Did you buy a straight razor at a flea market, garage sale, or antique shop, and fail miserably at trying to shave with it? If you are not already a straight shaver, then that would be pretty normal. Shaving in the true manly manner is a bit involved. Any man can do it, but there are a few hoops to jump through, on the path to successful shaves.
Most experienced straight shavers have their preferences for a certain blade width, a certain grind or a certain style of razor. For now, a typical quarter to 3/4 hollow razor of 5/8 or 6/8 width will do fine. You don't know what your preferences will be, yet, so just go with an ordinary regular middle of the road hollowground razor. There is no "best" style or grind-- only that which you personally prefer, and you do not have a preference yet, so don't worry too much about that just yet.
First and foremost, you need a strop. No, a belt will not work. Don't argue. It just won't. It is made to hold your pants up, and they usually work pretty good for that, but they are not made for stropping delicate blade edges, and naturally they will only cause more damage than improvement to the edge. The $3 Chinese strops you see on ebay are not much good, either. I won't write a book about why this is... just know that they are pretty marginal and will probably disappoint. A vintage strop from an antique shop is not likely to be in good enough condition to work, either, though you could get lucky I suppose and get a nice one bought at an estate sale. Best to just bite the bullet and get a proper strop. You could make one, but only if you know how, and I might write a post on how to do that, later. If you just go for it you will probably fail. Just buy a friggin strop already.
Know this, though. You will probably ruin your first strop, learning how to use it. A shave-ready edge repetitiously stroked back and forth on fine leather by unskilled hands is a recipe for creating not so fine leather. So while you do need a proper strop, you don't want a high dollar one at this early stage of the game. You should definitely not spend more than $50 for your beginner strop. One cheap source is www.whippeddog.com, where you can buy Larry's "Poor Man Strop Kit", which isn't all that, but will do for now. It is meant to be an expendable, cheap, beginner strop.
IT IS POSSIBLE to strop on newspaper, though it really is nowhere near as good as a proper leather strop. It is an emergency procedure worth knowing but it is NOT much of an option for a beginner and his first straight razor who doesn't want to buy a strop. I am only mentioning it because there are those who would tell you "Oh SURE... just use a newspaper strop!" In my opinion that is WRONG, and this is my site and so that is how it is. But for your intellectual enlightenment, to do it, you take a whole sheet of newspaper and fold it longways again and again into a long strip 2-1/2" or so in width. Pass one end over a towel rod or something. Or a "D" ring tied to a doorknob or door hinge. Pinch the two ends together with your left thumb and forefinger. Anytime I say use one hand or the other, I am assuming you are right handed, so lefties, reverse this. Anyway, now pull the strop tight and strop.
Don't be confused by Bench Strops or Paddle Strops. They are different, and not ideal for normal routine stropping. What bench strops are useful for, is pasted stropping. That is another topic altogether and I will get into that later, and until then, just don't mess with it at all. For now, you want a hanging strop. And on the subject of pasted stropping, DO NOT put any paste or abrasive powder or spray on your strop. Not your regular hanging leather strop, anyway. Defeats the whole purpose.
To strop your razor, understand that the spine must always and I mean ALWAYS remain on the strop. Never lift the spine of the razor from the strop. The spine is the thickened back of the blade. It gives the blade rigidity and also serves as an angle guide. Start out with the strop tight, and the blade flat on the strop, down near your left hand. The edge is toward you and the spine is away from you. Now stroke the razor up the strop, i.e. away from you. The spine always leads, when stropping. The edge always trails. When you get near the end of the strop, flip the EDGE outward, keeping the spine on the strop. Never lift the spine!!! Trust me on this. If you do, you will fail. Anyway, with the edge now away from you and the spine toward you, stroke the razor back down the strop toward you. When you get back down to the end nearest your hand, stop, flip the edge out again so that it is once again toward you, and you have completed one "Lap", out and back. Continue. After a few laps, start pulling the blade slightly to the right, so that it comes partway off the right hand edge of the strop. This is called the "X-Stroke", and will greatly improve your results for several reasons. Again, just trust me on this for now. About 50 or 60 laps is plenty. More won't hurt, unless you do them wrong, but they won't help, either. After a dozen or so stropping sessions, if you feel you got the hang of it, you can splurge on a nicer strop. If your newbie strop survived the experience, keep it for a backup or travel strop.
