The first thing anyone can do to get a taste of wet shaving is to swap out the aerosol foam/gel can for some nice shave cream or soap. However, before you can start making lather, you need a good brush. Next to the classic straight razor, the shave brush is the first thing that people associate with wet shaving.
A shave brush serves the primary purpose of building and applying a lather, traditionally from the aforementioned shave cream or soap. However, the brush also helps to lift the bristles and exfoliate the skin. All of this helps to prepare your face for the shave.
There are a ton of options where shaving brushes are concerned–and just as many opinions on which is the best. I don’t plan on spending too much time on different handle types, as that really comes down to a matter of personal taste. But I will say that my own brush has a simple nylon handle and I prefer that because it is very low maintenance. Wood and metal handles, while rather fetching to look at, do require some extra “care & feeding” that I generally don’t want to bother with.
However, where the business end of the brush is concerned, the different types do somewhat make a difference. What I have here is a breakdown of the most common categories and some of my own thoughts on them:
This traditional shaving brush uses fur from the Asian badger and is the type that I am currently using. These brushes come in various grades, with “pure” generally being the lowest grade. Usually the hair in this grade is all one color and the knot is trimmed to shape. This tends to make the brush somewhat prickly. The silver-tip in its various grades are generally better. You can distinguish a silver-tip brush because the fur ends with a white soft tip. These are extremely nice in face feel plus hold a lot of lather. It is worth noting, however, that the grades are in no way standardized. This means that one manufacturer’s “best” is less than his “super”, but both would be called “silver-tip” by another. Also, there is some concern the EU may outlaw badger brushes at some point, so it is a good idea to familiarize yourself with the other options. I bought my first badger brush on eBay for relatively cheap a while back.
This is traditionally the favorite for Italian shavers, boar brushes require a break-in period and must be soaked each time prior to use. Can generate great lather a bit easier than with other brushes. In fact, I have read people that claim to have gotten a cream-like lather from shaving soaps. More on that when I cover creams and soaps, though. These brushes are generally inexpensive, so one can try a number of brushes for not too much money: browse this page of boar brushes, simply looking at the prices—and those are Omega boar brushes, which are generally considered to be the best. If a boar brush sounds like a good fit for you, take a look at this beginner’s guide to boar brushes.
I have seen it said that horse has 85% of the good attributes of badger hair and 85% of the good attributes of boar hair. They are also good for those with issues about animal rights because no animal is harmed in their manufacture, only clippings from normal grooming are used. Once upon a time, Horsehair brushes were the brush of choice in many areas. However, they fell out of fashion in the United States because of some issues with anthrax in the 1920s and simply never came back. I plan for my next brush to be from horse. GiftsAndCare.com in Spain is a prime source, and they routinely do international shipments. BullgooseShaving.net in the US also has a good selection.
Because some fear exists that the EU may start outlawwing badger hair, brush makers have begun to come out with a number of synthetics: plain nylon, sometimes called “pure synthetic” (pictured at the left). These are easily some of the cheapest brushes you can pick up, with the price tag starting as low as $4.00. However, this is definitely a case of “you get what you pay for”. Pure synthetic brushes generally do not load enough water to create a nice, moist lather. I do not recommend this type of brush. However, more recently, manufacturers have started selling something that they call “artificial badger”–which seems to look and feel very similar to natural badger brushes. The knots seem all to be much the same (though Mühle synthetics are a little different), so that among TOBS, Omega, men-ü, Mühle, Edwin Jagger you should simply pick the handle you like: the knots will essentially be the same. I honestly do not know too much about this second type of synthetic, but I have heard generally good things about them.
I have also noticed that combinations of these four types have been cropping up as well: badger plus boar (like this nice little Omega 11047 boar+badger brush), badger plus horsehair , horsehair plus boar, synthetic plus badger and so on. I have never used one of these brushes, but they seem to be an interesting idea and I plan to try one or two of them in the future.
I should also point out that in the world of brushes, more expensive does not always mean better quality. True silver-tip badger hair is expensive because it is rare, not because it is necessarily better. The handle material can also play into the cost. For example: the brush at the top of this page sells for $550 and is hand-made from Silver-Tip Badger hair and a tropical hardwood called Cocobolo. However, I honestly don’t know that it would improve my shaving experience over my “best-grade” badger hair brush that I got for around $35. The main thing you want to be concerned with is how well the brush lathers and feels on your face, not the cost.