11/24/18

The Razor's Hedge: Why I Play It Safe and Stick With Two Types of Blades (and The One I Prefer)



When it comes to pre and post-shave ablutions, my shave game is flexible to a fault - I have a dozen aftershaves and several soaps I use on a regular basis to "condition" my skin for optimal shaving. The key to wet shaving isn't to have the best "technique," or the most expensive and exotic gear. It's actually about familiarity, and keying in on what you know.

I often wonder at the dudes who make videos about their "first time" using a straight razor, or any razor. I also shake my head at the ones with collections of fifty razors and two or three dozen different blades. I get the enthusiasm, I totally understand the "collector's mentality," and it's no mystery that wet shaving is an addictive practice. After doing it for ten years, I can never see a return to an electric razor. There's just no way it's ever happening.

In my experience with wetshaving, choosing a razor from a customized, velvet-lined drawer, and fumbling through a mound of razor packets isn't how I want to "mix it up," and lend variety to the morning. Aftershaves are safe for that, but razors? Not so much. With blades, getting adventurous ends in pizza face. I see no reason to have a razor collection, or to get gung-ho over a "shave den" stacked with paraphernalia. But then again, I learned to wet shave with Feather DE blades in a Feather razor. My only paraphernalia were band aids and tissue paper.

Trust me on this: there's nothing harder to use than a Feather DE, even one with a closed comb. It can slice through a gourd like hot butter, and mine had a stunted top, with way more blade exposed than your average three piece DE. Ten months into a regular routine, and I was still skewering my cheeks, but you know what? I learned. When I switched to Gillette and Astra blades, it was like going from Chess to Checkers. Suddenly the focus on precision shifted to a focus on handling, on wrist action, on easy angles, and as my fear of slicing flesh diminished, my eagerness to practice various strokes increased. I developed a sense of pressure sensitivity and grain patterns, with every knick and slit aiding the process of mapping out my face and neck. Now all I had to do was accelerate the process and become more efficient with my time.

I probably struggled through a dozen different blades before my Feather razor broke (shoddy craftsmanship, surprisingly), which forced me to seek out something similar, but better. Enter my trusty 1960s vintage Gillette Travel Tech, a notoriously easy daily shaver with a very simple three piece, closed comb design, and much better unibody molding that will likely last me the rest of my life. With that razor, it suddenly got much easier to settle into a blade. For a couple of years I used Derby Extras exclusively, and though I was aware of their crappy reputation, I wasn't dissatisfied with their performance. They're Turkish blades, known for being a bit duller than average, and even perhaps a bit of an underperformer in the closeness department. But for my three or four-day stubble, they work fine.

Occasionally I'll notice with Derbys that my skin gets a bit chaffed. Not sliced, not knicked, but chaffed, like someone rubbed sandpaper across my cheeks. This is a result of their dullness. Duller blades are a trade-off, as are sharp blades. When the edge is too mild, the shave might be safer, but the wrist does a subconscious trick, and sends the blade angle closer to ninety degrees than it would if the follicles were shorn with more ease. The end result is skin well shorn, with little visible irritation, but with more long-term, delayed irritation, which is a dramatically negative sensation. After a few shaves like that, I develop redness, patches of rash-like irritation that linger for weeks, which aren't easily assuaged by menthol or balms.

When a Derby shave goes well, it's usually because (A), I softened my hairs prior, or (B), I allowed for an extra day or two of growth. Hard to say why, but when my hairs are longer, Derbys work better. They cut closer, and rarely leave irritation. In these cases, I'm happy to follow up with some Old Spice, particularly Indian OS, or Pinaud Virgin Island Bay Rum, mainly because I can afford the burn. A perfect shave happens maybe once out of every five shaves, and in that case it's almost like I never touched my face with metal at all. It's the aftershave that reminds me.

Still, shaving with just one blade (and following it with just one aftershave, for that matter) is a bad idea. My skin has a mind of its own, and it "learns" what I'm doing. After a month or two of the same routine, it suddenly doesn't matter how carefully I go about things - my skin will begin to rebel. I'm not sure why this happens. My best guess is that its chemistry adapts, and begins to institutionalize against external conditions, which is to say that it registers a uniform treatment despite changing weather, humidity, seasons, etc., and thus has adverse reactions.

