How to create a lather with shaving soap
One of the basic skills you need to know in order to wet shave is how to build a lather. Today we are going to go over a step by step process showing how to lather shaving soap. This step by step guide is intended to give you a solid starting point. When you start getting the hang of it you can switch things up a bit and see what works better for you.
First of all we are going to try to define what lather is. After a bit of research I hacked together this definition/explanation:
The molecules that are found in soap play a large role in the lathering process. Soap molecules are long molecules that have one end that is attracted to water and the other end that is attracted to oil. When soap molecules and water are combined with friction, lathering usually occurs. This addition of water causes the soap to form orderly layers (the walls of a soap bubble). The friction incorporates air into the mix, pockets of air develop, and each of the air pockets become coated by the oil in the soap. Different types of oils make different size air pockets (bubbles). If you do this in a controlled manner, such as with a shaving brush and shaving soap, you create lather.
Lets break it down into the steps of lathering
We need to prepare our equipment.
First off all we will soak the bristles of our shaving brush. This can be accomplished by placing the bristles in a shaving mug (repurposed coffee cup), a shaving bowl, scuttle, or sink that is filled with water. Try to only submerge the bristles and not the entire handle. Depending on the type of handle the moisture may be detrimental to the material it is made out of.
Soaking the shaving brush allows the bristles to soak up water. Water is also retained between the bristles due to capillary action. This soaked up water is the primary source of water when creating a lather. A little bit more is added during the lather creation process, but the majority comes from the brush itself.
As a side note, if you have a synthetic brush this step is not necessary. Synthetics are made of synthetic fibers that do not absorb water. Soaking will not help the lathering process.
Next we want to make sure the soap can load onto the brush. To do this we are going to “Bloom” the soap. This consists of placing a layer of warm water on the soap and letting it soak in. This accomplishes three things.
- It softens the soap and allows it to be loaded onto the shaving brush easier. A very common mistake is to blame the soap for making poor lather when in reality you have not loaded enough soap onto your brush.
- It partially hydrates the soap, making it easier to lather. Many soaps can be picky about how much water is added when creating a lather. This problem is greatly reduced is you start out with a “wetter” soap and need to add less during the lather building process
- It releases the fragrance of the soap for greater enjoyment (the “bloom”). We all buy scented soaps because it smells good, so why not enjoy it 🙂
Shaving soaps come in three different consistencies; a hard soap, a cream soap, and something the shaving community calls a “croap” (between a CReam and a sOAP). Croaps are also commonly referred to as Italian style soaps.
Blooming the soap is highly recommended for hard shaving soaps and can solve many issues. Blooming makes it much easier to load a brush up to its full capacity and hydrates the top layer of the soap. While croaps are usually soft enough to not require blooming to help load a brush, they also benefit from the soap being hydrated. Cream soaps do not need to be bloomed to help with loading or hydration. However, if you want to bloom the scent or make the cream a little runnier, you can submerge the entire container in hot water to warm up the cream soap. This works for cream soaps in both containers and tubes.
(Please forgive me for my crappy video skills, but I wanted to try something new.)
Loading the brush with soap.
After placing your brush in water and starting to bloom your soap, let them sit for 5 to 15 minutes. This is a great time to take a shower, strop your razor, or have a little quality time answering the call of nature.
Once the soap and brush have had enough time to get all of the benefits they can get from a good soak it’s time to load your brush.
First off, take your brush out of its container and discard the soaking water. Hold your brush over the sink and give the bristles ONE good squeeze to get rid of excess moisture. Do NOT squeeze it more than that or flick it to get rid of more water. You need that water to create lather. Put the brush to the side and take a look at your soap. Your soap currently has a layer of water over it. Pour the bloom water into a separate container to be used later in the lather process. We will come back to that in a bit.
If you have a synthetic brush you can now run it under some water and get it wet. Give it a gentle squeeze to get rid of some of the excess water but do it very gently. Synthetics do not soak up water so you need to retain a little more in the bristles.
