I hope that if you are just setting out to learn how to use a straight razor that you are intimidated by the thought.
Normally in most guides I would lend a reassuring voice, but in this case, you’re right to be nervous. Shaving with a straight edge is not for the faint of heart.
Those that do master the lost art of shaving with a straight razor are rewarded with an experience that only gets better over time.
Those nerves you feel in the beginning will keep you safe, and then fall away as you gain experience.
In this guide I will give you some insight on what I think the best razor is for beginners (HINT: It’s a Japanese Straight Razor called Naked Armor straight razor on Amazon.com!), a short how to with tips on honing and stropping and where to buy the best straight razor for your needs.
What to look for
I wish there was a one size fits all scenario when it comes to buying a straight razor. Unfortunately there is an ideal one that will be different for every guy out there based on his personal needs.
With that being said, there are a few features that you should try to look for when shopping for your first straight razor.
You may grow out of your first straight razor one day and feel like the features listed here were not right for you, but the trial and error is part of the journey. And it wouldn’t be unusual for you to use the same straight razor for the rest of your life as it suits your needs just fine.
A kind of standard length of the blade is ⅝ of an inch. It is the right size for beginners as it is long enough to be balanced while still being manageable. There are longer and shorter blades out there and each has its benefits, but it’s hard to know until you have been using a straight razor for a while what your preference will be.
I personally use a ⅞ inch one and don’t feel the need for any other width. Truth be told, though, I hardly ever use it as I more often use a safety razor these days.
Many straight edge razors are not ready to shave out of the box. You may want to look for a shave ready razor so you don’t have to worry about making a mistake when honing it for the first time.
If you buy a non shave ready straight razor, then be prepared to put some time in with a hone and strop before your first shave. And be ready for a cut or two since it takes a while to perfect honing.
Some companies will suggest that you strop your shave ready razor before using it for the first time, but this is something I don’t recommend. You may already have the perfect edge out of the box and by stropping it improperly, end up making it less so.
Try it first and then when you feel it pulling a bit, then strop it.
Some people will recommend a very rounded edge for beginners to get started with. I like to recommend, instead, a slightly rounded or non French point. A French point is very angled and sometimes even pointed so it can be quite dangerous in a newbies hands.
I like a slightly rounded edge to prevent any slices if you don’t have the angle right, but not too rounded so you can get into tight spots.
When they are very rounded they are safe, for sure. But is is very hard to get to areas close to the ear, for instance or if you are trying to get around the edge of the mouth. You will quickly outgrow a very rounded edge razor once you get the hang of straight razor shaving.
This is where things get confusing as there is no right or wrong answer for a beginner.
There are a couple of terms regarding how the blade is shaped, also known as the grind.
There is a wedge and a hollow grind.
When you look at the blade from the side with the blade perpendicular to your face, you can see either side of the blade.
A wedge grind looks like a triangle with straight lines meeting in the point.
A hollow grind looks like two concave lines meeting at the point.
Which is better for a beginner? Well, I will say that it is probably best for a beginner to stay away from a full hollow grind, but there are also half hollow that isn’t quite as extreme. Either a half hollow or wedge will suit a newbie just fine.
The keys to remember when it comes to the grind is that the wedge makes it difficult to work around the straighter angles of the face, like the jaw line, but a hollow grind is also very easy to cut yourself with.
File this one under: Bloody Trial and Error
The only material you’re looking at for the blade should be carbon steel. Preferably either a Japanese straight razor made from Japanese steel or German steel. They have been making the right kind of steel there specifically for knives and razors for centuries and know exactly the right hardness. Even if the razor isn’t made in Germany or Japan, it can still be a good one when it is made from those types of carbon steel.
As for the scales, aka the handle, this can be made of anything from faux ivory to wood to stainless steel. As long as the razor is balanced well, it doesn’t matter what kind of material is used there.
Benefits of using a straight edge
Though the first few weeks you use a straight edge, you may not see results that you had hoped for and may be inclined to think it’s a myth. But, once you have your technique figured out then you will get a much closer shave then you ever could with a cartridge razor system.
The idea is that you are cutting the hair much lower into the layer of skin so it is much smoother than when you use a cartridge. Since there are so many barriers between the blades on a cartridge and your skin, there is no way it could come close to a straight edge.
Unless you become an avid collector of straight edge razors and can’t seem to walk past the vintage cut throats at your local antique dealer, then you will save loads of cash by using a traditional straight edge.
