A shaving brush helps work up a lather to get you a good shave. Today, we determine the differences between cheap and expensive shaving brushes to help you decide what’s best for you.
English satirist William Hone is often credited with the phrase, “a good lather is half the shave,” and we couldn’t agree more with his assessment. You can learn more about building up a good lather, as well as what constitutes the other half of a quality shave, in the plethora of shaving guides we’ve already got here at the Gentleman’s Gazette.
A good lather is half the shave.
Image Credit: Wikipedia.com
Here, however, we’re going to focus on one particular accessory: the shaving brush. A shaving brush is a tool used to work up a lather and then apply it evenly on your face or body. It can be used alongside a straight razor, safety razor, or cartridge razor and with shaving soap or cream.
Of course, applying lather can just be done by using your hands, but we find that there are many benefits to using a shaving brush, especially if the one you’re using is of high quality. So, today, we’ll teach you what qualities you can expect from shaving brushes at various price points to help you determine which brush is right for you.
Of course, understanding the larger role that shaving brushes play in the complete process will also help to inform your decision. So, if you’d like to learn more about shaving in general, then check out our comprehensive PDF shaving guide.
Brief History of Shaving Brushes
Before we get into specific differences, let’s start off today with a brief history of modern shaving brushes.
Modern-style shaving arose during the late 17th century, and shaving men of the time would work up a lather using a wet cloth or sea sponges. Modern shaving brushes were first popularized in 18th century France, where they were known by the name “blaireau” or “badger” because they were made from badger hair.
Shaving brushes became a fixture in 19th-century barber shops, where patrons often owned their shaving brush and the accompanying shaving pot that would be stored on the premises. When men began shaving at home in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, shaving brushes were still used to build up a lather.
But, as new self-foaming shaving creams that didn’t require working up became popular, shaving brushes congruently declined in popularity. Still, they remained a fixture among dedicated shaving aficionados, and they have seen a recent resurgence in use among the common population of men.
Why You Should Use a Shaving Brush
We did detail the many benefits of using a shaving brush in our dedicated guide to shaving brushes. And while a shaving brush isn’t necessarily an essential shaving accessory, it will definitely be beneficial for you to have one on hand. Not only will it improve the quality of your shave, but it will also increase your overall enjoyment of the process.
Let’s now quickly compare shaving experiences without and with shaving brushes. And what could be a more fun way to do it than by using James Bond clips?
In a scene from 1964’s “Goldfinger,” Bond is in the clutches of his enemies, and he has to perform a quick matter-of-fact shave so that he’s presentable for Auric Goldfinger. As such, he efficiently applies aerosolized shaving cream with his hand. Contrast this shaving atmosphere with the one Bond creates in 2012’s “Skyfall,” when he employs a lather worked up with a shaving brush and a luxurious Macau suite.
In “Goldfinger,” because Bond needs to quickly get himself ready, the shave is just about the shave. But, in “Skyfall,” the shave is a luxurious undertaking as Bond indulges in the decadence and pageantry of the occasion to maximize his relaxation and pleasure.
So, when you want your shave to be a pleasing experience that will put you in a good frame of mind to enjoy and excel at the rest of your day, a rich, warm lather applied by a high-quality shaving brush is sure to both elevate your shave and your mood in looking forward to the occasion for which you’re shaving. And that’s no matter the occasion – whether it’s a day at the office, a big date, or wrangling komodo dragons in a Macau casino. Wow, and I thought the baccarat tables were intense!
Essentially, using a shaving brush will help to give you the best possible shave, and using our other guide will help you to find the best possible shaving brush. So, let’s get to work.
To start things off today, the single most important component of a shaving brush is its bristles. This is because they help to retain the water and cream that will generate your lather and transfer it to your face while softening your beard hairs, opening your pores, and exfoliating your skin.
The most common bristle fibers are natural hairs from badgers, boars, and horses, as well as synthetic hairs. So, we’ll briefly introduce you to their general qualities now and go over cheap and expensive price points for each first.
1. Badger Hair
Badger hair is the most traditional option, and it’s favored for its ability to retain both water and heat. Badger hair comes in four different grades: pure, best, super, and silver tip. For any badger hair brush, cheap prices can start under $10, but depending on the grade, expensive brushes could be anywhere from $50 to $200.
We explain in our full guide what distinguishes between these grades, but the most important takeaway here is that not all badger hair is created equal. Some manufacturers will try to impress you by saying that they use badger hair. But, without knowing the grade, you can’t really determine the quality and characteristics accurately.
2. Boar Hair
Next up, is boar hair, which is very coarse and, as such, it is sometimes preferred by those who like harder shaving soaps over shaving creams. Otherwise, though, it’s our opinion that, in general, we prefer quality badger hair to boar hair.