I left one thing out. Is the razor sharp? Stropping does NOT "sharpen" a razor. It merely smooths and aligns the edge and burnishes away any oxidation. Most likely, a razor found in the wild will NOT be shave-ready. Shave-ready is sharper than just sharp. Just sharp will shave arm hair. Your pocketknife should do that. It is not a good sharpness test for a razor, though. Would you shave with your pocketknife, or your favorite butcher knife or chef's knife? Probably not, and if you tried you would probably regret it. Don't even imagine that just because you shaved off some forearm hair that you have a shave-ready edge on your razor. Perhaps the most popular edge test is the HHT, or Hanging Hair Test. Google it. I don't use it so I won't explain it here. I use the treetop test. Sweep the razor over your forearm 1/4" above the skin. Yes, that's right, 1/4" above the skin. For all you folks cursed with the metric system, that means one quarter inch, or about 6mms, I think. What you should expect to see is at least one or two hair tips severed from the main hair, laying there on the razor at the end of the sweep. Try several times. If no joy, reduce the height a little. Treetopping at 1/4" is generally indicative of a satisfactory edge, depending on your technique and your hair texture. If it still won't treetop at 1/8", your edge is simply not good enough. If at 1/4" it severs several hairs and does so silently with no perceptible snapback of the hair shaft, then you have a crazy sharp edge, and possibly one too sharp for a newbie to enjoy shaving with. It will soooooo cut you. But WTH, go for it anyway. It's only blood.
If your razor does not pass this or another standard sharpness test used by straight shavers, then don't bother trying to actually shave with it, until you get someone to hone it for you. We don't say "sharpen" a razor. You "sharpen" your pocketknife. Honing is taking things to a new level. Google is your friend on this. No, I don't take in outside honing, but many guys do. You might have a look on www.badgerandblade.com, where there is a very good general wet shaving forum, and there are several "honemeisters" who will hone your razor, usually for a small fee, sometimes for just return postage cause they just like to hone. There are other forums besides that one, where you can get help. See the end of this page. With certain limitations, Jarrod at TheSuperiorShave.com, hones razors for free. At least he still did, last time I checked. Remember that this is a business and Jarrod generously does this for the good of the straight shaving community and also in hopes of finding new customers, so put him at the top of your list for razor and shaving stuff shopping in the future. He is a great guy with lots of happy customers and no, I don't own stock in his store and no, I don't get paid or get freebies for shilling for him. Every razor Jarrod sells, is shave-ready, btw.
Most vintage razors in the wild are not shave-ready. I think I mentioned that. But most new razors are also not shave-ready, either. Once it is honed, it isn't new anymore. The buyer is generally expected to hone it or have it honed. Once again I will mention Larry at www.whippeddog.com,
because he sells his famous "Whipped Dog" vintage straights, sight unseen but absolutely shave-ready, for a pretty decent price. (NEWS FLASH-- not anymore.) It is good to start off with not one, but two shave-ready razors, so when one becomes dull, you can shave with the other while the dull one is out for honing or you are trying to teach yourself to hone.
Honing your own razor is very satisfying and can certainly save you some money and trouble, but please, do not try to learn to shave and learn to hone the razor you are trying to learn to shave with, at the same time! This is a nearly certain recipe for failure. Again, I won't write a book on "why", but trust me. I do know what I am talking about. Wait until you have a dozen or so shaves in, before you even consider trying to hone your own razors. More on honing in another post.
