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The Art of the Shave: Introduction of Essays

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No one knows exactly where or how the miracle of wet shaving originated. It is generally believed that during the 18th century, certain members of the French aristocracy began cutting their beards into various shapes and configurations using hot water and a straight edge. Further adaptations to this crude process soon followed. In London, at about the same time, barbers began giving shaves to wealthy patrons. This worked well, for barbers were the only ones permitted to perform medical surgeries, thus enabling them to develop a very lucrative side business shaving beards, an easy addition to their regular surgical duties as they already possessed the scalpels, cutting and shaping utensils required to efficiently cut hair. 

About This Essay

Several years ago Charles A. Roberts, creator of the Hydrolast brand and Method Shaving movement, authored a series of essays that ignited a surge of interest in wet shaving. These essays offered an innovative approach to maximizing the results of the razor and shaving brush, and provided many men a great introduction to a world of luxury shaving they never knew existed. The Original "Shaving Graces" Resurrected!

This same period also saw the rapid development of various shaving “salons” throughout Europe. Men quickly discovered that it was much more pleasant to have a barber shave them than to manage on their own. In addition, men realized that getting a daily shave was not only extremely pleasurable, it also helped them look and feel better. Increased availability of hot water and the invention of milled soap also produced several key breakthroughs in the evolution of shaving throughout Europe.

The 19th C. experienced a dramatic increase in the popularity of public shaving establishments throughout Europe, particularly in London and Paris, and the rapid spread of small merchants who produced their own shaving soaps, perfumes, colognes and other shaving necessities for the gentlemanly classes. James Bronnley and Juan Floris established their soap and fragrance shops in downtown London at the end of the 18th century. Similar shops also opened in Paris, with Roger & Gallet and the House of Dorsay among the most distinctive. In addition to the manufacture and sale of specialty soaps and fragrances, these shops depended heavily on their customers in the shaving trade.

It was in London that two of the most famous shaving establishments in the world originated---George F. Trumper and Trufitt & Hill. A third, D.R. Harris, can also rightly claim this distinction. Geo. Trumper and D.R. Harris continue the wet shaving tradition. Trufitt and Hill, founded in 1804, moved to Chicago, Illinois many years ago, and is listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the oldest barbershop in the world.

The Roberts Shaving Method: An Introduction

It is a trivial fact that every man must shave, although far from trivial is the fact that for nearly all men, the task of shaving has been reduced to the tedium of a daily misery. Fortunately, I’m able to alleviate the misery of the men who arrive at my door, refugees from the typically poor instruction of clerks who knew nothing about shaving and had neither the opportunity nor the motivation to learn for the sake of their customers or to practice what they preached.

The skills required for successful wet shaving are acquired through time, repetition and attention to detail. It is not a gimmick, nor is it a thing of fleeting interest to anyone concerned with things of permanent and lasting value. I view wet shaving as the respectful art of daily self- improvement. Indeed, when done right, it is possible to achieve a level of well being in a manner that is inconceivable to all but the few, albeit very fortunate men who embrace the art of the shave.

The dance of shave brush and razor across the skin provides a grand experience---the subtle fragrance of rich essential oils rising from a bowl of hot lather; the smooth, velvety feel of freshly shaven skin; the entire panoply of full-bodied colognes redolent of patchouli, sandalwood and spice that give fragrant substance to a man’s presence; the distinctive look and feel of freshly shaved skin, rendered clear of blemishes and full of healthful color. A bounty of delight for the man who knows how to shave!

In my shaving clinics and consultations, I teach a method of shaving that has become known under my own name—the Roberts Method. It is a system of shaving that can comfortably remove a man’s beard in the shortest and most efficient manner possible. Men who suffer from a condition called “hirsutism” will benefit greatly by adopting this method. Individuals with chronic skin disorders, particularly acne and ingrown beard hair, will also see immediate and dramatic results. The Roberts Method will is a must for those who are simply concerned with maintaining a healthy and pristine appearance for years to come. Most importantly, my system of shaving will enable any man to enjoy shaving in a way never before dreamed possible. Of this you can be sure.

