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The first time I shaved with a straight razor

The first time I shaved with a straight razor, it took me forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes is a long time to spend shaving.

I hadn’t shaved in a few days, and the last time I had, it was with a five-blade cartridge razor, and foaming cream from an aerosol can (but, you know, the nice aerosol can stuff). That shave had probably not taken me three minutes. My neck for the next few days was a veritable minefield of ingrown hairs, and the itching sensation drove me mad, but I knew scratching would only make it worse.

This was the chore of shaving for most of my pubescent and adult life. I’m a hairy guy — I had a dark moustache at twelve — so I’ve been shaving for a long time. It was something I regarded as painful, annoying, and expensive. At first I started shaving with two-bladed cartridge razors, then migrated to three, four, and five but no matter how many blades I added my skin was always unhappy, and my neck was forever dotted with ingrown hairs that made me self-conscious — but such was my lot.

I was loaned a kamisori — a Japanese straight razor — a shaving brush, real shaving cream, and aftershave. The razor had been stropped for me, as I was going into this with no experience. I’d seen a straight razor shave once in person - Nathan Gareau, famed Cocktologist and Kent of Inglewood Calgary manager, had given a quick demo shave the day before we officially opened up the Edmonton location. This was all the preparation I’d had.

Shaving is something I always just wanted to get out of the way. I did it as infrequently as possible, and as quickly as possible. Pain is not an experience I am given to cultivate. I would hop out of the shower, slap myself with pasty, numbing foam (A product I would later learn was actually drying out my skin during the shave!) and then press the cartridge to my face and eliminate my hair with haste.

Back home with the kamisori, I took a long, hot shower. I was preparing to do my first straight shave, after all, so I figured I would make an affair of it all. I put on some music and poured a drink. My skin properly prepared, I whipped up a lather with a borrowed brush and D.R. Harris’ Windsor shaving cream. I scrubbed my face with the brush, and wasn’t sure exactly how it was that I’d previously been just rubbing my face with my hands - this was a tool made for the purpose, designed to spread cream, lift hair… and it was so soft! It just felt nice. I spent some extra seconds lathering just to enjoy the sensation.

I put the blade up to my face, trying to remember all the advice I’d been given. Mostly I just thought about how I was told to keep my skin tight. So I opened my mouth to stretch out my cheeks, and pressing the razor at a slight angle, I made a long, swooping stroke down my face. That first stroke out of the way, my confidence went up, and I made a second, third, fourth, slowly, slowly, inching over my face until most of the lather was gone.

I had missed quite a few spots — I’d lost my angle, let the razor skip, and many other standard  first-time hiccups. So, I re-wet my face, and re-lathered the missed spots, and went over it again. Better. But surely the best part of the shave was getting that baby-smooth skin that only comes from shaving against the grain!

So, confidence surely grown into cockiness, I lathered again, and pressed the razor once more to my skin, this time starting at the base of my neck, and going up. Then up my cheeks, and struggling for twenty minutes around my chin and moustache. Finally, I put down the razor, and really looked at  what I’d done.

I looked … ridiculous. My skin was red; bright, bright red. Clowns have more subtlety in their makeup than I did at that moment. But my skin felt fantastic. I gently rubbed my fingers on it. It was so smooth. Smoother than it had ever been, maybe, since that first time I shaved, fifteen years earlier. I was resolved to use a straight razor again, and again.

Forty-five minutes, I figured that was about how long it had taken, and the mistakes I made were techniques I was now dedicated to improving. I know why my skin was so red, for example (I pressed - I should have used no pressure), and I know why I missed so many patches on that first pass (I made long strokes instead of short). But it was such a good experience that I barely even registered those as problems - also it’s a point of braggartly pride that I didn’t nick myself on my first shave. As for those unsightly ingrown hairs that had made a mess of my neck for so many years prior? Not a one to be found!

I’d spent so much money falling for the hype of adding blades to my shave without realizing the obvious thing I hadn’t tried: Fewer blades. Maybe it’s better to shave with one blade. That’s the trick of it, when it comes to your skin’s comfort. When there’s only one blade, your skin is much less irritated. When there’s only one blade, other blades aren’t pushing the hair back under your skin and causing ingrown hairs. When that blade is a high-quality piece of steel, the hair is cut perfectly away, leaving your skin feeling smooth, and looking healthy.

I can now knock out a full straight razor shave in about seven minutes (I’m nerdy enough to have timed myself). But on the occasions I get up early enough, or if I decide to have an evening shave, I will actually take extra time. I throw on some music, pour myself a scotch, and I take a half an hour to myself for a meditative shave. I find I enjoy the experience. I look forward to my shave. I don’t want to hop out of the shower and get it over with — rather, it’s a ritual I find meaning in. I use a tool that I maintain, I invest time and effort on my skin, and I find a reward in the patience of a long wet shave.

The first time I shaved with a straight razor, it took me forty-five minutes. Forty-five minutes is a wonderful amount of time to spend shaving.

Leigh Johnson
Author: Leigh Johnson

A firm believer that if you're not pulling ridiculous faces, you're shaving improperly, Leigh considers himself a straight razor evangelist. Come listen to him proselytize any time. You can pick him out by finding the one who smells like Winston Churchill - who also wore Floris Special No 127. When not at the shop, he's probably reading something geeky, or cooking, both with a scotch in hand (neat, please).