When this happens, I'm reminded that it's time to change things up a little, although not by much. When I'm repeatedly reaching for Skin Bracer or Osage Rub, it's time to reevaluate what I'm doing. My second razor of choice is Astra Superior Platinum, which is a more well regarded blade in the community. ASPs are sharper than Derbys, are better made (straighter lines, fewer defects, a good Russian blade), and are arguably more versatile. Astras are more agile after two or three days growth, but they're a blade of precision customization. They're easy to use, but easier if you have the right kind of razor. The Gillette is perfect, it has a fairly narrow comb with just enough metal exposed, perfect balance, and no aggressive stroke risk, unless you're a real novice who thinks he has to karate chop his jowls apart.

The plus side to Astras is their quality - overall, these are well made and effective blades. It's hard to find fault with how the factory is churning them out. Derbys are also decently made, but occasionally (maybe in one out of ten shaves) I get one with an uneven edge, the slightest depression in the metal, or a slightly crooked edging, and that can add to whatever irritation I'm at risk for. This risk is lessened when I use Astras - I can't think of a single time I've encountered a noticeable defect, although I do notice that they warp easier than Derbys.

Warping blades isn't a "thing" per say, but it is for me. That's because I tend to leave a blade in the razor for a day or two after using it, or put it in the razor a day before the shave, thinking I'm going to use it sooner. By the time I get to it, the metal has bent ever so slightly under the pressure of the three piece Gillette, and that can be no big deal, or it can yield some surprises, depending on hair length. I've had instances where Astras were warped a little too flush to the comb plate, rendering its cutting power virtually useless. It's something to watch out for.

Which blade do I prefer? If I had to choose, I'd say I prefer the Astras. I like Derbys, and still use them, and probably always will use them, but Astras are a better default, and in the last year or so, I've switched from using Derby to using Astra as my default blade. I'll never return to Gillette or Feather, although I certainly wouldn't object to the occasional Gillette in a pinch (they're overrated in my opinion), and Feathers are, well, Feathers. No use mincing words. The blade has already minced them for me.

The toggle between the two blades keeps my skin from getting too institutionalized into a learned routine, and for every six or seven Astra shaves, I can get a couple of Derby shaves in, and find little to no irritation in that pattern.

If you're a novice, just starting out in the world of wet shaving, and you've chosen your first DE razor, my advice is this: try the sharpest blade first. This might be something like a Feather, Gillette Seven O'Clock SharpEdge, or Wilkinson Sword for you, or it could be another brand, depending on where you live, but if it has a reputation for being aggressive and tough to use, all the better. You'll develop a sense of the physicality of shaving, and the feedback you get with your styptic will be a postgame rundown of what went wrong. It'll be a few months of ugliness and pain (your face will persistently resemble a Papa John's stuffed crust pepperoni pie), but when you feel like you've mastered the hardest blade, you'll have earned the way to more comfortable blades, and you'll have developed, on a subconscious level, a set of skills for minimizing the nefarious pitfalls of duller blades.

Why not start with milder blades, you ask? Sure, go ahead. But the issues with milder blades are exactly like what I've described with my Derbys - they're sneakier, latent, harder to correct if you're new and don't know the angles - literally. My experience with post-shave pain has consistently been that delayed razor burn, rashes, and chronic irritation are far worse than getting cut by a super sharp blade. Cuts and knicks hurt like hell, but the pain fades fast, and styptic takes care of the rest. So really, start with the hard stuff, and then work your way to something friendlier. You won't regret it.


2 comments:

  1. A sharper blade is better as it is less likely to get caught on the whiskers and drag. Dragging causes the razor to dig into the top layers of skin resulting in razor burn & cuts. It seems counter intuitive - but that's why a sharper blade is better than a duller blade.
    (So says the woman who went to barber school & taught her sons & husband to shave)

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  2. IME it's a good quality soap (which doesn't have to cost that much) that makes the biggest difference, everything else may be a beautiful part of the ritual, but isn't strictly necessary.

    Soap, lather and knowing how to apply it to maximise its effect falls into the 80% of the local 80/20 principle.

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