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The Devil's in the Details; a Mans Guide to the Straight Razor Shave

Updated on December 5, 2018
Chris Butcher profile image

Chris Butcher is a founder of Butchers Body Shop as well as a freelance writer and photographer.

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The straight razor shave!

The time-honored tradition of being leaned back in a chair, hovered over by another man and held hostage with a “Cut Throat” razor. Understandably, some people are intimidated by this notion. However, armed with a little knowledge, and a few tricks, you don’t need to be. In fact, you might be more inclined to get a straight razor shave. And, as it turns out, there are a few good reasons to.


As I recently learned from James “Nippers” Zuniga, the owner of Nippers Clippers & Shave Parlor, a straight razor shave is not just an ordinary morning shave, its an experience. Each part of the shave, from the initial hot towel, to the final application of aftershave, has a definite purpose, specific reason and particular order within the shaving process, to assure the cleanest, closest shave possible.


Nippers has a lifetime of experience barbering. From his humble beginnings, cutting hair in front of his grandmother’s window, to his new, recently-opened, signature barber shop bearing his name, Nippers has shaved the faces of generations of men. I was lucky enough to witness this craftsman’s skills, firsthand.


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Evidenced by his loyal customer following, Nippers and his fellow barbers, Jorge Torango Jr. and Chivo Rodriguez discussed the equipment, steps, and benefits of a straight razor shave, during a typical weekend, at this packed, West Phoenix Barber Shop.


Armed with his blue metal-flake, hand-engraved, custom clippers, Nippers laid his first customer back in the seat of his hand-tooled, Emil J. Paidar, black leather barber chair and began to discuss the techniques that he’s learned to provide his customers with a truly unique shaving experience. As he applied a small amount of disappearing cream onto the customer’s face, James explained that his shaves vary slightly from what’s commonly taught in modern barbering schools. Over the years, he’s picked up a few tricks of the trade, from different barbers of various cultures. Continually working to perfect his techniques, James is as much a student of the game, as he is a teacher.


As he wrapped the customer’s face with the towel, he began to massage the area around the face and explained that the heat and moisture from the towel helps the pores of the face to open. This pre-shave preparation serves two very useful purposes: It allows the face to be cleaned before the shave and because the pores are open and clean, the facial hairs stand up straight, making them easier to cut, resulting in a smoother shave.

TIP:In a pinch for time? Generally, a warm shower before shave, can help warm and moisturize the face, saving you some much needed time, depending on the morning.


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Nippers chooses to use a second, even warmer towel after the facial massage. He explained that it might take an extra bit of time, but, the second hot towel helps to dilate the hair follicle and lays the foundation for a great shave.


After the towel is removed, some barbers, and general shaving aficionados will apply a light amount of pre shave oil or balm. A pre shave oil or balm helps lubricate the skin, which in turn allows to help the razor glide easily along your skin without giving you razor burn. It also helps the skin retain moisture and when used in combination with a quality shave soap, it can help you achieve a great shave, with less razor strokes. One of the great advantages of a straight razor shave is, when performed correctly, there should be no annoying, painful, razor burn. This is possible because you are running the blade against your skin fewer times, when compared to a disposable razor. Less shave strokes usually means less irritation to the face.


After some general barbershop banter, straight razor preparation and a quick handshake “hello “ from another customer, Nippers removed the towel and began to prepare the shaving lather.


As he whipped up the lather with a badger hair shaving brush, Nippers informed me that shaving soaps, or in this instance, Butcher’s Body Shop Shave Soap, have been specifically designed for straight razor shaving. James further informed me that application and preparation of the shave lather are just as important as the actual shave. When the lather is applied to the face with a brush, in a circular motion, it serves three purposes:


  • The first reason to apply a shave lather with a brush, rather than by hand, is that it assures the shave lather is put on uniformly across the face, getting the shaving cream under each hair follicle. This helps to keep the facial hair standing straight up and easier to shave. Nipper’s explained that quality shaving soaps often have ingredients intended to help hold the hair up, as well as provide adequate moisture and lubrication during the shave.
  • The second reason is that you avoid matting down the facial hair, which can make shaving with a straight razor more difficult.Finally, when you apply a shave lather by hand, often your hands absorb the oils intended for your face.
  • Finally, when you apply a shave lather by hand, often your hands absorb the oils intended for your face.

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As James began the shave, I noticed his first stroke was near the ear, side burn area, on the right side of the customer’s face. Working from the top down, the razor is precisely balanced in his tattooed hand.
“You shouldn’t feel a good shave.” James proclaimed over the subtle sounds of DJ Big Beat Blaster. “Some dudes fall asleep and you gotta wake ‘em up,” he chuckled as he continued the shave onto the left side of the face.


Carefully maneuvering the blade, continually checking the “feel” of the shave with his hand, he wipes the blade clean with a rag neatly folded upon the customer’s chest. I watched in awe as this modern-day, urban Samurai, wielded his blade with humble confidence and predator-like concentration.


“Oh, oh no, don’t bring me down”— the voice of Eric Burton wailed as he and the Animals played over the shop speakers. Seeming to move in time with the music, James carefully worked the razor around the neck, following the grain of the hair. As he continued onto the left side, shaving from the top down, I noticed one particular thing…The same thing you notice watching all true craftsmen work: No wasted motion. Each blade stroke, perfectly positioned to follow the contours and angles of the face. With precision he shaved around the nose, his hands rivaled even the greatest of surgeons working around the lips and he finished with what seemed like one pass, on the always difficult area around the chin.


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“I learned this trick from this Russian cat,” James said, walking back from the sink and folding a cool, wet towel lengthwise. I watched as he sprayed “Clubman” Aftershave onto the towel from the familiar green-labeled bottle. “I’d have him shave me once a week and I learned this from him”. Nippers then explained that when the aftershave is mixed with the cool water on the towel, the predictable sting of the aftershave is taken away when applied to the face. The result on the customers face is cool, refreshing feeling, contrasted against the earlier warm towels and just-completed shaving process. After wiping away the excess shave lather, the towel is gently pressed against the face.


As his final step, James applies aftershave balm, massaging it directly on the face. As he explained, the aftershave balm helps moisturize the face, as well as keep it feeling smooth.

Then the familiar scent hit my nose: Bay Rum! —for generations, the aroma that signals the end of The Straight Razor Shave.…and the approving smile of confidence as he examines the results in the mirror of a Nippers’ Clippers straight razor shave.






This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

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