badger brush

Horse Hair Shaving Brush- A Superior Way to Lather

Once upon a time, about a hundred years ago, horse hair shaving brushes were common.  Which made sense, with the automobile still ascending horses were much more common, and the rise of shaving with the advent of the safety razor meant that affordable shaving brushes were rising in demand.  That changed dramatically during World War I, when outbreaks of anthrax traced to horse hair shaving brushes resulted in public health investigations and drove away customers. 

Yes, I said anthrax.

Badger, boar, and synthetic brushes now rule the market.  But horse hair is still available, and for the last several months I’ve been using one.  I’m a happy convert, it’s been a great brush and I have no desire to go back.

The brush I’ve been using is this one, the Vie-Long 04312 Professional, which retails for about $20 on Amazon:

Fingers not included.

Fingers not included.

Horse hair brushes tend to cost less than badger brushes, meaning that you can get great quality for less money.  I would think the cost has to do with there being a lot more hair to a horse than to your average badger, but I really have no idea.  Whatever the reason, if you’re looking for an inexpensive shaving brush these are a great option.

The brushes take hair from the mane and tail of the horse, with mine being 25% from the mane and 75% tail (I’ve seen some info saying that it may be 50/50), the difference being that mane hair tends to be softer so when you combine them you get a good mix of soft but firm.  Unlike badger hair brushes, where the badgers are commonly killed in the process (most badger fur comes from parts of Asia where badger meat is eaten), horses aren’t harmed in the trimming process.  So if that’s something that’s important to you, then this is the better option of the two.

My first impression of the brush was that the bristles felt stiffer than my badger brush, but with use they have softened somewhat with use.  My second impression, upon wetting the brush, was the smell.  Be warned: horse hair has a funk to it.  My dog wanted desperately to eat the brush for the first few days, but after three or four days of use the smell washed out.

The most important part of a brush is, of course, how well it lathers, and there the brush has truly shined.  In my experience, the horse hair holds water as well or better than badger hair.  What that means is that the lather doesn’t dry out as quickly, staying moist on the brush and moist on your face.  In fact, using the horse hair brush has made switching back to a badger a bit difficult, as I’m finding that my water/soap ratio doesn’t work as well.

I’ve always lathered directly on my face, and the slightly stiffer brush works well for a paintbrush style application.  The stiffer bristles seem to pick up soap faster than a badger, and while the bristles aren’t so stiff that it’s uncomfortable or scratching they retain their shape well during lathering. Clean up takes slightly longer, as soap seems to want to hide deep in the bristles more than with badger and it seems to take longer to dry.  But the difference is at most marginal.

Horse on the left, badger on the right.

Horse on the left, badger on the right.

Based on the last several months of use, in my opinion horse hair is the superior product.  I still have my badger hair brush hanging right next to my razor, and I still use and enjoy it frequently.  But the horse hair seems to do the job better, while at the same time costing less money.  It lathers well, feels great, and in my opinion looks better.  I’m sold.

Review: Col. Conk’s Shave Soap- Almond

Though my experience remains limited, Col. Conk's has been my favorite shaving soap thus far.

Though my experience remains limited, Col. Conk’s has been my favorite shaving soap thus far.

For the last four months my primary shaving soap has been Col. Conk’s Almond.  I bought it in Wall, SD, at a giant general store/restaurant/tourist trap they have there (it’s probably half of the entire town), along with a couple other Conk’s scents.  Every kind they had, in fact, except lime. Because who wants to smell like limes in the morning?

Admittedly, before then I would have also asked “who wants to smell like almonds in the morning?”  Or ever, really.  But it seemed like a good idea at the time and I’m glad I took the risk because it has been a pleasure to use.

I’ve used Col. Conk’s before, and for all I know this is the exact same stuff except with a different fragrance added.  Previously the soap sat as a block of soap on a dish, but with this puck I melted it down into a shave bowl right from the start.  My technique was then to go in about ten minutes before I would shave, cover the soap with about a quarter-inch of hot water, then let it sit while I got cleaned up and prepared.  Once I was ready to shave I’d drain the water, then use a wet brush to load the softened soap and lather on my face.

It worked like gang busters.

Previously I was getting inconsistent loads which resulted in some thin lathers that weren’t always enough to get the job done.  Perhaps because I’m now more experienced I’ve great lathers almost every time, and when the load has been insufficient a couple drops of water on the soap and a quick reload got me into good shape.  It does seem to have resulted in the soap not lasting as long as the previous puck of Conk’s I used, but that might be a result of me not lathering properly previously.  Even if this goes though more soap than necessary, when it’s still lasting four months I’m not feeling too bad.

The soap provided great protection, and a refreshing scent that made for an enjoyable shave.  The scent started extremely strong, dropping off quickly over a couple weeks time, however despite the decline it remained present when lathering up until the last several weeks.  I still catch it from time to time, but I think it might be that it’s just on its last leg.

