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Essay #3: The Roberts Method and the Systematics of Wet Shaving

About This Essay

Several years ago Charles A. Roberts, creator of the Hydrolast brand and Method Shaving movement, authored a series of essays that ignited a surge of interest in wet shaving. These essays offered an innovative approach to maximizing the results of the razor and shaving brush, and provided many men a great introduction to a world of luxury shaving they never knew existed. The Original "Shaving Graces" Resurrected!

With the exception of the last, all of the above questions are relevant to the methodology of shaving that I teach to individuals throughout the United States every day. I should note in this regard, that my shaving customers are not part of a selected “segment” of the shaving population. Nor are their shaving habits uniquely compatible with the methods I teach. Instead, their numbers are drawn from the widest possible sample of shavers. This fact, I believe, reflects the truly heterogeneous character of shaving as it exists in the real world.

My experience in working with this wide and varied group of shavers has directly shaped my approach to shaving. It also serves as a background for much of the discussion that follows. The scope of this discussion will include a brief introduction to the Roberts Method of Wet Shaving (RMWS). This introduction will consider its overall effectiveness as a shaving system. Finally, I will have a few words to say about its “revolutionary” role in the evolution of shaving over the last century.

It appears that I am the first explorer in the universe of shaving to both recognize—and develop—a comprehensive methodology for shaving differentiated beard types based on beard thickness, length and breadth. This fact accounts for the creation of my “Wet Shaving Systematics.” (I am often asked to explain the difference between the Roberts Method and the Systematics discussed here. In short, the Roberts Method is the comprehensive method of wet shaving that I teach to shavers in my Austin, Texas shaving clinics. The Systematics entails the entire field of wet shaving products, methods and technologies currently under development at the same Austin location. The former is the applied dimension; the latter its developmental side).

The Roberts Method of shaving can best be understood as: 1). An efficient and comfortable method for shaving all beard types. 2). An approach to shaving that is fundamentally “dynamic,” not static. Its use allows the individual shaver the chance to obtain a totally customized shave on his own. He can, in effect, achieve the perfect shave every time by simply making a meaningful effort to “systematically” remove his own beard correctly and efficiently. 3). An approach to shaving that is inherently simple. Because this process is both dynamic and systematic, it is inherently simple because it has to be. Any procedure that is too complex is not systematic by definition; excessive complexity makes any attempt at systematizing any process impossible.

These facts account for the increasing popularity of my shaving system. It also accounts for its increasing adoption by shavers all over the country. Indeed, its three most compelling advantages are great simplicity, efficiency and predictability. In the shaving classes I conduct in my Austin, Texas Shavemaster clinics, I normally require no more than 30 minutes to teach a man how to shave perfectly for the rest of his life.

I commonly refer to my approach to shaving as The Roberts Method of Wet Shaving (RMWS). It is the only complete systematics of shaving in existence. However, since my use of the term “systematics” may arouse vague—and inaccurate—associations with technology, it is, necessary that we clearly establish the meaning of this term from the start.

The etymological root of “systematics” is derived from the Greek meaning “together,” A “systematic” search for the solution to a particular problem requires the combined use of correct method and analysis toward that end. The success of any problem solving process therefore requires that a clear—and logical-- relation exist between means and ends.

Generally speaking, an ideal systematic solution to a problem should also be optimally predictive of results. This fact suggests that a high rate of systematic predictability will directly correspond to a high degree of methodological validity. This is why a systematic approach to problem solving is always superior to a random one. In philosophical terms, we would describe this ideal arrangement as one in which all causal relations are in clear and distinct “correspondence.” In other words, one thing clearly causes another in a clear and unvarying sequence.

This brief detour into the depths of epistemology is not meant to serve as a mere sideshow to our larger discussion of shaving. Rather it is intended to thoroughly illuminate the discussion that follows.

In nearly 100% of all instances, it is impossible for the average man to accurately anticipate the comfort or quality of the shave he will experience on any given day. Now this does not mean that the quality of his shave is unpredictable. That is hardly the case. For in nearly every instance, the average man knows with total certainty that his shave will be as painful and unpleasant as every other shave he has ever had. And with this understanding in mind, it is therefore possible for the average shaver to predict with near 100% accuracy exactly where his shave will fall on his own personal “shaving misery index.” For this shaver, then, no experience with a razor is ever pleasant; nor can it ever be. To him, personal misery is largely inseparable from the very act of shaving itself.

Why is today’s shaving man a miserable wretch when he should be an ecstatic one? Several answers can be offered for this strange phenomenon.

First, today’s man is a shaver without a clear “systematic” means for removing his beard comfortably every day. Because of this fact, he shaves differently every day. And because he shaves differently every day, he is incapable of managing the necessarily complex relations that exist between the various shaving functions themselves.

The four most important functional relations in shaving are 1). The dynamic relation between shaving brush and water. (I call this the “bailing effect.”) 2). The dynamic relation between shaving brush and shave cream (I call this the “infusion effect”.) 3). The dynamic relation between water and razor (I call this the “barrier effect”). 4). The relation between razor and shaving surface (I call this the “cutting effect”). Unless these four dynamic processes are brought within the closest, most efficient relation possible, the perfect shave will simply not happen. Indeed, it can not happen. Thus, to achieve the desired result of the perfect shave, a clear and precise systematics of shaving is not only desirable; it is absolutely indispensable.