To load your brush with a hard soap or croap, perform the following. Hold your soap container in your off hand and you shaving brush in your dominant hand. Place the shaving brush bristles in the soap and apply just enough pressure to cause the bristles to splay out slightly. Too much pressure and you risk damaging the bristles, to little and you will not be able to properly load the shaving brush. Swirl the brush back and forth in a clockwise/counter-clockwise motion for a full 30 seconds. After 30 seconds the top of your brush should be fully coated in soap and the tips should be starting to clump together a bit. You may see what looks like an early form of lather forming as well. If you don’t see this then you can try loading the brush for another 10 or 15 seconds.
To load your brush with a cream shaving soap perform the following. Scoop up and apply a portion of cream approximately the size of a pea to the top of the bristles. You can use your finger, the handle end of your toothbrush, or be a real gentleman and use a snurdle (I’m not making it up, Google it). Take your finger and rub the cream on the top of the bristles to work it in a bit.
TIP: a brush loaded with a cream soap does NOT visually resemble a brush that was loaded from a hard or croap shaving soap.
Different ways to create lather
- If using a bowl to lather: While there are many types of bowls to lather in, we will assume you have something on hand that will work. There are MANY possible variations that will be covered in a future article. Take you loaded brush in one hand and your bowl in the other.
- Place the brush in the bowl so that the knot begins to splay (spread out at the end) just a little bit. You want a bit of pressure to create friction, but not so much that you are damaging the brush.
- Start to move the brush in circles around the inside of the bowl in a vigorous manner. Do this for 30 seconds. (Depending on the shape of your bowl you may find you have better results with the brush more toward the bottom of the bowl or on the sides. It just takes a little practice to see what works well for you.)
- Now we add a little bit of water. One of the most common problems is using too much water in a shaving soap. Turn your faucet to the lowest setting you can get it to while having a continuous stream of water. Take your brush and quickly pass the ends of it through the stream of water… that’s all the water you need for now.
- Perform another 30 seconds of bowl lathering. You will start to see the lather building up and perhaps spilling out the top of your bowl. This is fine and normal. You can push it back in and incorporate it into your lather or can flick it into the sink to get it out of the way. I like to work it back in myself, but it doesn’t make a huge difference in the end.
- At this point you have a lot of lather in your shaving bowl and it probably looks pretty good. However, I will recommend wetting your brush like before and performing another 30 second lathering cycle.
- It’s hard to say how many lathering cycles you will need to perform. The variables of brushes, water quality, bowl, and technique make it impossible to predict. Some people like thick creamy lather, some like it thin and slick. What I can tell you is what signs you are looking for to tell that your lather is at its peak. When you hit that magic ratio of water to soap the lather will feel like it is exploding from the brush and bowl. The lather will acquire a slight sheen to it and feel very slick when rubbed between your fingers.
TIP: Many bowl latherers enjoy using badger hair shaving brushes and brushes with longer handles to keep the lather off of their hands.
- Face lathering: Many aspects of face lathering are similar to bowl lathering, but… no bowl and you have to deal with gravity.
- Turn your faucet on to the lowest setting you can get it to while having a continuous stream of water. Take your brush and quickly pass the end of it through the stream of water… that’s all the water you need for now.
- Put your brush down and splash water on your face. Don’t skimp on this step as this will be a majority of the water you will be working into your lather.
- Immediately take your brush and apply it to your face with enough pressure to splay the ends of the knot a bit, but not enough to damage the bristles. Starting at your sideburn area start swirling the brush in small tight circles. While swirling the brush begin to move it down your face toward your chin. Work the brush over your neck and the other side of your face as well. Once you face lather a bit you can control the rate of water introduced into the brush by how fast you “chase” the water that is running down your face. As gravity pulls the water down your face there is going to be less water on your cheeks and more water on your chin and neck area.
- Keep lathering until you have used the available water on your face. Wet your shaving brush as stated above and work it into your face again.
- At this point you may need a little more water or you may be good to go. While face lathering works up a great lather on your face, it is meant to work up a great lather in your BRUSH. Remember you have to perform one or two more passes with you razor after this one so you want a brush that is well loaded up with lather.
- Palm lathering: This is a perfectly valid technique, just not one that is used as often. The palm of your hand is used as the friction surface instead of a bowl or your face.