Cheap models can be had for just a couple of dollars, with decently-functional models starting around $10 and higher-quality models at around the $20 to $30 range.
3. Horse Hair
Next is horse hair, which is known for being fine and soft but also stiff. Many shavers consider horse hair too malleable for working up a good lather, but others do like that soft and silky feel. As with other types, the key here is the quality of the hairs with cheap models starting around $2 and more expensive models in the $20-to-$40-dollar range.
Finally, we come to synthetics, and you might be surprised to hear that, unlike so many other areas of menswear, synthetic shaving brushes are not inherently inferior to natural models. In fact, some synthetics can almost exactly reproduce the qualities of their natural peers at far-reduced prices. And with advancements in synthetic brushes over the last 10 to 15 years, some shavers today have said they’re even starting to prefer them. Of course, your mileage may vary.
As you might expect though, price is a key distinction here as cheap, thick nylon brushes can be had for as little as $1, whereas more expensive, synthetic models retail anywhere from $40 to $140.
So, now that we understand the basic qualities of shaving brush bristles, let’s go over what you can expect in terms of experience from cheap and expensive models.
Cheap vs. Expensive Bristles
Firstly, cheap bristles aren’t going to retain water or cream evenly, producing a thick, sludgy lather that’s going to sit awkwardly on your face. They’re also likely to feel prickly and unpleasant because manufacturers are going to use shorter scratchier fibers to cut down on costs. Furthermore, they’re likely to shed constantly, becoming patchier and sparser with every use.
Most importantly here, though, cheap bristles will have a poor backbone, and you don’t need to be a chiropractor to know how important backbone is.
In this context, “backbone” refers to how bristle composition, density, and arrangement are going to react when you’re using the shaving brush. A shaving brush with poor backbone will be squashy and floppy, collapsing during use. Not only does this mean that it will be more difficult for you to apply shaving lather evenly, but the brush will also be prevented from exfoliating your skin and opening your pores properly, compromising your shave quality.
Meanwhile, a brush with a good backbone will retain its shape and alignment even when soaked and spring back with ease, helping you to achieve a better shave.
In addition to having a good backbone, expensive shaving brushes will also feel softer on your skin, even when they’re made with coarser hairs. This is achieved by using a higher density of longer hairs. Longer hairs have greater elasticity that will allow the tips to brush more gently against your face, and higher densities will also have a cushioning effect. Higher densities of fibers also improve water retention, ensuring a rich, steady flow of lather.
Expensive brushes may shed a bit, but a few loose fibers are a natural consequence of any brush, and that shedding should stop after the first dozen shaves or so. We should also note here that whether they’re cheap or expensive, natural hair brushes may have a bit of a musty smell when they’re first purchased.
But we suppose that’s to be expected since badgers aren’t necessarily known for their pleasant fragrance.
In any case, this odor should quickly dissipate with use.
Meanwhile, cheap, synthetic brushes may also have a chemical smell that might never fade away, while expensive synthetic brushes usually have no odor whatsoever. So, choosing between synthetics and the various natural hairs mostly comes down to personal preference and shaving chemistry but by first ensuring that you’re paying a fair price for a quality bristle, you’ll be on your way to a high-quality shave.
However, bristles aren’t of much use without a way to hold them, which is where our next major component, the handle, comes into play.
Shaving brush handles can be made from any number of materials, with popular choices, including bone, ivory, metal, horn, wood, ceramic, resin, and various plastics.
Obviously, the relative rarity and expense of each of these handle material types are greatly going to influence the price of the brush. The prices we quoted in our previous section will cover many handle materials like base metals, wood, resin, some bone, and quality plastics, but you can expect to pay a higher premium for precious metals, decorated ceramics, or high-end animal products.
In many cases, of course, the handle of a shaving brush is ultimately a decorative choice. After all, in most cases, a shaving brush with an ivory handle and quality bristles will offer you the same shave as a brush with a plastic handle and quality bristles.
With that said, though, there are a few other factors that will separate expensive shaving brush handles from cheap ones.
Cheap vs. Expensive Handles
Cheap handles, of course, are more likely to be made from cheap materials like hollow plastic that will crack more easily, necessitating wasteful, multiple purchases of different brushes.
Cheap handles are also more likely to have generic, knobby grips that feel awkward in the hand and are difficult to maneuver. And it’s more likely that cheap handles are going to have boring or, frankly, tacky designs that aren’t very pleasing.
This won’t really affect the functionality of the shaving brush, of course, but if it’s going to be on full display in your bathroom while it air dries, it’s not going to hurt if it looks nice.