Yes, the initial outlay of cash on a razor, strop and hone will set you back a fair amount. But the outlay stops there.
Think about it.
You’re never buying another razor again, ever.
If we add things up, the initial cost of the straight edge shaving set doesn’t seem so bad.
Let’s do the math.
An 8 pack of Gillette Fusion Proglide cartridges cost $25. Assuming a cartridge lasts two weeks, which for most guys is stretching it, then you are getting 16 weeks for $25. That’s four months, so a year of shaving will cost you $75 at a minimum.
The straight razor pays for itself the first year you buy it.
With billions of razor cartridges thrown away every year, you can see how that adds up in the landfills all over the world.
When you use a straight edge razor, you are not contributing to that.
Even aside from the actual razor blades themselves making their way into the ecosystem, there is also the packaging.
To prevent theft, manufacturers put more plastic in the packaging of the razors than the cartridges themselves.
Shaving with a straight edge razor reduces your footprint dramatically.
You don’t have to be a tree hugger to get some sense of doing the right thing as a by product of taking up wet shaving.
If you’ve ever read anything about meditation, then you may be familiar with the concept of mindfulness.
In a nutshell that is the act of focusing on the task at hand and using it as a way to ground yourself and clear your mind.
Yes, it is going to sound new agey, but the mindfulness that you practice when you do a straight edge shave can’t be beat.
You can’t just throw some lather from a can on your face and think about what to cook for dinner, wonder about your promotion at work, worry about the bills, or any of the other distractions you face throughout the day.
You have to focus on the task at hand and that helps your mind stay clear. It is very meditative and calming to do a wet shave with a cut throat razor.
Lastly, it feels great to master something by taking your time and slowly refining how you do it.
Once you start shaving with a traditional razor, you put yourself into a category where few men fear to tread. And that will give you some measure of satisfaction.
Maintenance and care
Besides the fact that you’ve spent good money on a razor and want it to last, maintaining it is important to make sure it always shaves at a high level.
The last thing you want is for your razor to be slicing you up every time you use it.
In addition to learning how to use a straight razor, you need to learn how to hone, strop and care for it.
Keeping the edge straight on a straight razor is done by stropping.
A strop is a leather strap with two different textures, one on each side. By rubbing the blade against the strop, it will make sure any deformities on the blade are removed.
It doesn’t actually sharpen the blade like honing it on a whetstone does, but it does keep it sharp.
When you are looking at your first straight razor, make sure you are also looking into a good strop like this one from Amazon.com.
Here is a quick video on how to strop your razor.
There is a bit of a steep learning curve to honing a razor, but don’t let that intimidate you.
This is one of the best zen aspects of owning a straight edge so it is quite fun to learn. And it doesn’t take long to get very good at it.
To hone your blade, you’ll need a whetstone.
The best ones will have two different sides. One side with a coarse grit for the first step of grinding the blade, and the opposite side with a finer grit for polishing.
For most people, a 4,000 and 8 to 10,000 grit whetstone will be fine. The 4,000 side will take quite a bit of metal off, but since you won’t be sharpening it too often, this should work fine. Then to polish the 8,000 will work for most but you may feel better with a 10,000 grit.
Be careful not too over hone your razor as it could break on you. This is why I recommend that you don’t go over 10k grit for your whetstone unless you already have a lot of experience.
The best kind of whetstone for beginners is a water lubricated one that you soak in water for 10 to 15 minutes or so. I recommend this whetstone from Amazon.com as it has a sturdy base and decent width making it very easy for the inexperienced.
To make it easy to learn, here is a helpful video.
Keep it Clean
When you are doing the shave, it’s important to wipe after every stroke. Have a towel or paper towel handy and just wipe the blade off on it after each pass.
Once you are done with the shave, rinse it off under the faucet, while being careful not to whet the tang or the scales.
Then let it air dry on a towel.
Once it is dry, put a dab of mineral oil on each side and rub it into the blade.
Then you can fold it up and put it away into a carrying bag or hang it on a razor stand.
How to hold a straight razor
Everybody’s hands are different so you may find people hold their razors differently. There is a basic general rule when it comes to the proper form to hold your razor to make it easy to get a good shave.
With the razor open and parallel to the ground, blade face down, rest three fingers on the top of the blade starting with your index.
With the handle perpendicular to the ground, rest your pinky on the tang on the other side of the handle with your four fingers all lined up.
