So this weeks topic is something a little different. Past posts have been about topics that I have a fair amount of first hand knowledge about. How to lather, parts of a shaving brush, dealing with acne, ingrown hairs… the list goes on. However, today’s post is about shaving brush knots.
The problem is I have a sum total of three shaving brushes that I use. I have my initial VDH badger shaving brush (cheap), a boar brush from Vie-Long ($12 from Amazon.com) that I use almost every day, and a nice small badger brush I use for travel that I received as part of a lot I purchased on eBay. That’s it… I do have a pile of brush handles awaiting new knots but I could never decide what knot to purchase.
So why I am I writing a post about something I don’t have much first hand knowledge about? To be honest, this is a subject I was holding off on tackling until I had a broader range of experience. However, I was contacted a few weeks ago and asked to write up an article on the subject of shaving brush knots, particularly badger shaving knots. As such I have been researching and have read everything I could find that seemed remotely feasible and began to sift the data to see if I could find some agreed upon “truths” regarding shaving brush knots.
You may want to look at What’s a shaving brush and why should I use one? for a refresher on brush terminology.
There are 8 types of badger found in the world and few more subspecies that are brought up. The species most commonly harvested for its bristles is the Eurasian Badger. While this badger was once harvested in Europe, it is currently a protected species. This species is also common throughout Asia, and is considered to be a nuisance animal in rural China. Village cooperatives are licensed by the national government to hunt badgers and sell the hair to processors. As such, the harvest of badger bristle and making of shaving knots (and other items) has developed into an industry of its own in China. Because of the harvest restrictions in place elsewhere and the over abundance of badgers in China, China has become the world’s largest exporter of badger hair products.
Badger hair is sought after because of its unusual properties. Badger bristles are actually wider at the tips than they are at the base. Most of the water retained in a badger brush is the water in between the bristles. The density of the knot and capillary action between the hairs causes the water to be retained. This results in a brush that has excellent water retention properties. Badger brushes are also known for being particularly soft against the skin.
The first thing you should know is that there is NO uniform standard for grading badger knots (or any other shaving knots for that matter). There are a few commonly used “grades” of badger knots and quite a few “special / select / premium” grades as well. However, when users of badger shaving brushes discuss knots, the following criteria are always brought up regardless of the “grade” of knot.
- Natural tips or clipped: Better quality knots retain the natural tip of the bristle. This results in a softer tip. Cheaper brushes are formed into a knot and have the the crown of the bulb trimmed into a visually pleasing shape. This leaves a harsher edge than a natural tip.
- Density of the knot: More often than not a badger knot that has more densely packed badger bristles will perform better due to better water retention. This isn’t alway the case as some brushes are notorious for being lather hogs, but more often than not is true.
- Hand made or machine made: Machine made knots are usually cheaper but are often found to have excessive shedding of bristles, poor knot density, and clipped ends. Handmade knots can have the same issues, but it would be rare to encounter all three issues, let alone one.
- Knot size: The larger the knot the firmer the knot feels against the face. Because a larger knot requires more badger hair, they are usually more expensive.
- Color: You will hear people refer to many grades of badger by a color or color combination. Silvertip, two band, three band, black badger….
- Where the hair is harvested from: Silvertip comes from the muzzle and neck of the badger, while black badger hair is harvested from the belly of the badger. Different grades of hair come from different parts of the badgers body.
There are quite a few different types of badger hair knots. These are usually based on a combination of the above qualities. Additionally, different brush makers use their own grading system, independent of the criteria discussed above. Let’s start breaking down the mumbo jumbo and see if we can navigate the murky waters of badger hair knots.
We start with “Pure Badger” knots. While this seems to denote quality, it is in reality most often the cheapest grade of badger shaving knot. These bristles do not come from any specific part of the badgers body and often these knots are machine made and cut to shape. These are very cheap knots. Coloring of “Pure” badger bristle is usually a light tan but can lean toward black bristles as well.
“Best Badger” knots are usually considered a step up from “Pure” badger. Think of “Best“ badger knots as what “Pure” badger knots would want to be if they had the choice. Best badger is made up of bristles that are a little finer, longer in length, and a have a lighter color. The “Pure” and “Best” bristles are harvested from roughly 65% of the badger’s body. “Best” badger knots are hand made and as such will be a little more densely packed and will have the natural tips of the bristle present. This will produce a better lather with a softer touch on the face.
Some people feel that there is hardly a difference between these two grades of brush knots. To confuse the situation even more, many British companies refer to many “Best badger” knots as “Pure badger”. :shrug:
“Super Badger” is made up of of ‘’Pure” badger and “Best” badger hairs that have been graded and sorted to a higher degree. This requires more time and labor to accomplish and as such cost more. “Super” badger knots appear to be harvested from roughly 25% of the badger body. These knots are considered to be better than “Best” badger. Many feel that after a break in period they are close in performance to “Silvertip” badger. “Super” badger knots are often advertised as “Silvertip” badger, while actually being “Super badger” grade hair with bleached tips.
