Firstly a disclaimer, the variety of traditional shaving kit on sale is so vast that the choices are effectively infinite. And because you are different to the next man so what kit is best for you will be different, this is part of the joy of shaving this way, you can customise to your own exact personal likes and requirements. So what follows is just one man’s opinion, yours may differ substantially. Also because I am UK based this is reflected in some of the choices, however the interwebs have made us one big global community so this is not the problem it once was.
Soaps and creams.
Basically creams are just soaps with water added to make them easier to use. So hard soaps are much more concentrated and can work out far cheaper per shave even if they cost more.
One of the very best soaps in the world is the Palmolive shaving stick that you can often get for under £1 in English supermarkets. Just rub it into your stubble like a big crayon then whip up into a fantastic lather with a shaving brush. The brush will then have enough charge left in it for second and third passes. This is not available in America so American traditional shavers buy it at a far higher price on eBay or bring home masses of sticks when they come here on holiday. I have done some great transatlantic equipment swaps for these sticks.
An excellent low cost cream is Ingrams which you can buy in many chemists and supermarkets. Loaded with menthol this is superb in the summer. Once again impressive value for money.
Going a bit upmarket there is Mitchell’s Wool Fat (MWF) shaving soap. This stuff is a legend and is really good for your skin. Keep it in a sealed container between shaves. Mantic59 has just done a YouTube video on how to get the best out of it. It is actually very cheap to use as a puck lasts a very long time indeed, buy online. Also it prefers a brush with a bit of backbone, like a Vulfix 404 boar/badger mix.
If you are a cream person then the step up from Ingrams is probably Body Shop Maca Root which is truly lush and is available on any high street. Sometimes they have it on offer which is a good time to stock up.
Then there are the St James’s soaps and creams from the male grooming shops in London (and online). The best value creams here are Taylors of Old Bond Street (TOBS) who have a range of different flavours. It is good to visit their Jermyn Street shop and smell them all to see what you like. About £6 for a tub.
My favourite hard soap is Trumper’s Violet. This is expensive but lasts a long time. It lathers up much more easily than MWF and the violet is very soothing.
If you want 100% natural stuff then there are artisan shaving soap makers. The best respected in England is Nanny’s Silly Soap Company (online). Beware some artisan soap makers just add bentic clay to an ordinary soap to make their shaving soaps and the results are frankly rubbish.
Beyond the above there are thousands of different creams and soaps available around the world. The Russian creams, especially Svoboda, are excellent as are the Indian creams, most famously Godrej menthol mist, which is a bit special. The Italian soaps and creams from companies like Proraso and Cella have excellent reputations and I like them a lot.
These are the most expensive part of traditional shaving. A top brush from a top manufacturer will be about £80 and upwards, but will last at least 30 years as your only brush. If you have several brushes it will last for ever. However there are far cheaper options as we will discover. Some people have large collections of brushes.
The brush has two components, the handle and the knot. With handles wood will not last as long as plastic, no matter how it is treated.The knot has very many variables which effect the way it works. One very obvious characteristic is the variation from floppiness to backbone.
Diameter at the base. This is the knot size. Too big eats cream/soap too small is more work to use.
Loft is the height of the bristles from the handle. They also go some way into the handle.
Knot shape. Flat top, bulb and fan are the main shapes. Most are a combination some way between these.
Hair variety. Badger, boar, horse and synthetic. Each behaves differently, each has followers.
Hair grade. Each of the above varieties is available in many grades and you tend to get what you pay for.
Knot density, how tightly packed the hairs are.
And you thought it was going to be simple!
Boar brushes tend to have more backbone which makes them work well with soaps. A good boar brush doesn’t have trimmed ends to its bristles and so with use they split and the brush becomes softer. This “running in” process can take several weeks and reveals the full performance of the brush. An excellent cheap boar brush is the Jaguar from Turkey, bought online for £5ish. The detail finish is not brilliant, but the brush is. After that the main brands of quality pure boar brushes are Semogue in Portugal and Omega in Italy. These are great brushes and you get what you pay for in the range. They are an online purchase. I have both. Allow £20 for a good model.
There is also the Vulfix 404 boar/badger mix brush which is just a beautiful and brilliant all round brush and is something of a bargain at less than £10 from these people.
Badger brushes tend to be softer and more expensive. Nearly all the hair for them comes from China, where badgers are vermin. The Chinese graduated to making whole knots and then whole brushes.
The bargain is to buy a Frank Shaving Finest Badger (not the silvertip) for about £10 from Ian Tang in China on eBay. He has good customer service and the brushes take about 10 days to arrive, they look beautiful and are well presented. There are a range of knot sizes, shapes and lofts. I bought three of these brushes then Ian sent me two to review for my blog. The value and quality is such that they have taken the traditional shaving world by storm and with lots of positive feedback.
You can buy brushes with the retailers name on them, Trumpers, Taylors of Old Bond Street etc. Don’t. You don’t know who the manufacturer is. Better to buy one with the makers name on it. The two great, famous, British brands are Rooney and Simpsons.
Rooney are in London and make very small quantities of fantastic hand crafted brushes.
Simpsons are owned by Vulfix on the Isle of Man and make somewhat larger quantities of equally fantastic brushes across a huge range, from £20 to several hundred pounds. Models like the Persian Jar, Polo, Chubby, Milk Churn and Wee Scot are classics. I have just two Simpson’s brushes. Buy them at good prices here.
If you want to spend lots of money then Plisson in France (which Napoleon used) make exquisite bulb shaped brushes from European badger for several hundred pounds.
Horse used to be the most used brush hair before anthrax scares moved people onto boar bristle. They are fantastic brushes and have the benefit that no animals are harmed in making them, the hairs come from natural grooming.