Your thumb will sit flush against the face of the blade on the side. This is what will keep the razor firm in your grip and not move around, but still allow you to adjust the angle by turning your wrist slightly as you shave.
How to prepare for the shave
The only proper way to shave with a straight razor is to do a classic wet shave. If you have spent the money and taken the time to learn how to use the razor, it is all wasted if you end up using a foam or gel out of a can.
My advice is to learn the wet shave first and then use your traditional razor as the prep is as important as the blade. You can even use your regular old 5 blade system while you learn as your shave will actually be better.
This type of shave takes time, so make sure you set aside at least 20 minutes to do this.
Here is a short primer on how to prep your beard and face for a straight shave.
Soften the Whiskers
The absolute key to a good shave with any razor is having your stubble or facial hair soft and well hydrated.
Heat and water are essential. I recommend doing this as soon as you get out of the shower so the hairs are already soaked.
You can have a towel soak in your sink full of very hot water, almost too hot to the touch, while you are in the shower.
Once you have dried off, wring the towel out but still leave it slightly wet. Basically it should not be dripping.
Then wrap your face in the towel and take a seat for about 5 minutes to let your skin and beard steam.
If you don’t have time for that, then at least fill your sink with hot water and splash it on your beard and rub it in with your hands.
Brush and Cream
To add more water onto the face, get the stubble standing up and to lubricate your skin, it is time to use your shaving brush.
Follow my guide I linked to to do a hot shave for the proper way to lather up a brush.
Once you have a good lather, then it is time to work it into your face.
Use swirling motions so the lather can further develop and to exfoliate your skin lightly.
If you feel the lather getting a bit too thick and a little dry, then dip your brush into some hot water and keep going.
This process should take no less than five minutes. Remember, you aren’t just trying to get the lather on the face. You are also adding more moisture into the skin and beard to make for a very smooth shave.
How to use a straight razor
Holding the blade at a 30° angle from the skin, start under the sideburn of the opposite side of the hand your razor is in.
You’ll want to go with the grain, or in the direction the beard grows in for the first pass. Do not go against the beard or you risk cutting yourself and getting razor burn.
Slowly work the blade down towards the jaw and stop once you reach the end of the cheek. Wipe off your blade and do the same stroke down your cheek to the jaw. Do this all the way until you get to the mustache and chin.
Keep the Skin Tight
Once you make that first stroke under the sideburn, Use your free hand to pull the skin away from the direction your shaving in. You need your skin to be very tight so your razor doesn’t snag and cut you.
This is very, very important to do throughout the shave. Do not attempt a stroke after the first one until you have the skin pulled away as tightly as you can.
Pull Your Nose Up
When you get to the edge of your mouth where your mustache begins, stop and pull your nose up with your free hand.
With a short, easy stroke, go down from the nose to the top of your lip. Then follow through with short strokes perpendicular to the ground until you have half of the mustache gone. Then, you have to turn your wrist to go the opposite side. This is very tricky and requires a steady hand.
Get the Chin
This is also a very tricky area and where guys end up with the most nicks.
For most guys your beard grows from the middle of your chin towards your ears along the jawline until you get to the cheek. So you have to go in the direction the hair grows.
Tilt your blade to where it is perpendicular to the floor, pull the skin towards your ear and glide the blade away from the middle of the chin along the jaw.
Under the Lip
If this is the first time you are shaving with a straight edge, I recommend that you get the beard to just below stubble with a beard trimmer under the lip before you shave.
This is where you will actually be going against the grain until you learn the proper way to hold and maneuver your razor over the soul patch area of the beard.
Hold the razor with the blade facing up and parallel to the floor. Then tighten the bottom lip or stick your tongue under your lip inside the mouth to keep that area tight.
Slowly make a stroke from the bottom to the top.
Under the Jaw
Work your way from the top of the jaw towards the neck, but being careful to stop where the hair reverses its growth direction. Most guys have a beard that grows from the jaw down, but then about an inch from the bottom, the beard grows up towards the jaw.
When you hit that spot, flip the blade over so it is facing up and then go from the bottom to the shaved spot.
First Pass is Done
The first few times you shave, I recommend only doing the first pass. It will not be as close as you had hoped for, but this point is all about learning the technique. I hope you didn’t throw away your cartridge razor just yet, because I think you will need it to go over the spots that you couldn’t get very close with the straight edge.
