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The Wanderers Guide To DE Shaving

Part One

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:

Mild 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.

Aggressive Razors

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.

Part Two

Q: OK, I’ve got my kit. So how do I start?

First you need to prep, and prep well. What you are trying to do is hydrate your beard to soften the bristles. Some people just need to splash a little water on their face, some need to take a good long shower first, and others use a hot towel (a comfortably hot face cloth will usually suffice) held on their face for a minute or two. There are also a myriad of pre-shave lotions and potions which help to moisturise your face and beard before you start to shave. For me, a wash of the face, and thirty seconds with a hot towel works for me, but again – that’s my beard, not yours. Until you know what you can get away with, aim for more rather than less. Get the beard fully hydrated before you even think about lathering up.

Q: How do I make the lather?

It’s up to you whether you whip a lather in a mug or bowl, of build the lather by just working it into your face (face lathering). You need enough water and soap/cream on your brush to build a creamy lather. How much water and how much to load the brush varies drastically from product to product, but the lather you are trying to produce is essentially the same. Many people say it should be like yoghurt, but personally I think that’s a little bit too thick. You might have seen videos on YouTube where people whip their lather until it’s standing in peaks, like they’re making meringues. That’s way too thick to be starting off with, and you’re likely to struggle to get that applied properly. Your don’t want it so watery that it’s running like milk either – somewhere between cream and yoghurt is the aim, again depending on your beard. The aim is not to lubricate the beard itself, but to lubricate the skin all around the base of each hair. This will help the razor slide on your face, and avoid juddering of the razor head and blade, and minimise irritation and nicks.

One thing you really don’t want in your lather is big bubbles. Bubbles are just trapped air, and if air was a lubricant, we wouldn’t need lather at all. So whether you use a mug, a bowl, or your face, you need to work the mixtures till you knock all the bubbles out and get a nice even consistency to it. When you apply it to your face, apply it with circular motions of the brush. You can “paint” afterward to smooth it out if you want to, but you need the circular motion first to work that lather through the beard so the skin is properly covered. You don’t need to slap it on thick either, as the guard on the razor will just knock it out of the way, all you need is a good even covering of the skin everywhere that you will be taking the razor.

Once that’s done, you’re ready to start shaving.

Part Three

Q: What angle should I hold the razor at?

Ignore the various quoted angles on YouTube videos. The truth of the matter is that every single razor needs a different angle, and if you have an adjustable razor, the different settings can alter the angle too.

Let’s take another look at the razor angle picture from earlier.

Ignore the angles on the picture above, they will not be accurate to your razor. Also make your the razor is securely closed before you begin. The diagrams might look "open" due to ease of illustration, but you need to ensure your razor is fully closed and the blade secure before you begin.

You need to look at your own razor to see for yourself what angle that particular one needs to be used at. What you can do to start with is start with the cap just touching your skin, and gradually lower the razor handle as you start your shaving stroke, keeping a featherlight touch with zero pressure until you find that sweet spot, that working angle where the blade starts to cut at (or very near) skin level.

If you feel resistance, lift off. If you think you’ve lost that sweet spot on the angle, lift off. It’s not a race, and the time saved by lifting off and trying again more gently, will save on the time having to deal with nicks and weepers. Don’t worry if it’s not perfectly smooth, that will come later once you become more proficient with the razor.

Just in case you missed my subtle hints – ZERO PRESSURE!

You just worry about the angle and the featherlight touch, and let the blade get on with it’s job.

Q: Where do I make it go …?

Forwards! NEVER EVER sideways. This is very silly, very messy, and you’ll really wish you’d listened to me. Instant cut, shave over, grab the loo roll. You’ll see some folks doing stuff like Gillette slides, and J hooking, and buffing and ….. don’t even think about it. That’s like trying to drift round corners in an rally on your first time behind the wheel of a car. No! Just NO! Forwards! And keep that razor square to the direction of travel!

Q: Which way is forwards?