But back to buying razors. As I mentioned, most razors in the wild are not shave ready. This definitely should be expanded to include razors found on ebay. "Shave-Ready" unfortunately is the new buzz word that gets included in any razor description, even if the seller has not the foggiest notion of what it even means, and has never even tried to shave with a straight razor. So take it with a grain of salt, unless someone reputable will vouch for the seller. When you get your prize, give it a proper sharpness test as previously described, and immediately return it if it does not pass, and don't forget the negative feedback. These people need to be taught a lesson. There are ebay vendors that do indeed sell shave-ready razors, so don't condemn them all. One good sign is that the seller's online shop has a few dozen or more razors for sale and he has good feedback ratings. If you don't care about shave-readiness, the field is wide open, but don't waste your money on razors with cracks in the blade or scales, or really bad chips in the edge, or major rust and pitting. Also, avoid razors that have obviously been honed half to death.
Okay, lets say you have at least one shave-ready razor, and a decent strop. You also need a shaving brush, and a puck of shaving soap or tube of cream, and maybe a nice big mug or shaving bowl. The drugstore sells cheap boar shave brushes. I recommend avoiding them, even though boars have their fans, for some strange reason that I have yet to figure out. You want a badger brush, or at least a horse brush. There are several grades of badger, and black badger is the lowest, and no better, really, than a boar brush. Very prickly, though it does at least hold water and soap better than a boar. The highest ordinarily encoutered grade of badger brush is silvertip, and that is what I recommend for a beginner. They can be expensive but they don't have to be. Larry, again, is a good go-to guy for the newbie, having some quite decent silvertips for amazing prices. Virginia Sheng, or "VS" brand Chinese brushes found on ebay are good buys. These are not what brush snobs call high quality, but they perform just as good as a $300 brush at a tenth the price. Watch the size. Big difference between a 22mm and a 30mm brush. I prefer a big fat brush but you would probably be served well by something around 26mm. The knot shape, loft, etc are factors you can forget about for your first brush. You will develop preferences for the details later.
You will need proper shave soap or cream. Unfortunately the good old days, when drugstores carried products like Van DerHagen (VDH) are over. Pity. This was a fairly good shaving soap and was dirt cheap. Even cheaper is Williams, but I say give it a miss. To paraphrase Mr. Spock, It's soap, Jim, but not as we know it. C.O. Bigelow, which is nothing more than rebranded Proraso, is a good product usually available on the shelves at Bath & Body Works. This is a good quality product, in either soap, or cream form. My personal favorite is a cream made in India called Godrej Rich Lather. If you have an Indian or Middle Eastern shop in your area, look for it. Or get some online. Godrej is available in several formulas but I prefer the Rich Lather version, in the red tube. I get mine overseas and it is crazy cheap, but not too expensive online either. So-called "brushless" shave creams usually suck. There are a lot of high end creams and soaps that cost 5x as much, but really aren't any better than VDH or Godrej or Proraso. If shops like "The Art Of Shaving" sell it, then it is just overhyped, overpriced frippery, in my opinion.
No, "Edge" or "Gillette Foamy" or "Barbasol" are not what you want at all. They simply do not compare with a proper soap or cream. They are not slick enough, mainly. These canned "creams" are usually referred in the straight shaving community as "canned goo". Don't try to learn to shave with these! Serious. If it comes in a can, it is garbage. The only reason anybody buys it is because the giant men's grooming supply corporations spend hundreds of millions of dollars on advertising, and have hypnotized a gullible public into buying them. They make more money selling you garbage than selling you a good product. And it is easy, and convenient.
Next you need a mug or bowl. I prefer a mug so that's what I recommend and that's what I will explain. Take your puck of VDH and plop it in your ceramic, not plastic or metal, mug, of decent size. Put it in the microwave for about 25 seconds. If the soap doesn't melt fully, give it another 5 seconds at a time until it is. Set it aside and let it cool and solidify. Do this, even if you will use cream. You want a mug with soap melted into it. Most tallow based shave soaps do not melt well. VDH I can absolutely vouch for. Those that will not melt can be grated and pressed into the mug, or soaked in the mug for a few days with a small amount of water, so that it softens and conforms to the mug. When it eventually firms up, there you go. It is stuck in the mug.
