Brush and Bristle Basics without the Sales Pitch
There is probably no single item in the traditional wet shaver's arsenal that offers so many choices and options as the shaving brush. With prices ranging from $5.00 to $800.00, and product descriptions that actually say very little about the brush's characteristics, it becomes nearly impossible to make an informed choice.
Generally, shaving brushes, like most things, fit into one of two categories; the brush you need, and the brush you want. This article will concern itself mostly with the former as the latter category is more intrinsic, and making a selection from it is guided more by the heart than the head.
A shaving brush is made up of two major parts: the handle, and the bristle load. Handle materials today tend to be wood, metal, or some synthetic. In days gone by it was possible to buy a brush with a handle of much more exotic origins such as Ivory, Horn, Crystal, Porcelain, Bejeweled Precious Metals, or even Petrified Penis, just about anything that might strike a buyer's fancy. In most cases the motivating factor in the buying decision was the handle and the statement it made about the user or the person who gave it to the user as a gift. It became a status symbol, something to reinforce for the user or anyone who saw it, its owner's proper place in the universe, and it did so on a regular daily basis. Today we depend on our cars for this.
Today's brush handles tend to be more practical and utilitarian. The buying decision tends to be motivated by the bristle end of the brush, handle materials and design take a back seat. By far the most popular handle today is synthetic. It can be any one of many materials: nylon, plastic, micarta, or one of several modern composites. All are suitable to the task and which you choose is as much a matter of aesthetics as anything. Advantages of the synthetics are moisture resistance, colorfastness, and breakage resistance.
Wood handles can be a bit more problematic. It is not unusual to see a wood brush handle split down the side from top to bottom. This is most often due to moisture absorption and can be prevented by properly allowing the brush to drain and dry in a "bristle-downward" position after use. Painted-wood brush handles seem to be more prone to splitting than unpainted handles. Wood handles do offer the inherent beauty of the wood grain and the "natural material" factor that many prefer.
Metal brush handles typically are made to match a razor or shave set. While there is no historic advantage to metal brush handles, they do require a bit more care in their use, particularly when used with a delicate or easily breakable mug or bowl. Inattention can result in chips, cracks, or total loss of the vessel.
￼Generally speaking, what you choose for a handle is more a matter of personal taste. There is realistically little impact on the overall cost or performance of the brush as a result of handle material or design.
The business end of the brush, the bristle load, is the part that is the most important and yet is also the greatest unknown for most buyers. In researching this article many hours were spent investigating bristle materials, their origins, advantages, disadvantages, and values. To be perfectly frank there is little useful material available and what there is only seems to generate more questions and conflicts than answers. We will attempt to offer the results of our research, distilled to eliminate the impurities, and blended with equal parts of common sense and sound reasoning.
Bristle materials are much more varied today then in the past primarily due to the variety of synthetic materials available now that didn't formerly exist.
Pure Synthetics, the materials typically described as "nylon," "Luma," "man-made," "hypo-allergenic," and a variety of other un-natural sounding names are the latest additions to the choices available. They tend to be used in the least expensive brushes made and in general are worth about what you pay for them. One of the primary tasks your brush must perform is to be able to hold water, which will be whipped into the lather produced, and serves to moisten and soften the beard. Without sufficient moisture your razor will drag and pull causing an uncomfortable none-too-close shave. The water and lather also serve as a lubricant allowing the razor to glide over the skin effortlessly rather than skipping and hopping and missing hairs as it does. The pure synthetic materials used in widely available inexpensive brushes do not load and hold sufficient water to produce a moist lather. Without sufficient moisture or a proper lather consistency a quality shave is unattainable. Aside from the poor performance characteristics, the synthetic bristles are stiffer and tend to pick and poke and are generally not pleasurable or comfortable to use.
Synthetic and Natural Bristle Blends are an attempt to improve brush performance by increasing water loading capability without greatly increasing the brushes' cost. The attempt generally fails on both counts. The brush still doesn't hold sufficient water, and it still costs more than the pure synthetics - Still not a good choice.
Boar Bristles, also often called "Pure Bristle" or "Natural Bristle" is preferred over synthetics if budget constraints require a modestly priced brush. Water loading is better, the resulting lather will be better hydrated, and the bristles are somewhat more flexible. One major drawback of boar bristles is that they are quite brittle and prone to breaking. For this reason it is recommended that when using a boar bristle brush you develop the lather in the mug and use the brush only to apply it to the face using a "painting" type of motion. Boar bristle brushes tend to be priced comparably with synthetics and do a far better job for the price.
