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B&B Confidential #8: Gary Young on Simpson Brushes

B&B Confidential #8: Gary Young on Simpson Brushes

Back in the middle of December, the 2010 holiday season was in full swing here at B&B. All of us were making our lists and checking them twice, ensuring that all of our ADs would be properly serviced. As we engaged in our regular debates: Which Brush? Rooney vs Simpson? What about boars? Whither Plisson?, someone emerged from the fireplace and started a thread in the Shaving Brush Forum innocuously titled Simpson Brushes, and dropped the following bombshell in the opening post in the thread: "Alex Simpson was my Great Uncle so my family have the privilege of being the original owners of A. Simpson Brushes." Gary Young, great nephew of the founder of Simpson brushes and scion of the Simpson and Young family, joined us here at B&B.

As we are all aware that Progress/Vulfix currently manufactures Simpson brushes on the Isle of Man, most of us knew that Simpson was a free-standing company located in Somerset, UK prior to the acquisition. Far fewer of us knew, however, that the original owners of the company, the Simpson and Young family, sold the company in the early 1990's. Gary has been sharing with us some of the history and lore of the Simpson company and providing inside perspectives on one of the most iconic brands in traditional wet shaving. Whether it was learning that Alex Simpson's family nickname was "Duke" and the namesake for one of the best loved Simpson brushes, finding out that the company used barley syrup as the binder for their badger knots or that the company used to make boar brushes in large quantities, we now know things that we had little clue about before.

In addition to his contributions to the Forum, Gary was kind enough to spend some time with us and answer some more in depth questions that draw back the curtain even further on the history of Simpson brushes:

What inspired your Great Uncle, Alex Simpson, to get into the shaving brush and grooming business? To what extent did the creation of the double edge razor by Gillette prompt the founding of the business, but also the diversification of brushes within the company?

Great Uncle Alex was a great businessman and could see opportunities – he was an Entrepreneur of his time. Our family history shows that we had connections with brush making before he set up A. Simpson Brushes so it was really a natural progression that he would end up having his own company. Yes the DE Razor did open up more opportunities to the business. It made shaving more accessible to all classes – this meant more brush designs were produced to accommodate a wide spectrum of tastes and budgets.

During WW II, the company moved from London to Somerset to escape the devastation of the blitz. In hindsight, what impact did being in the English countryside have on the company, and how did it express itself in the brushes?

Obviously the move to Nimmer Mills meant some production techniques changed. The most significant being the use of water power to run the lathes, etc. If anything though the location and the Mill itself only helped to add to the ‘traditional, handcrafted’ appeal of the company. After a few years though Great Uncle Alex did consider quite strongly moving the business to Swanley in Kent. He loved the Somerset countryside and the way of life but he did miss London. Car journeys to the capital were not as easy or as quick back then as they are today, and the majority of our customer base was in London. After his death and my Grandfather took the helm the decision to stay at Nimmer was made. Originally, of course the Simpson family were from Scotland but the last 2 generations were born in and around Windsor, Berkshire. I am the only family member born in Somerset.

What characteristics initially made the company's brushes uniquely "Simpson," and how did later generations of the Simpson and Young family maintain those qualities?

Our dense knots were always a characteristic of our brushes. We did experiment with more ‘contemporary’ handle styles but the make was usually recognised by strong, solid handle designs (Chubby, Duke, etc)

The shapes and variety of Simpson brush handles is a hallmark of the brand. What inspired the shapes of the handles?

The longevity of the business and the cross section of markets we sold to allowed us to expand our range over the years (as Vulfix are still doing today). Also in the early days we tended to work a lot with ivory which was a great material to work with because of its wood like properties when turning – this allowed more creativity. Thankfully catalin also worked in a similar fashion which allowed the cross over from ivory to man made substances. A lot of handle designs were trial and error. Playing on the lathe with ‘naked’ material and then seeing what you could create.

What inspired the company to design new brushes (aside from milestone events like the first 2 million pounds in the bank that led to the AS2M)?

Sometimes we would adapt 1 off designs to create new brush styles. Sometimes family events would inspire a new brush style or name.

Who was the guinea pig in the company to test out new prototype brushes? Are there any designs that come to mind that never saw the light of day?

Great Uncle Alex, Grandfather, other family members, friends and long term customers tended to be our guinea pigs. The family knew what a good brush should feel and perform like so it was always ‘us’ first and then regular customers second. There were plenty of designs that never saw the light of day! We used to design and produce special exhibition brushes to show at exhibitions such as the B.I.F. (British Industries Fair). The majority of these designs never hit the shops.

You have posted on B&B the inspiration for the names of some of the classic Simpson brushes (Duke is Alex Simpson's nickname; KH is named based on the shape of the handle). What inspired the names of some other classic models?

The old KR7 brushes which we used to make were named after the address one of our staff lived at when she worked for us at Nimmer – No.7 Kents Row. The Chubby is fairly self-explanatory – the handle is of a chunky/fat design. The Persian Jar has flowing lines very much like that of ancient chinaware, etc. Family members played a part in naming brushes as did some of the staff.

Did the department stores for which the company supplied "house lines" of brushes have their own specifications, or were they left to the discretion of Simpson? How did they differ from Simpson-branded brushes?

In the main it was our standard designs which were simply ‘rebranded’ for the likes of Macys, Cable Car Chemists, Harrods, etc. We did make some ‘bespoke’ styles which were slight variations on our normal design but these tended to be for the ‘Chemists/Perfumeries’ such as E.R. Cooper, Floris, etc.

Shaving brushes are renowned for being handmade. What type of training did one have to receive in order to be a brush maker at Simpson? Was every brush maker able to handle all of the steps of creating a brush, or did everyone have different tasks?

