Pogonotomia, The Art of Shaving Well

Emmanuel LAURENT

Pogonotomia, The Art of Shaving Well

As you may know if you’ve been reading PG for a while, we seldom write about subjects we haven’t adequately mastered. It’s a rule followed for the most part by our core PG team and our guest writers.

While a good number of colleagues don’t hesitate to steer deep into “lifestyle territory’, writing about anything from watches to cigars, to cars, wine and even shower gel (!), we try not to veer far from the subjects we know best. However, that doesn’t mean we don’t occasionally touch on topics outside the strictly sartorial world.

But when we do cover subjects outside the confines of classical men’s dress, the experience and expertise of the writer should support the text, like Paul Lux’s musings on luxury hotels, Greg Jacomet’s dialogue on perfumes, John Slamson’s reflections on writing instruments, and Benjamin Wild’s and James Sherwood’s commentaries on the history of men’s style and fashion.

And so today, we are happy to open our journal to a new topic – shaving – and would like to extend a warm welcome to the latest addition to the PG family of contributors, Mr. Emmanuel Laurent, a fervent proponent of timepieces, automobiles, street bikes and traditional shaving.

Today Mr. Laurent addresses the topic of shaving paraphernalia and the exclusive world of Pogonotomia – the art of shaving well.

Hugo Jacomet

Pogonotomia, or The Art of Shaving Well

by Emmanuel Laurent 

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It all started on a fateful holiday morning at my American uncle’s home. When upon entering the bathroom, I noticed a most peculiar sight – an authentic, full-bodied and deviously hairy badger—the shaving brush kind mind you, not the animal.

At this point, all I’d shaved with was a multi-blade razor and a can of shaving foam. Needless to say, my interest was piqued.

Shortly after the badger encounter, I swung by the store and exited with an entry-level brush, a bowl of soap for a dime, a handful of disposable blades, and a very satisfied smile. My uncle, finding the whole situation amusing, pitched in and gave me my first safety razor.

A safety razor, sometimes called a Double-Edge (DE), refers to a type of razor launched by King Camp Gillette in 1904.

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While Gillette may not have had a patent on the safety razor in the early 1900s, it did hold the patent for the popular double-edged razor blades to be inserted into the safety razor head.

This scenario had a few consequences :

First, Gillette sold safety razors that required these disposable blades. Thus, customers had to purchase the blades to make the safety razor work. It’s not much different than what we see today with companies like Nespresso requiring special inserts for their coffee makers, Hewlett Packard/Epson mandating use of specific cartridges for their printers, and Apple trying to force customers to buy their own branded chargers for their products.

On the flip side, Gillette revolutionized the daily routine of the 20th century man. For centuries hitherto, men had been forced to shave with straight, open or “cut throat” razors (that could double as a deadly weapon), or to pay a barber for the service.

Daily life with a straight-razor created a few hurdles to clear. As new users quickly learned, a cut-throat razor could not simply be bought and used. Instead, the blade had to be prepared before use. This meant either owning a razor strop and sharpening stone or paying someone to prepare the blade for you.

Coupe chou + cuir affutage + touffe

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Add to this, using a straight razor is not an innate skill – it must be learned. Mastering the method of pushing a blade against bare skin requires no small amount of dedication and persistence. Should a man fail to be patient in his endeavor, the result could be at its worst a bloodbath and at best, a face full of painful nicks, cuts and irritated skin.

Finally, shaving with an open razor takes time. In the beginning, the entire shave can take up to 45 minutes, but with a fair bit of practice, you can literally shave off a good chunk of time, and reduce your shave down to 15 minutes…once you become a bona fide cowboy.

The safety razor abolished all these constraints with the only real skill needed by a man is to load his safety razor with a disposable blade and he’s good to go. Well, he’s almost good to go…once he makes his own shaving cream.

Learning how to create a soap or cream foam with a shaving brush is worth the effort. No longer will you have to open your wallet to buy costly petroleum by-products that you once copiously smeared on your face without thinking twice.

Be advised however that the term “safety razor” is relative : even if the contraption is indeed safer than a traditional straight razor since it puts the thick of the blade behind a protective head, the safety razor is much less forgiving than modern-day multiblade razors. So proceed with caution and know that your endeavor is a matter of physical integrity.

