The art of cut-throat shaving
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The cut-throat razor is an appealing throwback to traditional shaving. It’s heroically old school, both an objet d’art and a challenge. “It’s the apex of wet shaving,” says Robert Burton, ecommerce manager at The Executive Shaving Company, which sells a range of cut-throats. “You’re going back to a traditional type of shaving that was used for centuries before King Gillette came along with the safety razor in 1901. Ultimately it’s an open blade – there’s no protection, it’s you and your technique and the blade – there’s a challenge to that.”
And it’s not one easily mastered. The first time I tried shaving with a cut-throat, my face looked as if I’d had an accident with a lawnmower. I would have given up but for a subsequent cut-throat lesson with a traditional barber in Mayfair.
“Don’t shave with a cut-throat when you’re late for work,” says Barry Klein, managing director of Taylor of Old Bond Street, whose Jermyn Street store offers lessons. “Give yourself time.”
Klein says that the biggest difference from a regular razor is the fact that you’re not looking square-on to the mirror but to the side. “That leaves you slightly blinded. The trick is to start with your cheeks, then use your regular razor to finish off your chin and neck area, and then progress as you get used to it.” “When you look back at pictures of the Victorian era, most gents had a moustache for a good reason,” adds Burton. “Shaving under your nose is not easy with a cut-throat.” But, with persistence, both say a degree of proficiency is attainable.
The cut-throat – or straight – razor has long held a special place in popular imagination. It was the weapon of choice for the fictional demon barber of Fleet Street, Sweeney Todd. More recently, a cut-throat was the focus for one of the more sexually charged scenes in Bond history, with a lathered-up Daniel Craig receiving a very close shave from Naomie Harris’s Miss Moneypenny in Skyfall. The scene led to one retailer reporting a sales increase of open razors of 405 per cent. Klein says he sold four months’ worth of stock in four weeks.
The challenge is to keep the angle of the blade at approximately 30 degrees to the skin. At the correct angle, it glides smoothly. Too upright and it catches, causing painful nicks. The cheek on the dominant side is the easy part; it’s when you need to cross your hand to the other side that things start to get complicated. It can require the steady hand of a surgeon.
A traditional steel-bladed cut-throat razor is also a thing of beauty. They typically start from around £150. The German-made Dovo Bismarck (£175) has a gold-plated 6/8ths carbon-steel blade, a gold-plated tang (the prong you rest your little finger on to control the blade), and an ebony-wood handle, known as the scales, reflecting the role it plays in balancing the blade. The Thiers-Issard Sheep and Wolf (£244.50), meanwhile, is handmade in France using Sheffield silver steel with an olive-wood handle. A Burr Elm wood box set of seven Thiers-Issard Le Chasseur straight razors, each one hand-engraved with the day of the week and depicting a hunting scene on the scales, costs £1,878.
Typically, cut-throats need to be sharpened with a leather strop every few shaves and sent off to be honed every nine months. But there is another option – a cut-throat that takes a disposable blade. The shavette, the type popular at high-street barbers, takes a safety blade snapped in half. They tend to be made of plastic and feel cheap. Instead, Burton recommends starting off with the Japanese-engineered Feather Artist range, which offers the finesse and craftsmanship of a traditional razor with some ingenious features. Their disposable blades are thicker, which give more rigidity for a closer shave; some come with a guard that looks like a serrated edge but it provides a layer of protection, and they’re economical, lasting for around 10 shaves. The SS Scotch Wood (£122.50) also has a rounded tip that gently pushes down the skin to disperse pressure at the top of the blade. “The Feather artist range is what the Japanese engineered to try to replicate a cut-throat razor but with more modern aspects and materials, and a disposable blade,” explains Burton. “Guys find them easier to use.”
If ease is your goal, perhaps the cut-throat is not for you. Many times on my journey I have come close to throwing in the (blood-stained) towel and howled at the application of the antiseptic stick. But persevere, and you’ll be rewarded with not only one of the closest shaves possible – but also one of the most rewarding.
A cut-throat shaving lesson at Jermyn Street Barbers costs £80; jermynstreetbarbers.co.uk