Startup: A Worthwhile Anachronism

A half-hour of your life you will never regret.

One indulgence I cannot help but partake in whenever I get the opportunity is that of a straight-razor shave at a barber shop. Or, better still, the “hot lather” variation on the same theme. For anyone who has never partaken of this tradition, I strongly suggest that you do so at your earliest opportunity. I’d wait while you went and did so now, but it is a dying tradition, and one of which it is becoming increasingly difficult to find a practitioner.

For anyone unfamiliar, it is a masculine tradition, akin to sipping at a very fine glass of Scotch, or to smoking a pipe. Prior to the advent of the safety razor, the straight razor was the only way to shave, and it was considered such an art form that it occupied a great deal of training time for many an apprenticing barber. Today, the tradition is all but dead, however there are many barbers out there who still offer the service.

I myself have indulged quite a few times, and I can say that while the experience is relaxing beyond any sort of massage or new-age therapy, it is the sheer level of tradition involved that makes it so memorable.

In the hot lather tradition I prefer, the barber starts by placing a series of towels in a small machine. This machine produces very hot steam, and heats the towels until they’re almost too hot to touch. With a single flip to cool them just a touch, the barber wraps them around your face in a particular pattern. While they sit, he prepares his tools.

There are multiple steps involved, and I’ve never bothered to ask what each of the salves are, but one-by-one, certain tonics are applied to your face. There is one that tingles, one that burns, one that cools. After each has been appropriately massaged into your skin and fresh hot towels replaced, the barber will turn to a small machine that has been humming away beside you. This produces a piping-hot foamy lather; with a flip, the hot towels are removed, and a very generous helping of hot lather is spread over your face.

That is left to sit for a moment, and it is here that the best barbers will indulge in a bit of theatre. A straight razor, you see, utilizes a blade that is, according to my barber, as much as five times sharper than the sharpest safety razor. The edge is so sharp that if not properly maintained, it can fold in on itself. As such, before each shave — and sometimes during — the blade must be “stropped” against a coarse leather belt. This process is, again, something to see, because it requires a deft skill and a nimble hand. With an impressive flourish, a great barber will sharpen the blade up and down the taut strap, before carefully balancing it against his fingertips.

It is worth noting, at this point, that most barbers take a great deal of pride in their razors. They are expensive, delicate, and beautiful. Many will have carved ivory, bone, or hardwood handles, and some blades have intricate engravings on them. Some may even be inlaid with gold. If it looks intricate, ask to see it, and ask the story behind it. Many barbers utilise antique blades, and they often have a story of how they acquired that blade.

From here, it is an astonishingly short process. A good barber will shave your whole face in as little as eight or nine strokes, which may take less than twenty seconds. The art is not in the flourish, the art is in the knowledge of how to execute a perfect shave with as little effort as possible. Indeed, it is over so quickly, you almost feel disappointed. Fear not, however. Some more meticulous barbers prefer to do the whole process twice to ensure the best shave.

From there, a further salve is applied, similar to the after-shave balm that is still used today, although far stronger. It will sting, quite a bit, and is quickly covered for a moment with another hot towel (if memory serves). Then, a quick rinse, a cooling salve, and a very careful pat (not rub!) dry, and you’re done.

It is an anachronism in this day of faster-cheaper-better, but it is a tradition that should be undertaken at least occasionally. The whole process has a distinctly masculine air about it, far more than I can hope to evoke with these words. The scents are all musky and manly, and every step seems designed to deal with the problem of the harshness of a man’s skin and stubble. The tradition is as theatrical as it is effective, and there is a certain pride in being a practitioner of a dying art.

It’s not easy to find a shop that will still do it, but if you can, take them up on it. It’s not cheap, but I promise it is money you will not regret spending.

  • tonyola

    I've had barber shaves a couple of times and yes, it's a fine experience. I tried shaving myself with a straight razor once. The results would have been worthy of Steven King. Never again – back to the old twin-blade Bic. I haven't used an electric shaver since I was about 17.

    • Alff

      Ditto. I inherited my grandfather's straight razor. My lone attempt to use it convinced me that it is work best left to the professionals.

  • chrystlubitshi

    I am not a shaver… the most i do (any more) is run a set of electric hair clippers over my beard to get it down to a reasonable length (and then fine-tune with scissors) if i have an important event coming up in a couple of days… I have, in the past, indulged myself in a straight razor shave or two (with my summer beard– sideburns down past my ears and full goatee) and it's a wonderful experience. I wish i had inherited my grandfather's straight razor as Alff was lucky enough to..

  • I don't think I could find a straight shave if I tried, but I do love my safety razor. Such a fantastic shave.

  • betterwrappedinbacon

    Straight razor shaves are a dying art form. A friend of mine was getting married and wanted to treat his groomsmen to a straight razor shave before the nuptuals. He found out that they would have had to drive 2 hours out of the way to get to the nearest barber that offered the service.

