With a little prior knowledge, you can easily learn the difference between a good quality and inferior brush. Therefore, knowing a little about shaving brushes will be invaluable in finding the right one for you to improve your shaving technique:
- How Are Shaving Brushes Made?
- What Are The Different Brush Shapes
- How To Identify Shaving Brush Quality
- How To Choose Shaving Brush Handles
- What Are The Different Bristle Types
However, if you’re just looking to find the best quality brushes, head to our Top 10 Shaving Brush guide.
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How Are Shaving Brushes Made?
Most commonly, brushes are machine-made. This is the most economical choice but does have its drawbacks. Firstly, as the bristles are machine knotted, they may lose their hairs over a relatively short period of time. In addition, the packing quality isn’t always as dense.
However, handmade brushes often feature tightly packed knots, which provide denser bristles and a better lather. Furthermore, the knots are often formed by hand without trimming the bristles to the desired shape. Given that the knot is tied and glued by hand, they’re less likely to shed their bristles until they’re very old.
What Are The Different Brush Shapes?
Firstly, brushes can feature different bristle shapes. Whilst this is often an aesthetic difference and derives from various manufacturing techniques, some have their own uses.
- Bulb: Most common shape with a rounded top.
- Fan: All hairs are the same length when machine cut.
- Flat Top: Ideal for fade lathering, the hairs at the centre are shorter than at the edge so appears flat when bloomed.
- Hybrid: Hybrids feature the fan’s flat surface with a bulb shape on edges. Common among synthetic brushes.
Shaving Brush Terminology
Learning about the various terms used to describe a shaving brush’s characteristics will help you understand what indicates good quality.
When choosing a shaving brush, you will come across terms such as “knots”, “bloom” and “backbone”. We use the same vocabulary in our guide to the best shaving brushes on the market.
Below you’ll discover these expressions so you can familiarise yourself with them.
What Does Bloom, Loft & Knot Diameter Mean?
When reading up and choosing your brush, you may come across various terms that are a little elusive. However, it’s important to know these so to best decide whether the bristles suit your needs. Moreover, they can also indicate a brush’s quality.
A brush’s bloom indicates the way the bristles fall when held upright. Usually, badger brushes are softer and will give a full bloom when looked at side-on. Alternatively, coarser boar brushes will have a narrow bloom as the bristles stand on their ends.
A brush’s bloom can be used to indicate its quality but it also comes down to personal preference. If you want a thicker brush that exfoliates the skin, then narrower blooms are the best choice.
However, if you’re looking for something wide and soft, then look at larger blooms instead.
A Brush’s backbone is the term used to describe its resistance when applying pressure. Every user has their own preference and it usually serves as an indicator to the bristle’s coarseness. The harder the backbone, the rougher it may be on the skin.
Similarly, the backbone can affect how well the brush will lather soap. Weaker backbones can prove difficult to master but will provide the best lather consistency.
When talking about the splay, the user is commenting on how the bristles spread when pressed down on a surface. This often takes into account factors like the loft, the backbone and the density of the knot.
The loft is used to measure the bristle’s length. This is the measurement between the handle’s top to the tip of the bristles. Longer lofts will provide a wider splay whereas shorter lofts tend to be less desirable for most people. Again, this is a matter of taste.
The knot diameter is the measurement of where the bristles are tied together. This is usually hidden by the handle but can be carefully pulled out to measure with callipers. They are measured in millimetres and can range between 14 to 32 mm. Anything below or beyond these may lose their functionality.
Logically, the thicker the knot, the more bristles. However, handmade knots are much denser so keep this in mind when comparing measurements.
How Do I Choose The Handle Shape & Material?
There’s much to choose from when considering the handle of your brush. Most brushes come with their own designs but these can be customised before or after purchase. When selecting your handle, consider how you may use it. Take these same considerations into account when thinking about the material.
Different Shaving Brush Handle Shapes
Those who lather on their face may hold the brush differently to those who bowl lather. In addition, you may have a personal preference to a type of grip and would prefer something longer or shorter. Bear in mind that many designs are purely aesthetic as brushes are often admired as works of art.
Finally, some handles are designed for barbers, which are longer. Brushes for home use tend to feature a flat bottom for standing up.
Note that there is no standard terminology for shaving brush handles. Many are named after the particular models of reputed brands whereas others are terms coined among enthusiasts.
- Persian Jar: Sometimes called a “Tulip”, it’s the most simple shape with a bulbous top curving inwards to a wide base.
- Inverse Tulip: Much like the Persian jar except the curve is at the top to make a wide, bottom-heavy and bulbous base.
- Emillion: Narrow rounded top with an inwards curve and long, ribbed base for grip.
- Chubby: Named after the Simpson model. A short and wide shape with small concave near the base.
- Urn: Sometimes called the “Polo” or “Colonel” after the Simpson models. Cylinder top, which sharply curves inwards near base.
- Beehive: Rounded shape with ribs for easy hold.
