Open-Source Shaving

Recently I saw a Basic Instructions comic in which the author/protagonist, Scott, weighs up his shaving options. You can read the full comic here, assuming you don’t read Basic Instructions already (and you should).

As the folks leaving comments on that comic quite rightly note, the comic covers only two of a number of different solutions to shaving: disposable razors, and cartridge razors, neglecting at least three other alternatives (even if you don’t count “just let it grow” as an option). Thanks in part of many of these comments, he’s now going to experiment with a few different options.

I’ve tried more different approaches than most gents, I suspect, so I thought I’d share with you a brief history of my shaving experience:

Electric Shaver

Surely I can’t be the only person who’s found these to be quite so useless as they appear. I’ve owned two in my time: a basic one that my dad gave me during my teen years in lieu of the iconic father-son bonding experience that I’m lead to believe that many other boys found in learning to shave from their dads; and a second, more-fancy one given to me in a gift box which also contained other male grooming tools (some of which are actually really quite useful: it’s just a pity that the shaver itself isn’t up to much).

I don’t hear anybody else complaining, so I’m probably in a minority: perhaps it’s the the softness of my skin… or the prickliness of my hair… or maybe I’m just “doing it wrong.” The net result is much the same: if I use an electric shaver it cuts my facial hair down just enough to still be slightly stubbly, it’s near-impossible to make a good effort of the area under my jaw, and there isn’t the control to be able to work around the outlines of a partial beard, as I have nowadays. Perhaps worse yet, it always feels like they “pluck” almost as much as they “cut”. The first few times I used one I took it apart to try to work out if I’d perhaps missed a crucial set-up step, like pulling out some kind of secret pin that actually engaged the razor blades. I hadn’t.

Disposable Razors

So I ended up using disposable razors. They’re cheap and simple and they work, right? They’re not the easiest things in the world, with their flimsy little plasticky handles and their strange shape… Although there is the fact that they’re not actually very sharp.

You know how they say that you’re more likely to cut yourself with a blunt blade than a sharp one, because of the increased pressure you have to use? Well there’s a limit to that logic, and the limit is when the blade is so dull that you’d be hard-pressed to cut yourself if you were trying. I don’t know if it’s an anti-suicide measure by the Bic company, but wow are their blades ineffective. Sometimes you feel like you’d be better using the edge of the shitty plastic handle than the metal blade edge.

Cartridge Safety Razor

One day, back in in my first year at University, an unexpected parcel arrived for me. It turned out to be from Gillette, and contained a Gillette Mach3 (which had been launched a year-and-a-bit earlier). Their thinking, of course, was that as they’d given me a free razor I’d use it and then continue to buy the blades. “The fools,” I thought, “I’m perfectly happy with my twice-a-week-if-I-can-be-bothered shaves with these throwaway plasic things!” I planned to use the new razor ’til I’d blunted (all three of) it’s blades, then I’d just throw it away. No problem.

It turns out that giving away free razors like this might have been one of the smartest marketing promotions that Gillette has ever done, because, for me at least, it worked. A three-blade cartridge razor is a fabulous way to shave, and it’s a huge improvement on disposables. I’m sure that over the nine years or so I used my Mach3 – even if you don’t count the extra one I bought when I lost one – Gillette more-than made their money back in all of the cartridges I bought.

It’s got a proper handle with grips that work even when it’s wet, a funky button-release to let go of spent cartridges (and for me, at least, the blades would last a reasonable amount of time, presumably aided by the fact that the work was shared amongst three cutting surfaces), it tilts gently to work around hard-to-reach spots… it’s just a really well-designed bit of technology.

