The brush is one of humanities earliest tool, from sweeping out our caves with a branch to the earliest known paintbrushes from the Paleolithic period (2.5 million years ago), the brush hasn’t changed much. The earliest known use of the mainstream shaving brush or shave brush we know today is possibly traced to France in the mid 1700 for the French aristocracy. The French actually call a shaving brush a "blaireau" or "badger" in English. These early designs were often made from exotic materials to cater to the elite who used them.
However this theory of origin is disputed as seen by this painting done in the mid 1600's of a barber-surgeon (the arrow points to a brush possibly used in shaving):
The Egyptians were likely the first to use shaving brushes, as brushes were a prolific tool in their culture. The first toothbrush was found in ancient Egypt. They also used make-up brushes extensively. The Egyptions were well known for removing body hair from themselves, including being some of the first head shavers. It was fashionable to be bald...who would want hair in the desert!
Egyptian Paint Brush Cir. 1300 BC...I have to think an early wet shaving Egyptian used this as a shaving brush while sitting by the river! - Courtesy of The Met Museum/New York
I am going to write this blog to answer some common questions about why to use a shaving brush and help you choose a shaving brush to buy, if you are considering one...I would say a shaving brush is important for your shaving kit or your mens grooming kit, but you decide.
Is a shaving brush necessary?
No...but it does make for a more pleasant and effective shave. I will add a little more color to the benefits but first some history and why we don't use brushes as much today:
In the early part of the 1900’s brushes were a key part of a man’s grooming kit, however in 1919 Barbasol introduced the first commercial shaving cream and it did not require a brush, it was a cream and didn’t sell much. From there, started the shaving cream wars including later the notorious canned shaving cream. The Barbosal brand still exists today...
The quest for a brushless shaving soap has been a long battle consisting of innovation and marketing. The first true brushless shaving soap that was embraced goes to Burma Shave in 1925...go figure but like Carbon Shaving Co Burma Shave was founded in Minneapolis (about ten blocks from the Carbon Shaving studio) and claimed to have exotic ingredients from the Malay Penninsula.
While its innovation of a brushless shaving cream was big...it was its marketing that brought traditional wet shaving into the mainstream.
(Photo credit: Scheinwerfermann)
You might have seen the jingles referenced in famous movies like "A River Runs through It" or "Stand by Me"... Most folks won't remember the product, but might know of the signs or jingles that made them famous. When sales were slow to start in 1927, the owners son, Allan Odell, took advantage of car ownership and road travel and spent $200 to create road side signs. He placed these signs about 100 feet apart to create memorable jingles (first signs were in Lakeville, Minnesota). Eventually these signs rolled out to 48 states. Numerous jingles were used, but the last sign was almost always "Burma Shave". A clean shaven Mickey Rooney talks about the story best in this video:
The canned shaving cream followed Burma Shave in 1949 and soon took over the market...the shaving brush saw its decline in mainstream wet shaving.
Why use a shaving brush?
The shaving brush serves multiple purposes when shaving, the primary purpose is:
1) It helps to whip up a good lather during shaving by aerating the shaving lather and soap
2) It helps to gently exfoliate the skin by removing dead skin. This frees up the pores and helps to prevent ingrown hairs and razor bumps.
3) It helps to raise the hairs from the surface of the skin, allowing the razor to cut more efficiently
4) With the right soap, it helps to moisturize the skin and add lubrication to the skin for a smooth, irritation free shave
How to shave with a shaving brush?
There are 2 schools of thought on how to shave with a shaving brush, One school of thought says to use a shaving bowl, the other school of thought is to "face lather" or develop a lather on the face.
1) Developing a bowl lather will likely produce a better lather, taking it up a notch, using a shaving scuttle will develop a warm lather.
Originally used in the late 1800 when warm water was not commonly available in houses, you could place hot water into the shaving scuttle to warm your shaving brush hairs and keep the shaving lather warm.
The technique of a bowl lathering regardless wether you use a shaving mug, a shaving bowl or a shaving scuttle, requires you to whip up a thick shaving cream lather by making quick circular, round scrubs with the soap and water in the bowl, adding just enough water using the brush to create a thick, rich shaving lather. How thick should the lather be? A simple test is to flick a little on the mirror or shower wall...if it slides down, it should be whipped up more. Another test is to let it dangle from the brush...you want it to hold yet slowly drop off your brush.
2) The other alternative and I’ll admit I use this technique, is to whip up the lather directly to your face. This step requires putting about an almond size amount of shaving cream on your brush and gently massage the cream onto your face. The lather will develop naturally as you work it onto your skin.
If you are using a hard shaving soap...I will “bloom” my soap by placing a little water into my shaving soap tub to let the warm water soften the soap and pull out any fragrances. When you apply the soap to your brush, a nice amount will stick to your brush, allowing you to lather the soap on your face. Kevy Shave shows how to “bloom” your soap in this video, take note of his technique:
Don't "bloom" the soap Kevy!!! I should note that a lot of the shaving enthusiasts might disagree with “blooming” your soap…its your journey, make your own opinions!
