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what is a shaving brush

What’s a shaving brush and why should I use one?

Today’s post is about one of the integral pieces of equipment for wet shaving, the shaving brush.  I am a firm believer in being educated before making a purchase or using a piece of equipment.  As such this post will cover:

  1. Shaving brush terminology
  2. How to break in a shaving brush
  3. How to clean and sanitize a shaving brush
  4. Why trying to sterilize your shaving brush is a bad idea.

A shaving brush is used to incorporate water into your shaving soap, making a thick and foamy lather to lubricate your face while you shave.  During the act of lathering your face the brush lifts the hair from your skin and surrounds it with lather.  This in turn suspends the hair follicle from your face, making it easier to cut.  As an added benefit the act of lathering also gently exfoliates your face, helping to remove dirt, oil, and dead skin cells.  For a great introduction to creating lather using shaving soap check out this post.

Shaving Brush Terminology

The wet shaving community has developed a unique lexicon to describe the products we use.  Here is a listing of some of the most common terms used to describe shaving brushes.

Backbone/Floppiness: Backbone refers to the stiffness or lack of flex of the knot under pressure. The amount of backbone in a brush is inversely proportional to how floppy a brush is.   Backbone tends to increase with greater density.  Greater backbone equates with greater scrubbiness.  Floppiness is also referred to as a knot being a “soft” knot.

Base: The opposite end of the brush from the knot.  Most bases are flat so the brush can stand upright, but some are rounded and have handles designed so that they hang upside down to dry.

Bloom: After the initial use of your brush, you will notice that when it dries out the bulb will seem to have opened up and “bloom” similar to a flower.Shaving brush terminology pic

-Bristle:  The “hair” that the knot of the brush is made out of.  Traditionally (and still the most common) made from hair follicles harvested from badgers or boars. Also available in horse and synthetic varieties.

Types of bristle:

  • Badger:  Easy to find, comes in many grades.  Great water absorption, usually a softer knot.
  • Boar:  Easy to find.  A stiffer knot with more backbone.  Hair follicles dry out faster.  Usually have more scritch and scrubbiness.  Great for face lathering.
  • Horse:  Not very common in America, but becoming more so.  Stiffer than a badger, softer than a boar.
  • Synthetic:  Have gotten better with time.  Do not require soaking before use as they do not absorb water.  Dry very fast after use.
  • Boar/Badger Mix:  Seen a little more recently.  Advertised as being both soft and having nice backbone and great water retention qualities.  Mixed reviews so far, seems to depend on personal taste.

NOTE:  For an in depth breakdown of shaving brush knots check out this post.

Bristle height (“loft”): Distance from top of handle (collar) to top of bristles.  The higher the loft, the more likely the bristles are to splay out.

-Bristle density:  This is a measure of how many individual bristles are packed into a knot of a given size.  The larger the diameter of the individual bristle, the less that can be fit into a knot.

-Collar:  Area of the brush that the knot inserts into and the hair follicles come out of.

Brush terminology pic #2-Crown:  Shape of the top profile of the knot.  This shape affects how the brush interacts with your face.

  • Bulb shaped crown:  shorter hairs at the sides, longer in middle resulting in a light bulb shape.  Usually a shorter loft.  Shorter hairs on sides support the middle making it feel stiffer.  Good at lathering a specific area due to the bulb tip sticking out more.
  • Fan shaped crown.  Long hairs on sides as well as middle.  Closer resembles a gentle curve.  Will lather large areas well, good for face lathering.
  • Flat top shaped crown:  Like the name implies this knot has a completely flat top.  Knot opens up on the face much more.  Another good choice for face lathering.  Not very common.

Diameter:  Knot measurement across the glue base.  Usually measured in millimeters.

Flow through: Flow-through refers to how easily the lather within a brush is released onto the face. This is not to be confused with how easy a brush can create lather.  A “lather hog” is a brush that does not easily release the lather it creates.  Flow can be affected by: the grade of bristle, density of the knot, knot diameter and loft.

Handle size/shape:  Longer handles work well for bowl or scuttle lathering, popular with people who have larger hands.  Smaller handles are popular with travel brushes and with face latherers.

Knot:  The gathering of hair follicles glued into a common base. This knot is inserted into the brush handle.

Scritch/Softness:   Scritch is described as the scratchiness or friction created by the bristle tips on your skin when using the brush.  A knot with a stiffer backbone will usually have more “scritch”.  The inverse of Scritch is softness.  Some knots have an extremely soft touch and feel like they glide over the skin vice scratching it.