Of course, imagination is the only limit of the various handle shapes. There are many to choose from and it’s not uncommon to purchase custom handles separately. Usually, the knots can be removed easily from your favourite brush to replace the stock one.
Different Shaving Brush Handle Materials
Overall, the various brush handle materials mostly factor in economical and aesthetic considerations. More refined brushes will usually feature premium materials but this is not always the case. Sometimes even the best Silvertips are made with resin or plastic handles to make them more affordable.
However, if you want to get a custom handle to replace the stock, there are a plethora of choices:
Naturally, this isn’t an exhaustive list and there are many alternatives. Some of the above materials are more fragile than others and will easily break if dropped on a hard bathroom floor. In addition, care should be taken with wooden handles as these may degrade when in prolonged contact with water.
What Are The Different Brush Bristle Materials?
Shaving brushes can be broken down into the following materials:
Each has its own properties and characteristics, which can be considered either as drawbacks or advantages. However, this often depends on the individual user. Simply click on the material that interests you the most to jump to it. Otherwise, keep reading to learn more.
Boar Hair Bristles
Boar bristle is by far the most common material found in shaving brushes. In fact, they are now often cheaper than synthetic brushes, which means that it is an ideal choice for beginners.
Boar brushes are instantly recognisable by their white or yellow bristles. However, it’s not uncommon for manufacturers to dye them or paint a black stripe across the centre to resemble badger hair.
Whilst boar hair is a great choice for a shaving brush, it does have its own drawbacks. For instance, they often need many shaves before properly broken in and the first shaves will feel rough and coarse.
Additionally, they don’t age as well as their other natural equivalents and the ends of the hair fibres will split over time. However, some users argue that split ends to improve the lather quality.
However, as boar hair doesn’t retain water as well as badger hair, which requires more soaking time. Additionally, it also dries faster. Therefore, it’s an ideal choice for the traveller.
Traditionally, boar bristles aren’t graded. Nevertheless, sometimes they’re given a graded name like badger hair. This usually indicates the percentage of full-length hair used in the brush as opposed to cut hairs.
Finally, boar bristles are usually sourced from hogs that are raised or hunted for their meat. However, sometimes you can find relatively cruelty-free boar bristle where farm hogs are sheared for their hair like sheep.
Horse Hair Bristles
Of all the natural fibres, horsehair is the most likely to have been sourced in a cruelty-free way. As horses are regularly groomed, leftover hairs are kept for brushes.
However, note that many brush manufacturers come from European countries where horse meat is considered a delicacy. Therefore, it’s best to check beforehand where the hairs are sourced.
Often regarded as an ideal middle ground between boar and badger, the truth is somewhat more complex. Horsehair brushes are made by combining tail and mane follicles. The mane provides delicate bristles that are soft to the touch. Meanwhile, the tail hairs are coarser and provide dense, strong bristles. Common blends are either 50/50 or 65/35 tail/mane ratios.
By nature, horsehair is relatively brittle and prone to tangling. Whilst the former is an irritation that can’t be remedied, passing a comb through the brush will correct the latter. However, these tend to be problematic with higher lofts.
Finally, horsehair is known to be floppier than either boar or badger hair. Some regard this as an advantage as it makes it easier to rub the lather onto the face. However, it may make it harder to create lather in the first place.
Badger Hair Bristles & Grading
Badger’s hair is renowned for being the finest and most appropriate for making shaving brushes. They’re usually instantly recognisable as the follicles are wider at the tip than at the base, which gives its distinctive bloom shape.
Note that the grading system isn’t standardised nor enforced. Therefore, if you’re looking to choose a badger brush of particularly good quality, it’s always best to turn to a reputed manufacturer.
As an aside, there are other ways of identifying badger hair quality, which is by the number of bands. These refer to the coloured stripes across the hair’s length:
- Two Band: Dark hair from the handle with white tips.
- Three Band: White base and tips with a dark band in the centre.
Sometimes two band brushes are referred to as “Finest” bristles but can also fall into other categories. They tend to be much thicker than their three-banded counterparts and a favourite among face latherers.
Remember that the above applies only to badger hair. That said, it is not uncommon for both boar or synthetic hairs to be dyed or painted to simulate this effect.
Pure badger is the most basic and cheapest option in the range. They tend to be machine-made and therefore are more economical. In addition, they’re usually derived from a mix of different hairs sourced from all around the world. Because of these blended hair types, they can be recognised for their grey colour.
The hairs are often trimmed to shape and it’s unlikely that full hairs are used in the process. Those looking for a brush that exfoliates would enjoy the blunt tips of a pure badger brush, which are known to create a scratchy sensation.
In addition, they’re very easy to manipulate when lathering as the bristles efficiently work into hard soap. Over time, you’ll manage to break in a pure badger to become softer. However, it will unlikely be as soft as the higher grades available.