If you decide to go for a second pass, then just lightly lather the face again and repeat the whole process, but instead of going with the grain, go at around a 45° angle to how the hair grows. This is hard to get the right angle with the razor, but you should be practicing it at some point.
A typical shave will have you doing three passes. The first down and with the direction of the hair, then across the hair and the final pass against the grain.
This last step is crucial to a smooth, close and comfortable shave. Tightening up the skin.
This will close the pores, and the hair will tighten up over the roots of the hair so there will be less stubble at the surface.
Rinse off your face with ice cold water and then towel dry.
Use a good aftershave lotion to feel the burn and really tighten and tone, or use a mild balm to soothe the skin without that burning brace of an alcohol or Witch Hazel based aftershave.
This is a good point to add to the effect and go with something that has a classic, manly scent.
How to deal with cuts and nicks
Nicks are inevitable, even when you have a lot of experience in straight shaves. In the beginning, you should also be prepared to get sliced and diced.
You need to have some styptic in your arsenal to stop the bleeding quickly. The best kind to have is a powder. This will quickly stop that bleeding even in the event of a cut.
This alum powder from Amazon.com is the exact one I use in the barber shop more often than I care to admit. It works fast and is indispensable when you are just learning. From small nicks to larger cuts, you can coagulate the blood to stop the bleeding.
If you end up with a more serious slice, then make sure you have a very clean towel handy and use it to put pressure on the wound.
Don’t let a cut or lots of nicks stop you in the beginning. It is part of the process and eventually you will complete your shaves with nary a spot of blood.
Where to buy a straight razor
Most people don’t have a local mom and pop shop and forget about the big box stores having any kind of quality shaving gear. You may think of heading to target and getting whatever they have, but trust me, you can do much better even on a budget than going to a store like that.
For this stuff you need to shop online.
Even in the barbershop when guys ask me where to buy a straight razor, I send them to Amazon.
They have everything you need in one spot from the razor itself to the whetstone to the alum powder. Even the aftershave.
Don’t go running around when you’re looking for where to buy a straight razor when you can simply click the links I provided. Even if you don’t buy the Japanese straight razor that I recommend, you are sure to find the razor that fits your budget and suits your style.
Best Japanese straight razor for the newbie
Though technically not a Japanese straight razor since the whole razor is not made in Japan, it qualifies since it is made of high carbon Japanese steel.
Made in the same tradition as any other Japanese straight razor, this Naked Armor version is ideal as a first straight razor for the beginner.
Here are the basic specs:
- ⅝ to ⅞ blade height
- 7.5 centimeter blade length
- 15.7 total razor length
- ½ hollow hybrid grind
- 61-65 HRC hardness scale steel
Though I generally like to recommend a ⅝ inch height for a beginner razor I like this one as it has a ⅞ inch, but then tapers down to a ⅝ inch width. This is good as it means you can grow into the razor. As you learn you will have the best of both worlds in terms of the height.
The grind is a hybrid half hollow. This means that it goes from half hollow to full hollow as the blade progresses. Most of the area you will use while shaving is half hollow.
It will take a little longer to learn the right angle to use over a wedge grind, but I feel it is worth it since you will be able to use this razor for a lifetime. Many Japanese straight razors are done with a full hollow grind, so this is a nice entry without needing to learn how to use a more advanced grind.
The handle, also called the scales, is made out of wood for a very elegant look. It is well balanced due to the nature of the wood and also the copper end caps. The jimp, where your finger will rest is also etched to give a bit more of a grip where most razors do not have that.
It is not too heavy making it ideal for the guy just learning to do traditional shaving.
Overall, for a non Japanese straight razor, I think you can’t do better for the price. To get an actual made in Japan Japanese straight razor, you can pay a small fortune. I think those are best left to the experts, so this is a good one to start with.
I hope this guide, from where to buy a straight razor, to how to use a straight razor has been helpful.
There is so much to the world of straight razor shaving that this short guide doesn’t begin to cover it. Look at it more like a starting point on your straight edge razor journey.
Along your way, I will be here to help.
If you have any questions about any of this, then reach out by leaving a comment in the box below.
I get tons of questions about traditional shaving in the barbershop and could talk about this stuff all day.
If you want to share your set up, we would also love to hear about what you are using and how it is going so leave those comments also.
And, welcome to the club of distinguished gentleman who have entered the world of straight razor shaving!