Learning how to shave with a straight razor requires a combination of practice, courage and patience. Shaving with a straight razor is not as easy as they make it out to be in the movies. Therefore, don’t be surprised if you make a few mistakes and earn a couple of nicks on the way.
As we explain in our main straight razor page, shaving with a straight razor is a skill. Don’t be scared about trying it out. Seasoned enthusiasts on forums were unlikely shaving out of the womb and very few learned it from their parents. Everyone goes through the same learning curve phase.
Therefore, we’ve worked tirelessly in creating one of the most detailed guides to straight razors and how to shave with one. Each step is carefully broken down to give you all the information you need to avoid the most common pitfalls we all experience. Finally, we also offer a few pointers for safely storing your razor to ensure a long lifespan.
How Do I Properly Shave With A Straight Razor?
Remember, nicks and slip-ups are common even amongst the most seasoned shaving veterans. Therefore, don’t be disappointed if your first shaves aren’t perfect. Go slow, take your time and perhaps avoid shaving in the morning when you’re in a rush to get to work.
What You Will Need
- Shaving Brush [read more about shaving brushes]
- Shaving Soap & Bowl [read more about shaving soap]
- Straight Razor [read our straight razor buying guide]
- Shaving Strop [read more about strops]
Before you begin, make sure that you read our central wet shaving guide. A quick read through this will fully prepare you for the basics in wet shaving and help with this more advanced guide.
Step 1. Stropping, Lathering & Skin Preparation
As you should have already read in our central wet shaving page mentioned above, you must start by prepping your face. Whether you choose a hot towel or a shower is up to you but the end result should open the pores and soften the hairs. You’ll also need to “bloom” the soap, which simply requires a few drops of water on its surface so to soften it up before lathering.
Either before your shower or while the soap blooms, you’ll need to strop your razor. This is the process that realigns and polishes the blade unlike honing, which creates a cutting edge.
It’s important to do this before you shave. Leaving it too long before shaving may cause the razor to bloat and lose some of its cutting edge but this tends to be on a microscopic level. Remember to test the blade’s sharpness before finishing. Learn more about stropping with our razor sharpening guide.
Once you’re ready, fill your sink halfway with warm water and keep a clean towel close to hand.
Step 2. How To Correctly Hold A Straight Razor
Like holding a pencil, there are many ways you can do it. Yet, there is a correct way to hold a straight razor.
First, open the straight razor a full 270° so that the scales and blade form an L with the cutting edge pointing outwards. Place your index finger and middle finger on the top of the shank with your thumb underneath just behind the shoulder and heel. You should be effectively pinching the shank with these three digits.
Now gently wrap your wedding ring finger over the back of the tang so the space between it and your middle finger is taken by the scales. Your little finger can either hang idly or you can press against the underside of the tang. Your little finger will provide balance much like a cat’s tail for better control.
Some people may place all three first fingers over the shank with the pinky on the tang. However, the fingers tend to spill over the spine, which adds too much pressure on the blade. You’d also lack the balance required on the tang to provide some resistance from the blade’s cutting weight.
Step 3. Correctly Position The Straight Razor
When you’re ready, bring the razor to your face. You can dip the blade into some water beforehand for a little extra lubrication but some people like to do this dry.
Just like a safety razor, hold the straight razor at a 30° angle against your cheek. Overall, 30° is considered the sweet spot for the perfect balance between a smooth and aggressive shave. However, you have complete control here and can adjust the razor’s aggression according to your needs.
The more the blade is perpendicular, the more aggressive the shave. Similarly, the lower the angle, the milder the shave. Nevertheless, your freedom of movement is limited to only about 5°. If it’s too aggressive, you risk cutting the skin whereas too mild will only tug rather than remove beard hair.
Step 4. Shaving Your First Stroke
Always shave in short, gentle strokes with the grain. A straight razor can achieve longer strokes than a safety razor but don’t try to imitate the movies, it doesn’t work.
Don’t apply pressure and let the blade do the work. If the blade is uncomfortable and tugging your hairs, it may not be sharp enough and will need more stropping or even honing.
Aim for beard reduction with more than one pass and not beard removal as this will irritate the skin. Never make any slicing movements with your razor as you would with a knife. This will always result in cutting your skin. All movements should be with the cutting edge perfectly perpendicular to the shaving direction.
Help the razor glide over skin rather than cut into it by stretching your skin. You can either hold it taught with your free hand or stretch your jaw out. When starting on the cheek, your free hand can go over your head a pull up on the sideburn for a firm hold. As you shave around the mouth, pull your lips down behind your teeth or hold your nose up.
Step 5. Shaving Your First Pass On Your Right Side
Presuming that you’re right-handed, we’ll start with the right-hand side of your face. However, if you’re left-handed, start on the left.
Don’t forget about our shaving map, which you can find on the main shaving page or refer to the infographic below. Use this to plan your strokes’ routes. Remember to start from the sideburns and slowly work towards the jawline first.
