Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Care for a (Classic) Shave?

by Frank "Franky Boy" Dellario

If you're a guy, and love the past like we do, at some point you've thought about the shaving thing. Every day you look in the mirror, lather up with shaving cream fizzing out of a can, scrape it off your face using a plastic cartridge blade with two, three or now five blades, and wonder if the old ways were better.

For me, the answer is yes. Inspired, I looked into it further, and here's what I found.

Multi-Blade Cartridges
It's a classic business model: They offer the razor for free, and make money on the cartridge-blades that custom fit their handle. The problem is they have to continuously outdo their competition, so they add more blades for a supposedly closer and faster shave. But all that seems to do is leave us with more blades per cartridge and a higher price tag. I don't get it. Is five blades really that much better than one?

Besides not appreciating being sold a bill of goods, I've found the cartridges don't give me that much better a shave and don't last that long. You've got to press a bit harder after the first day of use to get a decent shave, and they routinely clog with hair and shaving cream. I think it's time to go back to the past.

Straight Razor
I bought one in a vintage store along with a strop (a leather strip used to fine tune the edge, much like the steels used by chefs), and asked my barber if he would teach me to properly sharpen a straight razor. His reply shocked me. "Don't waste your time," he said. "Even the barbers who are the best at sharpening can never match the micro-thin edge of a machine-made safety razor. And besides, there's a reason why the straight razor's replacement was called a safety razor."

That made sense to me, I have to say. The time it would take to hone a decent blade edge as well as safely use it did not appeal to me. But I didn't want to give up the nostalgic idea of using a classic form of shaving. What was I to do? The answer came to with an heirloom handed down to me by my Dad.

My grandfather’s shaving kit, carried with him during WWI.

Double-Sided Safety Razor
Introduced in the late 1880's and perfected by Gillette, this vintage piece revolutionized shaving. You now had a paper-thin double-sided blade that fit into a weighted razor. No sharpening, no danger of slitting your throat (though it did make the shaving cut a common denominator of modern grooming. But hey, that's part of being a man, right?).

As I looked at this beautiful kit used by my grandfather, I decided to do some research. It seemed to me that, for a man, maybe the safety razor was the ultimate shaving device that was eventually dwarfed by its own business model of newer-faster-better, which morphed into the cartridge razor of today.

I had to try it but could not use my grandpa's kit, that's an heirloom. I ordered a 1.7 oz butterfly style razor (a turn of the handle opens the butterfly-like top to change the blade). It was a wonderful shave. You didn't need to add any pressure; the weight of the handle did the work. (What's the adage? Let the tool do the work.) The handles are even available in different weights to fit your shaving style (1.7 oz, 2.8 oz, 3.0 oz and in-between).

The only trick I had to learn, which was a simple one, is that I just can't plant the razor on my face like a cartridge. I needed to place the safety edge of the razor on my face, tilt it up ever so slightly and then allow the weight to draw it down. It was like shaving butter and very intuitive. Plus, one double-sided blade lasted me a month. At $5 for a ten pack, I think the math adds up.

Now some people may argue that, with a properly heated and lathered whisker, a straight razor will do an amazing shaving job. That may be true in the hands of a master barber, but for me at home, the safety razor is the right compromise between classic style and a tool that works, day in and day out. Thanks for the tip from the past, Grandpa.

How to use a Safety Razor

Brief History of Safety Razors


  1. You've only written about half the equation! There's also a lot to traditional shaving lather applied with a brush! Check out the traditional shaving subculture at forums like,, If you need more help with learning traditional shaving check my 'how to shave' youtube channel at

  2. Thanks for those links bro, will check them out and yes, I only covered the blade, lathering, heating the whiskers etc are good topics to cover as well.