|Understanding the shave brush.
New wet shavers always have some questions about brushes. This will tell you some of what you need to know in order to make a decision that is right for yourself. As always, there is no substitute for actually trying each type of brush yourself. This is a very basic overview of shave brushes.
For hundreds of years, men and starting in the early 1900’s, women as well, used shave brushes to lather soap for shaving. Over the years, shave brushes have been made of various materials, both in the handles and the knot. The history of shave brushes makes for fascinating reading if research is your forte.
Size. Shave brushes are typically referred to by their knot (brush) size. The “Wee Scot” has a 14 mm. knot and brushes can be as big as 32 mm. This is measured by calipers at the knot base. While there are brushes both smaller and bigger than these sizes, most would regard those brushes as a novelty item. Loft refers to the height of the brush from the opening in the handle that the knot is set into, to the tip of the knot.
There are various terms wet shavers use to describe the physical properties of the knot. Scritchy, scratchy, floppy, stiff, prickly, backbone, etc. These terms are subjective and vary from one person to another. A brush one person finds “prickly,” another may find “soft.” "Back to Basics: Brush Terminology," written by sodapopjones, the official "brushologist" of The Shave Den, is the best reference guide for someone trying to figure out brush slang on the shaving forums.
Shape. Brush knots come in a variety of shapes. The three most common are the Bulb, with a rounded top, the Fan, which generally has hairs all of the same length, and the Flattop, popular with face latherers, which has a flat top surface.
Materials. Brush handle material is traditionally made from horn, wood, or acrylic. Anything solid and water resistant can be used, so occasionally you will find handles made from aluminum, pewter, antler, bone, stone, glass or other materials. The brush knots are made from four materials, Badger bristles, Boar bristles, Horse hair or Synthetic fibers.
Manufacture. Brushes are either hand or machine made. There are benefits and drawbacks to both methods of manufacture. Machine made brush knots tend to be not as tightly packed as hand made knots, are more likely to shed hairs and are trimmed to shape by machines. Hand made knots are denser, hand formed to shape (no trimming is involved) hand tied and hand glued. Machine made brushes are cheap, which is the only benefit to owning a machine made brush.
Note: Synthetic brushes are not machine made brushes (or rather, not all synthetic brushes are machine made. Synthetic refers to materials used in the manufacture of the brush knot, not the method of manufacture).
Prices listed below are generalizations only, and reflect common prices. There are vendors who sell quality brushes for far cheaper prices than I have listed.
Badger. Badger bristles are one of the traditional fibers used in brushes. Badger hair has some unusual properties that make it ideal for use in a shave brush. Badger bristles are actually wider at the tips than they are at the base. This is part of what gives a badger brush it’s characteristic “bloom.” Like a flower opening up, badger brushes go through a similar process after they have been used a few times. Badger bristles trap water in between the bristles. This results in a brush that has excellent water retention properties. The tips of badger brushes are also typically softer than boar bristles and as such, badger brushes require less of a break-in time than boar brushes. There are several different grades of Badger brushes and this adds to the inexperienced shaver’s confusion. To compound this, different brush makers use their own grading system. Top manufacturers include Vulfix-Simpson and Rooney.
NOTE: New badger and boar brushes and older brushes that have been unused for a time have a pungent odor. This smell can be strong or faint when you first get the brush. Over time, as you use the brush the smell will go away. There are also cleaners manufactured specifically for cleaning cosmetic brushes. Using these cleaners is the recommended method of sanitizing, cleaning and "de-funking" a brush.
This is the general grade system:
Pure Bristle. Any brush that is labeled “pure badger” or “badger bristle” typically falls into this category. The bristles can come from any part of the badger and the knots are trimmed into shape. Unless you prefer a stiff, very scratchy brush, new users are better off using a better grade of badger brush. These machine made brushes never pack the bristles as tightly as hand formed knots do, and as a result, they tend to shed bristles, often throughout the entire life of the brush. In some rare instances, tangling can occur when the knot is thinned out or loosely packed. These brushes retail for about $10-$20. Primary manufacturers are Van der Hagen and Tweezerman.