I haven’t been using it exclusively, I’ve also been using Proraso, Dollar Shave Club Shave Butter, and Barbasol. But Conk’s has been my favorite, hands down.  It smells great, feels great, and works great.  I’ve got two more pucks to go through, one Bayrum and the other Amber, and when I’m done I may just find myself stocking back up on Almond.  I’ve highly enjoyed it.

Save Your Soap: Melting Old Soap Into a New Puck

For Christmas my wife bought me a puck of Col. Conk’s Bayrum shaving soap.  Unlike shaving cream, shaving soap looks much like a regular, round bar of soap.  Specially made to create a good, protecting lather, I prefer it to shaving cream and have enjoyed using it for the last five months.

Unfortunately all that use takes a toll.  When using a brush to create a shaving lather you first “load” the brush, which means getting condensed soap into the bristles to then put onto your face.  Due to a combination of brush shape and my natural tendency to load from the middle of the bar, what started as a bar about one inch thick was eventually worn down to a soap donut.

It's not LIfeboy, but this donut is still not good for eating.

It’s not LIfeboy, but this donut is still not good for eating.

This created a problem for lathering.  When loading a brush soap naturally congregates in the middle of the bristles, so having soap without a middle means that it is very difficult to load the brush properly.  The result is a thinner lather that does not last long either on the brush or face.

After a bit of internet research I came across a solution: melting.  While it does not work for all soaps (such as triple-milled and I think also soaps that are tallow based), for others you can heat the soap to a melting point, then reform it into a new shape.

To do this I put mine in a small, microwave safe glass bowl (my wife was very supportive of microwaving soap in her dishes).  I’d heard some say to start with 5 seconds, others said 30.  I went with 10 seconds to start, then checked it to see if more was needed.  To my delight, the soap had completely melted (and was smelling great!).

Liquid soap in a dish!

Liquid soap in a dish!

After letting it cool the result was a solid block of soap, evenly thick and perfectly smooth.  While I could have tried to get it out of the dish, I decided just to leave it in until I use it up (or we need the dish).  If I needed to get it out I might try floating the dish in warm water to soften the portion touching glass, but we’ll cross that bridge later.

I tried it out this morning, which also meant that I was trying out lathering soap in a bowl for the first time.  I’ve always just lathered on my hand or directly on my face, so I was interested to see what the result would be. 

It worked great.

Melting the soap gave it a nice smooth surface.  Before loading I soaked the brush in warm water, and spread a few drops of warm water on the top of the soap to soften things up.  With about 10-15 seconds of swirling I had a brush loaded thick and ready for application.

Ready to go to work.

Ready to go to work.

The bowl really helped to get the soap into the brush.  Both the first and second application were far thicker than usual, creating a smooth, protecting lather.  I expected the soap to be running low by this point, but going into the third pass the brush was still loaded heavily with soap.

It's like the Energizer bunny of shaving.

It’s like the Energizer bunny of shaving.

The result was probably the best lather I’ve ever had, from the beginning to the end of shaving.  It was so successful that once I find a permanent shaving bowl I might just try melting soap directly into it from the start rather than waiting for it to be worn down through use.

And to think I was contemplating just chucking the left over soap and getting a new bar.  What a waste that would have been!

Grains…GRAINS…!

While improvements have doubtlessly been made since I picked up DE shaving, I’m still working out what exactly I’m doing with all this.  So far there’s only one part of it all that I feel confident I’ve got locked down, and that’s changing razor blades.

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of shave blogs advise that you shave at least once with the grain before going against.  I’ve been experimenting with this, and I’ll admit that it does give a rather nice shave. 

For day to day shaving though, I’m finding myself returning to my previous method: full lather, one slow and attentive pass against the grains, then a very quick with the grains  pass (no lather, water or something on the face if anything) just to make sure I didn’t miss anything and to try and keep it all even.

While I’ve never seen any websites advise such a technique, and while time may teach me why, it works for me.  And that, I think, is the wonderful thing about DE shaving: you are much more personally involved in what you’re doing.  Every face is different, and while there are fundamentals to learn at the end of the day it’s all about what works for you.  As you’re more closely involved in what you’re doing, you naturally pick up on what works best. 

In my case ingrown hairs and razor burn aren’t a problem, so I can shave this way and it works great for me.  I’ll still be using the beard reduction method when I’ve not shaved for a day or two, or when there’s something important and I really want a close and smooth shave, but for day to day I’ll probably go with my traditional method.

I have no idea if any or how many badgers were hurt in the making of this brush.

I have no idea if any or how many badgers were hurt in the making of this brush.

On a related note: I’m still working out how to get a good lather.  The two methods I’ve been using are lather on your hand and lather directly on your face (I’ll do a post about that some other time in more detail), and both have been coming up a bit short lately.  I think I’m not loading my brush as much as I have been, so that’s something I’ll need to work on.