I was self taught with a DE razor 25 years ago, and had to figure out a lot of things the hard way. I learned a lot of things over the years, but wish there had been an experienced DE shaver who could have taught me the basics early on. This guide is offered so that you can get to grips with the process quicker than I did, and shorten your learning curve, so that you are getting great close comfortable shaves sooner. This is everything that I wished someone had taught me when I was learning.
Now, what works for me, might not work for you – I have shaved my face several thousand times, but never once have I shaved yours. You may end up using slightly different techniques to me in the end. That really doesn't matter. All that matters is we get you to understand the basic mechanics, be able to fix problems that might arise, and we get you competent and confident with the razor as soon as possible.
Here are some of the questions you are probably going to be asking, and here are my answers based on my own experience of going through the learning curve. There is quite a bit of information to digest here over the next few posts, and I make no apology for that. Although just to break up the text a bit, I’ve also added some very simplistic diagrams to try and help you picture what I am describing in your mind.
Q: What do I need to start with?
In it simplest form, you need a DE (double edged) razor, a blade, and shaving soap or cream. Some soaps and creams can be applied without a brush, but I would sincerely recommend using a shaving brush as this will help you work the lather in and get it where it needs to be. I am not going to recommend any size, quality, or type of brush, as your beard is different to mine. You do want something with a bit of rigidity to the bristles (backbone) though, as otherwise you might not work the lather in deep enough, particularly if you have a dense beard. Personally I just use a cheap boar brush. That works on my face, but that’s no guarantee that it will work on yours.
Your beard, your wallet, your choice.
The biggest decision you are likely to face right at the offset, is whether to choose a mild razor or a more aggressive razor. Let’s take a moment to understand what that actually means, so you can decide which kind of razor you feel might be best for you, and be able to better pick your way through the various reviews on the site.
Have a look at this diagram to understand the angles at which a razor could be presented to the face.
Cap Riding – This is where the cap and blade are both contacting your face at the same time. This is sometimes called shallow angle shaving on the forum, as at this angle the blade is at it’s shallowest, yet importantly still cutting at the right height. If you lift the razor handle any higher than this, the cap will stay on your face, but the blade will start to lift. This can cause problems if the blade comes too high.
Guard Riding – This is the other extreme that you can get away with. This is sometimes known as steep angle shaving, and if you have the razor handle any lower than this, you are going to have the same problem. The guard rail or safety bar or comb or the razor, will stay on your face and the blade will lift, again causing problems in the shave.
Blade Only – anywhere between the cap riding angle and the guard riding angle, the blade will be in contact with your face on it’s own. This is ideally what you want to achieve. This is the sweet spot for shaving. It’s also the angle at which the blade can bite you.
IMPORTANT - The differences between mild razors and aggressive razors:
The blade doesn’t stick out very far past the imaginary line between the edge of the cap and the edge of the guard on mild razors, so the angle of blade only contact, between cap riding and guard riding, is very narrow. On some razors the blade isn't proud at all, and you will be virtually riding the guard and cap at the same time. It can be quite difficult to find the sweet spot on these razors at first, and it will take time before you can zone in on this automatically during the shave, but the good news is that if you happen to get a little heavy handed and inadvertently apply pressure (which can happen instinctively if coming to DE shaving from using cartridges), you are not going to cut yourself too deeply, as the cap and guard will stop the blade will save you getting a nasty bite.
As the blade sticks out further on these, there is a wider margin of error on the angle for the blade only contract, so it will be quite a bit easier to find and maintain that sweet spot on the angle all around the contours of your face, but it could also bite deeper if you slip up or apply pressure.
Q: So which do I choose?
Well, if you are coming from using cartridge razors, I would recommend using a milder razor to start with. Cartridge razor systems need a modicum of pressure in order to pivot to the various angles on your face, and spring back as required. With DE shaving, you control all the angles, and applying pressure is one of the worst things that you can do. It might be a little more tricky to get that perfect baby bottom smooth shave for a while with a milder razor, particularly in tricky areas, but it’s a safer way to go until you can train yourself to use the razor with zero pressure at all times.
On the other hand, if you think that you can maintain a featherlight touch at all times, but might struggle more to maintain the right angle all over your face, then by all means feel free to try a more aggressive razor. You will need to be extra careful with this though, until you get that perfect featherlight touch all over your face and neck.
You can also fine tune the razor a little if you need to by using a more or less aggressive blade. This will help you zone in on the right overall balance between safety and precision. Just like razors, a more aggressive blade will be better for accommodating slight angle errors, but not so forgiving for you applying pressure - and a smoother blade will be a little kinder if you're heavy handed, but tug a little if you get your angles a bit wrong. The differences between blades tend to be more subtle than between razors though, which gives you the opportunity to just tweak the aggression up or down very slightly if your razor doesn't quite give you the right balance, and without huge changes to the presentation angle that you're trying to maintain. Also, sample packs can be bought which will help you find your favourites quickly without outlaying too much money on blades that don't suit you. Try to keep to just two or three blade options, so that you aren't changing around too many things and confusing yourself. If you start with an adjustable razor however, try to stick to one blade, and just use the razors adjustment setting until you get the right balance. Remember, altering the settings on an adjustable might alter the blade angle slightly too.
Once you get the blade that you are happiest with, my humble advice is stick with it. The temptation might be to splash out on lots of different razors and blades, especially when you see all the great pictures on the forum, and read the squeals of delight from their new owners. Hang on for just a little while though, and get the basics mastered first. Once you’re consistently giving yourself comfortable shaves, then it’s time to start exploring different all the options – and there is a whole new world waiting to be explored. Razors, blades, brushes, soaps, lotions and potions, bowls, mugs – an endless array of treasures and luxuries to be discovered – but master the basics first. If you try out too many different things in the early days, you’ll keep moving the goalposts and you’ll have no idea what mix of soap and water you need, or what angle to hold the razor.
Walk first, and run amok later.