Many consider the Roberts Method to be the finest shaving system for men ever created. Humility demands that I not countenance this opinion one way or the other for fear of appearing as a judge in my own cause. However, I have been asked to make the specifics of my method available to a much wider audience. To this end, I invite you to join Wet Shaver at MSN Groups, the discussion group I lead for customers who are interested in learning more about my method. The information I offer on this site discusses the most important elements of shave preparation, or the “hydrating” process. It is in this area in particular that men typically fail to shave well.

Basic Principles of Shave Preparation

Water is so important to a successful shave that the term wet shaving can be defined thus: the process by which large volumes of water are applied and maintained throughout the entire shave. Water--the hotter the better--is brought to the face and retained there, despite its continuous depletion through the action of shaving itself. This description may sound paradoxical. How can water be kept on the face while at the same time being systematically removed by the cutting process? A detailed look at the entire beard preparation process will help you better understand how this is done.

There are three stages to the wet shaving process---Brush, Cut and After-Shave:

  • Brush - The beard is softened and raised, and the face itself cleared of all excess oils, dirt and debris. This is achieved with hot water, shave cream and the vigorous and skillful action of the shaving brush itself. If this part of the shave is not done well, the rest of the shave will not achieve the desired result. 
  • Cut - The razor is used to remove the beard, though the process of doing so is not nearly as straightforward as you might think. I have developed several methods of cutting that utilize different types of razors for beards of varying patterns and density. For this stage to proceed correctly, the use of the razor must also be combined with the application of large volumes of water to the face throughout the entire cutting process. This washing and cutting process is fundamental to mastering the Roberts Method, and is the essential feature in the method’s great beard cutting power. 
  • After-Shave - I regard this stage as a process, not a product. After-Shave is the phase in which the skin is thoroughly irrigated with very large volumes of water to cool, soften and condition in the most efficacious manner possible. It does not solely refer to the application of “aftershave.” However, it is important to remember that the use of extremely high quality colognes, aftershaves and shaving balms is very much a part of the overall pleasure of wet shaving. I believe these products to be absolutely indispensable to the pursuit of world caliber shaving, and encourage my customers to learn how to apply them correctly and discriminately.

The wet shaving process is therefore all about water; getting water out of your morning sink and putting as much of it as possible onto the face and neck areas, and replenishing it in ever increasing amounts while you shave. This, pure and simple, is what wet shaving is all about. A  process, in all of its nuance and complexity, that makes the experience of wet shaving one of life’s most exquisite pleasures, one that is constantly renewed every time a man picks up a shaving brush.

Hot Water: The Essential Ingredient

The basis of every great shave is a sink full of hot water. First, hot water helps in the removal of excess skin cells. These cells accumulate rapidly on the face over a 24-hour period. In addition, skin cell accumulations produce a thickening of the skin’s outer surface that significantly impedes the actual cutting process. It is for this reason that I tell my clients to never skip a shave. It is extremely important that you try to shave as closely and thoroughly as you can every single day. Skipping shaves on the weekends, for instance, merely allows for the accumulation of excess cells on the skin’s surface, making the next shave more difficult.

Second, hot water softens the beard hair, enabling it to be more easily cut. Make no mistake, beard hair is stronger—much stronger—than the steel of a razor blade, or blades would last forever. Thus, it is imperative that the beard be thoroughly warmed with generous amounts of hot water prior to shaving.

The best way to accomplish this is by shaving immediately after taking a shower. The repeated application (up to 10 times) of hot water cupped in the hands and applied directly to face from the sink will also work quite well. (Note: Many men try to mimic the process of brush shaving by shaving in the shower. Not only is this extremely wasteful of water, it can also be dangerous, as the shower is the scene of many home accidents.)

Third, hot water activates the presence of fatty acids (lipids) in high quality shave creams. These lipids are water bonding oils that effectively retain any form of moisture with which they come into contact. We will return to this point a little later, but for the moment you should remember that hot water stimulates shave cream, and cold water suppresses its lathering action.

