Michael recently completed the seventh edition (now subtitled the Double-Edge Way), so we thought it would be a good time to sit down with him to learn more about what’s new in the Guide, traditional wet shaving, and his life.
Brian: Michael, by now, I think your story is pretty well-known. But for those unfamiliar, tell us a bit about yourself and how you rediscovered wet shaving.
Michael: I started shaving around 1955, using a DE razor and Gillette Blue Blades, which (so far as I can recall) were the only game in town (a very small town at that, in southern Oklahoma). Old Spice shaving soap and a brush were used, and Old Spice aftershave.
The water was hard and I had little instruction: two passes, one down and one up, the second pass without lather. It’s no wonder that I got nicks a-plenty. Around 1957 we (my step-dad and I) switched to Schick Injector razors, which didn’t really help. So that fall when I got to college I grew a beard and kept it for about 30 years.
When I resumed shaving, cartridges and canned foam had taken over the market, so I was much better off with respect to nicks, but on the other hand shaving turned out to be a tedious, boring, hateful chore… until I rediscovered traditional shaving.
The first step was finding out that good shaving creams were still available, so I immediately dropped the canned foam. I had trouble making lather with shaving soap, though shaving-cream lather was easy, so I stopped using shaving cream altogether.
The next step was to step up to the DE. The section in the Guide on “The Fear Barrier” reflects my personal experience: taking that initial stroke, remembering those high-school shaves, took a bit of an effort, but then things went very well from that point on.
Brian: How has wet shaving changed since you rediscovered it? How has the community changed?
Michael: The rapidly increasing number of men who use traditional tools—and thus the rapidly increasing visibility of those tools—is the main change. This increasing demand has stimulated many new ventures, of course: people making shaving soaps and shaving creams, brushes, new models of razors, and many new on-line vendors. I do get the feeling that traditional wetshaving with a DE is crossing over into the mainstream, mainly because it fulfills its promises.
Brian: Where is wet shaving going? How "mainstream" do you think it will get?
Michael: I don’t think traditional wetshaving will actually be a majority any time soon, but I do have to recognize that social momentum can build quite rapidly. A few celebrity enthusiasts could trigger an avalanche of new adherents, and the suppliers are today better positioned to respond to new demand.
If you think about the twin benefits of better shaves—not simply in terms of smoothness and benefits for the skin, but also in terms of how the shave becomes actually an enjoyable experience—and lower costs (if some discipline in purchasing is maintained), it’s easy to see how the switchover could happen rapidly: if a man has several friends who are vocal about the benefits, he will probably give it a try, and most who try it seem to stick with it.
Brian: What's new in the 7th edition?
Michael: I approached this edition with the idea it would be the last edition—I’m 75 and my eyesight is starting to decline, so it seemed a good idea to try to wrap it up.
I cover new products, of course—the list of artisanal soapmakers has grown quite a bit as more have emerged, and we also find new razors and new razor manufacturers. Another big change is better descriptions of some of the techniques—not only are they explained more clearly, they also reflect modifications based on continuing experience and experimentation. How best to load a shaving brush has changed, for example, and the use of citric acid to soften hard water for shaving is new in this edition. I also have thought more about why traditional wetshaving is so enjoyable and so satisfying, and I expanded that section a fair amount.
Brian: What advice would you give to those just starting their traditional wet shaving journey?
Michael: One suggestion is to make the change in two steps. First, get a brush and a shaving cream or shaving soap, learn to load the brush and make lather, and start using true lather in the shave. This will immediately improve the shave and the cost, whether time or money, is not high.
Then, a month or two later, get a DE safety razor and a blade sampler pack and start shaving with that. This will improve the shave a bit more, save money, and result in greater enjoyment.
But, of course, I wrote the entire Guide specifically to answer this question, so there’s more to consider in the details and more information I would give. For example, I have a good-sized section describing the various options and considerations in choosing a shaving brush—the various brands available, the characteristic of different bristles and knots, and so on.
Brian: How about a few pearls of wisdom for those with more experience?
Michael: New boar brushes can be intensely lathercidal: when you pick up the brush for a second pass, the lather's gone. Over the course of a week of daily shaves, you can see the lather lasting longer and longer, and by the end of the week, the brush no longer hates lather.
The same can happen with a badger brush, though the break-in is much faster and the brush starts loving lather more quickly: by the 3rd or 4th shave, the brush easily holds lather for the full shave.
I didn't notice this for a while because when I got a new brush I would make practice lathers---unknowingly washing away the lathercidal tendency.
Regarding a BBS (baby-butt smooth) result: Do not try for a BBS result. Instead, focus on doing excellent prep and pay close attention to using light pressure and maintaining a good blade angle.