Second, by shaving differently every day, a man shapes his beard pattern every day—for better or worse. In order to fully grasp this insight, it is necessary to understand something about the so-called “grain” of a man’s beard.

Simply put, a man’s beard possesses a unique pattern. This pattern is frequently referred to as beard “grain.” In much the same way that every individual has a distinct fingerprint, every man also possesses his own beard grain. The exact sense of this principle can best be grasped by thinking of beard grain as a kind of distinctive “growth direction” of facial hair. This pattern significantly changes with every 24 hour of growth. This fact explains why shaving every 24 hours is extremely important. Only by shaving on the 24 -hour cycle can the beard be cut at the most manageable level possible. Skipping shaves—or shaving only intermittently—invariably makes the next shave substantially more difficult to accomplish.

The grain of a man’s beard develops across three distinct dimensions: length, density and extent. These three characteristics of the average man’s beard directly affect the method used to cut it. Beard length, which in many respects is the least significant of the three, increases continuously; indeed, a man’s beard continues to grow even as it is being shaved off. And since beard growth is continuous, shaving is continuously necessary to remove it.

Beard density is perhaps the most important factor of them all. This refers to the number of beard hairs per unit of measurement. As beard density increases, the capacity of the razor blade to cut it is increasingly inhibited. At the same time, it is important to understand that the limiting conditions of beard density are further intensified by beard breadth. This latter term refers to the extent of shaving area that the beard itself actually covers. This fact explains why some men have very thin beards that extend broadly over the full expanse of their shaving terrain. Nevertheless, these beards can be as difficult to cut as a much thicker beard that is otherwise confined to a more limited cutting area.

Admittedly, I know relatively little about the arcane subject of precise beard measurement. However, I once read somewhere that the Gillette company has perfected the measurement of beard density to something akin to sub-atomic exactitude. Not to be outdone by Gillette, however, I have developed my own beard density rating system. And though not nearly as exacting as Gillette’s, it is infinitely easier to apply and certainly easier to understand.

In its simplest form, my system measures relative beard density along a progressive numerical system. The measurement standards are set on a continuous increment of 2-4-6-8-10 beard types, with #2 being the least dense and number 8 approaching extreme density; #10 standing for hirsute. By using the simplicity of this system, and the venerable tool of the “bell curve” so beloved of sociologists, it is possible for the average shaver to determine with impressive accuracy his own beard’s density. By superimposing the bell curve on my numerical system it is easy to determine that approximately 80% of all beards will be of “average” density. This means that average effort will be required to cut them. These beards reside comfortably in the range between 4 and 8. A number “four beard,” therefore would be relatively light, yet sufficiently full to require daily cutting with a basic cutting method. A number “10” beard, however, would require an extensive, multi-step, beard reduction method altogether different from that of the #4. The vast majority of beards I encounter fall predominantly within the 6-8 range. Inevitably, I see very few hirsute beards and very few “pale” ones.

The most important point of this brief foray into the muddle of sociology and statistics is to establish one signal point: it is impossible to effectively cut a broad range of beard types using only one kind of shaving methodology. In other words, it is categorically impossible to reduce and clear a #8 type beard using the same shaving methodology that would work for, say, a #4 type beard. Using this approach would produce horrendous razor burn in the #8 shaving terrain. Under such conditions, this method would be ludicrously—and brutally—inadequate. The same remarks apply in the converse situation: attempting to cut a #4 beard using the methodology appropriate to the #8 environment would similarly result in razor burn.

Unfortunately modern shaving technology completely ignores the existence of any beard type above a #4. This means that the very best razor available on the mass market today is really only suitable for use on a man’s arm pits. At the same time, it is perfectly suited for shaving a woman’s legs (again, a #4 type shaving terrain). This fact explains why, if necessary, a man can always shave with his wife’s razor. In a world of perfect shaving, this feat would not be possible. A woman’s razor would never effectively cut a man’s beard.

We can now better understand the amazing prevalence of razor burn among nearly all shavers (even women, amazingly!): the design of modern shaving technology renders it impossible for the individual shaver to achieve anything approaching a perfect shave.

My creation of “systematic shaving” has been likened to a “third revolution” in men’s shaving. As I have already discussed elsewhere in this series of essays, there have been at least two other revolutions in shaving within the last century. The first was King Gillette’s original safety razor; the second entailed the brilliant technical achievement of the Sensor/Mach 3 at the close of the 20th century.

At the same time it is very important to stress that the revolution in systematic or “customized” shaving is not based on some new ephemeral triumph of razor technology. Neither is it founded on a nostalgic return to an earlier “golden age” of lost traditional shaving technique. And neither is it based on some phony New Age nostrum that can only be procured from some endangered species of pickle. It is instead, a highly refined, coldly logical approach to achieving a perfect shave every time. Once learned, it is never forgotten; once mastered, it is never surpassed.

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