October 29, 2021 4 min read
Most folks that switch to using a single-blade razor and brush do so to get a better shave and those who don’t find that a better shave is an added bonus. But what is a better shave? The definition varies from one person to another. For some, it’s a closer, longer-lasting shave. For others, a shave free from irritation. For some, it simply means saving money on razor blades! For me, it’s all of those things.
But how does one achieve a better shave once they’ve upgraded their gear? Next to your choice of blade and brush, the direction you shave in is one of the most significant determining factors of how good your shave is.
I wasn’t taught to shave, so I learned through trial and error to shave downwards, then upwards like most teenagers. I didn’t know why this worked, but it did. Eventually, I started shaving in even more directions in an effort to erase every last bit of stubble from my face, but this always led to massive irritation.
Years later, I entered the world of single-blade shaving and began learning about the concept of a “shaving map”. In short, your hair has a direction, often called a “grain”. This is the direction it grows, often laying towards one direction. While young Nathan thought that this direction was simply downwards from my head to my feet, hair can be much more complex than that. The hair on your head, including facial hair, can grow in all sorts of directions. Whether you shave your face, legs, or somewhere else, paying attention to this direction is very important.
While every person's facial hair is unique, barbers are often trained on a map that approximates the average facial hair direction. Spend some time to map your own!
At its most basic, shaving with the grain of your hair will be the least irritating to your skin but won’t cut your hair very close. Shaving against the grain will provide a much closer shave, but be much harder on your skin. The trick to getting a great shave is using this to your advantage.
Before you shave, have a look at your stubble. If you can, grow it out for a few days first, so the direction is obvious. Run your hand across your skin in different directions, feeling where it’s soft (with the grain) and where it’s rough (against the grain). It likely won’t grow in one consistent direction and might even slope or swirl at odd angles.
Try to memorize the rough direction of your hair, apply your lather, and shave with the grain. Voila, your whiskers are mostly gone, and your skin feels great! But your shave isn’t that close, and you may even see some of the hair left behind. No sweat, that’s what step 2 is all about.
Growing your stubble for a few days (or weeks) allows you to visualize your grain, and get the best shave possible!
Lather up again, this time shaving in the opposite direction. Splash some water on your skin and have a feel. Your shave will be much smoother and look much better! This is what having a good shave is all about: approaching the problem from multiple angles (literally) to whittle away at that perfect shave. You won’t nail it right away, but with practice, you’ll get better. At first, you’ll notice patches that you consistently miss; these are likely areas that grow differently from the rest of your hair and require special attention. The more you pratice, the more of these areas you’ll identify, memorize, and master shaving these bits of your body. With time, you’ll be getting perfectly smooth shaves you thought you could only dream of!
While this basic technique works for many folks, there are two substantial obstacles that some of us will need to overcome: sensitive skin and coarse hair. Even worse, the dreaded combination of both. Shaving against the grain gets you a super close cut, but it can also irritate your skin. One solution that I’ve found works very well is to shave perpendicular, or “along”, the grain. This gives you a shave that’s almost as close but much more comfortable. Some folks even just make a second pass with the grain to achieve a close-looking but comfortable shave. Shaving too close can also cause ingrown hairs, so be careful and find a balance that works for you.
Coarse hair can also present a challenge but is often easier to deal with. Folks with very tough hair often find that an aggressive 3-pass shave works best, shaving with, then along, then against the grain. Each pass consecutively shortens the hair without shredding the skin. This can be a bit much for folks with sensitive skin, so I suggest toning down your blade if you plan to attempt this. Conversely, if you find your skin quite tough, dial up to a super sharp blade and go to town! Just keep your alum block handy.
Alum blocks stop small nicks from bleeding, a must-have when shaving against the grain!
Like most things in life, good results come with patience and practice. And in this case, trial and error! If your skin is getting irritated or you’re not getting a close shave, try something else. If you’re getting good results, keep at it. If you’ve got the direction down but you’re not getting the results you want, perhaps try some different blades out or grab yourself an adjustable razor so you can continue experimenting. If you ever need help troubleshooting, shoot us a message here or visit us in person.