-Scrub: This is a measure of how much the knot scrubs and exfoliates the skin.  Brushes with a stiffer backbone offer more scrubbing power, but knots with greater scritch do not always provide greater scrubbiness.

-Water Absorption:  A number of variables affect how much water a knot will hold.  Bristle choice, loft, and density all affect how the knot will absorb and hold water for use while creating a lather.

How to break-in a new brush or clean and sanitize a used brush

Vie-Long Shaving brush being claened

My boar brush that is getting a good defunking.

So there you are with a brand new brush, or maybe you bought a brush from a fellow wet shaver.  Let’s go over what you can do to break it in or clean it up.

Breaking in a new shaving brush.

Many brushes have a distinct smell when bought new or have gone unused for a long period of time.  This is not surprising as they are animal hair.  Boar and horsehair are notorious for this.

Make no mistake, you do NOT have to break in a new brush.  This will happen naturally with use.  However, it will speed up the softening of the bristle tips and getting rid of the new brush smell. Breaking in a brush is a simple task that can (and should) be accomplished by anyone.

Here are two simple methods to break in a new brush.

  1. Lather your brush up in a bowl like normal.  Set the lathered brush on its base and let it sit there overnight.  Thoroughly rinse the brush out the next day.  Repeat if needed.
  2. Use hot water and a pet shampoo on the brush.  Give the shampoo some time to work.  Rinse and repeat as needed.

Told you is was easy. You may have to repeat the process two or three times to get badger and horse hair stink out of the knot, but as long as you are not in a rush you should be fine.

Clean and sanitize a shaving brush

There are many reasons to clean up a brush.  No matter how well you clean your brush after shaving, there will be soap residue that stays down deep on the knot and minute hard water deposits building up in the bristles.  Cleaning your knots will remove the accumulated soap scum and hard water deposits.  Many people report that their brushes are softer and lather better after a good cleaning.

  1. Strip the oils from the bristles.  You bodies natural oils can slowly build up on the bristles (this is particularly true if you use a pre-shave oil). This makes it difficult for the bristles to absorb
    Vie-Long shaving brush being cleaned

    Shaving brush soaking in a 50/50 solution of white vinegar and water. Notice the white coloring of the water. That’s the soap, oil, and whatever else being lifted from the brush.



    water. Using some hand or dish soap work up a good lather with your brush.  If this is a second hand brush and you want to be extra vigilant against germs, make sure to use an antimicrobial soap. Let this sit for a good ten minutes and then rinse thoroughly.

    • Using a vinegar solution:  Find a small container (something big enough for a brush and a cup of liquid) and place the brush and plain white vinegar in the container.  Make sure the knot is fully covered.  Let the brush soak for ten minutes and then agitate the brush.  Let it soak for 10 more minutes.
    • Using borax:  Make up a paste using borax powder and water.  Work the paste into the bristles and down into the knot of the brush.  Let the brush sit for 24 hrs.
    • You can also use a 50/50 solution of vinegar and water or a cup of water with a large tablespoon of borax.  Agitate as per the vinegar directions.
  2. Clean and sanitize the knot.  This can be accomplished by using either vinegar or borax.
  3. Rinse extremely well and let dry.
  4. Enjoy your revitalized shaving brush!

The myth of sterilizing a shaving brush

We have gone over how to break in and clean a brush, but that’s not enough for everyone.  Some people want it sterilized (make something free from bacteria or other living microorganisms).  I am of the opinion this is not possible for a shaving brush without damaging the brush itself.

  • Any heat source hot enough to guarantee germ death will damage the brush.
  • The density of the knot will render UV light ineffective because it only sterilizes what the light can reach.
  • A soak in a chemical treatment (Barbicide, alcohol, chlorides) would have to be at a high enough chemical concentration that it will likely damage or stain the brush.

If you are overly concerned about germs then I highly recommend that you purchase a new brush and follow a good cleaning regiment.  Maintaining your brush and buying from trusted sources should be all that is needed.

After reading this article you should have the basics down and have a better idea of what you are looking at when purchasing a shaving brush.  If you need details about a certain brush ask around one of the wet shaving communities and they are always more than willing to help.

If you liked the article, please do me a favor and let me know with a Facebook like, a Tweet, or let me know in the comments below.  If you would like to be informed of new articles sign up for the the newsletter at the top right corner of the article.

Have a great day and a smooth shave!



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1 Comment

  1. Has anyone tried another method I don’t have listed? Maybe think I’m off base with my stance on sterilization? Let me know in the comments here. If you have a good tip I will include it in the article.

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