  • highmileage_v1

    I'm not a Spa/massage, touchy-feely kind of guy, but I have to admit that a proper barber shop straight razor shave is a mellowing kind of experience. There are only a couple of shops in town that still provide this service and it is disappearing. One of the shops still has it's 1950's chairs covered with enough chrome to shame a '50's Buick. Just don't watch Sweeney Todd before going.

    • Deartháir

      I'm completely with you on that. I don't even like the idea of a massage, as I don't want someone I don't know touching and groping me. Well, not someone I'm paying to do that. If it's as a result of a few rounds of tequila shots, that's another matter. But somehow, a straight-razor shave has the opposite effect. I don't get the "EW NO TOUCHIES!" response, I just relax and enjoy it.

      • SSurfer321

        I have to disagree on the massage. I definitely miss my massage therapist since I've relocated.

      • I got my first massage when I was in college. It was awesome. Now, Mrs. engineerd and I have a post-tax season tradition of going and getting a massage together. So. Freaking. Relaxing.

      • In Thailand, there are barber shops with beautiful women in the windows, where you can get a shave, haircut, massage, and "———-" all at the same time by over half a dozen hotties in lingerie. Insanely relaxing.


        What a great country.

        • Number_Six

          I know! The "………" and "——–" are amazing in Thailand, too.

          /sticky rice and mango

  • I have always wanted to get a straight razor shave, but have had a beard for just about as long. If I ever decided to go baby-face again, I would get it done by a professional.

  • SSurfer321

    While I haven't experienced the straight razor shave on my face, my former hair stylist used a straight razor on the back of my neck. The process wasn't nearly as elaborate; with only a hot towel applied for a few minutes, then hot foam, shave, pat dry, and finally aftershave tonic.
    I may have to look around town for a good barber shop as I am readying to remove my winter beard.

    • The barbers on base in Yokosuka were Asian females who did that, and their soft touches damn near put me to sleep every time.

      (suddenly misses the service)

  • mr. mzs zsm msz esq

    When I was 17 my dad took me on a business trip to Germany with him. I was suffering from jet lag and could not sleep and my dad went to sleep at some bizarre time. So I went and did some exploring. In my tired mind I noticed a barber shop and decided, hey I could use a haircut and a shave. That's where I got the only straight edge shave of my life. It was great, though there was only one solution instead of the many before and after the towel in my case. I have to admit that I was pretty freaked-out when the barber took-out the blade and started flipping it on a belt because I was not expecting it. But that hot towel was a great sensation.

  • I still don't have to shave.

    Just kidding. Mostly. I only shave every other day and will go the entire weekend without shaving. I've never partaken (partook) in the barber shop straight razor lather shave, though my brother tells me it is one of the best things to do. I don't even think my barber does it. I'll have to ask him next time I'm in. Which should be this weekend or I will start looking like Ringo Starr.

  • MrHowser

    Until I started being lazy and sleeping in, I shaved every morning with this. <img src="; width="500/">

    It's not an heirloom, just $6 on eBay. Blades can be had very cheaply online – I worked it out to $.02/shave.

    I'm just waiting till my birthday and hoping to receive a mug/brush/shave soap kit.

    • Mr_Biggles

      After doing a bunch of reading on the subject (curse you internet and your time wasting info), I also purchased a similar one on ebay along with a large sampler of different blades and a badger hair brush. Body Shop has a nice shaving soap that lathers well. I used it for a few years until this last Christmas when I let the beard grow again. The double edge razor gives a very nice shave, especially if you give yourself a bit of the hot towel treatment first and use a hot bowl for the soap. It's kind of a relaxing 10 minutes to yourself in an old school way, but it really does get tedious when you're in a hurry. Still, I S&S in the evenings and will probably go back to it when I'm tired of the beard. It's a lot grayer than it was when I last grew it. Mantracker jokes are getting tiresome already.

      • Mr_Biggles

        And I have done the straight razor shave, but only once. It was sublime. When we had our first kid some friends gave me a gift certificate for one at a swanky place downtown TO called Truefitt & Hill. The shave was stupidly expensive. Smooth like a baby's bum and I had ingrown hairs for days! I should go try it at a regular barber shop.

    • That's quite similar to the one I inherited from my great uncle, along with his straight razor. I've never tried the straight razor, but I'm in my third decade of using his safety razor.

  • Going to a barber and getting an old-school straight razor shave is one of the simple pleasures, something that every guy owes himself. I had a real barber I used to go to in Salt Lake, I imagine he's retired now, who was an expert at this. Back when I had hair, like when I was in the Utah Guard, I kept my hair in a tight flattop, and this guy was great at cutting those. I'd get a shave occasionally, too, and you feel like a real cool dude afterwards. Yeah, back in the day, everybody shaved with straight razors, but there's no way I'd try it myself.

  • Number_Six

    Straight razors scare the living shit out of me. If any barber came near me with one I'd like to think I'd put my years of hapkido practice to use, but really I'd just cry and wave my arms about like a cretin.

    • Deartháir

      Come to Edmonton. There's a new place in town where you get a shave from an appallingly-hot young girl who is really good at it, albeit slow. But when she's buxom and leaning over you in creative ways, you don't mind that much that she takes a long time to get the job done.

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