At this point, you might be grumbling behind your unshaven mug :

You’re not making a very good case for traditional shaving, so why should I bother ?”

The Awakening

Well, there are a few reasons that you may want to consider the bother…

First, consider the beauty of the gesture, and the right to send a gesture of your own to the razor makers whose products are so ludicrously expensive that they are hidden behind store counters to prevent theft.

I will admit that it felt great to stop being a milk cow for razor makers and escape the giant marketing circus of Gillette / Wilkinson & co, who sell disposable blades at prices that feel like a blow below the gut for a debatable quality of shave.

No matter how many novelty vibrating / pivoting / blinking blades they keep adding to their gadgets, the quality of the shave remains mediocre at best.

Millions, if not billions of dollars in marketing costs have been shoved down our collective throats for decades.

To counter this move, let us establish one simple fact : Five blades encased in a plastic cartridge topped off by cheap lube will not give you a better shave than a bare blade and a bar of natural soap, not to mention the point that these celebrity-endorsed razors can cause severe skin irritations and pesky ingrown hairs.

The shaving industry also has a negative impact on the environment ; recycling multiblade razors is a complicated process that entails separating the plastic from the metal. To boot, the petroleum based foam from canned shaving cream seeps into the earth as it does into your skin, in all its toxic glory.

Let’s crunch some numbers: if you shave five days a week, a single multi-blade cartridge should last around five shaves before dulling. A pack of eight cartridges costs at least 22€, and so your yearly shaving budget will fallout to be around 132€.

Now, you may not lose sleep over forfeiting 132€ a year for a supply of disposable multi-blades, but for the same amount, you can delight yourself with a safety razor or a straight razor, a shaving brush worth its salt, and a fragrant soap respectful of your skin.

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You may ask :

what’s in it for me, and…is it even possible to turn a chore into a pleasure?”

The Safety Razor: From Desire to Action

Liberating yourself from being captive to an over-marketed gadget is the first step to embrace the vast field of quality shaving ; getting rid of tacky expensive razors can indeed inspire you to turn what was once a chore into quality time using a quality tool.

To start, make the effort to learn about traditional shaving techniques – for free, of course. There are many quality fora where the ‘aspiring Pogonotomiac’ will find answers to his questions, such as badgerandblade.com or straightrazorplace.com.

If you’re like me and decide to start your journey with a safety razor, you have two options :

– Invest in a new model, which will set you back around $20 to $50.
– Browse a bit, check eBay, Craigslist, or a yard sale – and you might just find a vintage model for next to nothing.

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I chose an adjustable safety razor (the Merkur Progress ; about 52€)). The blade can be adjusted with a simple turn of the wheel embedded in the handle. Your shave can be adjusted to be more or less aggressive depending on how much you expose the razor blade, regardless of the shape of your razor’s head.

Merkur Progress

I love feeling the raw contact of the blade on my skin for the direct feedback it gives, should I make a mistake. I (spontaneously) went for the most aggressive razors on the market and confess that I also savor the ego boost that accompanies my boldness in the face of danger.

After a good search, I found a model that proved extremely efficient and enjoyable to my extreme taste : enter the Mühle R41.

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Thusly equipped, it took me only a few sessions to obtain the Holy Grail of traditional shaving enthusiasts : the BBS, or Baby Butt Smooth, or face cheeks as smooth as a newborn’s butt cheeks…the type of face that is a magnet for welcome touches and kisses ~

Empowered by my glorious success, I took the road towards the more daring straight-razor, fully opened and glistening in the setting sun.

The Cut-Throat

We are now entering a world of initiates, with its own rites, lingo, churches and alternative currents. But above all, the straight razor’s world is a world of admirable craftsmanship.

You see, a genuine cut-throat is made by hand and sharpened by hand – on a stone, and softened by hand on a leather strap.

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Of course, facing the brutal truth of the naked blade in front of the mirror while striking a manly pose is something that not everyone will enjoy. Furthermore, you have to learn how to use the cut-throat to avoid justifying its namesake.

The learning curve is nothing you can’t handle though. Once initiated, you will likely take pride in knowing you are one of the chosen few to take this path. All the romanticism may lead you to exaggerate the entire scene a bit…whatever it takes to keep the mystique alive.