Traditional “Double-Edged” Safety Razor

Back in the early years of the 20th century, the removable-blade safety razor appeared to fill the demand for a razor that was easier than straight razors, which required such care and attention to both use and maintenance that many men just said “fuck it” and went to the barber’s instead. For decades, the double-edged razor was king, until it started to give way in the 1970s to cartridge razors and electric shavers. There are two major reasons for this change: firstly, cartridge razors are easier to use than double-edged razors – you can use them even if you’re tired, or drunk, or stupid. Secondly, cartridge razors (and, to a lesser extent, except approaching Christmas, electric shavers) have been very heavily marketed for years and years: this makes sense from the perspective of the manufacturer, because of the principle of vendor lock-in. Vendor lock-in, more often discussed in the context of electronic goods and computer software, is about forcing the users of your product to continue to use your product: to remove from them the freedom to go elsewhere. It’s particularly obvious in the marketplace of cartridge razors, because each manufacturer can manufacture blade cartridges which fit only it’s own products. An entire marketing strategy, the razor-and-blades business model, is named after this approach.

At the tail end of this hundred-year history of razors is now, 2009. I’ve gotten good use out of my Mach3, but there are a few things over the last year or so that have really put me off continuing to use it:

  • Actual good-old Mach3 blades became harder and harder to find as the manufacturer began to focus production on Mach3 Turbo and M3Power cartridges, both of which cost more.
  • Mach3 Turbo is basically the same thing as Mach3, only a little more expensive for the privilege of “anti-friction blades”, which seems like a marketing gimmick – I certainly can’t tell the difference, and if there’s anything to learn from this blog post it’s that I’m reasonably picky
  • M3Power blades are identical to Mach3 Turbo, only more expensive still(!). What do you get for your money is “even more lubrication” (yeah, right) and blades that are compatible with the micropulse (i.e. vibrating) feature of the M3Power handle, which virtually everybody says is a scam.
  • Seriously, the marketing is bullshit. It was proven in court.
  • As the Onion predicted back in 2004, we’re starting to see the first five-blade razors getting serious marketing treatment: the “Gillette Fusion Power Stealth” (presumably targeted at men who like awesome-sounding buzzwords: seriously, what do any of those words have to do with removing hair?) have five blades and a sixth “precision trimmer”. That’s six blades every time you buy a cartridge: how much does that cost? I don’t even want to know. And someday, they’ll stop selling Mach3 blades entirely and they’ll try to force me to switch to an even more profitable razor, probably with seven blades and a lubricating, vibrating strip that sings the blues.
  • Gillette’s razor blades are sold at 4750% profit. Four fucking thousand seven fucking hundred and fifty fucking per cent. That’s like me going to Sainsburys and buying a loaf of bread (85p), a small pack of margarine (44p), and a medium-sized pack of cooked ham (£1.64), making ten ham sandwiches, and then selling them for £14 each. For a ham sandwich. £14.

So, a month and a bit ago, I decided to escape from this trap, and go open-source with an old-school double-edged razor.

Going Open Source

Sick of the marketing nonsense and the overinflated (and rising) costs of cartridges, I bought myself a traditional style safety razor (it looks a lot like the one in the photo in the last section), brush, soap, and a sackload of blades: and wow, blades are cheap.

It turns out that learning to use a double-edged safety razor is just a little bit like learning to shave all over again, with plenty of opportunity for self-injury along the way: although it doesn’t take so long – despite managing to clip myself the first few times I used it (nothing that a quick application of titanium dioxide couldn’t fix, albeit in an ouchy-ouchy way). It also takes quite a bit longer than shaving with a cartridge razor: rather than the eight minutes or so I’d spend shaving with my Mach3, I spend about 18 minutes in the bathroom with my double-edged safety razor. That’s not the end of the world, because I only bother to shave about one day in three anyway, and adding ten minutes to the time it takes to do something so infrequent isn’t going to kill me.

It’s actually remarkably good for the extra time it takes, though: I’m suddenly all remarkably-smooth, having shaved with this scary-looking implement: better than I’d ever managed with a cartridge or with a disposable, and far, far better than I ever got out of an electric.

So: cheap as chips to get blades for, and a better shave, at the expense of taking longer to actually have a shave. It’s a good deal in my book, and I’d recommend giving it a try, gents, if you haven’t already. Plus, you get the same kind of fuzzy feeling you get from using Linux or OpenOffice.org because it’s just a little bit more like using something that’s genuinely free of vendor lock-in.

Plus, it looks cool.

