This is the area where the choice seems to confuse people the most. Now the easiest way to clear the confusion is just to tell you to go and buy a Vulfix 404 badger and boar brush from Diamond Edge for £8.40, it will do a perfect job and you will be very happy, however if you want to know more, read on.
There are two parts to a brush, the knot, which is the term for the bundle of hairs. And the handle. The handle can be moulded or turned on a lathe from a solid block of material, usually a plastic or wood.
Brushes knots are made of animal hair. Forget synthetics unless you are a vegan. Boar hair is the most common, it is stiff so works well with hard soaps, it becomes much softer on the face over time with repeated use. Badger is the gold standard because it is soft and will hold huge amounts of lather. Horse is less common but I have seen it described as 85% badger 85% boar, which from the experience of the one I own is just about right.
Nearly all the badger hair used for shaving brushes comes from China, where badgers are vermin that need to be culled. Some exotic and expensive brushes use badger hair from animals that live at high altitudes in the mountains and thus provide a superior hair.
If you look at a badger you will see that the hair is different on different parts of its body. These different sorts of hair make different sorts of brushes at different price points. There are standard terms for these but these are very vague and vary a lot from brand to brand.
Pure badger is from the underbelly, it is 60% of the hair on the animal. This has a thicker shaft which makes it less soft, it is mostly dark in colour. Brushes made of this are sometimes trimmed for length, which can make them rougher.
Best badger uses longer, lighter coloured hair which is finer. It is 20% of the animal’s hair. It will hold more lather and is softer on the skin, especially as the hairs will not usually be trimmed.
Super badger is a result of sorting to use only the very best hairs, from the animal’s back. These will have usually have natural light coloured tips.
Silver tip badger is usually the top grade, which as the name says, uses only hairs that have natural silver tips, from the neck of the badger, which are the finest. This will hold immense amounts of lather.
Don’t think that moving up a grade gives you a better shave or a better lather. Often all it does is to give you a softer feeling brush that holds a bit more lather. The reason for this is the amount of backbone or the amount of floppiness that a brush has. A silvertip might be too floppy to work a hard soap well, whilst a best badger might be far better for the job.
Now we come to some interesting insights. Handles on quality brushes are hand turned on a lathe. The knot is put together by hand. Human labour is a lot cheaper in China than it is in the West and China is where the badgers are. So lots of handles and knots are made in China. Under EU law the place of manufacture is where the last process took place. So you can take a Chinese knot and a Chinese handle and glue them together in England and it is perfectly OK to put a big “Made in England” label on it! So you could be paying a lot of money just for the brand name on the brush.
Of course, such is the power of the interweb, you can buy a brush where the handle and knot have been glued together in China. Expect to pay about $10 + $5 postage for a “finest pure badger” brush. $22 for a “luxury silvertip badger” brush. But it is difficult to know what the quality is like from a few thousand miles away, without buying one.
A second insight is that shaving brush hairs are routinely bleached and/or died as part of the manufacturing process. This can make boar hair look like badger hair, and it can make badger hair look like a different grade to what it really is.
As you can see buying a brush is a veritable minefield where you never know what you are really buying. And often the main difference between two brushes is the price sticker, with the more expensive not necessarily being the best.
There is an excellent shaving brush blog by “Fido” who owns an extensive collection and has done a lot of research. He also recommends the Vulfix 404. His blog is very interesting reading as he analyses all the brands and reviews all the brushes in his collection. For even further information there are the Badger & Blade brush reviews, which are pretty comprehensive, and also their brush wiki.