The Art of Shaving

Writer Ed Peters | September 1, 2016

When it comes to lifehacks, not hacking your face about comes close to the top of the list of priorities. Even in these hirsute hipster times, a lot of guys still shave first thing in the morning, even if they check their Twitter feed beforehand.     

And it’s something you need to get right. Clichéd though it may sound, ‘smooth as a baby’s bottom’ is as psychologically important as it is physically. Random stubble and crimson-hued cuts look as bad as they feel.

It’s by no means a Millennial concern. Back in the late 19th century, L. Howard Jones was dispensing tonsorial wisdom via The Barbers Manual – how to choose a soap, the best way to prep a beard and – get this – acquiring the proper tools, ie razors, hones and strops.

He wasn’t one for mincing his words either. “Cheap soaps are an abomination in disguise,” declared Howard. “You might as well try to fly [remember this was a good five years before ex bicycle mechanic Orville Wright’s historic feat at Kitty Hawk] as to soften a man’s beard with that kind of stuff.”

And: “Apply the lather with the handle of the brush in the palm of the right hand, allowing the ends of your fingers to work down into the bristles to keep them from spreading too much and to enable you to handle the brush more easily.” Stirring words.

Gazing in the bathroom mirror before breakfast, I was frequently struck by twin thoughts: disposable cartridges are unnecessarily expensive, and once disposed of they just end up in landfill. And despite vaguely spooky thoughts about Sweeney Todd and his insouciant approach toward attracting repeat customers, a cut-throat – on balance, I prefer the term ‘straight’ – razor could well be the solution to both problems.

But – and here’s the rub – how do you learn to use it without scarring your mug anew every 24 hours? The videos on YouTube are about as much help as an Ikea instruction pamphlet, so the answer had to be consulting a professional, face to face, so to speak.

And Gentlemen’s Tonic seemed like an aptly named academy. Armed with a Japanese-made Butterfly Supreme purchased some time ago from one of those specialist backstreet boutiques that were – pre casino tsunami – once a hallmark of Macau’s retail scene, I headed for Wellington Street for a lesson in traditional wet shaving, suitably stubbly and with just a couple of those vaguely remembered back-to-school butterflies fluttering gently round my tum.

I had entertained visions of a grizzled curmudgeon – alarmingly dexterous, endlessly verbose, perhaps a tiny bit supercilious of someone who hadn’t worked out something as straightforward as shaving without the aid of a namby-pamby Gillette or similar. How wrong I was. Despite his Saki-esque name, Zephon Raine was barely past voting age, cheery, relaxed, humorous, and as sympathetic of my ever so slightly spastic initial attempts at straight razor shaving as a concerned parent guiding a child learning to ride a tricycle, constantly encouraging and dismissive of the occasional nicks and scratches.

And he had some tips that hadn’t even occurred despite – and I’m skating over a doomed attempt to cultivate a face blanket while trekking in the Himalaya in my early 20s – having shaved pretty much every day since colliding with puberty.

“You should shave after a hot shower, as it opens the pores and softens the beard, so you get the closest shave,” he said.

“And before you start, rub some pre-shave oil into your beard. It protects your skin, and lets the razor glide along smoothly.”

And then there was the, um, bleeding obvious. “Make sure your blade is sharp – if it’s blunt, you’re not just going to cut yourself, you might cause problems like ingrown hairs.”

It’s nigh impossible to put into words how to hold a straight razor; it’s something that only comes with practice and experimenting with what feels most comfortable, but Zephon had some handy advice concerning something I’d been doing wrong all along.

“To start with, you need to shave in the same direction your beard is growing, then across for a closer finish. If you don’t, you’re going to get razor burn, and then maybe ingrown hairs.”

Wielding my Butterfly firmly – none of that limp-wristed stuff – and cunningly avoiding slicing into my nose and earlobes, slowly but surely the black bits were consigned to the basin. After about 20 minutes, I tilted left, then right, then left again. A couple of blobs of 0 Negative, but all in all, not bad for a newbie.

Zephon stepped to the fore again with a cold towel (“closes the pores and cools you down”) and proffered some moisturiser. And then I was back out into the heart of Central, rubbing an exploratory hand over my jowls with more than a tinge of pride.

The takeaway? My Gillette’s gone into retirement; I spend longer shaving nowadays, but enjoy it much more; I’ve yet to graduate to hones and strops but – to misquote my old chum Cassius Clay – “I float like a butterfly without getting stung by that bee.”

You should shave after a hot shower as it opens the pores and softens the beard
~ Zephon Raine