Hi. I'm writing about shaving with a straight razor.
Why? Because I've been shaving with a straight razor for about 30 years now. So I have more than a rudimentary understanding of what's involved--I have experience.
I first began shaving with a straight razor--nicknamed a "cut-throat," because of its ability to do just that--upon my return from a reporting trip to India. I'd grown up off-and-on in India for about 6 years, starting when I was too young to attend school. I'd spent my first two middle-school, "formative" years, there, and also lived in Varanasi, the ancient Hindu city, for a year in college.
During that year, and on my return reporting trip, I'd seen mourners line up and squat down on the fabled Ghats--steps leading down and into the river the HIndus consider the "mother of life"--to have their heads shaved, and their faces shaved.
As it turned out, on that reporting trip, as during my year in Varanasi, I needed a hair cut. So I went to the local "Hair Saloon," where I'd gone as a college student a few years before, for a hair cut and a shave and to have my scalp, face and even ears massaged. All for a fraction of getting a haircut in the U.S., even at that time.
And the barber was so good at scraping my coarse whiskers off, and making my face feel as smooth as a baby's bottom, I had to ask him how it was possible. It was not the first time I'd let someone else near my throat with a potential weapon or instrument of death, and I always considered getting such a "proper" or "pukka" shave a right of passage, and an exercise in trust.
He said it was simple. He just used a straight razor, as he had for years.
So, when I came back to Texas from my trip, and worked on my stories for The Fort Worth Star-Telegram, I began wondering at not just why I was using a "safety razor" like my father's at that time, but also why no one in the States seemed to even know how to use a straight razor any more.
Then I read an article, I think it was in The Atlantic Monthly, by J.D. Salinger, about a commander on one of his Navy ships in World War II who "still" used a straight razor. And I saw images of King George V, bewhiskered and with extremely precise lines delineating his beard, his volumnous mustaches, and his cheeks.
And I realized: I wanted to try shaving with a straight razor.
It was 1988; I was in Texas, and I managed to find a "genuine" straight razor sold by a place called "Cutlery World."
And I'm writing about that because guess what: I still have that razor. I still use that razor. After 30 years.
Which brings me to the point of this article in the first place: I've read, and seen, various instructive guides on how to shave with a straight razor, and it's potential resurgence in popularity.
And, like everything from single-malt Scotch to shaving, to the "proper" way to light a cigar, I've seen once-accurate and experience-based information distorted and corrupted by likely well-intended people who obviously have never actually studied what it is they're talking about.
The first thing to know is that a straight razor, like mine from "Cutlery World," should last your lifetime. Beyond your lifetime, as I've seen a number sold in antique stores.
That means, if you're looking at how much razor blades, or, worse, multiple-blade "cartridges" cost the average adult male after puberty, you'll be far less reluctant to plunk down a lifetime investment of a couple-hundered dollars for a good, long-lasting if well-cared for blade.
Because of my experience, and my looking into the history of straight razors--did you know they were the original scalpel? Or that the reason barber poles have red stripes is because the barbers were also early surgeons, and, short of that, "bloodletters"? I can tell you that most experts still suggest Solingen (German) steel is the longest-lasting, best-at-keeping-its-edge, used for straight razors.
A Dovo razor, which uses Solingen steel, I've had for about 20 years.
To keep your blade lasting for decades, you need to have a two-sided, or at least two-paneled, strop. A strop is essential exactly what it sounds like: a wide length of leather, like bridle leather, and a panel of linen or rough cotton that is woven and has been pressed flat. The cotton weave acts as both a friction warmer, and fine edge setter. The leather is a natural sharpener.
To keep your strop working well, you need to "dress" it with a wax or other coating designed for it. What the coating does is help the razor's blade glide without stopping as you're sharpening the blade. As noted, I've been shaving with a straight razor for 30 years. I still have my original "Cutlery World" strop.
An important thing to note is that, contrary to in the movies or even with your local "Shave-and-a-Hair-Cut" place, the best shaves, the best "edge," isn't put on a razor by stropping it and then using it. Because steel ultimately is fluid--you warm the edge up (friction on the cotton), then you sharpen it (leather) and then you remove any steel ridge made by sharpening it (experts call this a "wire," and it is a sign of bad stropping if you leave it by not finishing on the cotton weave. Because a "wire" can cause the blade to stick in shaving on your skin--which will split at a touch of the blade or wire).
As I said: if you strop your razor correctly, your blade will still be "fluid." NOT a good time to then place it on your skin, as if the edge doesn't have time to "set," almost like clay, it will not be hard enough to cut your whiskers well.
I usually leave at least 12 hours between stropping my razor(s) and using them. Which is plenty of time for the steel to "set" an edge.
I strop using the same essential technique as a chef or carving station knife handler: five times on the cotton (both sides of the blade), to warm it; four on the leather; three on the cotton, two on the leather, and one (on each side) to "finish" sharpening the blade and remove any potential "wire."
Then, I look at the edge in the sun, making sure it is shinier than the rest of the blade, on both sides. Then I set them away to rest and "harden" for the next day's shave.
As for actually shaving with them: they always say (or used to), it's all in "the angle of the dangle." Meaning the handle of the razor, not the blade itself.
There is something old-world masculine, if not reassuring, in putting a blade to your throat in your own hand in the morning, and deciding to continue living.
Remember: our grandfathers (in my case) or great-grandfathers, or other heros, once shaved like this in the trenches of Verdun, The Somme, Bellieu Wood, the Argonne, even Monte Grappa, in World War I. Surely, you can shave before an important meeting.
Last bit of advice: unless you're under bombardment, take your time. Shaving was once a meditative, contemplative ritual--there are so few left. When you finish (it takes me an average of 20 minutes, as I make three passes--one with the grain, mostly; one up (against the grain, mostly), and one down (to finish)), be sure to stroke your face and relish its smoothness. It will put a smile on your face. It has mine.
Terin Tashi Miller
Author of THE OTHER COUNTRY, DOWN THE LOW ROAD, KASHI and SYMPATHY FOR THE DEVIL