a razor that had a gorgeous (but slightly cosmetically scratched) blade and a deteriorating but serviceable handle that is very high quality--for less than $4.  No matter which way you do it, you still need to have some idea what you are looking at, so allow me to give you a brief rundown on that. First, a really quick and dirty guide to a razor's parts:

There are other parts not in this diagram, some that my razor doesn't have, but this should allow you to understand what you read in other sources. I haven't seen any source that recommends anything besides getting a 5/8" blade that is as sharp as you can find to begin with and a rounded tip.  They come with a square or spike tip, but you will probably carve yourself up learning with such a blade.
Armed with that information, I am going to direct you at the incredibly detailed information about these blades on the Wikipedia page and in the 1905 manual Shaving Made Easy, which is a great, free source book that is in the public domain (link below).  I couldn't possibly do all that information justice here.

How do I take care of all this stuff?

For all the care, honing, stropping and so forth of these items, I must direct you to the ebook below, the various forums and other guides online.  This is very well covered in those, and I contribute nothing to the body of knowledge by repeating it.

Ok, I'm ready to shave, but how do I shave my body (rather than a beard)?

Here is where I can make the biggest contribution.  I am going to suggest you look at the links at the end of this article and other resources online as well as this one.  I am deliberately skipping items that are well-covered in those places (like first-aid for nicks).  The very good suggestions on how to hold a razor and how to use it to shave online and elsewhere are primarily focused on beard shaving, and you simply cannot use it like that on some body parts.  You also can get away with doing things on the legs that you cannot do easily on a face.  Let's begin, shall we?


I'm starting with the legs because, honestly, they are the easiest thing to shave that most women might try.  I would suggest that you start with your legs and build skill on that large, even surface before going near the softer areas that are more likely to give you trouble.

First, strop your blade, get your things together, do your pre-shave routine (a hot washcloth on the skin or perhaps just step out of the shower--don't shave while showering with these unless you want to bleed a lot) and whip up some shaving cream.  
Before we go any further, because you have a large area to cover, I suggest you do not lather up the whole area and go from there.  I suggest you adopt the strategy of lathering a portion of the leg, like the front of one leg below the knee, and shaving that.  Then do another area similarly.  You will very likely lose efficacy and hydration of your lather if you cover a huge area with it, and you must expect that by the end, your razor will hardly glide over the skin.  So, because you do not want to put that razor on your dry skin, pick an area, lather, shave and then repeat on the next area.
Another thing to be concerned with at this point is how to hold your razor.  There are many grips that can be used, and you may need to be a bit inventive at times.  When you first try shaving your legs, you will probably be best off using the same basic grip most men first use (you'll just be using it upside down).  See the picture below.

Now that you have a nice lather on your leg part, I suggest laying the face of the razor flat on the skin, gently tilting it to about a 30 degree angle to the skin and gliding it up the leg against the grain (or growth direction) of the hair, letting the razor float along the surface of your skin.  Make sure your grip on the razor is light, not tense so that it has a little play.  Do NOT press it into the skin like a cartridge razor, or, well, it will remove your skin.  On a beard you would not move against the grain for a first stroke, but legs are more sparsely hairy with finer hair than most beards.  On the leg, it is generally best to clear a strip with one long, smooth stroke rather than multiple, short strokes.  If it doesn't easily cut off your hairs (making a particular little noise as it trims each one), it isn't sharp enough.  Shave the parts of your leg you can see easily first, avoiding the knee.  If that went well, we can move along to the knees.  If you are getting shaky from nerves or anything like that, take a break and do your knees later.  Ideally, you want to be relaxed when shaving.

If you missed a hair or two on your first attempt, you may be best off leaving them.  When you are more confident with your razor, carefully going back to get stragglers isn't much of a problem.  You shouldn't have much of that if you followed the shape of your leg well with a sharp razor anyway unless it was a hair between "strips" that you shaved (in which case, that spot probably is a place you could stand to do another lather and stroke on).  The general rule is that being obsessive is a good way to get nicks, especially when we move on to more difficult shaving.

Ok, if that went well, and you are nice and relaxed, let's try the parts of your leg that aren't easy to see, shall we?  Let's try doing the knees.

Simply bend your leg, I often put my foot on a stool or edge of something stable, and go over it the same way as with your easier spots.  Make confident, gentle strokes, moving the angle of your blade with the shape of your knee as you go.

Now if you are happy with how that went, you can go on to the parts of your legs and knees you cannot see very well.  You are likely to need to change your grip to something more comfortable for reaching the backs of your legs.  A nice list of grips that offer good control if you are timid is to be found on Straight Razor Place.  Where you cannot see very well, either use a mirror or feel it out now that you have some idea of how things should feel, sound and move.  Stretch skin out.  Don't shave the back of a bent knee.  Use a light touch.  You'll find that it isn't that hard if you can manage the easily seen parts of your legs.