Shave Creams

The next important component of the wet shave is the shave cream. There are many different types of creams and no two shave creams perform exactly alike. Learning as much as you can about the character of different creams is important to getting exactly the kind of shave you want.

Over the years I have had the opportunity to work with and sell almost every conceivable shave cream on the market. I have frequently been astounded by the differences between them. A few are extremely good; most however are terrible. In general, I tell my clients to stay away from anything produced by a designer; hence shave creams found in department stores should be avoided. Fashion designers may know clothing, but in my experience I have found that they know nothing about shaving. Such “fashion-forward” shaving products are typically overpriced, in addition to being overly fragranced and full of alcohol. Many also use various synthetic silicates that can create serious blemishes and exacerbate preexisting skin problems. Therefore, I strongly recommend that you not use them.

I typically rate shave creams by using an informal method I conceived many years ago based on a wetness scale and cream density:

  • Wetness – The quality of wetness refers to the speed with which a shaving cream absorbs and releases large amounts of water to the skin. The best high quality creams, such as those produced by Geo. Trumper, Coate’s and D.R. Harris, load large volumes of water very fast. At the same time, it is important to understand that these creams must be loaded with as much water as possible if a great shave is to result. Remember, the more water you load into your cream, the better your shave, pure and simple. All three of the creams mentioned above will load water at very high comparable levels. Over the years, many clients have told me they detect a difference between them. However, I really do not. On a wetness scale of 1-10 (ten being the wettest available), I typically rate the above three creams the highest, at about 9. Most other creams barely rate a 4.
  • Cream Density - When it comes to cream density, however, there is a dramatic difference between these three creams. First, Trumper creams are highly whipped and tend to be a bit lighter. Yet, all of Trumper’s creams load (or hydrate) beautifully. The texture of Trumper creams is smooth and extremely consistent. It seems to me that Trumper creams have really improved over the years, to the point where there really is nothing quite like them to be found. The Trumper Sandalwood shave cream is one of the most exquisite shaving products available in the world today. One could easily include Trumper’s Lime and Coconut creams in this superlative category as well. As we move into Coats and D.R. Harris, cream density changes significantly. These creams are thicker and less absorbent in the early hydrating process. This means that they require somewhat more effort to load with water (a subject I’ll cover later). Yet, these creams will also deliver a world class shave once sufficiently hydrated—make no mistake about it.

Hydrating the Shave Cream

In my shaving clinics I teach two distinct methods of shave cream loading: mug and manual:

Mug - The mug method of hydrating shave cream is well established. Indeed, most of my customers have fond memories of watching their grandfathers whip up shaving cream in a mug first thing in the morning. To be sure, this method is highly effective in terms of loading the shaving brush with sufficient cream for the later beard cutting process. Mugs come in a variety of shapes and sizes; however, I prefer pewter mugs to ceramic because they more readily accommodate heavy draughts of extremely hot water, and retain the heat better than any other material used for cup or mug shaving. The best method for mug shaving depends on the density of the cream you are using.

The following loading steps should be used with the mug:

  1. Thoroughly load the shaving brush with water by submerging the brush in a sink full of hot water. If the brush is pure badger it will load to full capacity. Any other type of brush will not work nearly as well. This includes brushes made of synthetic hair, thistle, black badger or so called “natural fiber.” In fact, if you plan to use brushes of this kind, you will not be able to successfully execute my shaving techniques.
  2. Add a small amount of very hot water to the bottom of the shaving mug. Drop into this water a small dollop of shave cream from. Remove your shaving brush from the sink, but do not allow the water in the brush to drain out back into the sink. Hold brush securely and lightly beat the cream in the mug in a vigorous, circular motion. The cream will immediately begin to load and expand, and after repeated effort, your cream will be fully loaded with water from the brush. 
  3. Lather the face in a vertical up and down motion. Lathering should begin low on the neck and work up to cover the entire face. Retrieve more cream from the cup as needed by repeating the process in step two.

