A shave brush has two components: a handle and a knot. While it is certainly possible to shave with a handleless brush knot, it isn’t comfortable. Conversely, a handle without a knot can’t make a lather at all. While a handsome, well shaped handle catches our eye first, priority should be given to the knot when choosing a shave brush. Only after deciding on the knot most appropriate for one’s needs should handle choices come into the picture.
A brush knot is made from thousands of individual hair fibers, bound together and glued into a handle. The fibers can be natural (i.e. from animals) or man made, synthetic material. The three most popular types of animal hair brushes are boar, badger and horse. Each bristle type has its own set of advantages and disadvantages, so it pays to know about their specific properties before purchasing a brush.
A brush’s stiffness, known as “backbone” to wet shavers, is a key element when picking a brush. Boar brushes typically have a fair amount of backbone, which makes them excel when it comes to quickly picking soap up from the puck. The backbone of a boar brush will give the user a scrubby, exfoliating face sensation. With continuous use, the boar brush will develop split tips. Before the tips of each hair splits, the brush might feel a little pokey. When the tips begin to split, the boar brush will feel much softer on the face. However, in order to develop soft tips, the boar brush needs frequent use. Out fo the box, it won’t be as nice as it will be several months down the line, so the user needs enough patience to see the process through. Boar brushes are inexpensive and provide a great return on investment when used regularly.
Another inexpensive brush hair is comes from horses. Horse hair brushes fall somewhere between boar and badger on the performance spectrum. Horse hair brushes have ample backbone, but are softer than boar brushes. A horse hair brush doesn’t need a prolonged break-in period, as does a boar brush. Unlike badger and boar hair, horses do not need to be killed for their hair, which comes from their tails and manes. When it comes to natural hair brushes, horse hair is the most humane option. One drawback to horsehair brushes is that care must be taken to avoid the hairs from tangling, which is not an issue with either boar or badger brushes. Horse hair tends to be pretty stinky when new, so ample lathering (or pet shampoo) will be necessary to remove the odor.
To many wet shavers, badger hair brushes are king. A high grade badger brush feels like a soft pillow on the face. Badger brushes are luxury cars of the wet shaving world. Unlike boar hair, badger hair has naturally soft tips. Badger hair is finer than either horse or boar, which increases the density of hair in the brush. Badger comes in different grades and classifications, which can be confusing to the customer. Without getting too deep in the weeds, badger hair is most often seen in two-band and three-band varieties. Two-band badger brushes typically have more backbone than three-band brushes. A top quality three-band brush will have the softest, finest hair of all. Badger hair doesn’t need an extensive break-in period like boar does. A downside to badger brushes is that they often cost significantly more than a comparable boar or horse hair brush. Also, super-dense badger brush will take longer to fully dry.
For those who prefer a non-animal brush, synthetic knots are a terrific alternative. The fibers that make a synthetic knot most closely resemble fibers from a paint brush. The individual fibers taper to a fine tip, like badger hair. Synthetic brushes are very soft, budget friendly alternatives to natural hair brushes. Synthetic brushes are great options for novice and experienced wet shavers alike. Because they dry quickly, synthetic brushes are perfect for travel shave kits. Synthetic brushes have a few quirks, however. Because synthetic fibers aren’t absorbent, they can fling water around and create a mess. Also, they don’t retain heat like animal hair does. Most synthetic brushes don’t provide the same luxurious experience of a high quality badger brush, but they make up for it in their ease of use, durability, and are sustainable and cruelty-free.
The brush’s handle is the eye catcher. Though it doesn’t make the lather, a comfortable handle goes a long way when it comes to our overall enjoyment of the brush. Handles come in all sorts of shapes and sizes. The top of the handle has the socket, which is the opening that holds the butt ends of the brush knot. A brush’s size is determined by the diameter of its socket. Brush knots with sizes from 20mm to 28mm or 30mm are most common. Brush handles are most often made from wood or acrylic and are shaped on a lathe. Handles come in all sorts of color schemes. Some of the larger brush manufacturers like to use basic colors such as white, black, ivory and butterscotch. Custom handles, made by independent artisans, are very popular now. These handles can be very colorful and come in a wide variety of shapes, often times request by the customer. A nice handle is both functional and aesthetically pleasing.
This is but a brief overview of what makes up a basic shave brush. In later posts, we will delve deeper into brush sizes, shapes, designs and hair grades. Until then, I encourage you to try a few different brushes to see which you prefer. There are so many great brushes available now, you might have a hard time picking a favorite.