To verify if a knot is “Silvertip” or bleached “Super” badger examine the tip. True “Silvertip” is not a uniform color throughout the tip and are an off-white. A “Super” bristle will be slightly greyer, more uniform in appearance, and have a smaller “white” section.
British companies refer to what many people call “Super badger” grade knots as “Best badger” knots. These are considered to be one step below “Silvertip” knots.
“Silvertip Badger” is the most expensive type of badger hair. This is due to the rarity of the bristle as it is only found on the badgers neck and muzzle area. The “Silvertip”gets it name from the naturally white tips on the bristle. “Silvertip” bristles are are generally longer and finer. This results in a denser knot that can hold more water, while being extremely soft. These are generally considered to be the best shaving brush material available.
Beyond Silvertip: May companies claim to sell grades of knots that are better quality than silvertip bristle. These seem to be broken down into two distinct groupings that I call 1) Super Select Grades and 2) Select Species Grades.
Super Select Grades: These are badger knots that are selected based upon additional criteria and are made up of badger hair that has been specifically selected for certain quantities. Retailers often claim that the hairs are obtained from more stringent grading practices. These features are often certain color combinations, or result in finer graduations of brush quality. The following is a few of the more common variations seen.
- “Black Badger” is essentially a “Best” badger knot that has been sorted to have only black bristles. This seems to lend itself more to aesthetics than a change in function. These brushes are supposed to function similar to other “Best” badger knots.
- “Two band” or “Finest” badger knots are made up the thicker badger hairs. These bristles are obtained from higher quality grading of badger bristle and the natural tips are left intact. Knots are usually less dense and stiffer than traditional badger hair knots. As such this knot is a favorite with face latherers. These “Two Band” knots have a distinctive two band color pattern.
- “Three band” shaving knots are composed of highly graded “Silvertip” badger bristle that has been sorted for specific characteristics. “Three band” badger knots are essentially super dense silvertip knots. This results in greater backbone than a normal silvertip knot. These knots are often considered VERY high end products.
Select Species Grades: These knots are advertised as being especially soft, firm, colorful, harvested from badger-unicorn crossbreeds… whatever it may be. Certain species of badger are harvested for better qualities of hair (perceived or actual). This can be anything from color, bristle characteristics, to perceived value from rarity. These are some of the ones I have seen in my research.
- “Manchurian Badger” The Manchurian badger hair comes from the mountain areas in the northeast of China. The climate of the Manchuria region has extreme seasonal variations with hot summers and very cold winters. The badger hair sourced from this region is a very strong and thick hair with at the same time pleasant soft hair tips.
- “High Mountain White” Hair from the badgers found in the high mountains of China. High Mountain White badger hair is characterized by long white tips and a thick middle band.
NOTE: Just because a knot has two or three bands does not make it a two or three band knot. Dyes are often used to give this impression.
The following links are an example of the great variety of shaving knots being sold. When you compare these three, or other retailers, you will see similarities but also notice the different “unique” features.
Wet Shaving Products lists 14 types of badger brush grades,
The Golden Nib lists 8 types of badger hair knots
Pens of the Forest lists 11 types of badger knots.
NOTE: New badger and boar brushes and older brushes that have been unused for awhile have a strong smell. Over time, as you use the brush the smell will go away. There are also cleaners manufactured specifically for cleaning cosmetic brushes. A step by step walk through of cleaning and sanitizing a brush is at the end of this article.
Boar hair is characterized as being stronger, thicker, and less flexible than badger hair. A little water is retained by capillary action, but most of the water retention is by the bristle soaking up the water. These brushes excel in lathering harder soaps and face lathering.
Choosing a boar bristle brush is much simpler than choosing a badger hair brush. Not only is there no agreed upon standard, the are no standards AT ALL. When you look up boar bristle brushes you will see the following things “discussed”
- Coloring: Many boar brushes have a dark ring dyed into the outer layer of bristles to simulate the look of a badger brush
- Cut tip or natural: Over time natural boar bristle will split into 2 or 3 individual ‘hair tips’ connected to the same thick shaft. This gives you the benefit of a finer, thinner and softer hair with the support of a thicker, firmer bristle. If the bristles have been cut to shape there is a much less likely chance of this happening.
- Hair length: The shorter hairs shaved from the boar are not as large and therefore not quite as stiff and may be a bit softer .
- Hair thickness: The thicker the hair, the stiffer the brush
- Bleached: Many brushes are sold bleached to be more uniformly colored or before being dyed.
- Loft: Taller loft will have a greater brush splay.
- Knot size: The larger the knot, the stiffer the brush backbone will be.