Practice making a lather. You can do this even if you still shave with a disposable or cartridge or double-edge razor. Master your face prep and even your disposable shaves will improve in closeness and comfort. There are basically two different ways to make a lather: bowl or mug lathering, and face lathering. Bowl lathering obviously involves picking up soap with the bristles of the wet brush, then agitating the brush in the bowl to introduce air and make a lather. The lather can be built in an empty bowl, or on the puck of soap. Face lathering creates the lather right on the face. The brush is wetted and then used to pick up soap, and then is worked on the face to create the lather. More water can be introduced as needed. I face lather, and that is what I will include in this walk-through.
I suggest shaving right after showering, and not drying the face. This ensures that the whiskers are properly hydrated and will cut easily. Your whiskers are tougher than copper wire of the same size! You want every advantage you can get. This is why the old time barbers gave customers the hot towel treatment before shaving. If you don't shower first, at least wash your face with hot water. While you are at it, study the direction of growth, or grain, of your beard. It doesn't all grow N-S, i.e. straight downward. One little area it might indeed be N-S and a half inch away it might be nearly E-W, or it might whirl around like a mini hurricane. Learn and remember the growth pattern over your entire face. This is called "mapping" your face, and is very important as you will soon see.
First, soak your brush for a bit. Run some hot water in your mug and let the brush soak in it while your soap also soaks up some hot water, or "blooms". Dump out the water and give your brush one good flick to clear the excess. The flick is critical, so remember how hard you flicked so you can adjust as needed, next time. Work the brush around on the puck. If you use cream, squirt out a small dollop of cream, about the size of an almond as they say, onto the puck. Your brush will pick up all the cream and a little bit of soap, making a "superlather". You don't need to continue until you have made a pile of lather in the mug. You don't shave your mug, you shave your face. So don't lather your mug... lather your face.
Re-wet your face, then apply the brush to it in circular motions, creating the lather and also exfoliating the skin and lifting and softening the whiskers. You don't need to make a santa claus beard of lather. You just want a layer that will keep the whiskers hydrated and provide cushion and lubrication between blade and skin. The lather should not be so dry that it makes stiff peaks like meringue. It should actually be almost drippy. You can pick up additional water with the brush and continue to make lather, if necessary, and this introduces more water into the lather.
Once long ago, like back when I was a kid, or really even before then, a young man learned to shave under his Father's instruction and example. These days, most men will have "learned to shave" by watching commercials on TV, paid for by the giant men's grooming supply conglomerates. Well, basically only one, now: Proctor & Gamble, or P&G as they are known in the shaving world. The sad fact is, you did not actually learn to shave... properly, anyway. You only learned that it is necessary to buy their overpriced and underperforming products. The commercials are aimed at keeping the consumer ignorant. If The shaving megacorporations (Again, there is basically one, these days) really wanted to help you shave better, they would sell inexpensive straights, and offer free how-to videos online. Unfortunately they make their money selling you stuff that you use a few times and throw away, in way of razors and blades, and pressurized aerosol cans of crap you are supposed to daub onto your face for some reason before the actual shave. Total load of crap. They want to make money and they DON'T CARE ABOUT YOU. You are simply a money machine, like a couple billion other guys out there. Do you really think that a plastic shaving cartridge costs $7 to manufacture? NO! But all the advertising does. You pay for the very commercials that they use to brainwash you into buying the stuff that pays for the commercials! Wake Up! But anyway, now we are going to unlearn all the wrong stuff you already learned and wrong stuff that you have been practicing maybe for years or even decades, and wrong habits. You are not just going to learn to shave with a straight razor. You are going to learn to shave.
