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Why can’t I shave with a straight razor? Common shaving issues explained.

A common question you see on the wet shaving forums and various groups is newer straight razor shavers complaining about getting a bad shave with their new razor. Straight razor problems like this have multiple probable causes, but since it is such an issue I figured I would try and take a stab at covering the most common shaving issues.

Shave Ready

Shave ready edge close up

First things first, do you have a shave ready straight razor?  Many vendors of new and vintage razors will advertise “shave ready” edges.  Unfortunately many of these edges are closer to “pocket knife” sharp than “shave ready” sharp.

Let me illustrate.  Most pocket knives and everyday carry knives are sharpened up to around the 1000 grit level.  Many chefs will take their knives up to the 3000 to 5000 grit range for more delicate work.  Now lets examine the straight razor.  While there are community challenges that dictate shaving from a 1000 or 4000 grit edge, the accepted standard is that an 8000 grit edge is the bare minimum for a razor to be considered “shave ready”.  It is quite common for straight razors to be finished on a 12000 or 20000 grit hone.  This provides sharpness AND smoothness.  Once the honing is complete razors are stropped on leather to create a smoother feel to the shave.  If you your razor isn’t honed to an 8000 grit or higher, then it’s NOT shave ready and your shave ( as well as your skin) will suffer for it.

TIP:  If looking to purchase a straight razor and the seller claims it is in a shave ready condition make sure and ask what honing progression was used.  If the seller cannot provide this information or spouts something that sounds “off” it’s probably a good idea to ask more questions or look elsewhere.

Angle

wrong angle using a straight razor

Good picture…. bad angle

To get the most out of any tool with a cutting edge you must apply the cutting edge at the correct angle.  When using a straight razor you want to maintain an approximate 30 degree angle between the razor and your face.  For a more visual representation this works out to the spine being approximately two “spine widths” from your face.

Use of a smaller angle can result in the blade “skipping” as you make your shaving pass.  Too large of an angle and you risk pressing the cutting edge of the razor directly into your skin and creating a new scar to explain to your friends.  As with anything, a little trial and error is key to finding the correct angle.

TIP:  Try to shave in a quiet area and try to hear the sound of your whiskers being cut.  When you shave with the correct angle you can hear the difference.  Different hollow grinds will sound different when shaving.

Lather

shaving brush lather

When starting to wet shave, one of the new skill sets you learn is how to create a proper lather.  What makes this hard is that every soap is a little bit different and everyone has different water to work with.  For a step by step walkthrough on building lather see Different methods of lathering shaving soap.

When building a lather to use with a straight razor you are looking for slickness and cushion.  This is obtained by incorporating water into the shaving soap with the use of a shaving brush on your face or in a bowl.  When creating lather you incrementally add more water as you work the soap and water mixture with your shaving brush.  When you have the right ratio you can achieve a slick cushioning lather that lets the razor glide over your face.  Common problems when building a lather are:

  1. Not enough soap loaded onto the brush.  You need to load enough soap onto the shaving brush to complete a full three pass shave.  If you do not adequately load enough soap into the brush then you will have to stop and reload the brush.  You also run the risk of adding too much water.
  2. Too much water incorporated into the lather.  If you add too much water the cushion starts to dissipate and the lather isn’t as slick.  Lather runs off of your face easier and you may experience the blade “skipping” over your face.
  3. Not enough water incorporated into the lather.  On the other end of the spectrum is having an inadequate amount of water when creating lather.  This can lead to a gummy feeling lather that may be cushioning but lacks the slickness and glide of a proper lather.  A lather with too little water will dry out quicker (which can cause skin irritation) and does not provide the required lubricating properties for shaving.

TIP:  A good indication that your lather needs more water is if it’s harder than usual to rinse the lather off of your blade.

Rolled Edge

One of the more common issues I see is people who do their research, buy a shave ready straight, take it out of the packaging, and promptly destroying the edge by trying to strop the razor like someone in a bad movie.

When you receive a shave ready razor all you should have to do is wipe off any protective coating with a piece of tissue and then proceed to shave.  Shaving with your razor right after you remove it from the package will allow you to feel what a true shave ready razor feels like.

Once you are done with your shave, feel free to strop your razor.  However, forget about anything you saw on TV or at your local barbershop when you were a little tike.  It’s not a race, so feel free to take your time.  Stropping a razor is a skill set all its own.  If you do it incorrectly you can, and will, roll the fine edge of the razor over on itself.  This results in a very dull cutting surface and a bad shave.

TIP:  Before stropping your straight razor practice with a butter knife.  This will help you find the proper angle to hold the razor and strop, and build muscle memory.

While these are all common problems for new wet shavers there is nothing here that can’t be tackled by patience and a little practice.  If your not sure about something, check out one of the shaving communities and ask questions.  You can drop me a line and tell me what your issue is and we can see about getting things straightened out.

Before I wrap up, I wanted to ask you a favor.  If you liked this article and found it helpful please like, share, or comment below to help spread the word.  Have a great day and a smooth shave!

Matt

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8 Comments

  1. Josh

    Great write up. I agree with every point made.

  2. I agree with Josh, great article Matt. I’ve been hesitating on pulling the trigger on a straight, but this makes me feel a lot better about getting into it.

    • Glad you liked it Lewis. If you already use a safety razor than you should already have the prep nailed. Just take your time and use the resources available online to ask questions. Let us know how it goes!

  3. The other rule about the angle when straight razor shaving is that it changes according to pass or direction of the grain. A larger, more aggressive angle on the first pass going with the grain. Then gradually reducing the angle of the razor to the skins when going across the grain on the second pass and even less of an angle on the third pass going against the grain.

    • Good catch on that. You are absolutely correct about the angle being smaller depending if it is your 2nd or 3rd pass. This can make a real difference in getting that final level of smoothness.

  4. Robert

    Dear Matt, Great article. You wrote, “TIP: If looking to purchase a straight razor and the seller claims it is in a shave ready condition make sure and ask what honing progression was used.” That is excellent information. Now I know how to correctly ask about how a razor has been honed. Thank you very much for taking the time to provide all this incredibly useful info. Sincerely, Robert

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