What are shaving brushes made of? What shaving brush is the best?
A critical part of your shave brush choice is the shaving brush knot or shaving bristles. The hair on a shaving brush is made from natural or synthetic fibers. I’ll talk about each of the material and grades of shaving brush knots below:
1) Badger hair: Badger hair comes from China...the badger is killed during harvesting of the hair. There are a number of different grades of badger hair available including, listed from least expensive to most expensive:
Pure badger hair – Cheapest grade, taken from the underbelly of the animal. The hair is stiffer and can be prickly.
Best badger hair – An increase in softness and the hair is gathered from numerous parts of the badger. Often it is mixed with softer hair around the neck to provide this grade.
Super badger hair – This shaving knot hair is softer and thicker than "Best" and is mostly harvested off the back of the animal and combined with other parts of the hair. The tips of the hair are softer and can hold more water. Special care should be taken with this quality of brush as the fine tapered tips can be damaged if not properly taken care off.
Silver Tip badger hair – This is the softest grade, taken only from the back of the animal. It is renowned for its soft, luxurious feel. It holds a lot of water and can produce a very thick lather. The tips are thinner and hand sorted if made right.
There are other grades and grades that are similar with different names. Gel tips is another term used for specially processed hair tips. The challenge with these grades of hair is, in nature you can see the difference of grades based on the color but often times manufacturers will color the hair to look like Silver Tip, even though it isn’t. The badger hair standard is also subjective and not an agreed to standard. Often the lowest grade of hair is marketed as Silvertip badger hair. Buyers, be careful where you source your shaving brush knots...
(Cute but tenatious badger used for badger hair shaving knots)
2) Horse hair shaving knots and Boar hair shaving brushes are another class of natural shaving brush hair. The boar is killed during harvesting and sometimes the horse, however horse hair can be harvested without killing the animal. Horse hair is often floppy with little backbone. Boar hair is stiffer, with more of a backbone and more aggressive on the skin...boar hair will soften as the split ends develop. I tend to like the boar hair of the 3 natural hair options, as I like the stiffness and the exfoliating action created by the higher "backbone" of the boar hair shaving brush bristles.
All natural hairs should be wet and soaked in warm water prior to shaving as they will absorb water and the extra time will heat up the bristles creating a more rich thick lather. They all usually have a larger break in period.
3) Synthetic Shaving Brushes - The final type of shaving knot is the synthetic hair shaving brush. Often people ask “Are synthetic shaving brushes any good?" Technology has come a long way...while this innovation has not been focused primarily on shaving brushes. The development of synthetic fibers for use in other brush applications has benefited the shaving industry greatly. These technologies have been developed primarily for the cosmetic industry and the artistic painting community (Interesting...but natural Sable hair is still considered the best for a fine art paint brush).
Synthetic shaving brushes are vegan friendly (No animal cruelty), long lasting, soft and less prone to rot and damage. They can be cleaned easier and are less likely to be damaged if neglected...I admit I don’t take good care of my shaving gear as much as I should...guilty!
The shaving knots we use at Carbon shaving Co. are synthetic and hand tied in Germany by local artisans. Each brush fiber is selected for its softness and meticulously hand sorted to create a luxurious, soft, durable knot. The company we chose to supply our brush knots has been making them for over 100 years... we are lucky to work with them as they are very selective with who they do business.
How to buy a Shaving Brush?
Apart from the material and hair source that makes up the shaving knot, the below diagram shows relevant dimensions and common measurements used in shaving brush selection. Your manufacturer should be able to answer these questions:
Another point to consider is the shape of the knot. Numerous shapes exist namely a bulb shape shave knot, a fan shape, a flat shape or some hybrid shape of the 3 mentioned. The bulb shape has shorter hairs around the diameter giving extra support or backbone to the loft. The fan shape has longer hairs around the outside so more hair touches your skin but less backbone. The flat shape has even longer hairs surrounding the knot providing less backbone but even more hair touches the skin. The bulb shape is the most common and balances both backbone and the hair that contacts your skin. See below image:
How to take care of a shaving brush? How to clean a shaving brush?
This question can be broken down into 2 brush cleaning methods. The first is everyday use of your brush. The second is a deep clean of your shaving brush which should be done every few months. The general steps to clean a shaving brush after a shave are:
1) Thoroughly rinse your brush with clean fresh water after shaving. This will help to remove debris left from the shaving brush including dead skin, cut hair and soap scum. Our knots are well made and I will flick the brush after a thorough rinsing. Be careful with other knots, as this flicking can loosen hairs from your knot.
2) With natural fibers you should be extra careful and use a towel to gently dry the bristles.
3) Especially with natural hair, store in a dry part of your shaving den or bathroom. Synthetic fibers are more durable but keeping your gear dry regardless of the bristles is important as it will help reduce the growth of bacteria and mold.
3) Keeping your shaving brush clean is critical if you have sensitive skin. The bacteria and debris that can collect in a brush can cause irritation.
