The straight razor is intimidating. Powerful. If shaving were a sport, the straight razor would be the chosen blade of the big leagues.
It’s also a luxurious experience. A labored process. There is good reason why we let the professionals—the barbers—wield the blade, while we relax with our eyes closed on their throne. The result is the closest shave known to man: “Due to the angle and pressure applied, the straight razor reached deeper and closer to the follicle with each pass,” says John Rivera, Master Barber at The Art of Shaving’s Barber Spa in NYC.
However, you can give yourself this close of a shave at home, too—if you’re patient enough to learn the process, and confident enough to wield such a top-shelf blade. You may need a few attempts before doing it perfectly, but like we said: It’s a labored process. Follow Rivera’s guidelines below very closely, and you’ll spare yourself any agony along the way.
Before You Begin
There’s one thing you need to keep in mind here: A straight razor shave takes time. Like, way more time than a cartridge or electric shave—15 minutes, at least. “If you are not willing to dedicate the time and effort to re-learning how to shave with this tool, then you probably shouldn’t use it,” Rivera says.
Most guys should be fine to use a straight razor, even those with sensitive skin. So long as you prepare the skin, work slowly through each step, and condition it after each shave, you shouldn’t experience any serious irritation.
Before picking your blade, you want to consider the blade weight that best suits you: “The weight of the blade will determine the pressure necessary for shaving,” Rivera says. “A lighter weight will need more pressure than a heavier one.” The best way to gauge this is to hold various blades, noting which ones are heaviest. If you end up picking a lighter one, you may need to apply more pressure than a heavier one. Either way, approach your first strokes with light pressure, to test the tool.
Straight-razor shaves differ slightly from the otherwise standard guidelines.
As with any shave, you need to soften the skin and open the pores before using a straight razor. If it’s your first time with a straight razor, then you certainly need to prepare the skin properly to avoid serious burn. Jump in the hot shower, which will also soften the hairs and allow for a smoother shave. Then apply a pre-shave oil to condition the skin, followed by a transparent shave gel.
2. The Hold
Rivera suggests holding the razor at 30-degree angle from the face. “If you hold the razor too flat it will tear the stubble,” he says. “And if held too steep, it will cut the skin.” Keep the grip firm, adjusting as necessary for the different parts of the face, like the upper lip and chin. The real key is to pull the skin taut with your other hand (or by stretching the neck), and applying gentle pressure with the blade. This will prevent you from cutting both the face and fingers. The blade is sharp; trust that it’ll do its job, less you want a Sweeney Todd situation on your hands.
3. The First Strokes
Pick one side of the face, and start at the sideburn, moving downward. “Take the first stroke at a downward slant, from the top of the cheek near the ear,” says Rivera. “The stroke should be short and even and move without jerks or chopping.” After each short stroke, rinse the blade in hot water and continue. Rivera says not to pull or drag the razor, and reiterates that the skin needs to stay taut.
4. The Chin and Upper Lip
Lift the razor slightly as you approach the chin, and use the middle of the blade. “Never begin a fresh stroke on a prominent part of your face, such as the chin or jawbone,” Rivera says. “Begin a little away from these places, and work over them with [gentler], steady strokes.”
You can approach the two sides of the upper lip as you would the cheeks, with short, steady strokes. Pull the opposite side of the lip taut, however, to flatten the skin. “Leave the center of the lip, though,” says Rivera. “Do it separately by holding the nose up slightly, to tighten the skin.”
5. The Lower Lip and Neck
Practice adjusting your mouth so that the skin of your lower lip is widened and tightened. Take the first strokes from the corner of your mouth, across the skin to the center of your chin. You can then shave any remaining hairs with short upward strokes; start from the top of the chin, and let the razor follow the contours beneath your lips.
Be especially careful on the neck, both to avoid cuts and to minimize irritation. “Follow the grain of the hair in the neck,” says Rivera. “This pattern will differ from person to person dependent on hair growth.” Keep your strokes short and steady.
It’s likely you will have to do a second pass, spot checking for any missed patches. Rivera suggests shaving against or across the grain on the face during this second round. But, remember to re-lather your face with shaving cream or gel, after a hot splash of water on the skin. “Never take a stroke without shaving cream to cushion and protect the skin,” Rivera stresses.
Immediately after shaving, splash some cold water on the skin to tighten the pores. Apply a post-shave balm or moisturizer to the skin, patting it in instead of massaging it. Any rubbing might cause irritation.
Blade storage is serious business. Rinse the blade and wipe it with a soft cloth; this will rid of any debris and moisture. Store it away from any moisture—some place where the steam of the shower won’t get to it. If you need to store it for a long period, then buy a blade oil; Rivera recommends camellia oil. Rub the oil over the blade before putting it away. This prevents any moisture in the air from rusting the blade. If your blade gets rusty, do not re-use it. Replace it.