Skill, joy, and shaving.

IMG_0075I wrote this about five years ago, but had no place to publish it. After the topic of his most recent post veered to razors, John Michael Greer suggested I post it.

Joy is a thread that runs through our Small and Delicious Life, but this column is explicitly about joy.

And shaving.

For much of my life—once I got over the excitement of having hair on my face—shaving has not been a source of much pleasure at all. But unlike most people, whether they are scraping their face, legs, chest or underarms, I can now say I love to shave, I look forward to it; shaving enriches my day. How I got here is a bit of a circuitous story.

As a designer, I like to figure out new ways to reduce my environmental footprint.Yes, I am aware that razor blades, and in fact most of what environmentalists mollify themselves with, are too small to even be called drops in the ocean. What can I say? It is a compulsion. And, please check out my work on Compassionate Systems. Ten years ago, in the hopes I could stop throwing away razor cartridges, I tried shaving with a straight razor. I never got very proficient, especially that bit under the nose known as the coup de maitre, but I could scrape myself pretty smooth. I picked up a puck of soap at the drugstore and a shaving brush off eBay. In the years since I demoted the straight razor to bathroom decor I have also dallied with the “safety razor”, the double-edged type used to chop cocaine or scrape paint spatters in the hopes I could re-sharpen the blades with one of these vintage gizmos.

This always resulted in some pretty wicked razor burn, and I always returned to my twin-blade cartridges. They got me smooth enough for an office job, and were the smallest non-recyclable monstrous hybrid I could find. I did avoid creating garbage from shaving foam cans, but I was not feeling like I was shaving sustainably.

Now I don’t know about you, but when something is weighing on me—when I am, as they say, down in the dumps, I tend to stay up late. And when I stay up late, I tend to drink and Google. For some reason I began googling things related to shaving. My, how the internet has grown up. No more peach fuzz, there is a great hairy bonanza of shaving information, equipment and ephemera.

I think I first came across this guy, who explains how to make a great shaving lather—turns out I had been doing it wrong, wrong, wrong. To start with, you don’t make lather in the soap mug—all those well-meaning Christmas gifts of a Shaving Mug and Soap Kit…how sad. Anyhow, maybe I wasn’t wrong, just joyless, and wasteful and ineffective. He shows how to make great foam in a variety of ways: in a bowl, in your palm, or on your face. I tried them all and spent several months making lather in a bowl. With the bowl you can preheat the ceramic; I floated my bowl in my sink of shaving water so I always had warm lather just like the barber’s. Finally I settled on working the lather up right on my beard. I am not a stiffly bristled guy, and this works wonderfully.

There is a pretty clear consensus in the online shaving world that the old safety razor is the ne plus ultra of depilation tools. I had a razor my father gave me, so I ordered a sampler of new blades and a brush from a fine Canadian supplier. Each manufacturer has its own characteristics—some are sharper, some hold an edge longer. I spent many a contemplative hour with my Scotch and water, pondering geopolitics and potential disruptions to my supply if I settled on blades manufactured in Egypt, or India, or Israel. I also got a very nice puck of French shaving soap—turns out shaving soap comes in many flavours, and none of them smell like Old Spice.

As with life, so with shaving—by which I mean advertising gets it all wrong. With a safety razor there is no grand swipe through your stubble, leaving a perfectly polished swathe through the lather like the beautiful people do with their Mach Whatever. The safety razor requires short little strokes, and lots of them. Do you watch Mad Men? Don Draper does it right.

Now I am smoothly shaven—in fact, I have never been so smooth. I also never get razor burn. And here is where the joy comes in—I shave four times, lathering freshly each time. I shave down, and then at a 45 degree angle, and then at the opposite 45 degree angle and then up. With a safety razor you use no force, just let the weight of the head glide over your skin. Those who are really serious make beard maps, getting to know their own face, how the bristles grow, and where they need to change direction for the closest shave. And the added bonus that started it all? I never throw away empty shaving foam cans, I see no reason to ever own another razor and my blades are a single material, 100% recyclable stainless steel.

