This is our third blog posting on shaving—third, that is, after the introduction. In the first I wrote about working up lather in a bowl—bowl lathering. In our second blog posting, I borrowed a YouTube clip of a demonstration of face lathering. Now that you understand how brushes are used, it is time for a primer on types of brushes—and on some of the brushes themselves—available on the market. If you’re already “into” brushes, there is nothing new here, but you can entertain yourself quibbling. But for the beginner, this will be a reasonable place to start.
Throughout the Internet there is a lot of good information available by some real experts. Our knowledge comes from testing many, many brushes to assure our shaving soap works well with all types—and it does. Of course we couldn’t test all the brushes, but we did do a nice cross section, some of which I’ll show you in the pictures below. There is a lot of noise and nonsense on blogs on the internet, and I hope this helps you sort out some of the chaff.
Brushes are made of horse hair (actually from the tail), badger hair, boar bristle, and manmade (synthetic) materials, many proprietary. I’ve never used horse hair and I don’t know anyone who has, and I won’t have anything to say about it.
There are two dimensions that are almost always used in describing a brush—knot and loft. Knot is the diameter at the base of the hair or bristle, loft is the height of the hair or bristle above the handle. It is easy to see in the pictures I’ve borrowed from Jarrod at The Superior Shave. The extraneous measurements are helpful in determining if the brush will fit on your stand, if you use one (and you should).
Relying on just knot and loft dimensions, however, can lead you astray. It is important not to compare knot and loft from different types of brushes. For instance, a 23mm (knot) x 55mm (loft) in badger could be a real bruiser, but in a boar bristle it could be fairly moderate. By and large, the more loft, the more suitable the brush is for bowl lathering and painting. Conversely, less loft is suitable for face lathering and scrubbing. But sometimes loft might be added to make inferior badger hair feel more like superior badger hair, i.e., softer. Too, knots on handmade brushes can be very densely filled, so you cannot rely on knot size alone. In short, knot and loft comparison may be meaningful within one brand, but comparisons based on dimensions alone get very iffy. If you’re going to invest in expensive brushes, find yourself a trusted retailer first.
The theoretical gradations of badger are Pure, Best, Super, Silvertip, at least in the English-speaking world:
Pure badger guarantees only that it is made of badger. It will be relatively dark in color and is the coarsest of the badgers. It should have good backbone, which means it is probably suitable for face-lathering as well as bowl lathering. It also has a quality that is described as “scritchy,” which derives from scratch and itch. There is a lot of pure badger sold, so I gather there are a lot of shavers out there not offended by the “scritch,” but I would rather apply the cost towards a best badger.
Best badger and super badger are the the next grades up, and it gets a bit confusing. Although in theory it comes from a different part of the badger, there are no regulations, and I think of super badger as “select” best badger. The best badger retains backbone, and it by and large loses the “scritchy.” Some companies skip the best badger altogether. Vulfix, for instance, has only super badger, although Simpsons, owned by Vulfix, sells a like quality as best badger. By either designation, the brushes from Vulfix and Simpsons represent some of the best of this combined grade, and one of my wife's two brushes is the Vulfix Super we sell in a kit. I believe the best values in badger brushes comes from this/these grade(s).
Silver tip badger is the highest grade, but it is sometimes broken down further, primarily by the “bands” and color. The tip should always be very soft, and the feel is really luxurious. Water retention and warmth are outstanding, and so of course is the copious amount of lather. Once again, the iconic Simpsons must be different—Vulfix’ silvertip is Simpsons' super badger. Silvertips are typically very expensive.
Finally, because badger is unregulated, there are pure badgers from one brand equal to bests from another brand, etc. Too, in many continental European countries, “pure” is not so much a classification, but simply a statement that it is all badger. So beware.
Some of the better badger brands you may see: from England, Simpsons, Vulfix, Rooney, Kent; from France, Plisson; from Germany, Leonhardy VP, Mühle, Shavemac; from Italy, Omega. All of the major razor makers/brands have brushes, but they are not made by them, but are OEMed, almost all from Germany; some are very good indeed.
A selection of the Simpsons we have/had for testing: Classic 1, Berkeley, Colonel, and the mighty Chubby 1. Also you see the Simpsons Traveling Case.
Boar bristle shaving brushes are really the “value” brushes, and they make a great “first-time” brush. They may not last a lifetime, but a decade or longer is certainly possible if treated properly and in rotation. Moving from a wooden to an acrylic handle really increases the cost—in bristle a far larger percentage of the cost is in the handle. The dark bands you sometimes see, incidentally, are to make the boar look like badger.
Bristle brushes need breaking in. As the ends fray, they become soft. The bristle, however, remains firm. Thus, good backbone and a soft tip, and that's not all that bad. All brushes stink a bit before they’ve been used a few times, and bristle brushes particularly. Everyone has a special formula for taking away that smell, from soaking it in dilute mouth wash to leaving it overnight in a creek. I find the easiest way it to do this is to lather it up (see first blog posting), let it stand on its base for an hour, rinse and repeat. Or just use it.
However, bristle will never hold water and heat like a badger, and for all the arguments for bristle, they never have that same luxurious feeling, or create that unctuous lather, so we continue to pay the premium for badger. But…if I’d never tried badger, I could have lived with boar bristle forever.
The two most famous makers of boar bristle brushes are Omega (Italy) and Semogue (Portugal). At least in America, Semogues are relatively late on the scene, and there’s a certain ABO (anything but Omega) that has made Semogues all the vogue—after all, everyone else is using Omegas. But there is a reason Omegas are so popular: they are great, and the different models are almost unending. You can’t go far wrong with either. Germany also makes some very nice boar bristles.
Two Semogues, a 620 and an 830, and two Omegas, a 31025 and an 80005. The first three have been bleached and "banded" to look more like badger.
Our experience is really limited. My wife now frequently uses a brush of synthetic fiber because she can leave it in the shower or on tub’s edge along with her Merkur bakelite safety razor, knowing that nothing is going to rust, rot, or spoil. The particular brush she has is very soft, and she creates mounds of lather with it. She uses it or the Vulfix Super Badger we sell in a kit; nothing else is soft enough for milady. But the time I tried to shave with the synthetic brush, I didn’t like it at all—it was a bit like pulling soapy, wet noodles across my face. Now, that brush was from the first generation of the “modern” artificial brushes. I’ve never tried the later generations, although I’m assured that they really are more “badger-like.” I guess I’d recommend you learn with a boar or badger and then turn to that reliable retailer once you really know what you really want in a brush before you buy your first synthetic brush.
A synthetic brush is on the right, a mixed badger/boar is on the left. They both belong to my wife. The little Omega fits very comfortably in the Simpsons Case, but many of our customers use a medicine bottle for travel.
And finally I thought you might like to see some of my brushes. I have no pure badgers. Classic 1 you saw in our Simpsons collection is mine. I have an exotically soft silvertip from the high mountains in Asia. Sven made it for me. It has an ivory-colored handle a large knot and generous loft, and I use it for bowl lathering. I also have big, very stout, big-knotted super badger with less loft in a black handle, also made for me by Sven, that I use for face lathering.
The little Omega crept into the picture while my attention was diverted. The next brush is a brute of a brush, mixed badger/boar. I punish myself with it when I have to shave with a hangover.