The above are steps for every day use of your brush, but periodically, we also recommend a deep clean. We also recommend this step when you have a new brush...badger hair will smell like a ferral cat! The best approach to a deep clean of a shaving brush is:
1) Soak your brush in a good dish soap like “Dawn” or “Ivory” dish soap. Soak it for a ½ hour and then agitate the brush gently in this warm solution of soap and warm water.
2) Rinse thoroughly with clean water until all the soap is removed
3) Mix a solution of ½ water and ½ white distilled vinegar. Soak the brush in this solution for 20 minutes. Agitate the brush again in this solution and then rinse thoroughly to remove any trace of the vinegar.
4) I would not recommend this with natural hair, but with our knots, a quick dip in alcohol followed by a towel and air dry will help remove any bacteria.
What makes a good shaving brush?
The bulk of the functional design that goes into a shaving brush is the shaving brush knot as mentioned above. Every user has a preference for what makes a brush their favorite. What I will touch on now is the shaving brush handle...as with shaving knots everyone has a preference.
Pick a brush handle that is comfortable in your hand, pick a material that will last. There are a lot of great brush makers in the wetshaving community. Be cautious of wood handles that have not been stabilized or soaked in epoxy...wood will tend to rot and cause mold to grow on it if not made well.
With our most recent brush design we chose to prioritize weight, balance and ergonomics with our design. Our brushes are designed with comfort and durability in mind.
Each of our Carbon Shaving Co. brushes are made with grade 5 titanium(we also periodically offer this design in other material), hand finished to a high polish to minimize the cracks and crevices where bacteria can grow and collect. Our new brush design brings a new balance point, larger knot (both diameter and loft), new ergonomic shape, larger maximum handle diameter and is about 40% lighter compared to our first generation shaving brush.
Each brush is machined, assembled and hand finished in Minneapolis, USA... The shape of the handle provides a natural, comfortable grip point. The balance point is centered at the natural groove of the handle shape. Every one of our brush handles are laser engraved with our makers mark, material noted and a unique serial number with the year created denoted. We also make custom brushes using exotic materials...these are generally limited quantities.
Other questions that come up regarding how to use a shave brushes include:
Can I use a shaving brush with foam? - Yes, but you do not need to create the lather, however a brush will help raise your hairs and exfoliate your skin prior to shaving. Avoid shaving cream from a can...you run the risk of drying your skin out. They generally include cheap non desirable ingredients....
Can you use a shaving brush with gel? - Yes! Gel tends to lather quick with a brush. Using a brush will help exfoliate your skin when you have sensitive skin.
Best shaving brush you can buy? -A fairly subjective question but I would submit for the "Best Shaving Brush You Can Buy" category. Our luxury line of Damascus shaving brushes are probably the best you can buy, some of our exotic material would also fall into this luxury category of the best shaving brush you can buy. We custom make these shaving brush handles and offer them with or with out a knot. OK we are biased, so take this with a grain of salt but darn they look really good and shy of gold, you will be hard pressed to find more exotic material!
You can buy very inexpensive brushes at mass retailers for super cheap. If you are just starting out, going in that direction to start might help shape your preferences...they tend to be small but a good starter shaving brush.
When ready, Carbon Shaving Co. offers some of the best shaving brushes you can get in the market including some made with our custom forged exotic material.
We don’t offer badger shaving knots, boar shaving brushes or horse hair brush knots as we are unable to source this material responsibly and were unable to verify that the animals were cared for humanely. Most of the natural shaving brush knots you see in the market are sourced from China. We do offer our shaving brush handles without a brush knot, so you can customize a luxury shaving brush knot to your preference. We think you will like our synthetic knots. I eat bacon and use leather but save the badgers...synthetic brush material has come a long way!
Happy shaving and always feel free to reach out here if you have questions or want to talk shaving! Comment below if you have anything to add or if I missed anything!
Thanks for reading...I hope this helps on your wetshaving journey.
Misc. At CarbonShavingCo notes: Wet shaving is a bit of an artistic form. It is personal to your skin type, which dictates the type of soap and shaving brush you will be using. Opting between a straight razor or safety razor (disposable razors won't be the best of experiences at all). Use of some hot water to open up your pores and soften the facial hair is a good thing. When it comes to the skin condition, such as sensitive skin, razor bumps and at times hair growth in multiple directions extra care and consideration must be taken to avoid razor burn caused by dry shaving, lack of lubrication, wrong direction, etc.. At CarbonShavingCo, our construction of our razors aim to be bacteria-free as much as possible to help avoid allergic reactions by being polished with easy to clean surface, the design maximizes flow of debri, the pinch design reduces gaps for collection of debri and germs, we aim to help people with sensitive skin and prevent razor burn and ingrown hairs. and irritation caused by shaving. We believe that wet shaving is the best approach with a good shaving soap as opposed to using men's disposable razors. Keeping your gear clean is so important if you are sensitive. Join the community of wet shavers today to learn more so you can enjoy your personal spa experience.