Sharpologist has previously looked at the “best” DE razors, shaving creams, and shaving soaps. Now it is time to look at shaving brushes. There are many, many varieties of brushes, available from small “garage” artisans and long-established companies. Let’s try to make some sense of it all by discussing the different elements of a shaving brush then narrowing the field down to the best shaving brush in different categories.
What Makes Up A Brush?
The primary criteria of shaving brushes are brush size and shape. Brush dimensions are typically expressed in millimeters and are often divided into three sections: loft, knot, and over-all height. The loft is the length of the actual hair from the base of the knot to the tip of the hair. The knot is an indication of the amount of hair packed into the handle (the knot dimension can be a little dodgy because hair can be packed in tightly or loosely). The length of the handle is factored in to determine the over-all height of the brush. The handle itself is usually made of resin or acrylic (i.e. plastic), though wood and metallic handles are quite common as well. More exotic materials are also occasionally seen, particularly on high-end, artisan-made models.
Two factors of brush size and shape are a little ambiguous. The first is the tips of the loft can be shaped into a fan-like shape or into a bulb-like shape. Each style has their advocates who claim one shape is better than the other but there’s no real agreement about it. The second is the size and shape of the handle. Size and shape is yet another personal preference, but in the absence of knowing what you want I suggest measuring the distance from the palm of your hand to the pad of your thumb and let that be the maximum length of the handle.
Brush sizes can vary widely but I think the average loft is about 50 millimeters and the average knot is about 20 millimeters.
Shaving brushes generally come in one of four types of bristle: boar hair, horse hair, badger hair, and synthetic fiber. Sometimes you will see a “mixed breed” of hair knot, such as boar/badger or horse/badger. Boars and badgers are killed to harvest their meat and hair so if that is a concern you will want to select a brush with synthetic or horse hair. Virtually all of the badger hair used in shaving brushes come from China, where the badger is considered a pest and controlled under license.
Boar hair brushes–often called “natural bristle” brushes–are the most commonly seen in mass market outlets such as drug stores and groceries. Most of these brushes are not very well constructed and tend to require more work to get a decent lather out of as well. However that is not to say that all boar hair brushes are substandard! Quite the contrary; a well-made boar hair brush can provide years of service and work quite well after a break-in period.
Boar hair retains less water than badger hair: selecting a boar hair brush with a higher loft will help compensate for lower water retention.
Brushes with horse hair have returned to the market after an anthrax scare around World War 1. Material for horse hair shaving brushes are simply cut from the horse’s mane and/or tail: unlike other animal bristle brushes, the animal is not harmed. Many users find horse hair shaving brushes to perform better than boar hair and less “scratchy” than many “pure” grade badger brushes.
The price for horse hair shaving brushes is usually quite reasonable given their performance and build quality. The downside here is availability: they are not found quite as easily as other brushes, though it is getting better.
CLICK HERE for more information on horse hair shaving brushes.
Badger hair brushes are generally regarded as the preferred material for shaving brushes: they can generally make a lather more quickly, and retain more heat and water, than brushes of other types. However there are a number of different hair grades, and there is no standardized grading process between manufacturers. But there are some general guidelines.
The lowest grade of badger hair is generally referred to as “pure.” This grade is characterized by a dark color and thick, stiff, coarse-looking hair. Some manufacturers bleach the hair to give it the look of a higher grade but the hair itself will still look coarse.
The next step up is usually called “super” or “fine.” These brushes are generally better constructed overall and the hair is finer-looking, softer, and lighter in color. These brushes retain water and heat noticeably better–sometimes dramatically better–than lower grades, and can make a better lather more quickly.
The highest grade of badger hair is generally labeled “silvertip.” These brushes are usually made to the highest standard, often with hand-crafted workmanship and commanding the highest prices. Silvertip hair is often cream colored on top with darker bands of color below and very fine but still fairly flexible hairs. These brushes will retain even more water and heat than super badger brushes, though less dramatically.
Finally there are synthetic brushes. These can range from brushes with nylon bristles those with more specialized synthetic material. Their price and performance usually fall between those of boar and badger brushes, though the latest generation is competitive with very good badger brushes in both performance and cost.
There are some distinct advantage–and disadvantages–to synthetic hair shaving brushes. Advantages:
- Strength. Synthetic fiber is stronger than the natural fiber.
- Consistency. If you have two brushes with the same knot, handle and loft, there is almost no variance whereas natural hair will have variance even with the same hair grade.
- Temperature range. Synthetic fiber with withstand hotter (though not extremely hot or boiling) water than would damage natural hairs.
- Drying. Synthetic fiber will dry much more quickly than natural hair.
- Water retention. Synthetic hair does not retain water like natural hair, so you must modify your lather development to accommodate the lack of retained water.
- Heat retention. Synthetics will lose heat faster than naturals, so if you like warm lather throughout the shave a natural hair bristle may be more your preference.
- Feel at the tip. Good synthetics are soft at the tip but they do not “feel” the same a natural badger hair brush.
- Backbone variation. Synthetics have one backbone feel whereas you can vary the backbone in a natural brush by the amount of time you soak the brush in water.
CLICK HERE for more information on synthetic shaving brushes.
Travel brushes are a specialty item, brushes (with generally smaller lofts) that can be stored in an integrated container. There are several different schemes for protecting the brush including screwing the knot into the container which then becomes the brush’s handle.
Of course, you might be able to take your regular kit if it will fit into your luggage. One way of keeping everything in one place is to put it in a large prescription pill container. Just remember to drill a few holes in the container for air circulation.
CLICK HERE for more information on travel shaving.
If you’re more of a visual learner, here is a video about how to buy a shaving brush:
Criteria For The Best Shaving Brush
With so many options and variables, how can the best shaving brush be determined? Like the other “best” lists, I think we can use some parameters (albeit somewhat arbitrary). Heaviest weighting first to narrow the field:
- Reputation and popularity: my experience and the experiences of others reported on blogs, forums, and vendor sites
- Over-all value
- Availability and length of time on the market: there are many fine artisans but they tend to come-and-go from the market so this list gives more weight to established sources.
- Available in different sizes: some brush lines have different loft or handle sizes to accommodate larger or smaller hands
- Handle material available in other than wood: wood tends to degrade more quickly over time and use (remember, a high moisture environment!) and while some brushes are carefully sealed against water other materials may be longer-lasting.
As with all products, caveat emptor and “your mileage my vary.” This list is not sponsored: I did not get paid to mention any of these products. I plan to update this post as products change, enter, and leave the market.
Best Low Cost Shaving Brush: Omega Pro 48. The classic “barber brush” that has been around for years (Proraso often bundles this brush under their own label). Honorable Mentions: Omega Boar/Badger mix and the Vie-long 04312 Horse Hair brush.
Best Value Shaving Brush: Parker shaving products typically have a great “bang for the buck” and the Parker Pure Badger shaving brush is no exception. It is also very popular. Honorable Mention: Edwin Jagger Best Badger
Best Synthetic Shaving Brush: The Muhle 39k257 Synthetic shaving brush uses the latest generation of synthetic fiber in a classic form factor. For an upgraded, more deluxe version take a look at the Muhle 31M89. Honorable Mentions: Frank Shaving Pur-Tech, and the Kent Infinity Silvertex
Best “Price-Is-No-Object” Shaving Brush: the Kent BLK12 in silvertip is regarded as one of the finest luxury shaving brushes on the market. A very large brush as well (smaller versions include the BLK8 mentioned above and the BLK4). Honorable Mention: Simpson Chubby 3 in super badger.
Over to you. What do you think? Do you have any of these brushes? Any other recommendations? Leave a comment!