In all the years that shaving brushes have been in use, there has never been any bristle material found that is an improvement over the Natural Badger Bristle Brush. Badger bristle is perfectly suited to the task physically, is readily available in seemingly inexhaustible supplies, and can be reasonably inexpensive. Like most natural furs, it is ￼available in varying grades with similarly varying prices. The different grades are determined primarily from what area of the animal's body the hair comes from.
There are 6 primary species of badger distributed worldwide. The bristles most often used in shaving brushes are from the Eurasian Badger. This species is common throughout Asia, and heavily populates the open countryside and mountainous regions of China. Such ready availability has developed over the years into a thriving business in the export of Chinese Badger Bristles which are used in the manufacture of shaving brushes (and other types) by makers all over the world. This very point is what makes one wonder why one badger brush of a given grade level costs $100.00, while another of the same grade costs $500.00 or more. Surely there may be some differences in construction methods and processes, and possibly in the value of the handle materials - But the real value of the brush is in the bristles and most of them share the same source.
Generally there are three grades of badger bristle widely used for shaving brushes. They are typically described as Pure Badger, Best Badger, and Silvertip Badger.
Pure Badger is the hair that covers approximately 60% of the animal's body. It tends to be of medium length, is generally light tan but can vary to nearly black, and is the least supple of all the badger bristles, owing to its larger shaft diameter.
Best Badger is somewhat longer, covers approximately 25% of the animal's body, is generally light but varies to darker tan and is a finer more flexible hair. Since it is in shorter supply it is also correspondingly more costly.
Silvertip Badger (often called Super Badger) is the longest and most luxuriously supple of all the badger bristles. It is typically tan with darker colored bands at about 2/3 of its length. It comes from the area around the animal's neck and chest and amounts to about 15% of its total coat. Its shaft is finer and its tips are very light colored and well flared providing a decadently luxurious sensation when used. The greatest value of Silvertip bristles is not only the experience of use, but the performance characteristics of the brush. The flared tips which serve to provide thermal insulation to the badger allow the brush to hold a greater volume of water when saturated. This water is then infused into the lather to create a more moist, better performing lather which allows for a closer and less irritating shave.
Larger Silvertip brush size = more flared tips = more water held = moister lather = better shave.
Another approach employed by some brush makers in order to offer a wider variety of brush grades and prices, is to blend the various grades of badger bristles together. The idea is to produce a higher quality brush at a lower price and to use these hybrids to bridge the cost differences of the main three grades. The result is a brush for every pocketbook in roughly $20.00 increments.
When shopping for a badger shaving brush you will find prices ranging from about $40.00 to as much as $800.00. Some of the price difference is a result of which grade of bristle is used, additional cost differences result from handle materials, construction methods, and quite frankly, supply and demand or "what the traffic will bear." Some of the older and smaller makers are still hand-making their brushes very much as a cottage industry, are producing them in relatively low volume, and charge accordingly. Other larger makers who employ more modern manufacturing methods can produce brushes more efficiently and consequently can sell them for less. The issue here is, what are you buying, a badger bristle shaving brush or a status symbol? This is the same reason why some automobile makers sell $50,000.00 cars and others sell $15,000.00 cars. There is a buyer for every product. What you as the buyer have to decide is what aspect of the brush is most important to you. A top quality brush that provides an exceptional shaving experience can be bought for around $100.00-$150.00, by spending more than that you begin to enter into the question of diminishing returns regarding performance vs. cost. On the other hand, being able to tell your friends that you shave daily with an $800.00 shaving brush has its own value.
Starting at the bottom and working up: You will see a noticeable difference in comfort and performance between the synthetics and the synthetic/natural blends; You will see a greater difference between the blends and a 100% boar bristle brush; You will notice a huge difference between the boar bristle and the pure Badger bristle brush; The difference between the pure badger and best badger is slight; the difference between the best badger and the silvertip is remarkable.
Most experienced brush users would agree that you should buy the best brush your budget and your personal values will allow. It will be a decision you will never regret and the investment will repay you with a lifetime of superior quality enjoyable shaves.
Don't underestimate the importance of the brush in the overall process - a poorly functioning brush will result in a poor quality shave and a less than enjoyable experience. If the reason you use a brush, mug and quality razor is to get the best possible shave, why handicap the outcome for the sake of a few dollars.