Let a BBS result happen when it will. Sooner or later, a shave (that seemed to you as though you did it like any of your other shaves) will result in a BBS finish. It will be a surprise, and you will find yourself obsessively feeling the smoothness of your face (faceturbation).
Resume not trying for a BBS finish, instead focusing on doing a good prep and using good technique. Then, a while later, you will get another BBS result. And then, over time, a BBS result will happen more and more frequently, without your ever trying for it.
Brian: One theme that seems to run through your shaving blog is that you're always learning. Give us an example of something you learned recently.
Michael: That though I love iKon razors in general, the new iKon Tech is not for me. :)
One problem with learning improvements in technique is that quite frequently such learning is unconscious. That is, the part of you that learns the technique is the adaptive unconscious (cf. Timothy Wilson’s book Strangers to Ourselves: Discovering the Adaptive Unconscious). As a result, to become consciously aware of what you learned takes a certain amount of time and observation and sometimes a chance accident.
For example: I unconsciously learned that in doing the XTG pass on my neck, I can get good results at two little indentations just under my jawline on either side of my chin by steepening the blade angle slightly and changing the path from XTG to something that’s between XTG and ATG—sort of a slanted path.
I was totally unconscious of this until I was shaving with the Gillette Guard, a single-bladed cartridge made for sale in India. (I use the Gillette Guard when I’m traveling with carry-on luggage to some destination where I cannot expect to find DE blades.)
I got to the point of shaving XTG under my chin, unconsciously lowered the handle of the razor slightly, and nothing happened—the cartridge, of course, pivots so that it always is at the same angle, regardless of handle action: an automatic transmission, not a manual. It was a curious feeling—something like the old joke “I have a knock-knock joke. You start.” You get into it and then there’s an unexpected absence that takes you by surprise. And the surprise—something that did not happen though I (unconsciously) expected it to—revealed to me the technique that I had unconsciously discovered and adopted.
That sort of process, helped along by many little experiments and paying attention to the questions novices ask and the assumptions they make, is what teases out the discoveries, one by one.
Experience is not one big thing, it’s a jillion little things. It’s like panning for gold dust: you collect the valuable tiny things little by little, but in time it mounts up. I imagine you have much the same sort of experience in soapmaking: learning lots of little things that cumulatively make a big difference.
Brian: How big is your hardware and software collection? Any tips on staying on your significant other's good side with respect to your shaving hobby?
Michael: Having separate bathrooms works wonders. :) And having a good marriage is very helpful. In a bad marriage, each partner tends to look for reasons to justify their dissatisfaction and anger, and in a good marriage, each looks for how to help the other.
I have a very large collection, and that has a downside: every collection must at some point be unloaded, and that is a great flaming pain. I recommend against collecting, for that reason and because of cost, but some (like myself) are drawn to collecting.
I have around 100 or so razors (some are in a box and not used: rejects for one reason or another) and dozens of shaving soaps and a few dozen brushes. One reason for so many is the Guide: I wanted to avoid as much as possible discussing products with which I had no experience. Thus I tend to buy a lot of soaps, brushes, and razors. Having such variety does help by expanding one’s experience—you notice things by trying different soaps or brushes or razors that you would not notice if you used only one.
I’m starting to reduce the razor collection now, and will be listing razors in online auctions.
Brian: What's going on in your life beyond shaving? Any cookbook writing in your future?
Michael: I do love cooking and trying new foods and new dishes, but probably no cookbooks, though I regularly post recipes—both those I’ve created and those I’ve discovered, on my blog. But I tend not to use cookbooks anymore. I do a search, review the recipes that I find, and either pick one or blend several. So since I don’t use a cookbook, I doubt that I will write one.
I did, however, once collect my thoughts on cooking in a PDF book that you can download from my blog. I am thinking now that I should update that.
Other things I’m doing: I read a lot. Right now, along with other books, I’m rereading the Jack Aubrey/Stephen Maturin series by Patrick O’Brian, Napoleonic-era British Navy novels. The first three in the series are pretty much a trilogy: Master and Commander, Post Captain, and H.M.S. Surprise.
I watch a fair number of movies, and when I find one exceptionally interesting, I’ll blog it and explain why. Recently, for example, I thought Hyena (not a terribly good movie) was extremely interesting for the visual images of the cinematography and for the soundtrack that accompanied it. Sword of the Beast, a samurai movie from 1965 that’s in the Criterion collection, was an excellent movie on all counts and had a particularly interesting plot, complex and nuanced.
I like to play contract bridge. I’ve been enjoying playing online. And we have a goofy cat—though that’s probably redundant, especially for a Maine Coon cat, which is what she is. That provides some diversion.
Thanks, Michael for spending some time with me, and for your contributions to the wet shaving community.
You can learn more about where to buy the seventh edition of Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving the Double-Edge Way on Michael’s blog, along with his cooking exploits, daily shaves and thoughts and opinions on many other subjects.