Usually, these feature full hairs but sourced from lower-quality areas such as the badger’s stomach area. As the most reputed UK manufacturers often have higher standards, they will only refer to this as Pure badger.
The colour palate is often more coherent with light brown and grey shades. Also, best badger brushes tend to offer the ideal balance between an exfoliating and massaging sensation on the skin.
Likewise, British manufacturers consider this as Best badger quality. Nevertheless, this grade generally refers to something on par with the exclusive silvertip range, which we will explain momentarily.
Overall, super badger bristles are of excellent quality and provide an experience similar to silvertip knots. This is because the hairs used are usually sourced from the badger’s back.
However, care should be taken when choosing a super badger hairbrush. Less reputable brands have a tendency to bleach the tips so that they resemble Silvertips.
Sometimes the hairs are even treated so they feel as soft. Therefore, consider only the best brands when purchasing a super badger hair shaving brush.
Again, these are usually referred to as Super grade brushes like the Simpson Chubby in our top 5 list. They are recognisable by their grey hue when looked at from above hence their name.
Silvertips are made solely from the badger’s softest hairs from the neck and mane. Therefore, the overall experience is far more refined than any other option on the market. Because of their softness, they don’t exfoliate but only massage the skin.
Furthermore, their soft tips ensure a superior but altogether different lather. The technique is slightly different from lathering with a boar brush but creates the most refined consistency. Thanks to their fine follicle gauge, they are very efficient in absorbing water.
High Mountain White
Made specifically from the finest hairs between the badger’s shoulder blades, these are supposedly the highest possible quality available. However, true HMW brushes are a rare commodity. In fact, many brushes that market themselves as these use hog badger pelts imported from China. For this reason, they are occasionally referred to as “Manchurian” bristles.
They are recognisable by their white rather than silver tips. Yet this does not necessarily indicate a better shaving experience despite their extravagant price tag.
Hog badger pelt is somewhat rougher than their European relatives, which creates extra backbone. Nevertheless, the prices are often inflated despite being from pelts imported from the East. British manufacturers will rarely create HMW knots as the quality is rarely better than genuine Silvertips.
Although synthetic brushes have a muddy history, they’ve grown to be every bit as legitimate as natural brushes. Nowadays, it’s not uncommon for synthetic brushes to be more expensive than boar hair ones.
Generally, most synthetic brushes are manufactured with nylon. However, some brands have invested in better designs, which can make them greatly vary in quality.
Due to the limitations of synthetic fibres, the bloom is artificially made by cutting the edges to give this appearance. This is why they’re usually a hybrid shape. One of the greatest shortcomings of synthetic is its inability to absorb moisture.
However, many well-known brands have invested in designs that are able to sufficiently overcome this. For instance, Kent crimp the hair of their Silvertex brushes to help it retain droplets of water. Furthermore, nylon is a material that dries much quicker than boar hair. Therefore, they’re a perfect choice when travelling.
Now that you’ve learned about how to identify different shaving brushes, take a look at our recommendations of the best. Otherwise, you can head to our shaving homepage to discover all the content we offer on straight razors, safety razors as well as shaving soap.
We also recommend the following further reading:
A horse hair brush! That’s interesting. Can you recommend a good one to try? Thanks.
Absolutely! Check out the Vie-Long 13061, which I actually use myself on a daily basis. If you’re used to boar or badger hair, you’ll find it a little floppy but once you’ve mastered it, you’ll love it!
Hello Bespoke Unit,
This guide is great. I was getting really flummoxed about buying a decent shaving brush and the forums were very overwhelming.
Yeah, there’s a lot of information out there if you know where to look. But you also have to look in several places as that information isn’t consolidated so we sought to bring it all together!
I am current Using an Edwin Jagger Super Badger. I bowl lather and was wondering if a higher quality brush would improve my shaving experience. I’ve tried the $20 synthetic brushes and didn’t care for it because it seemed scratchy on my face. I tried face lathering with the synthetic one time and had a rash on my cheek that took several days to heel. That’s one of the reasons I exclusively bowl lather. I use TOBS cream or Mitchell’s Wool Fat if I have the time.
Absolutely, it could make a phenomenal difference. Some synthetic brushes can be quite good but they’ll rarely surpass natural hairs. Boar can be a little rough but I suggest that you consider badger instead if you want something soft. Otherwise, I’ve had some luck with horsehair brushes, too. You can check out our recommends in our guide to the best shaving brushes.
All the best,
Are the new “G4” synthetic knots a real improvement or just “marketing”?
I don’t know of the technical specifications and I personal haven’t tried it but I’ve heard very good things from other shaving enthusiasts. A lot of people believe that it’s a genuine step above the Frank Shaving G3. I stumbled upon a comment in a forum where somebody has made the effort to try and decode the grades into their natural equivalents:
G1= Plissoft style
G2= “Faux Finest”
G4= Silvertip Fibre
If you’re looking for a synthetic brush, you’ll likely be very satisfied by the G4.
All the best,