Meanwhile, expensive handles will have the budget built-in for finer details like elegant lines and exquisite materials, making the brush a joy to both hold and behold. Expensive brushes are also more likely to have handles with a more ergonomic grip, and there are specialty models, like travel brushes, where the bristles can actually be flipped inside the handle.
On that note, if you’d like more grooming hacks and tips while you’re traveling, Kyle has a separate guide on that subject.
9 Grooming Hacks for the Traveling Gentleman (+TSA Tips!)
It will typically be the case that higher-quality, more expensive bristles will be paired with a higher-quality handle. But, some manufacturers will try to mislead you by pairing a fancy, luxurious-looking handle with cheap, low-quality bristles. This is because, in general, fine handles are cheaper overall than fine bristles. Therefore, keep an eye out and don’t let them sell you sizzle and not steak.
Aside from the handle, make sure to also pay attention to the bristle material as well. The quality of the bristles matters more if you have to choose between a higher-quality bristle and a lower-quality handle.
In other words, in addition to paying attention to the handle’s material, ensure that you’re always paying attention to the bristle material.
Ultimately, the quality of the bristles matters more than that of the handle, so if you have to make a choice between the two, go for higher-quality bristles and a lower-quality handle.
3. Brush Construction
Our final main area of discussion today concerns the point where the bristles meet the handle, where we’ll talk about shaving brush construction.
After the bristles themselves, we would argue that this is the second most important consideration you should have when looking for a shaving brush to buy. In turn, the most important component of construction is the knot or the finished head of the bristles that the brush has.
“Knot assembly” refers to how the knot is put together, and there are two main methods: knotting and gluing.
In knotting, bunches of bristles are knotted together in groupings, and these groupings form the larger knot. In gluing, bunches of bristles are either partially knotted or glued together and then all glued together for the total head.
Knotting is the superior method here as it will ensure that all of the bristles stay firmly together in the knot. After all, by being physically bound together, they’re much less likely to come loose. Also, knotted brushes are more likely to retain their shape throughout years of shaving.
Conversely, most glues lose their adhesive properties in hot, humid, and wet environments; that is to say, exactly the type of environments where shaving takes place. So, glued knots can start coming apart after even just a few months of use.
Manufacturers rely on gluing because it’s much cheaper and more efficient than actually knotting, but it will come apart much more quickly.
Cheap vs. Expensive Construction
As you might expect, cheap shaving brushes are more likely to be glued, and expensive brushes are more likely to be knotted due to the extra time and craftsmanship required by the latter process.
Expensive shaving brushes are also more likely to have knots of variable length called “loft,” as well as various shapes like a bulb, fan, flat, or hybrids of these. Knot shapes affect the feel, distribution, and application of lather, depending on your own personal shaving style and technique. Therefore, they’re a detail that depends largely on personal preference, but they can still impact the quality of your shave.
This is especially true compared to the generic, fluffy knot shapes of cheap shaving brushes. More universally influential on your shave tis going to be the loft. If you are not using a premium brush, you might want to at least consider one with a longer loft, as the bristles will feel softer.
It’s often the case, though, that brushes are priced with this in mind, so even from the same manufacturer, a brush with a longer loft will be more expensive than one with a shorter loft.
Finally, “construction” refers to how the knot is attached to the handle. Cheap handles are often glued on, and the same environmental factors that will cause the glue to fail within the knot may also cause the knot to separate from the handle. Speaking from personal experience, this exact thing did happen to me with a previous shaving brush.
Meanwhile, expensive handles will be screwed, bolted, or pegged into place, ensuring a secure fit for years to come.
So, now that you know which qualities distinguish between cheap and expensive shaving brushes, hopefully, you’ll be able to make an informed decision as to which brush is right for you. With the benefit of a quality shaving brush, you’ll be able to enjoy closer shaves.
Let us know in the comments below which hallmarks of quality you look for in a shaving brush, and if you have any recommended brands, we’d be happy to make a guide on this specific topic in the future, too.
Black & White Two-Tone Solid Formal Evening Socks for Black Tie & White Tie
Today, I’m wearing a casual outfit that is good for sitting around the house and perhaps doing some shaving.
My polo shirt is silver in color and features a checked pattern to it that I thought was somewhat reminiscent of the knurling on a traditional safety razor. Meanwhile, my trousers are plain black, like my belt, and my shoes are black loafers from Allen Edmonds.
To reinforce the casual feel today, I’ve left the product out of my hair, and, of course, I’ve let my beard grow a little bit to help along the lather.
How to Grow Facial Hair & Beards – Grooming, Styling, & Shaving Tips for Men
And rounding out my outfit are my Fort Belvedere socks; they’re two-tone solids in black and white. And you can find the socks I’m wearing today, as well as a wide array of other socks and men’s accessories, by visiting the Fort Belvedere shop.