Boar bristles have more “backbone” than badger brushes. As such they are great for face lathering. Boar brushes dry out quicker than badger brushes, and are often used while travelling (because how often do you have the time required to let a brush dry out properly when hopping from motel to motel).
NOTE: This was stated above but is important enough to call out again. Natural boar bristle will split into 2 or 3 individual tips connected to the same shaft. These split ends give you the benefit of a finer, thinner and softer hair with the support of a thicker, firmer bristle. This in effect “breaks-in” the brush and results in a much more enjoyable shave (in my opinion). If the bristles have been cut to shape there is little chance of this happening.
Horsehair brushes are the new kid on the block in the United States…kind of. Horsehair was extremely common in the 1800s and early 1900s. Due to an anthrax scare in the early 1900s horsehair was discontinued and the market was dominated by badger and boar hair.
One of the selling points that people will hear about is the humane harvesting of horsehair. People assume that the hair is cut from the horse and the horse is left to grow more hair for next time. If you do a little research you will see that most horse hair seems to be gathered at large scale butcher shops or rendering plants. This actually makes a lot more sense if you think about it. It is a natural byproduct of the harvesting process and caring for a horse is expensive.
While I did run across a few references about people in far off places raising special breeds of horse just for harvesting the hair, these were done for extremely high end items such as violin bows or high end paint brushes. Raising horses on a large scale for hair harvest is just unreasonable.
Features of horsehair:
- Horsehair is often described as being between badger and boar. It retains a good backbone but is still very soft.
- Horsehair is harvested from the tail and mane of the horse. I haven’t found much info on the differences as far as feel or lathering ability between the two.
- Horse does not absorb water like boar, but rather holds water in a “sheath” around the outside of the brush.
- Traditional horsehair brushes have a hollow center. The bristles are arranged on the outer rim of the brush.
- They release lather by a slapping or painting motion.
- The brush will smell when new. De-funk it as you would any other brush.
Synthetic brushes are man made brushes composed of nylon or polyester filaments. These brushes have been heavily influenced by the cosmetic industry. If you think there is a lot of money in the mens traditional shaving niche, it is nothing compared to women’s cosmetics!
The differences of synthetics can be broken down into when they were made. The quality of each generation of synthetic knots has increased dramatically. Modern synthetic knots claim to have the best of both worlds with high end badger softness and water retention, coupled with boar backbone.
“First Generation” knots are made of Nylon strands (think strands of thick fishing line packed into a knot.) Production started sometime around the 1930s.
“Second Generation” knots came out in the early 2010s. Nylon fibers were still used, but they were shaped to better approximate natural badger. Another upgrade was the improved coloring of the synthetic bristles. These were all big improvements, but were still considered to be lacking when compared to natural badger.
“Third Generation” knots came out in the end of the 2010s. The fibers are thinner, more flexible, have a softer tip, and are able to be packed more densely. This lead to a HUGE improvement in performance. Fibers of this generation are now dyed to approximate natural badger hair.
“Fourth Generation” knots came out a few years ago. Fibers are tapered even more at the ends to increase softness and to improve lather application. The fibers are the most flexible yet. Some people compare to these high end silvertip badger knots.
- Do not absorb water so will not deteriorate
- Not porous, so easy to clean
- Fibers are stain and mold resistant
- Dry faster as it absorbs no water.
- Can withstand greater temperatures
- Consistency between fibers (and knots) is greater
- Animal free product
- Despite advances, still doesn’t feel the same as real badger
- Lack of water retention. Lack of absorption requires relearning water addition methods for creating lather.
- Minimal market selection available
Mixed Bristles Brushes
These brushes are usually a mix of badger and boar bristles and share properties of both. Usually liked by folks who already prefer a stiffer brush with a bit of scrub and backbone. There are supposedly some horse and badger mixed brushes are also available. If you can think of a combination you can probably find it.
I would like to point out that a large portion of the information I gathered came from the following sites. I desperately tried to present the information gleaned in such as way as to not plagiarize the original content. Please CONTACT me if there is a problem.
If you read this and are not sure about about what you want to purchase, get on the forums or Facebook groups and ask some other people. There are a lot of very knowledgeable people who would be more than happy to help out and give you their opinion on the brushes available.
So that is my perspective on the world of shaving brush knots. I have tried to break things down into manageable chunks of information. This guide (and this blog if you get right down to it) is geared towards people new to wet shaving. Hopefully you will have a little bit of a better grasp on what you are looking at when purchasing a brush. If there are any terms you don’t understand take a look here for a quick refresher. A step by step walk through for how to work up a lather is presented in a previous post Different methods to lather shaving soap.
If you liked this post do me a favor and “Like”, Tweet, G+1, or let me know in the comments below. If you liked the post and would like to be informed of others then please sign up for the newsletter at the top right of the article.
Have a great day and a smooth shave!