WTG! (With The Grain) You won’t really know which way that is until you’ve mapped your face, which is to say spent a little time figuring out which direction your beard grows in, around all the various contours of your face. This is easiest when you have a little stubble. Stroking your beard will tell you quite clearly where it’s laying flat when stroked in a certain direction, and where it’s bristling up. You want to start shaving your face in the direction that lets your beard lay flat. Don’t go anywhere that you’ve already been. No lather - No shave! If you’ve missed a bit, don’t worry, you can go back for that later. Just focus on the precision and lightness of taking off the rest of the lather first.

The direct opposite route to WTG is ATG (Against The Grain). Don’t even think about doing this for your first few outings. Either stick with a single WTG pass, or if you really feel you want to move on to the second step, then rinse and lather up a second time either go WTG again, or try XTG (Cross The Grain). You can go across grain in either direction, or even lather up again and take a third pass in the opposite direction. I would sincerely recommend avoiding going ATG on any shaves, until you can consistently go XTG with no irritation or weepers. Baby bottom smooth (BBS) shaves, often lurks at the end of a XTG pass … but so does the very worst irritation. After a while, you might begin to wonder if BBS is worth the torture (some say yes, and some settle for a more than adequate DFS – Damn Fine Shave)

IMPORTANT: Always, ALWAYS, rinse your face and take time to relather properly if you decide to go for that second (or third …) pass. Take even more care, and be even more precise on your follow up passes. I don’t care how quick anyone else goes on YouTube vids, you’re looking for more precision and a super featherlight touch. There’s no cowardice or failure in sticking at one pass to start with though. A good comfortable one pass shave is way better than a bad two pass one.

Don’t worry – you’ll discover that for yourself soon enough.

Part Four

Q: Why am I getting irritation?

There are five main reasons why your face is unhappy after (or during) a shave:

1) Bad prep.
You didn’t hydrate the beard enough, which means the bristles aren’t softened properly. Dry hair puts up more of a fight against the blade, and this can tug on the hair and the blade, and annoy your face.

2) Poor lather.

You might have got a bad mix, or you just might not have got it where it needs to be. Remember what I said about the importance of lubricating the skin? Take a look at this pic.

If your lather isn’t fully applied at skin level, you might end up with the lather sat up on your beard, and air gaps (the green areas) around the base of the hairs. This is leaving unprotected skin, and you could very well be causing abrasions because the razor isn’t sliding freely on the lather like it should, and just sliding on bare dry skin. This is why I said that thick lather whipped to standing peaks might be problematic. It needs to get past the beard so you get a full coverage at skin level. In time you will be able to fine tune the lather for best results, but aim somewhere between cream and yoghurt consistency to start with.

3) Abrasion.
If you’re being heavy handed and using any pressure at all, or you haven’t got the angle right for your unique blend of beard, razor and blade, you might be scraping all that protective lather right off and scraping the skin itself underneath. Ease off the pressure, you should barely feel the razor at all, and try adjusting your angle till you find what works best for you. If you don’t have naturally taut skin, try stretching the skin taut with your free hand, to stop it bunching up between the guard and the blade. Moving your head around in various angles, pulling faces, or even pushing with your tongue from inside can all help to keep your skin nice and taut

4) Tugging.
If your angle is wrong, too shallow or too steep, the blade will be lifting off your face. It might be extremely tempting to do that at first if you’re new to all this and a little wary, but if you shave down at skin level where the hair is fully supported, the hair will shear off cleanly.

If your blade starts lifting off your face, it will be bending the hair, digging in too high up the shaft of the hair, and pulling at the bulb down in the root of the hair.

This can cause a lot of the problems with irritation and inflammation. So if you are feeling cautious, don’t tilt the razor away, just focus on maintaining that perfect angle and getting lighter and lighter with your touch, so there is absolutely no pressure whatsoever between blade and skin. Don’t make it happen, just let it happen. When you take all these obstacles away, that great shave that you were seeking will just happen on it’s own.

5) Chemical irritation.
Sometimes people can have an intolerance or reaction to ingredients in the soap or cream or pre-shave. Some people can also have irritation to blade coatings too. If you’re getting any kind of tingling sensations after applying pre-shave or soap, and before you bring a razor anywhere near your face, you might need to look into different products. If you are convinced that you have eliminated all the other problems and you’re still getting irritation, then it might be the blade that you need to change for one that has different coatings.

