We’re on vacation this week in Brasil, and I never appreciate this great piece of gear more than when I’m on the road. We’ll be away from an internet connection for a couple of days, but when we return to Rio, I’ll update you on some of our experiences in this beautiful country.
Originally posted January 26, 2010
I love it when style, function, luxury and economy come together in one beautiful piece of gear. A good shaving brush is a perfect example of how this can happen.
I’m not advocating going all retro with your shaving kit. The safety razor is a modern miracle of performance and thrift, and traditional straight razors scare the daylights out of me, even in the hands of professionals. But when we men exchanged our brushes for aerosol cans of cream, we really traded down. In one way canned foam is convenient –you just press a button and the lather comes out– but in other ways it’s a drag: you can never tell exactly when you’re going to run out, the cans are bulky and inconvenient for travel, and, over time, they’re expensive and, worse, generate a lot of trash for the world’s overflowing landfills.
There’s also nothing really pleasurable about canned shaving –you’re using product that, at best, smells like mass-market bar soap and, at worst, like cheap cologne, and it comes in a can designed to attract attention on a supermarket shelf rather than accessorize your manly grooming ritual.
The brush solves all of these problems and gives you a good, if not better, shave. All you need to shave, any time, anywhere, is your handsome little brush and a bar of soap. Any nice soap will do. I’ve been shaving with a brush for over 20 years, and I still can’t tell the difference between a bar of good all-purpose soap and “shaving soap.” Similarly, you don’t need a special bowl or mug to make the lather (although they certainly don’t hurt). The palm of your hand works just fine. (If you do go for a mug or bowl, get a deep one made of wood or horn –the ceramic ones have an unfortunate tendency to slip from your soapy hand and break in the sink, or, worse, the shower.)
There are a few things you need to know when buying a shaving brush. First, they don’t come cheap, but a good brush will last years, if not decades. (I’ve had my oldest brush for over 10 years, and it shows no signs of wear.)
Second, the hairs of the brush come in three materials — boar bristles, badger hair, and, occasionally, synthetic fibers. The synthetics are ugly and harsh on the face, so avoid them. Boar and badger (you just can’t make this stuff up) are worth consideration, but the best choice is clear. Boar gets the job done, and it’s cheap, but it’s also short lived. After a few weeks, the hairs of the brush get soft and misshapen, like a used toothbrush, and (I think) they start to smell funny.
Badger is soft, resilient, long-lasting and available in roughly three grades, all of which make excellent brushes. In spite of expert opinion, I think the differences are mainly aesthetic. The lowest grade is pure badger. It’s usually pretty uniformly dark in color, it’s much softer than bristle, and it makes a good lather. It’s also a very good value: a well-made pure badger brush with a decent handle will set you back about $25 – $40. The next step up is “best badger” or “super badger” (which is probably a little nicer than “best”). It’s softer and lighter in color than the basic badger, and it holds more water and therefore builds a lather more quickly. These brushes will cost about $60 – $120, depending, mostly, on the size of the brush and the material of the handle. The most luxurious brushes are made of “silvertip badger.” It’s not really softer than the “super,” but it’s prettier, and it allegedly holds even more water, making lathering up even easier. These run from about $120 to $300 or more if the handles are made of luxury materials like real horn or silver.
If you can, they best way to choose a brush is pick one up and feel the quality of the bristles and the weight of the handle. I’ve selected “super” models over “silvertip” ones because they felt better in my hand and on my face. Good assortments of shaving brushes can be hard to find in stores, though, (the best I’ve found in New York is at the New London Pharmacy, 246 8th Ave, at 23rd Street), so you may need to order online. If you do, and unless you (or your man) is a shaving brush afficionado, I think the best value is probably a “super badger” brush. If you’re unsure of your commitment to brush shaving, though, a basic badger brush will do nicely. As for brands, I’ve tried a number of them, but my favorite is Edwin Jagger.
Lastly, consider the handle material. I like faux horn, ebony or ivory best — they’re all really just goodlooking durable plastic. There are many handsome wood handled models out there, but I’ve learned the hard way that they don’t hold up well to daily soaking, and it’s a shame to throw out a good badger brush because the handle is rotting away. Metals are nice (my brother has a fabulous silver handled brush), though a little heavy for my hand. If you go for a pewter or silver model, make sure the handle is knurled for a good grip.
Caring for a shaving brush is easy. Just rinse it free of soap after each use, squeeze it with your fingertips, shake it out gently and then leave it in the open air to dry before the next use.
Whichever one you choose, a good shaving brush is a win for your (or a man in your life’s) daly life, budget and the environment. You can find a good assortment, including Edwin Jagger brushes, online at bestgroomingtools.com.