- To palm lather, cup your off hand into a large “C” shape. Use this as a modified shaving bowl and lather as per the shaving bowl procedure above
- Palm lathering is messier than bowl or face lathering but also presents some distinct advantages. There is no bowl or scuttle to deal with, and you get great feedback on the quality of your lather.
- Many people use palm lathering to master a new shaving soap, break in a new shaving brush, or to practice lathering when they have a few spare minutes. Palm lather is often recommended for lathering heavy creams as they often end up being swirled around the perimeter of a bowl and not load into a brush.
- Use of a Shave Stick: Yet another option is the use of a shave stick. While the soap itself is still a hard soap or a croap, it comes in a push-up tube. You can lather with a shave stick in two different ways.
- First off, you can try a variation of face lathering. This involves you wetting your face and then rubbing the exposed end of the shave stick along the bearded area of your face. This will leave a thick soap residue. Now take your prepped shaving brush and start using small circular motions to work the soap residue into a lather. Apply more water to the brush as needed. Continue until the brush is well loaded with lather and the lather is how you like it.
- The second method of using a shave stick to load your brush is holding the exposed end of the stick in your hand. By keeping the sides of your hand even with or slightly above the soap, you can use your other hand to load soap onto your brush by using the same swirling method you would use with a normal tub of soap. This method pairs well with palm lathering as your hand will already be wet and have shaving soap on it.
Applying lather to your face
You should now have a shaving brush loaded with a creamy, slick, frothy goodness known as shaving lather. Unfortunately, you are only half way there. While making the lather is part of what a shaving brush is for, it’s application to the face is just as crucial. The act of applying the lather with your shaving brush breaks free your hair follicles and surrounds them with lather. This suspends them off of your face, making it easier for your razor to perform its job. All we have to do now is apply the lather to our face… unless you are a face latherer and already have a goodly amount on your mug.
First off, splash some water onto your face. Remember that this is called wet shaving for a reason. Take your brush and apply it to your face. Use just enough pressure to cause the end of the brush to splay out a little. Using a tight circular motion proceed to apply lather to your face. There are many methods used to apply lather. Every thing from a swirling motion, painting strokes, to dabbing motions or anything else you can imagine. As long as you work the lather into your skin and apply enough lather to provide good cushion (for you face latherers, now is when you would perform one or two last gentle passes to ensure you have lather to shave with).
Perform your first pass with your razor. When done give your razor a quick rinse and set it aside. It’s now time to re-lather for your next pass. Splash some water on your face and take a second to run your hands over the areas you just shaved. Evaluate what is left and splash some more water on your face. Take your shaving brush and lather your face again. Perform your second pass with your razor. Rinse, lather, and repeat as needed… 😉
Hints, tips, and tricks, to creating a great lather
Here are a few other things that may be helpful.
- When you get a new soap, give it a few test runs before shaving with it. Take 10 minutes and sneak into the bathroom. Go through the lathering steps (probably easiest to use a bowl or your palm) and keep performing lathering cycles (30 seconds building lather, add touch of water, 30 more seconds). Take a second and feel the properties of the lather by rubbing your fingers together. Is it slick, cushioning, overly wet? Even when you think you have achieved the Nirvana of lather you need to keep going. By learning what the lather feels and looks like when it has too little or too much water you will be able to find the sweet spot that much easier when you are lathering for a shave.
- Remember that water we bloomed the soap with and saved? Use that to add water to your lather instead of water from your tap. Dip the tip of the bristles in the water or use your fingers to drip some onto your brush. Many people feel that this is beneficial due to the water already being saturated with your shave soap.
- Don’t be afraid to try some different things. Try loading MORE soap onto your brush, try adding more water, try adding less water…. the sky is the limit on the variations possible.
- Have a few soaps that a great in one aspect but not another? Try mixing two or more types of soaps to try and create an Uber Lather.
- Try adding a few drops of glycerin to you proto-lather.
I hope that this article gives you a good start on the path to creating a good lather. If this article was helpful to you, please like, share, and comment to spread the word. If you would like to be informed of new articles being published, please subscribe to the newsletter (upper right corner of article).
Have a great day and a smooth shave!