Manual - In this method, the palm of the hand is used in place of the mug. The cream is lightly cupped in the left or right hand and is lathered in essentially the same manner described above, albeit with one key exception: A rapid, sweeping motion is used instead of a circular, or spinning one, in order to load the cream. The shaving cream is thus loaded by vigorously “whipping” the cream across the lightly cupped palm of the hand with the wet shaving brush until the cream is sufficiently loaded with water. The fully hydrated cream can then be applied to the face with the brush.

Of these two loading methods, I personally prefer the manual system because it packs the brush more tightly with cream. More importantly, it produces a large deposit of cream on the palm of the hand for ready use later on during the shave itself. Frankly, most of my clients use this method because I do. However, mug shaving is extremely pleasurable and can be profitably used as well.

Shaving Soaps

Shaving soaps offer a very refreshing alternative to shaving creams, especially during the hot and humid months of summer. At the same time, it is important to understand that shaving soaps are somewhat different from creams in a few key respects:

  • Shaving soaps load much faster than creams; however, they do not actually retain as much water. Thus, for men with extremely thick beards, shaving soaps really need to be fortified with other types of water loading products. (I have coined the term “activator” for these products. For more information on these important shaving items, please call me at 888-220-2927.) More to the point, I generally suggest that men with heavy beards stick to higher density shave creams for the best results.
  • Shaving soaps take up less luggage space than creams and therefore travel better.
  • I do not encourage clients to use shave soaps unless they are using a full capacity best badger brush. Anything less will not deliver enough water to sufficiently hydrate the soap.
  • In general, lather creams are considerably more aromatic than shave soaps and will release more intense fragrance.

Shaving Brushes

The subject of shaving brushes is one of the most deeply interesting—indeed fascinating—subjects in the world of men’s grooming. It is certainly my favorite, and I have devoted a large portion of my career to learning about, selling and understanding these amazing objects.

The origins of shaving brushes are very obscure. Indeed, I have never seen anything like a comprehensive history on the subject, although I would very much appreciate it if someone would actually sit down and compile one. For our present discussion, however, it is critical to understand that without a shaving brush, there is no wet shaving. The brush is the indispensable asset you must have if you plan to wet shave effectively. Moreover, if you intend to adopt the shaving system I have set forth in these pages, you must have a shaving brush—and a very good one at that. However, set out to master the art of wet shave without, and after a few cuts you will instantly realize why mankind invented the shaving brush---it works!

There are several shaving brush manufacturers in the world, nearly all of whom are small makers providing shaving brushes to local or regional markets. There are no truly international shaving brush manufacturers. Incredibly, there is not one reputable shaving brush manufacturer in the United States, a fact which, in my opinion, qualifies the U.S. as a third world country where the subject of men’s grooming is concerned.

So for the true connoisseur, Europe is the only place to procure a great shaving brush. More specifically, Germany and Britain produce the world’s best shaving brushes today, and truly handmade brushes, not simply hand finished ones. Under no circumstances should you purchase anything other than an authentic handmade shaving brush. There are many reasons for this. However, it is enough to say that without a handmade brush, it is almost impossible to get the very most out of your wet shaving experience. To be sure, a handmade brush is more expensive, but I assure you the money invested is worth every penny.

Types of Shaving Brushes

Shaving brushes are manufactured on the basis of two distinct dimensions: quality (and volume) of hair and size of handle. Both of these conditions are directly driven by the specific qualitative needs of the shaver himself. These involve most importantly the thickness and extent of the beard, the type of shaving to be done, and the type of razor being used in the shave. Once these conditions of the shave are known, the brush is then “fitted” to meet them, in much the same way that a good shoe is fitted to the precise foot size of the intended wearer. You should not purchase a brush from an establishment that only offers one kind of brush, under which circumstances it is highly unlikely the brush you buy will be the best possible fit for you.