At the risk of alienating some of the most extreme purists, I don’t judge either of the two solutions to be the superior one. The pleasure derived from a good shave with either a DE or a cut-throat provides fundamentally the same level of satisfaction.

In fact, I’d go as far as to say that both techniques complement one another perfectly. The only deciding factor to influence my decision to go one way or the other is the time I am able dedicate to shaving on a given morning.

Straight Razor Equipment

A quality straight razor can be bought new for about 80€, but make sure it’s shave-ready. Otherwise plan on spending 7€ to 20€, depending on the website, to prepare the blade.

If you have the time and patience to browse a forum or two, you’ll easily find pre-owned cut-throats for roughly 40€, shave-ready.

If you wish to join the fun, here’s a small selection of brands worthy of your attention and discerning taste (and you must have sharp taste if you’re reading PG).

Thiers Issart : the French reference.

Wacker : One of the best among the bests from Solingen, Germany.

Dovo : A vast range from one of the most widely distributed brands.

Ali’s Blade : A French artisan (artist ?). Ali crafts unique and spectacular razors (see the first two pictures below).

Japanese Kamisori: Not a brand per se, but beautiful blades made by traditional blacksmiths in Japan (see the third and fourth pictures below).

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Kamisori & produits Portland General Store

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Toiletries

Fine toiletries are a matter of personal preference; herein lies a universe of the senses – trust your personal taste. However, if you wish for some initial guidance, a strong consensus exists around the following brands :

Martin de Candre : French artisanal soapmakers.

Penhaligon’s : The british cream of the crop.

Castle Forbes : The scottish way.

Proraso : Italian brand, with a stunning value for money ratio.

Tabac : By german perfumer Maurer & Wirtz, since 1959

The Badger

A fundamental element in traditional shaving is the shaving brush, referred to as a badger. Its main functions are to massage the skin and make the shave as painless as possible, ready your facial hair for the cut, and ease the sliding of the blade.

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Two main types to consider:

– The synthetic brush, which dries quickly and is convenient when traveling, or …

– The natural brush, usually made from badger hair of varying quality.

In terms of choosing types, sizes, and aesthetics, accept that you are going to learn a lot from experience and trust your own instincts along each step of the way.

A Fair Warning

Mae West said, “I generally avoid temptation unless I can’t resist it”.

Though you can buy a functional traditional shaving kit for a reasonable price, I have to come clean and be honest with you : your quest for the ultimate shave will lead you into temptation.

I’m going to take a case study I know quite well : myself.

I wanted to get off on the right foot, so after taking advice from the aforementionned fora, I began with a Merkur Progress safety Razor (52€, though I got it from my uncle), a bol of Monsavon soap (1.01€. No typo here!) a 10 blade kit (6.85€) and a Wilkinson shaving brush (11.29€).

Total : 71,15 euros.

That was a while ago.

Here’s a picture of my shaving equipment as of this day. You’re welcome to click on the image to see the full extent of my folly.

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You have been warned.

To conclude, here are two commentated photos of my shaving kit and travel kit.

My Shaving Kit of the Day

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The centerpiece being my beautiful Chevalier razor, made by hand by Master Heribert Wacker, a fourth generation razor maker from Solingen – an revered place for German straight-razor making.

The soap bowl on display is a Martin de Candre, made in France, and unanimously acclaimed for the quality and abundance of its foam. This razor simply slides, cutting the hair and not the skin ~

The brush is an Infinity, handmade by Kent, the official supplier of the British crown.

My aftershave is Taylor of Old Bond Street Jermyn Street of Old Bond Street, Jermyn Street. I used to live without. I don’t know how I coped.

My Travel Kit

Mon kit de voyage

The head is a Mühle R41 , the safety razor that offers the maximum blade exposure possible. The blade is from Feather, a Japanese brand. For a cleaner cut, I suggest an industrial water jet cutter.

The handle is an OSS from the American brand Ikon – for an optimal grip in humid conditions.

For its small size, the British shaving oil Somersets offers a high degree of protection, and lets the blade slide beautifully.

A bar of Osma Alum to terminate any potential cuts and bleedings. Up to a certain degree anyway.

Emmanuel Laurent for Parisian Gentleman.