(I’m considering trying a proper straight razor at some point – or, more likely, one which takes snapped razor-blades in an injector, because I don’t particularly feel like having to learn how to sharpen and hone a true razor – anybody got any experience of them?)

11 replies to Open-Source Shaving

  1. I thought about switching to a straight razor at some point because I had the same experience with electric razors and disposables as you (I currently use a Mach 3 – tried the Fusion but it gave me major razor burn)…

    The initial investment is quite a lot, but fair enough it’s mostly reuseable. However, you are supposed to replaced all the bits and pieces like the strop on a regular basis and the whetstone on a slightly less regular basis so I don’t think it would work out much less expensive… I’m guessing it’s a ‘manly’ thing.

    So I stuck with the Mach 3 and use a brush and soap instead of cans of shaving cream. That saves quite a bit.

    Please show me the double-edged safety razor next time I come round – I haven’t encountered one before…

  2. @The Pacifist:

    Doesn’t a brush and soap make an awesome difference, in itself? You’re welcome to take a look at my DE, or I think JTA has one, too. Mine’s a Parker Model 91R.

    The “clip in half a razor blade” variety of straight razor, rather than a “real” straight razor, looks like a sensible mid-way solution to me. No sharpening, no stropping, and they start at about £8. You just snap regular DE razorblades in half and slip one of the two halves in. This is what the traditional barber under the Clocktower Bazaar does, and it looks cool as fuck but without all that honing nonsense.

  3. I use electric. A major reason is that being visually impaired I can’t see my stubble – so I wouldn’t know where to shave, especially when my face is all wet.
    So I have to use the shaver and feel where still needs doing. Its not perfect I must admit.

    The alternative that was proposed on Dave Gorman’s “Genius” radio programme was “a whole face bespoke mask lined with razor blades requiring just a few movements making shaving quicker and easier”. Unsurprisingly it didn’t win!

  4. Electric shavers are evil.
    Mine’s really good for shaving my head but it hurts like hell if I use it on my face

    I normally use disposable but used the electric one this morning because I couldn’t be bothered faffing with shaving foam and stuff. My chin is still sore now.

  5. I know very little about razors, but I do know that the Charity Shop I’m volunteering in has a handy little old-fashioned gadget for sharpening razors that I don’t think anyone’s going to buy. It’s a fiver. I can get it for you to play with if you’d like…

  6. I currently use an electric simply out of laziness but I have to admit I’m tempted to go back to shaving with bics.
    Before I grew my goatee I’d gotten to the point where I was regularly shaving with just a bic razor and cold water, I wonder if I can still get away with that.

  7. I have a straight razor, because I am an enormous manly man. Got a leather strop and a badger hair brush for putting on soap. Because, however, I’m an impatient man I’ve never knuckled down and learnt to use it bar a few scraping attempts which removed maybe 5 hairs out of 1000. I’ve stuck with the mach 3, although I am getting irratated about the ads trying to convert people to the turbo. Why do I need to upgrade? THE HAIR IS BEING REMOVED FROM MY FACE ALREADY.

    I reconcile my failure with the stright blade by telling myself that impatience is manly too.

  8. Agreed. I love double-edged razors, although I find them pretty quick to shave with — a bit of soap and a hand mirror in the shower and it barely takes a minute in the morning. Using one edge for each side of the face means it’s almost self-cleaning and wears evenly, too.

  9. Since you have a light beard, this might not be appropriate for you. But I’ll share anyway.

    I have a rough scratchy beard. I switched to a Norelco rotary head electric razor (Norelco 5825 XL) in 1990 and have NEVER looked back. Shaving takes under 3 minutes, is closer than any blade I’d used (girlfriend confirmed), and in 19 years (wow, I’m getting old) hasn’t cut me once. I can even shave in the car. I bought an extra one and haven’t spent a penny on blades in all that time. If I haven’t shaved in 3 days, shaving is “ouchy” because it pulls the hairs but it doesn’t ever hurt or redden my skin. The first week I used it (19 years ago) it was uncomfortable to use but that was it. Read more about my experience if you care to…

    ++ on trying out the safety razor! I’d love to read a blog update in 3 months to see if you stick with it… for love or money… as they say.

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