Lathered up? Okay, now shave, using your usual type of razor. Yes, your first lesson in straight shaving is shaving with your plastic thingamajig that you been using all along. The difference is this time, you are doing it RIGHT. It all starts with good prep, which is what hydration and lathering are all about. But now, the shave technique. First of all, it is important to stretch the skin to be shaved. Best way is to pull an area of skin "upstream", that is, up toward the roots of the hairs, so more of the whisker protrudes from the follicle. Stretching not only exposes more hair for a closer shave, but also reduces cuts and irritation. Possibly you grew up using 2 blade, 3 blade, 6 blade, whatever throwaways or cartridges and don't know what it is even like to be cut shaving, but you still got some irritation, and when you graduate to straight shaving you will probably get a cut or two your first time at bat. So stretch that skin good and tight with your non-shaving hand. You can wrap a washcloth around your two fingertips to give them some traction on wet, soapy skin, if necessary. But do stretch.
As closely as possible, follow the grain of your face as you shave. You may not get as close a shave as you have been getting, if you have been going ATG, or Against The Grain, in your regular customary shave, but that's okay. Going WTG, or With The Grain, will reduce irritation now, with your usual cartridge or disposable, and when you start shaving with your straight, it will also reduce the incidence of cuts. So get in the practice now, of going WTG or at least as close as you can get to it. The topography of your face will not always lend itself well to a perfect WTG pass, but as close as you can get will be good enough. If part of your face starts to dry, hit it again with the brush. Any proper badger brush will hold at least enough soap for a complete re-lather or two. Keep the pressure fairly light. You don't have to get a perfect shave! Especially in the first pass. Pressure causes irritation, and with straights, cuts. Remember to keep the skin stretched tight and flat as you shave it.
Finished? Okay... re-lather and do another pass! The first pass is all about beard REDUCTION, not beard eradification. With straights, it is common to go 2 or even 3 passes. For now, let the second pass also be WTG. You will find that after two passes, with stretching, WTG shaving, and light pressure, that you still end up with a pretty good shave, with zero or near zero irritation.
There. You haven't even touched the straight razor to your face but you already know a lot of the basics of straight shaving, and you already have improved your shave. Cool, or what? But you aren't finished. Aftershave is not just for smelling good. It is also supposed to be a facial treatment to reduce irritation, rash, even infection. Your choice of aftershave should be influenced primarily by how it leaves your face feeling, and less how it makes you smell. Most aftershave fragrances fade rapidly, anyway. Want to smell good all day? Use a cologne... sparingly. The most popular aftershaves usually contain alcohol. This tightens the skin and reduces any tendency to be oily. But there are also aftershaves that contain little or no alcohol. Some guys swear by witch hazel, a herbal extract you can buy at most pharmacies. Some aftershaves such as Lucky Tiger, one of my favorites, contain witch hazel and little or no alcohol. There are also aftershave balms, such as Nivea, that are gentler on the face than splash type aftershaves. My personal best favorite is Pinaud Clubman, a classic barbershop type splash with an old school fragrance and a fairly pronounced burn, which actually is welcome, once you are accustomed to it. Clubman is widely available in shops (Sally's Beauty Supply stocks it) and is cheap as dirt. I used to like Old Spice, but the old formula is gone forever. The new ones aren't the same, and part of that is probably due to the new plastic bottle. The old milk glass bottle did not adulterate the fragrance. There are several Bay Rum scented aftershaves worth trying, too, such as Pinaud Virgin Island Bay Rum (VIBR), Masters, Ogallala, and many others that you will probably only find online. Floid is another popular classic AS worth trying.
Don't overdo moisturizers. Use them sparingly, on the parts of your face prone to dryness. Many aftershaves contain enough essential oils that moisturizers really aren't needed.
After a few shaves with the plastic shaving thing, and after getting good at raising a good lather and stuff, break out that wicked sharp straight. If someone reputable made it shave-ready for you, no stropping should be needed for the first shave. And since poor stropping can wreak havoc with the edge, no sense taking the chance. Give the edge the sharpness test, just to satisfy yourself that the razor is sharp enough to do the job, and it's all on you.