The training was very much ‘passed down’ through the family. In London, Alex did have ‘Apprentices’ who were trained by experienced staff and learnt all aspects of brush making. At Nimmer there was only a couple of staff who could make a brush from start to finish. We tended to have set staff carrying out set tasks. One turning handles, a couple making the knots, another person setting the knots, lamp blacking and packing. It was the family who tended to know the whole process.

You have also posted that Simpson sourced its badger hair from the Balkans and China. Early on in the history of the company, the hair was presumably sourced in Europe. What prompted the transition to Chinese sourcing, and what kinds of companies or individuals are the suppliers of the badger hair? Do you anticipate impediments in the future to obtaining badger hair?

Badger hair was sourced from the Balkans for some time and then availability meant that Chinese hair was used. We used a company called Hair & Skin for many many years to source both badger hair and hog bristle. I am sure that in the future badger hair brushes will slowly fade away because of lack of resource and trade bans.

What prompted the transition from natural materials as the basis for handles to composites and plastics (aside from some of the ethical issues with ivory, for instance)?

It was mostly the ethical issues with using ivory and also the scarcity of the material. Ivory is a great material to work with but it does age like wood – as in it can form cracks and splits.

As time passed, and traditional hard shaving soaps gave way to creams, did the company make changes to the brushes to accommodate the new lathering base?

Yes knot sizes and densities were altered to accommodate the changes.

Are there brush manufacturing methods that Simpson used to employ and do not seem to be currently used that you would like to see come back?

Times have changed and brush making methods are changing all the time. Of course I would love to see brushes being made the way we did at Nimmer using water power for the machinery but our set-up at Nimmer was unique and I can’t see that ever being replicated. I can’t really comment on today’s manufacturing techniques – different era to ours.

What is your favorite Simpson brush? What brush models were and are closest to the hearts of your Great Uncle, Grandfather and Father?

My favourite brush is the Chubby 2 in Best. Great Uncle Alex’s was obviously the Wee Scot (but he did use a Chubby 2 in Best day-to-day). My Grandfather and Father also used/use a Chubby 2 in Best every day.

What were and are your grandfather's and father's perfect shaves?

They would both say a shave in Trumpers!

What is your perfect shave?

Same as for Granddad and Dad

Times and shaving have changed dramatically since Alex Simpson founded the company. How do you view the state of shaving today? How would your great uncle and grandfather feel?

I would say that traditional shaving is having a major resurgence at this moment in time. You only have to look online at the number of outlets selling brushes, razors, etc and the forums (such as B & B!). It is great to see so many people using the traditional wet shaving methods and showing so much passion and interest for them. I am sure that Great Uncle Alex and my Grandfather would be proud that the Simpson name is still so highly regarded and also happy with the work that Vulfix are doing trying to regain the quality and service that we provided when the business was still family owned.

How can the makers of traditional wet shaving better extol the virtues of traditional methods over the latest “convenient” approaches?

Traditional shaving is all about trial and error. Every individual has their own preferred set-up which can take years of experimenting to reach. The convenient products available take away the personal aspect of shaving.

From your perspective, what are the new trends that you see in the traditional wet shaving market, and what kind of impact do the internet in general and sites like Badger & Blade have on it?

I read a lot of interest in Boar brushes over Badger brushes at the moment. This isn’t so much a new trend as we were making boar brushes alongside our badger brushes for many many years. Perhaps it is users thinking that badger hair will become a scarcer commodity soon so they are adapting their shaving habits to suit? I don’t know. Site like Badger & Blade can only help to promote traditional shaving across the internet. My main concern is information being passed on which is taken as ‘gospel’

What will shaving brushes look like and be made of in the future?

Well I am sure that a time will come in the next 25 years (at the most) where badger hair will no longer be available for ‘mass production’. Today’s manufacturers will have to bite the bullet and look at manmade alternatives. The brush making industry had to rethink designs and products when the ivory ban came into force but the industry still survived from it. The old ways and materials will be historical fact one day with real badger hair brushes of today being collector’s items of tomorrow. Brush handle designs will change as well with unusual handle shapes being formed. Perhaps a material will be produced which will allow brush handle and head to be formed as one complete piece? I am no scientist so who knows really?!
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Wonderful interview and I am glad to see one of the forebears/heirs of a great company here on our site.

Now if i can just decide on which Chubby........

Sounds like you got advice on good authority that "Chubby 2 in Best" was the choice.

But as always YMMV!!
Gary, that was a wonderful interview response. I'm surprised that the badger knots will pass on; guess I'd better get that Chubby 3 I've been pining for.

-- John Gehman
That was really a wonderful read - both the interview and the old thread. I wish the old Simpson's mill was still turning out brushes. I would fly to England just for a tour of the old mill.

Really marvelous.
I've really enjoyed perusing a thread and all of a sudden Gary pops in and drops a nugget of history. Thanks to both beginish and Gary for giving us this interview. I love learning about the history of items that we sometimes take for granted. Cheers!
That's a great historical insight to a families connection with a well known brand. It has so often been that such insight is laid to rest with the passing of each generation. Nice to know that it can be kept here for current and future members.

Great interview! I just ordered my first Simpson brush today - a PJ3 in super. I'm trading up from a Rooney 3/1 and I'm really excited to try a brush from such a storied company.
A most excellent interview. As for future badger scarceness, other than an outright trade ban, I would suspect some enterprising Chinese will start farming them if the demand is heavy enough. Lets hope.

Regards, Todd
Awesome interview.
Every time I see something like this it makes me want to buy a Chubby 2 in best.
It's nice to be able to see things in 'text' which will hopefully answer some questions for you guys and clear up any assumptions made previously. Pleasure doing the Q & A session for Bob!

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