Now we are moving into more advanced territory.  Armpits are soft, creased places with rather thick hair for most of us.  Unlike legs, you also have to work at less comfortable angles.  You even have to switch hands at one point.  If this is where you draw the line, I can't entirely blame you.  However, I have found that with the right technique, this is a doable and efficient process.  I found what I consider the best way of doing this at the cost of a few nicks and a fair bit of difficult experimentation, so I think this is a valuable section.

Two things are essential (other than your pre-shave and lather) to getting this done right.  One is a light hand.  The other is a mirror.  Those of us who are used to shower shaving instinctively raise an arm and try to look directly at the armpit to shave.  I cannot make this anything less than an irritating and occasionally painful thing to do with a straight razor.  Don't try to do this without a mirror until you are very good and confident.

Bend your arm at the elbow and raise the elbow over your head in front of the mirror.  I often lean my elbow against the mirror, if my setup allows it.  Now take a good look at your armpit hair.  Anywhere things are very densely hairy is safest to shave "with the grain" of the hair.  Also observe the various concave bits of your armpit.  Those spots must be shaved by first shaving over the slopes, and then stretching the skin (keeping it as flat as possible since folds get nicks) to bring the troughs up onto the sloping areas to shave it.  Plan it out a bit.  Everyone's armpits are a little different.  

Just demonstrating the position.  You should be well-lathered before using the razor.

Now considering what I just told you about everyone being different, here is how I do it.  In that same position, with my elbow straight up in the air in front of a mirror, I lather up and shave from top to bottom, then clean up what was missed because of the shape by stretching skin to the sides.  I finish off by taking care of the few hairs that are up higher, shaving with their grain.  It is quick and easy if you don't obsess about little tiny bits.  If you are too picky, you will bleed.  If you can accept a decent shave for what it is, you will be done quicker than you might imagine.  I then do it with my off-hand on the other armpit.  With a mirror, this isn't that hard.  Just don't be too picky, and don't try anything fancy with your off-hand on a razor.

Genital Area

If it can be shaved and it isn't some internal area like a nostril, it can be shaved with a straight razor.  That includes trimming, tidying and completely shaving your pubic area.  However, you need to keep a few principles in mind:
  1. A lot of blood vessels run through the genital area.  Don't be rough here!
  2. You will not be able to do a totally clean shave on some sensitive areas that are really hard to see (like your rear end), but you can certainly do a decent shave with some perseverance.  
  3. Don't obsess!  You will regret it.
We are going to assume you shave just about everything here.  If you don't, this is kind of easy.  In fact, if you just do a little landscaping, just treat it like a beard:  Shave with the grain, then clean up against the grain if you think it is necessary on those parts you tidy up.  If you shave right near sensitive areas, read on.

Unfortunately, just like in your armpits, this area has coarser hair and softer skin that is not ideally shaped for the task.  Most women have pubic hair that merits trying a with-the-grain shave first for most of your naughty bits as well.  I will assume that you have hair like that and suggest we begin with the frontal pubic area above your actual mound, shaving with the grain.

I suggest you hold the razor like so or something similar for this:

Once you are lathered up, stretch the skin upward toward your belly button and make smooth downward strokes with the razor.  The razor is doing a lot more work here, most likely, than anywhere else you have used it, but you will probably find it no more difficult.  

That was easy right?  Stretch the skin and shave the other areas that are visible without any contortionism by doing the same: stretch away from the way you will then shave to move with the grain to get the rest of this area over your pubic bone.

Now for the more interesting bits.

I haven't found any way to shave the rest of the "undercarriage" that doesn't require a bit more of an uncomfortable position.  If you put a leg up on a stool, squat and reach down there with the other hand as well, you should be able to stretch things and shave gently and conservatively enough to get everything without help right to your anus.  If you have a lot of hair to shave there, you can always try to get it with a mirror on the floor and serious levels of caution mixed with a steady hand, but you may end up just avoiding this altogether unless you don't mind the likely stiff back, perhaps even keeping a cartridge on hand just for this area.

Avoid long strokes in this area.  Try to capture the same smoothness of stroke and light touch in shorter motions.  Don't "bounce".  If the blade is bouncing over the skin, you are probably either too shaky, need more lather, don't have stretched enough skin or you are being too light and nervous.  Sometimes it is better to give up and try again another day when you are fresh than make yourself crazy (and possibly sore and bloody).  This is a skill.  You need to practice to get it right.


If I come up with more advice on this topic, I will let everyone know.  Until then, I've found this is possible, and it works quite well.  Good luck!


Below are a bunch of links that you really should read in addition to this guide.

Badger and Blade