A Guide to Shaving Brushes
The term shave brush or shaving brush refers to an implement with bristles set into a handle which is used to apply shaving soap or shaving cream to the face when shaving. Luxury handcrafted handles can be made from fine materials such as ivory or even gold and are designed to feel well-balanced in the hand. The bristle load may be composed of any number of natural or synthetic materials.
The modern shaving brush may be traced to France during the 1750s. The quality of these brushes differed greatly, as materials used to fashion the handles varied from the common to the exotic. It was not terribly uncommon for handles to be made of ivory, gold, silver, tortoise shell, crystal, or porcelain. Well-to-do men would generally shave with a badger hair brush, while commoners concerned with colloquially proper aesthetics would resort to cheaper versions made of boar hair. A shave brush was known in Europe as something of a status symbol, an expensive or eccentric brush was a way of asserting ones personality or even affluence.
Shaving Brush Handles
Modern shave brushes are extremely similar in appearance, composition and function to their centuries-old predecessors. The handle is modelled ergonomically, allowing for a proper grip on the brush. Luxury handcrafted handles can be made from fine materials such as rare wood, ivory or even gold and are designed to feel well-balanced in the hand.
Although a variety of different materials are still used to fashion shave brush handles, synthetic handles of nylon, urethane or plastic are the most common even by the most expensive shave brush manufacturers. Benefits to synthetic brushes include a lesser chance of breakage and resistance to damage by moisture. A limited number of customers still prefer natural materials such as wood or exotic materials such as tortoise shell, but these articles are more difficult to find. A shaving brush handle, regardless of its material composition, rarely affects the overall performance of the brush.
A shave brush's value is determined more by its bristle load than any other factor. Prices for synthetic brands are the cheapest whilst top-of-the-line brands made of the finest badger hair are much more expensive.
Proponents of wet shaving claim that badger hair is the finest and most luxurious material possible. The water retention capacity, smooth sensation on the face, and durability have not been matched by other synthetic or natural materials. Three common gradations of badger hair exist: "pure" badger, "best" badger, and "super" (or "silvertip") badger. While some companies insist on using other gradations (for example, Vulfix's high-end brushes distinguish between "super" and "silvertip"), these three are commonly accepted among wet shavers and are most often used to describe the quality of a shave brush.
Pure badger is the term used to describe badger hair brushes using the most common hair from the underbelly of a badger, the hair which covers around 60% of a badger's body. This varies greatly in softness, pliability and color. Pure badger hair is usually dark in color, but fluctuates from a light tan to a near-black or silvery sheen. The hair is coarser than best or silvertip hair due to its thicker shaft. Brushes made exclusively with pure badger hair cost significantly less than best and super badger hair brushes.
Best badger is the term used to describe brushes made with the finer and more pliable hairs from 20 - 25% of the badger's body. It is longer in length and lighter in color than pure badger hair. A best badger brush is more densely filled with hair than the pure badger brush and will produce a correspondingly greater lather. However, some wet shavers argue that the variance between the quality of a pure and a best badger brush is negligible.
A super badger brush is a more expensive than either best or pure. While some call this hair silvertip, it is often highly graded pure hair bleached on the ends to resemble silvertip. Though it is comprised of pure badger hairs, super is graded and sorted to such a degree that its performance is superior to that of best. The brush is not prickly. One way to determine if a brush bears a super or silvertip badger hair load is to look at the color of the bristle tips. A true silvertip brush has tips that are off-white. A super brush on the other hand has bristle tips that are a more sterile, slightly greyed white. Moreover, the light color of the tips does not extend as far down the shaft of the hair.
Silvertip badger is the most expensive and rare type of badger hair. The tips on this hair appear white naturally, without bleaching. A "flared" bristle load gives results in the silvertip brush's fluffy appearance and lends the brush its ability to hold a large amount of water. Due to its water retention capacity, a silvertip brush can create well-formed shaving lather quickly and easily.
Some manufacturers such as Plisson and Simpson sell shaving brushes in a grade beyond silvertip. While the names these companies give this extra silvertip vary, the properties remain fairly consistent between manufacturers as compared to the ordinary silvertip brush. These brushes differ in appearance and feel. The tip is whiter and extends further down the shaft; additionally, the hair under the tip is pure black as opposed to dark grey in color. The extra silvertip feels slightly firmer and less 'prickly' on the face when lathering. Brushes made of extra silvertip with a high-quality handle can sell for as much as £400.00.
Synthetic Shaving Brushes
There have been great strides forward in the development of synthetic shaving brush fibres. The new or next generation synthetic shaving brushes feature incredibly soft synthetic fibres that are almost indistinguishable from silvertip badger hair. These new synthetic brushes perform as well as badger hair, don’t suffer from any hair loss or smell and will last a lifetime. They are also great value and are more ethically produced. Sales of synthetic shaving brushes have significantly increased in recent years.
The Benefits of Using a Shaving Brush
Shaving brushes are used by shavers for a variety of reasons, including the ability to help provide a close, comfortable and enjoyable shave. A fibrous bristle load holds significant amounts of water which mix with the soap lifted from a shave mug or scuttle. The more water a brush holds, the moister and richer a lather will be. Thicker and more emollient lather translates to less razor skipping and dragging, so reducing any irritation during shaving.
Drawing a shaving brush across one's skin results in an exfoliation effect. Because a shaving brush is most often used with a glycerin-based soap, this effect often replaces the pre-shave routine of washing and applying lotion to the face.
The greatest benefit from shave brush use is the tendency to soften and lift facial hair before a shave. Applying shaving cream by hand matts hair or raises it unevenly. Shave brush use, however, requires a circular motion to form a lather suitable for a shave. Therefore, a razor does not need to be pressed to the skin in order to provide a close shave. For this reason, straight razors (or high-quality safety razors) are most often used with a shave brush, as the necessity for more than a single blade is effectively waived.
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