Q: OK, done! Now what?

Congratulations, you’ve done great – but you’re not quite finished yet.

Splash some cold water on your face to rinse off the residual lather, and help soothe any mild irritation you might have picked up on your learning curve, and gently pat your face dry – don’t rub! If you happen to have sprung a leak somewhere, now is the time to be applying the styptic pencil to halt that weeper, and you can start thinking about your post shave treatments.

There’s lots of options here, and you probably want to start thinking about these quite early in your journey too. Alum blocks, wet and lightly drawn over the skin, can help to close the pores, and calm the skin down. There is a difference of opinion on whether you should rinse this off afterwards, or leave it on. If your skin feels a little dry and parched afterwards, then rinse it off in future, but you might like that feeling of tightness and freshness before you apply other products. I will leave this to your own exploration.

Aftershave balms can also help to calm any residual irritation. When you see people do this, they usually apply it with the grain, but I tend to apply this against the grain - particularly if I have taken an ATG shaving pass. Be warned that this might feel disappointing at first, as you will feel every little bit of stubble that's left behind. Leave the razor alone! You don't need that anymore today! Don't worry about feeling left over stubble, your face will feel different in an hour or so, and going ATG with the balm helps it get to all the little micro abrasions that you caused, that the stubble is not covering over. In about an hour, the beard with have dried out and normalised, and and the skin will be more hydrated - so the skin plumps up, the hair shrinks back, and your face will feel even smoother than it does right now.

Of course you can apply a little aftershave lotion instead if you wish. I would recommend balms to newcomers, and I have stuck with balms right up until now. But you can explore your own preferences.

NOTE: Depending on how good your shave was, some of these post shave treatments might … tingle a bit. The less tingling that you get from your post shave treatment, the less abrasions and irritation you have caused on your face. It will take time and practice to get a close shave you are happy with, with no irritation to the skin. It is a skill that must be developed, irrespective of your choice of razor or blade. Once you get competent with the razor, and are reliably giving yourself close comfortable shaves, then feel free to explore other razors, blades, soaps etc, and indeed other shaving techniques that you might hear of, to see if you can improve your shaving experience even more - but not until you've mastered the basics, otherwise it will just become harder to get yourself to a level of competence and confidence.

That’s it – you’re finished. Well done! Give yourself a proud nod in the mirror, and be ready for doing an even better job next time.
Thanks Mat. I have had some very positive feedback from members new to wet shaving already, so hopefully this can become a longstanding guide for newcomers, and not fade away into the background after a few weeks.
Awesome, @AimlessWanderer! Thank you for posting this. As someone who is still managing to find things to learn after three years of DE shaving I found your write-up very interesting and informative. :thumbup1:
You're more than welcome, buddy. The more people it helps, the happier I'll be. :biggrin1:

At some point I'll possibly be doing another walkthrough for the more experienced razor users, of the (not noob friendly) tricks that I sometimes pull out of the bag when I'm chasing true BBS and the stubble isn't playing by the rules. :devil2:
Thanks for a great tutorial, Good for beginners, but also for those like me who have been wet shaving for a year, but still looking to improve their technique and the resulting shaves. My great shave this morning was a result of a return to some basic techniques that I had dropped from my daily shaving practices.
Thanks guys.

Thanks for a great tutorial, Good for beginners, but also for those like me who have been wet shaving for a year, but still looking to improve their technique and the resulting shaves. My great shave this morning was a result of a return to some basic techniques that I had dropped from my daily shaving practices.
Jim, getting complacent never really goes away. From time to time you'll get a poor performance, but it's just a reminder not to cut corners :D
Wow, had missed this post till now...great stuff!! Straight forward, give a lot of excellent cause & effect information (which for the "why?" type people is much more effective than just being told to do something). Appreciate the time & effort to put this together & sharing, thank you.
Many thanks for the kind comments, guys. Thanks also for bumping the thread and getting it back in front of recent newcomers to the site.