There are several different grips used to hold the razor, depending on what part of the face you are shaving, the direction of the stroke, direction of the grain, and which hand you are using. I could write a book on how to hold your razor as you shave, but I won't. I suggest searching on youtube for straight shaving videos, for that. But probably the most frequently used grip is with the razor opened all the way and more, until the scales have been rotated about the pivot 3/4 of the way around. The scales stick out between the second and ring fingers, the index and second fingers are on the back edge of the shank, and the ring finger is resting in the curve of the "monkey tail". The thumb is pressed against the front edge of the shank, near the blade. This grip gives you a lot of control and is fairly versatile. Like I said, watch the videos on youtube and copy the grips used.
You can use both hands, or just your dominant hand, whichever you prefer. Learning to shave with both hands is probably better, but I only use my right hand, and probably over half of all straight shavers use only their dominant hand. Up to you. I suggest trying it with both hands for the first few attempts at shaving, switching hands as desired, for different parts of your face.
Don't start yet... we are not quite ready. Review the elements of a comfortable shave that you have learned so far.
With most cartridge or disposable razors, you cannot control the blade angle. This is because most of those plastic facial torture devices have a built-in swivel, supposedly to conform automatically to the contours of your face. Unfortunately, this prevents you from learning how to control the angle yourself, and using the angle that is ideal for you in each situation. With a straight razor, angle is completely controllable by the user. Shave angle is also extremely important, when shaving with a straight razor, or indeed, any type of razor that has no guard over or under the edge. So, to your list above, add another item:
If you lay the razor flat against your cheek, with both the spine and edge on your skin, and then rotate the spine outward away from the face until the gap between spine and face is equal to the thickness of the spine, that is a good basic shave angle. NOT 45 degrees. NOT 30 degrees. Actually around 25 degrees, and in some situations, even closer. Too large of a shave angle results in scraping, not shaving. Obviously scraping will not only cause irritation and cuts, but also trash the delicate edge of your razor, necessitating frequent re-honing.
Now let me make one thing perfectly clear. The object of your first few straight shaves is not to get a perfect shave, or even a really good shave. The object is to survive the experience. Make no mistake... a shave-ready razor will CUTTTTTTTTT YOU!!! It can also leave your face feeling raw and trashed. Learn how to avoid cuts and irritation first, and then learn how to get a really close shave.
I suggest making a sticky-note cheat sheet with the 6 tips listed above, and sticking it in the corner of your mirror where you will shave. Go ahead and shower, and prep, and give it a go. For starters, just shave your cheeks. Keep the razor away from nose or ears until you feel comfortable manipulating the razor. If you get cold feet, stop, and finish with your old shaving system. If you feel like you can man up and handle it, go ahead and trim under your sideburns. and down to your jawline. Chin is the trickiest part. Review the 6 tips before continuing with your chin. If you get cut, this is where it will probably happen. Light pressure. Remember, you can always take an additional pass or two. Don't try to totally eliminate your beard... be satisfied with merely reducing it. For under the nose, make a "piggy face" by pulling or pushing your nose up hard, and stretching your upper lip down over your teeth. For the right and left sides, bend the nose toward the opposite side. Don't just use your fingers to stretch. You can help by making "shaving faces", using your facial muscles to help flatten and stretch the skin. Tight, flat skin resists cuts. Loose, flappy skin invites them.
Oh, let me add a 7th tip to your list.
You can rinse your razor in a sink full of water, or under a running faucet. You can also gently wipe whiskers and lather off on a soft towel or damp sponge. Up to you. But don't bang clang it on the faucet or sink, or anything, for that matter. Remember, the edge is delicate.
Oh yeah... another tip.
The neck often has a lot of sideways growth, and it is basically impossible to exactly follow the direction of the grain. Just get it as close as you can. Often it will be almost XTG, or Across The Grain. That's okay. Do the best you can do.
Lather up again, and do another pass. A double pass WTG shave is a good routine to stick with for your first half dozen or so shaves.