This Turkish brush for just $2.45 is simply amazing. The biggest bargain in shaving. The detail finish is not perfect but the brush really performs.
Next up are Vie Long from Spain which you can buy here. About 10 Euros will get you an excellent “Barber Brush” (which I have), a few Euros more and you are into their very nice branded range.
Synthetic brushes are useful in that they dry out instantly so are good for travelling. There are two sorts.
Firstly there are the simple nylon strand brushes. The £5.50 Body Shop model is a perfect example.
Then there is “synthetic badger”. The theory is that these all come from Omega in Italy, no matter what brand names is on them. They are £30+ and they are excellent.
For a bit of further reading there is Fido’s shaving brush blog which you can find in the blogroll on the right here.
Different razors perform and handle completely differently to each other, like different cars. And there are adjustable razors that are a bit like having a gearbox, you can alter the thickness of each slice of hair that they take, but the fundamental characteristics of that razor don’t change.
As ever I can’t over-emphasise that the choice is personal. What you use and how you use it is entirely up to you, the options are infinite. This is the exact opposite of what the big global shaving companies try and impose on you with their patent protected multibladed system razors.
There are two main routes you can go down, vintage razor or current production razor, let’s deal with them separately.
These are rocketing in value. But ask round friends and family and see what turns up.
With over 100 years of production there are a lot of different models to choose from but most are made by Gillette.
The Tech is a simple three part razor. Handle and two part head that just screw together. Often found in travel kits. Gives a very good and mild shave. Plentiful and cheap, everyone should have one.
The Super Speed is a succession of models with twist to open butterfly doors. These are the backbone of the traditional shaving revival. Mild shavers except for the model with a red tip to its handle which is a medium shaver.
The adjustables. Fat boy, Slim and Super Adjustable. Just dial in the aggression you want. Between passes or mid pass. Less common and going up in value fast.
There are plenty more but these are the main ones. Avoid old razors with toothed heads, except to collect till later.
Start with a Weishi off eBay or a Wilkinson Sword Classic in black delrin from Boots for less than £5. These are very mild and won’t bite. Even when you are up the learning curve they are still good for a buffing and polishing third pass. There are also the Lord razors from Egypt which are less mild and which are exceptional value. Then there are the Edwin Jagger razors that have taken over from the Merkur 34C to become the “standard” traditional razor. The new Edwin Jagger head, which they seemingly co-developed with Muhle in Germany, is amazing. It feels bullet proof, as if it will never bite, yet it very effectively and effortlessly slices through the stubble. It is easy enough for beginners yet rewards the more experienced. And the razor is beautifully made, a real piece of craftsmanship and engineering for about £20.
If you want to spend more get an iKon, handmade in Thailand, buy the tooth headed model. More money still and you want the Mergress conversion of the Merkur Progress adjustable. Made in small batches you go on a waiting list, they sell out in one hour once released. Finally there is the Feather Stainless Steel from Japan which is yet more expensive.
When you get expert you might want to try a Merkur Slant Bar, probably the most powerful shaving tool known to man. So efficient that they are perfect for people with very strong beard growth and sensitive skin.
There are plenty of others like the Joris and the Goodfella but the above list is IMHO a good guide.
These are critical, because they do the cutting and there is a lot of difference between the different brands.
The three characteristics to look for are sharpness, smoothness and blade life. Like everything else to do with traditional shaving the experience is personal and varies from person to person. Some make a Feather blade last one shave, some make it last nine. Also different blades behave differently in different models of razor. The sharper the blade the better, then it can cut your stubble with the least trauma to your face.
Supermarket blades tend to be Personna, from Israel and Wilkinson Sword, from Germany. These are perfectly good blades and cannot really be faulted. However DE blades are so cheap that it is normal to buy them in 100s off eBay or from specialist retailers like Connaught, who also do sampler packs which are a really good idea as they allow you to try different blades to find out what works for you.
Probably the best razor blades that you can buy are the dozen or so brands that come out of Petersburg Products International (PPI) in Russia, that is 65% owned by Gillette. These include Astra, Sputnik, Permasharp, Polsilver, Rotbart, Nacet, Minora and the several different variations of the Gillette brand. They have just discontinued making Iridiums which were pretty legendary in the shaving community.
Gillette also makes DE blades in Vietnam, India and Brazil. These have excellent reputations but not as good as PPI.
Feather and Kai blades from Japan are immensely sharp but less smooth than PPI blades. Also they are very expensive. A Feather blade in a slant bar razor is supposed to be the absolute ultimate way to shave!
Lord in Alexandria, Egypt make several billion good quality blades a year under several brand names. Shark is the one with the best reputation. Though they are probably all the same!
Derby from Turkey are smooth and regarded as a good beginners blade, as are Personna from Israel. But you would probably be better off with a PPI blade.
If you want the best value for money then get Super-Max from Vidyut Metallics Limited in India, the world’s second biggest blade manufacturer. These are good and can be picked up at half the price of PPI blades.
One to avoid IMHO is Merkur blades from Germany, which are not as good as their razors.
Finally there is the shavepocalypse. The time when because of reducing demand the DE production lines are closed down. This has become more likely with the launch of the very low cost Gillette Guard system razor for developing countries which is targeted at DE users. This is why many traditional shavers have a stash of thousands of blades. They don’t cost much and take little space. Also they shoot up in value when a brand is discontinued as we have seen with Personna 74s, Gillette “Swedes” and now with Iridiums.
This article gives you a good place to start, but the choice out there is close to infinite, which is part of the joy of traditional shaving. So experiment, try different things and use what works best for you, even if it doesn’t work for anyone else!