It may seem inconceivable that I get up early in order to shave four times, but it is truly a blessing unto my day. Here is the thing—we have taken all that is truly challenging and artful and demanding and given it to the machines. For the humans we leave the task of pressing the start button—cars that parallel park themselves, jigs to cut dovetails, gas fireplaces that never fail to light,Blow your mind by learning about the Top Down Fire. My wife calls this—ahem—”A real Woodsman’s fire.” razors with four or five blades—pressing the button, over and over again, at work, at home, all day long. It is like we are trying to systematically destroy anything that requires practise, anything that may require expertise. To fit with other design strategies like Design for Environment, Design for Disassembly and Design for Recycling, I call this Design for De-skilling.

Why get out of bed at all, let alone early, when all you have to look forward to is flicking the switch on your electric razor? The economist Nicholas Georgescu-Roegen wrote:

…we should cure ourselves of what I have been calling “the circumdrome of the shaving machine”, which is to shave oneself faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves faster so as to have more time to work on a machine that shaves still faster, and so on…

As with Slow Food, Slow Shaving stands against this de-skilling. It takes practice to make a good shaving lather. It takes effort to shave closely. Each of these things forces me to focus, brings me back to a challenge in my life, the challenge of getting the right amount of water in the brush, of getting the blade angle just right. When I stroke my chin in thought my reverie is broken by amazement at how smooth my face is. When was the last time you had that sense of amazement delivered by the space-age multi-blade razor? It feels great—satisfaction at a job well-done—like making perfect pie crust or getting nothing but net on a three-point shot. That is a feeling we could have much more often in our lives.

Five years later I have a half-beard—a Hollywoodian—and so my shaving joy is reduced. But that means my shave soap may never run out.


  1. You mention that with a double-edge safety razor, you make short strokes. That’s certainly my advice for those just starting. It’s essential that the pressure be light and the blade angle correct. (As you know, though your readers may not, a DE razor has nothing corresponding to the pivoted head of the cartridge razor, so maintaining a good blade angle becomes the responsibility of the person wielding the razor, which is why I like going from a cartridge razor to a DE razor to going from an automatic transmission to a stick shift: you gain in control but you must acquire the skill.

    Thus novices do short strokes so they can focus on good blade angle and light pressure for the entire stroke. But, as I note in my Guide:

    As the skin on your face curves this way and that—over the jawline, around the chin, and so on—you continually adjust the razor’s angle by moving the handle to keep the blade almost parallel to the skin being shaved.
    Using short strokes enables you to focus on blade angle (and pressure) for the entire stroke—and for a short stroke the angle is likely to be constant. Try locking fingers and wrist, using your arm to move the razor: this makes it easier to maintain a constant angle. As you gain experience and skill, the strokes will naturally become longer, but when you start, short strokes are very helpful. It’s similar to how you learn to play a passage on the violin or piano: at first you go slowly, note by note. But as you learn the passage through repeated practice, you can play it at speed and with expression. After much practice in shaving your face, you can take longer strokes, moving the handle as you go to keep the correct angle. This may take a few years: don’t rush it. Slow and steady is best.

    The correct cutting angle is different for different razors, and you determine the correct angle through feel and the sound the blade makes as you shave. Don’t over-rely on feel: a double-edged blade is sharp enough so that you don’t always feel any damage. Keep a close watch, and listen to the blade.

    And, a little later in the same chapter:

    Again: use short strokes, light pressure, and keep the correct blade angle for the entire stroke. Pay close attention to what you’re doing and what results, and your technique (and results) will improve from shave to shave as you gain experience. Paying close attention engages your adaptive unconscious, which does the actual learning.

    Of course, as with all advice regarding shaving, experiment: try shorter and longer strokes, and see how they work for you. The long, sweeping strokes possible with a pivot-headed cartridge razor will not work so well with the non-pivoting safety razor until you’ve gain considerable experience and mastered the pressure and the sequence of handle movements that your face requires.

  2. When I saw the topic I immediately flashed on JMG. This post made me smile with the memory of my father shaving. There was a brush, and foam, and hot water, and standard jokes about not making tea with shaving water. And an alum stone to stop bleeding. Basically Don Draper, but much nicer.

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