If you should happen to cut yourself, here is what you do. Immediately wet the tip of your styptic pencil (Available at any drugstore... looks like a pointed piece of chalk) and touch it to the cut. It will burn like Aitch EE Double Hockey Sticks, but it will disinfect and stop the bleeding. For severe cuts, apply direct pressure after the styptic. Don't worry... you won't die from a shaving cut.
Do your after shave treatment, and carefully dry your razor. Try pinching it between folds of a towel or some TP, and pulling it through a couple of times. Strop the razor maybe a dozen laps, just to ensure that the edge is microscopically clean and dry. Leave the razor open, to finish drying. Store in a dry place. The bathroom is usually pretty humid, and you are asking for rust. Also try to always keep from getting water in the pivot area. It is pretty hard to get it dry there, so just keep it dry there. You can oil the blade if you like. I use motor oil for this. It leaves a clingy film on steel. Most other oils don't. For long term storage, nothing beats petroleum jelly. Be aware that oily or greasy substances can stain or discolor some scales, so YMMV. (Your Mileage May Vary, a commonly used expression in the shaving world.) When you are ready to shave with it again, wipe all oil from the razor before stropping.
Once you master the two pass WTG shave, you could try going ATG in a third pass. Going ATG requires a very small shave angle. Try keeping the spine just barely not touching or dragging on the skin. It is important to reduce the beard to a minimum before going ATG. Otherwise, the whiskers themselves force the edge into the skin, causing cuts and irritation.
Another advanced technique you can try, is the scything stroke, or sliding stroke. With this stroke, you ignore tip #8, and deliberately add a small amount of slice to the stroke. IOW, you pull the razor slightly sideways as it travels forward over your face. This increases the cutting power of the blade considerably. Unfortunately, while it will cut whiskers better, it also cuts skin better, too, so that is why this is an advanced technique best left until after a month or so of shaves.
A rather more difficult type of razor to shave with is called the "Shavette". Now, properly speaking, a Shavette is a specific shaving tool made and marketed by Dovo, that has the basic form of a straight but uses disposable blades for the cutting edge. It's like Kleenex. The brand name, though a protected trademark, is popularly though improperly used to refer generically to other products of the same type made by other companies. On the face of it, a shavette would seem to be easier to use. After all, there is no honing. The blade is fresh whenever you put a new one in, and when it gets dull, you simply change it. No stropping required. Well, yeah, there's that. But first of all, a disposable blade can be, and usually is, sharper than the average straight razor. Second, it is more flimsy, partly due to the flexibility of the blade and partly due to lack of solidity and control in the blade holder. But if you are having trouble getting your straight honed, you could give it a try. Just remember all the tips, and especially the one about light pressure. Take your time. A shavette will leave you looking like you been sorting wildcats all morning, if you get careless or in a hurry!
There are several types of blades used in shavettes, and several methods of securing the blade. The cheap way to go, and my favorite, is the type that uses an ordinary DE blade, snapped in half. DE stands for Double Edge. If you are drawing a blank because you were born since the '50s, a DE razor is the classic Gillette razor (A hundred other manufacturers copied the basic design when patents expired) that uses a thin, flat blade sharpened on two opposite edges. The top of the razor opens up when the end of the handle is twisted, and the blade is laid in there and the razor closed. This is the TTO type. There are also screw-together types having three pieces, But anyway, that is what a DE blade is. They are getting hard to find at the drugstore and ridiculously overpriced, but Sally's has the Personna brand DE blades fairly cheap and you can get them crazy cheap online, in quantity. How does $8 for 100 blades sound? Typically, in a shavette, each half blade will give you about 10 shaves. Sure, you are participating in the throwaway economy, but not badly so, at that price point per shave. And while you are at Sallys, they sell a cheap shavette, the "Magic Razor" brand. Be sure to get the model that uses half DE blades, cause they also have one that uses the long Weck/Fromm type hair shaper blades. The shavette will cost you like $8.99 or something like that. You will want two of them, so wenh you snap a blade in half (be careful you don't cut your fingers!) you will have somewhere to put both halves.
