The historian A.J.P. Taylor shaved with a cut-throat razor, saying that it concentrated the mind in the morning. A cut-throat shave is a wonderfully indulgent treat, but it’s best done by someone else, and preferably someone who has been doing it for a living for most of their life. However, for those of us who don’t have an elderly Turkish barber to hand, there is still the single blade shave. You might probably think that such a thing had ceased to exist if you buy your shaving goods at a supermarket: even Boots only carry one single blade razor, a sorry plastic handled thing that looks rather forlorn next to the hi-tech multi-bladed shaving appliances that Gillette or Wilkinson Sword would like to push you. This isn’t your disposable Bic, by the way, this is a metal head with – gasp – replaceable blades that, if you can find them, cost a couple of quid for five and will last for at least three or four shaves. Compare this to most multi-bladed razors, either fully disposable or handle and head, and it’s cheaper, but also more ecologically sound – the bit you’re replacing is a recyclable metal blade rather than a combination of plastic and metal.
The shave is different too: multi-blade razors pull out bristles as well as cut them, where a single blade just cuts to the skin. The latter gives a smoother shave but it won’t last as long as the beard grows back quicker. However, it’s far more satisfying.
Single blade shaving also brings back some ritual to the process: it’s easy to whack on some foam, run a multi-head blade over your face and clean off, but as often as not, the result can be patchy, you’ll miss bits and while it’s hard to cut yourself, the lifting of the follicles can cause rashes and bumps. A single blade helps you think about what you’re doing, which is, after all, running a sharp blade over your face, and makes you do it properly and carefully. If you do cut yourself, part of your shaving kit should be a styptic pencil or alum block. You’ll also hopefully have something to make the shave comfortable: shaving oil and a soap or cream that’s made with natural ingredients or that at least doesn’t look like cheap aerosol whipped cream. You can lather up in a bowl and apply with a brush (and it’s not long since all men did that) or find a cream that’s right for you. I use a cream by hand as good brushes are made of badger hair, which as a vegetarian I wouldn’t use.
A good razor is essential though, and the Boots plastic handled thing isn’t really that good: it’s worth trying if you’ve never used a single blade and you want to get an idea of what it’s like, but it’s too light to be useful, and you almost certainly will get a nick as you try to use it in the same way as you use a multiple blade.
So, getting past the stream of blood, where do you go for a proper razor these days? The web, of course. I obtained my kit from Traditional Shaving. They provide a selection of everything you need including starter kits. My current razor of choice is the Merkur HD34C, a short handled, chrome plated bit of German engineering with a nicely weighted head that rests on the face and glides in the hand.
Then there are the blades: a blade is a blade is a blade, surely? Well, yes, but when you have a choice, try to find the right one. Again, Traditional Shaving offers a selection. As they’re generally not made in the UK, or indeed, western Europe any more, there is a hint of exotica in their packaging. Classic design fans can enjoy examples such as Shark brand from Egypt, or the Japanese Feather or Pakistan’s Treet. Most shaving supply websites offer a selection pack. So far I have tried the Merkur that came with the razor, Derby, a Turkish brand, and Personna, which seem to still be sold in the US but are made in Russia. The latter has been the most satisfying so far, but Derby are a good place to start.
Single blade shaving is probably not for everyone, although it was thirty years ago – your Dad probably started shaving in this way. It brings an element of ritual to a daily task, and as with A.J.P. Taylor and his cut-throat, an element of care. You get a piece of quality engineering and some nice smells in your bathroom cabinet and replace utility for luxury at about the price that an overengineered bit of battery powered plastic would cost.