How does one effectively fit a shaving brush to the specific needs of the user? There are two means of establishing fit. The first is to gain a clear sense of the density or thickness of the beard to be cut. The other method is to size the correct brush handle to fit the shaver’s hand. Both methods require an extensive understanding of the water loading character of each brush as well as the specific kind of cream to be used. This can only be learned through time and repeated exposure to numerous different kinds of beards and creams. For our present purposes, it is enough to say that when buying a shaving brush you should make every effort to buy the largest head that is available. Of course, the size of the handle must be considered as well, but generally speaking the handle size will roughly conform to the size of the brush head itself.

With the exception of Simpsons, there really are no shaving brush manufacturers that continue to make a full line of customized, solid-handle shaving brushes. As a result, an individual’s choice of handle is roughly limited to three basic shapes: tubular, nosecone, or square or oblong. Under the right conditions, all three of these forms can work just fine; however, the degree of ergonomic comfort they offer can vary considerably.

Finally, shaving brushes are also graded on the quality of badger hair used. This subject is so vast that an entire book could be easily written on the relative qualities of badger hair. If this sounds like a trivial subject, just consider this single fact---a small handmade shaving brush loaded with superior silver tip badger can load up to three times more water than a larger shaving brush made of inferior hair, even if the latter is twice the size. This performance disparity translates into roughly a three times savings in the amount of shaving cream used for each shave.

In order to understand what you are getting in a shaving brush, it is important to understand the various kinds of badger hair used in brush production. These fall within three standard categories:

  • Pure Badger - the least expensive and stiffest hair used, although the least water retaining. All good basic shaving brushes use pure badger hair unless otherwise indicated.
  • Best Badger - an exceptionally good variety of hair to use for many reasons, chief among them affordability and water loading capacity. In this instance, volume of badger hair is the key.
  • Silver Tip - The finest and most expensive badger hair available in the world. Very few companies even attempt to produce brushes with Silver Tip any more. Indeed, many brush companies don’t even understand what Silver Tip is. I know of a few that offer so-called “Silver Tip” badger brushes that are clearly not.

Simpsons Shaving Brushes makes the definitive Silver Tip brush in the world, and typically range from $350 to $600, or higher prices for more customized brushes. The look of a true Silver Tip brush is unmistakably smooth, velvety and lush, and the hair stock possesses an intense black sheen. Each Silver Tip brush is topped by what is known as “whitecap”, tips of nearly pure white hair that crown the top of the brush. A true jewel in the wet shaver’s crown!

How the Shaving Brush Works

A good shaving brush accomplishes three distinct functions to ensure a great shave:

First, the badger hair in the brush acts as a fibrous sponge, retaining water and efficiently releasing it into the cream throughout the shave. This process of hydrating the cream is critical to the success of the entire shave. By systematically releasing water into the cream, the brush activates the fatty acids in the cream, thus loading them up with water. Once worked into the beard through the action of the brush, the cream then bonds the water to the beard and skin. In this way the beard is softened for efficient cutting by the blade. In addition, a fine but resilient barrier of water is laid down across the entire shaving surface. This provides a slick, but penetrable surface across which the razor can glide and efficiently cut the beard. Friction is nearly eliminated, the softened beard is cleanly cut, and the shaver experiences no razor burn.

Second, the brush head itself captures excess shave cream, thereby reducing the amount of cream that would normally fall off the brush during shaving. A good shaving brush will retain both water and cream throughout the duration of the shave.

Third, the action of the brush across the entire face and neck raises the beard, thus preparing it to be cut in a clean and uniform manner.

It is important to understand that all of the above actions occur simultaneously, that is, the action of a good shaving brush achieves a nearly perfect preparation of the beard prior to shaving. Indeed, it would be literally impossible for you to accomplish these essential functions by attempting to perform each one of them separately.

Loading Cream into the Brush

One aspect of wet shaving that is always ignored involves the shaving brush’s dual function. Most people understand that the brush loads and releases water into the shave cream. The process of working the brush and releasing the water into the cream actively promotes the absorption of water into the beard. This in turn softens the beard, protects the skin with a powerful water barrier, and eliminates blade friction during shaving.