There are cheaper shavettes available on ebay. Some work okay. Some suck. Buyer beware. You takes yer chances. There are midrange offerings by Parker and others. There are also higher quality ones such as the Feather Artist Club shavettes from Japan. Kinda expensive but they are nice. The Feathers use the long blades though, and those cost more than DE blades. They have their fans, and serious fans at that.
And speaking of DE blades, Ebay is crawling with vintage Gillette and other DE razors. Cheap, too. The ball-end Tech, for instance, can be had for sometimes as little as $5 or so. There are specialized razors such as slants, open combs, and adjustables, my favorite type. I have in my personal shave den a gold Adjustable Aristocrat from the 60's, a gold Adjustable Executive from the 50's, and a Slim, which is an adjustable Aristocrat without the gold plating. Slims can be found for as little as $30. The FatBoy, or model 195 ($1.95 was the original retail price!) is the same as the Executive but without the gold plating. The Super Adjustable, or "Black Beauty", has a distinctive black handle available in two lengths. All of these adjustables are great shavers, very versatile, and like other vintage Gillette DE razors, built to last for generations. If you decide straight or shavette shaving is not for you, this is a good option. Especially the adjustables. Some DE razors are very mild. Some shave very aggressively. You might decide the first one or two you try are just not right for you, and buy others until you find your zone. Or with an adjustable, you already have 9 different razors in one package, at the turn of the ring. For more on DE shaving, visit www.badgerandblade.com. Tell them Slash McCoy sent you.
There are other types of safety razors, too. Still popular but no longer made by anyone is the Schick Injector razor, made in many different models from the 1920's up into the 70's. New blades mostly come from China and are bought online. I recommend a 1940's "G" type for a curious newbie. They shave great and are cheap, usually around $10 or so without case and stuff. There are also SE, or Single Edge safety razors. Beginning in 1912, most of the popular brands have accepted disposable SE blades. Before that, they used what is improperly called a Wedge blade that is meant to be re-honed and stropped like a straight razor. Many come as 7 day sets, a blade for each day of the week. The majority of the wedge type SE razors all use the same size blade, which makes filling out a set not too difficult if you don't care about authenticity. A fairly wide (6/8) straight razor can be cut down into a replacement blade. The early Kampfe/Star lathercatchers are fine examples of this type of razor. There are many others. And there are the oddball types such as the Wilkinson Empire razors and the Rolls razors which have their own peculiar style of blade. All of these wedge razors, with the blade properly honed and stropped, shave every bit as good as a straight razor but with the familar "hoe" handle configuration. The 1912 model GEM razor is extremely popular still, uses disposable blades that are still manufactured, and is very cheap.
There is NOTHING WRONG with shaving with a vintage razor! Crud and gunk can be removed when you get them. "Scrubbing Bubbles" and a toothbrush works good for cleaning old razors. The razor can easily be sterilized if you are really squeamish, but remember, your Quattro or Fusion carts are not sterile, either. Just get your found treasures good and clean, and give them a bit of a soak in Barbicide (from Sallys) or alcohol, whatever, and you are good to go.
Lastly, there are single edge disposables such as the BIC Metal or BIC Sensitive, which are easily found online. A single blade razor irritates less than multiblade Frankenrazors, and most of these do not have swiveling heads, so you can control the shave angle better. My favorite of this type is the Kai Gold-S, found only in Japan unfortunately. These wont shave like a straight, but they beat the pants off those crazy 6 blade face graters that get so much air time on TV, in the mildness department anyway. And if you suffer from ingrowns using carts or throwaways, even with proper technique, try a single blade disposable. They are handy for travel because you can carry on a plane. DE blades, injector blades, straights, etc are verboten and can only be taken in checked baggage. A couple of Bic Metals can ride in your carryon, as far as I can determine.
Okay, that's enough in this admittedly long-winded post. Don't give me too much credit for this information, because most of it is just longstanding practice and common knowledge of the straight shaving community. Now you know how to shave, with straights or with any razor for that matter. Good Luck, and Happy Shaves!