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?
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:
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?
Ok, I'm ready to shave, but how do I shave my body (rather than a beard)?
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.
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.
- A lot of blood vessels run through the genital area. Don't be rough here!
- 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.
- Don't obsess! You will regret it.
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.
The Straight Razor Place
How to Buy and Restore Vintage Straight Razors