Few people however realize that the shaving brush is also intended to load and release cream, not just water. In other words, as the brush releases water into the beard, it also retrieves the excess cream off of the face by “scooping” it around the flared edge of the brush itself. This process closely resembles the way that cotton candy is “spun” around a paper tube, and prevents the action of the brush from shaking the shave cream loose onto the bathroom counter or the floor. Since the cream is filled with water, as much must be kept on the face as possible.

The L/R Method of Shaving

The process by which shave cream is loaded into the brush during the lathering process, and then released for subsequent application back onto the face, is a fascinating dimension of wet shaving. But it is also one that is difficult to learn from simply reading a mere description of the process. Over the years I have developed this system to a very high level of efficiency. It is the same technique I teach in all of my shaving clinics. And though it is somewhat difficult to master, it is well worth the time and effort of doing so. It is usually necessary for me to demonstrate this process several times before the shaver begins to grasp the principle behind it. However, once he learns it, his shaving reaches a level of perfection scarcely imaginable before. I call this the “L/R step” of the Roberts Method, for load and release.

Why is the L/R process so important? By continuously loading and releasing cream from the brush during shaving, the shaver maintains a continuous flow of fully hydrated shave cream to the face throughout the cutting process. There is always more than enough water directly positioned between the blade and the skin’s surface to ensure the smoothest—and closest—shave possible. A shave considerably closer than even a professional barber with a straight razor can achieve. The shaver may then cut as close as he wants without irritation to the skin, achieving the same “porcelain bowl” finish to his shave that I teach in my clinics.

The wet shaving process can be divided into two distinct L/R stages. The first occurs when the shaving brush is loaded with water, which is then released into the cream to create a cutting lather. The second stage occurs on loading the brush with shaving cream, first by packing it into the brush, either by placing it into the palm of the hand or in a shaving pot, and then by applying the cream to the face in a quick, forceful motion. I like to refer to this mixing of cream and water onto the face as the mixing bowl phase. The combined effect of both stages creates the basis for the entire shave. It is essential that both L/R stages be done thoroughly and efficiently. Again, I often find that during my clinics this particular process must be taught to customers carefully and methodically. It is not always an easy thing to learn, yet it is another indispensable part of a great shaving experience.

About My Shaving Clinics

In developing precision-method shaving, I have benefited over the years from the experiences of teaching hundreds of other men how to shave. For the past ten years, I have had the unique opportunity in my Austin, Texas store to discuss shaving—in both theory and practice—with countless customers, barbers, skin care experts and salon stylists. The insights I have gained through these discussions have been complemented by my teaching countless men to shave using my methods. In fact, one could say that my approach to shaving has evolved directly from this marvelous one-on-one experience. Every week of the year, I give personal instruction to shaving customers of all kinds, many of whom have particular needs that simply cannot be effectively addressed other than through a personal shaving session. These sessions are instructive for all concerned, and I strongly encourage my customers to take advantage of them. If you are interested in arranging a personal shaving clinic, please call us toll-free at 888-220-2927 to schedule your appointment. Shaving clinics are free of charge to my customers.

A Final Word

Over the years, in developing my philosophy and overall approach to wet shaving, I have frequently been asked why quality wet shaving products are so expensive. The answer is that they have to be. Producing high quality shaving goods that unfailingly deliver a great shave incurs costs that lead directly to the desired outcome. The various sources and materials from which the world’s best shaving goods are produced are themselves extremely rare and can only be obtained with some difficulty.

In addition, the assembly of these materials into permanent creations of shaver quality requires the skills of individuals who devote their entire working live to learning the arcane skills necessary to produce shaving brushes, razors and creams. In some respects these men are born and not made. It is simply a fact of life that just because a man can thread a needle and sew a patch on a shirtsleeve does not mean that he can knot the hair on a shaving brush. These requisite skills are clearly evident in the overall ability of a shaving brush to deliver a perfect shave day after day.

If this is not worth paying for, then what is?

 

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