When the blade begins to build up with lather and hairs, either rinse it down in the sink or wipe it off with the clean towel. Using a towel will help to ensure that you don’t get too much water in the lather and cause it to wash off.
Stop when you get halfway across your face. If your free hand is a wet or soapy, wipe it down on the towel. Now hold the razor with your non-dominant hand. It will feel odd at first and you may need to refer to step 2 again to make sure you’re holding it properly.
Step 6. Shaving Your First Pass On Your Left Side
As much as it may feel uncomfortable using the wrong hand, you’ll find it’s much easier to shave the other side of your face with it instead.
For instance, if you try to use your right hand to shave the left side of your face, you’ll release that you have much less control. Firstly, there’s no natural angle for holding the blade against your skin. If you do it with your fingers pointing out, you have no visibility of what you’re doing. Conversely, if your knuckles are pointing, your wrist is tense and you have no control.
It’ll take a little getting used to but before you know it, you’ll feel just as comfortable using the non-dominant hand. In fact, you’ll develop ambidextrous skills over time that can be applied to other things. It’s a great hand-eye coordination exercise.
Simply repeat step 4 on the other side of your face.
Step 7. Shaving Your Second Pass
After having gone once over your face, you’ll likely need another pass. If not, you may have applied too much pressure and will experience some irritation. If so, rinse your face and apply lots of lotion to soothe the imminent burning.
Load up your brush with some fresh lather and reapply it. Do this exactly as you would if it was your first pass and even add some more pre-shave cream if you want.
If you’re a beginner, it’s probably best not to shave against the grain. However, if you’re already experienced, you can give it a go only if your razor is sharp enough. Shaving against the grain should be avoided completely if you have particularly sensitive skin or suffer from ingrown hairs. This is why barbers never shave against the grain as they don’t know if their customers’ skin will cope.
Alternatively, you can shave across the grain, which cuts the hairs at an angle for a closer shave. Nevertheless, you can always just shave with the grain if you’re more comfortable. Remember to hold your skin taut and follow the same strokes as indicated in step 4. You can repeat this as many times as you like until you’re BBS (baby butt smooth).
Step 8. Post-Shave Care
Now that you’ve finished shaving, you should take care of your skin to ensure it’s well-hydrated. After all, you’ve been scraping a naked blade across your skin for the last 30 minutes.
Start by thoroughly rinsing your face with cold water to remove any leftover soap. Although warm water feels nicer at first, cold water will close your pores and reduce irritation.
If you have both an alum block and moisturiser, start with the cream first. Applying the alum afterwards will lock in the moisture rather than preventing it from soaking into the skin. Shaving is much like exfoliating but somewhat more aggressive. Whenever people exfoliate, they moisturise afterwards to replenish the skin’s natural oils.
If you want to read more about post-shave care, head to our dedicated after-shaving guide.
If you want to see a straight razor in action, you can watch the video below. Here, Charles-Philippe struggles to remove a 4-month old beard with his vintage collection:
How To Care For Your Straight Razor
Even if yours only cost $50, straight razors are precious tools and can last a lifetime if properly looked after. Therefore, it’s important to take certain precautions to ensure their longevity.
Firstly, a razor’s greatest enemy is water. As ironic as it may sound since shaving requires lots of it, you must keep this in mind. Most razor blades are made with carbon steel, which rusts very quickly. Before you know it, a razor blade can be stained and even irreversibly damaged from the smallest spot.
Once you’ve finished shaving, clean the blade with clean water. A blast of high-pressured water from the tap for a few seconds is normally enough. Wipe down the blade with a clean towel or cloth but take care not to cut yourself. Some people even do a few passes of their razor on the nylon part of the strop for a more thorough clean.
Make sure that you dry inside the scales and around the pivot as water tends to linger in these areas. In fact, water from between the scales can cause the most damage when leaving your razor lying around.
If you leave your razor to air dry, make sure that it’s standing up to let the droplets fall off the blade. Lying it on its side will cause the water to sit around and eat away at the metal.
A straight razor is best stored in a dry environment. It may look great on a bathroom shelf, but it’s probably the worst place to leave it. Nevertheless, if you do shave every day and need that convenience there are some steps you can take.
Some enthusiasts use silica gel packs to reduce humidity if they keep it in a dedicated cabinet. You can easily find these when buying various objects such as bags. You could even place one of these in its carrying case to protect it from the elements.
Keeping It Sharp
Remember that it’s important to get a strop to realign the blades before every use. You’ll likely need to do this before every other shave. That said, it doesn’t hurt to keep the blade perfect right before each one.
After about a dozen shaves, it may begin to tug on your beard when you shave. You’ll realise that no matter how many times you pass it over the strop, it still keeps pulling. Therefore, it may be time to consider honing your razor with a stone.
You can learn all about both stropping and honing with our straight razor sharpening guide.
Now that you have learned how to shave with a straight razor, why don’t you consider exploring our shaving series even further? Head to the shaving home page to see all the subjects that we cover. Alternatively, you may need a few items mentioned in the equipment list above. For instance, we offer a detailed page on the best shaving brushes available on the market.