Is A Barbershop Shave Worth It? Expectations vs. Reality

is a barbershop shave worth it?

Whether it’s due to nostalgia or wanting a pampering experience, a lot of those into traditional shaving want to have a classic barber shave. But is a barber shop with shave service worth it?

vintage image of a barber performing a shave

According to various search engine tools, the keyword search of straight razor shave near me gets thousands of queries every month–and that’s just in the U.S. So the old-school wet shaver is not alone here…there is a lot of interest in the topic!

I think the allure of the barbershop shave comes from the nostalgia and manliness that it provides. It can be a time when you can escape from your worries and just relax in the company of other men. It’s the feeling of being in control, yet vulnerable at the same time. It’s about being able to relax and let someone else take care of you for once.

If you are interested in a barber shave but have never had one before it might be instructive to give you an idea of the actual process.

An important detail here is knowing the operation of a particular barbershop. A high-end barber is generally going to try to create that nostalgic, relaxing, spa-like experience. A “plain-Jane” local joint with a couple chairs is probably more interested in getting you in, getting it done, and getting you out efficiently–they need the customer traffic to survive.

Related post: What A Barber Learned About the Straight Razor Shave, and How to Improve Your Own Shaving Game

That’s not to say that you can’t get a great shave from a barber down the street or a lousy shave from the fancy-pants place–both have happened to me!

parker barber straight razor

[Note: Amazon links are affiliate]

There are some variations but expect that the barber will use hot towels, a “shavette” style (aka “barber straight”) razor, and lather from a machine (like this one).

Most of the time the hot towels will come out of a purpose-built towel heater/steamer (like this one). But I have also seen barbers heat towels in a microwave–or even use a thick layer of hot, wet paper towels in a pinch.

What kind of razor the barber uses is partly dependent on local and state hygiene regulations, at least in the U.S. Most use a razor that looks like a straight razor but takes replaceable blades. It’s actually kind of rare to see a “real” straight razor used in a barbershop these days. Some barbers blow the nostalgia aspect apart by using a–GASP!*–cartridge or disposable razor.

The same hygiene regulations may prevent a barber from building lather using a shave brush and a puck of shave soap–though some barbers have admitted to me that they don’t like to build traditional lather because it just takes too long (others have said they’d be happy to do it that way if the customer brought his own brush and soap/cream). The vast majority of barbers use a hot lather machine that pumps out a good quality lubricant quickly and on-demand.

The minimum preparation for a barbershop shave is generally the barber placing a hot, wet towel on the face for three-to-five minutes. More often there are products introduced at the same time such as a facial cleanser, a pre-shave oil, or even just using shave lather as a cleansing/prep agent. Sometimes there are multiple applications, each accompanied by hot, moist towels.

Base preparation is followed by lathering. As mentioned earlier the barber usually produces lather from a hot lather machine. The more customer-centric barber will take the time to thoroughly massage the lather into the skin with multiple applications rather than just ‘wiping on’ the lather across the face.

In the U.S. there is a fairly standardized routine for teaching a barber to shave the face. A 14 segment facial map is the classic barber aid in the shave process:

barber face shaving map

However that’s not to say that every barber actually uses that process: as a barber gains experience they may modify the way they shave a client’s face.

But there will usually be two passes to a barber shave, re-lathering between passes. The more careful barber will determine the directions that a client’s stubble grows in (the “grain”) and make one pass “with the grain” and another pass “across the grain.” If a client specifically asks for a close shave that second pass may be “against the grain.”

After the actual shave is complete the barber will typically apply a cold towel to the face to soothe the skin and help reduce irritation, followed by wiping away any lather residue that may be left behind.

An aftershave product will then be applied. The classic barber aftershave will likely be an alcohol-based “splash”–so be prepared for some sting. More experienced barbers will be able to mitigate any discomfort and/or additionally apply a non-alcohol aftershave balm.

The price of a barber shave in the U.S. varies widely. I have seen prices as low at US $15 and as high as US $85. A tip of about 20% would be appropriate for good service.

A good customer should observe certain “niceties” when visiting a barber for a shave:

  • Arrive on time (or even a bit early).
  • Communicate what you are looking for clearly…but have realistic expectations.
  • Let the barber do his/her job.
  • Relax and be patient (a barber shave is not to be rushed) but avoid moving your head.
  • Feel free to make some conversation (but keep in mind where the barber is currently shaving you. If he’s right around the mouth it’s probably best not to speak unless there is a problem). Also, during the service it’s probably a good idea to turn off (or at least silence) a mobile phone if you are carrying one.

Barbers are governed by different rules in different countries. While the broad process of a barbershop shave will be similar no matter where you are, the tools and details may be different depending on location. More on this later in the article. Also read How Safe Is Your Face From The Barber? A UK View!

My first barbershop shave is what inspired me to investigate traditional shaving. From the “About Mantic59” page on Sharpologist:

[My wife and I] decide to go back to Las Vegas [for our wedding anniversary]. One morning while we’re there she comes to me with a gleam in her eye and says ‘don’t shave today, I have a special anniversary present for you.’ Hmm, OK…. That afternoon we head to Mandalay Bay, where she takes me to Art of Shaving and has them give me a shave as an anniversary gift:

“It’s a little freaky at first–I mean here’s this stranger hovering over me with a straight-razor– but after a while it gets strangely relaxing and I enjoy it. The barber finishes and she pulls off the smock laying on me with a flourish. I feel my face.

“Whoa.

“Whooooooooooaaa…

My face is insanely soft and smooth. I’ve never felt anything like it before. My wife has a sparkle in her eye and a huge smile on her face as she runs a finger along my jawline: ‘Ohhhhhhhh, mama likes!’”

Since then I have had a number of barbershop shaves, from local joints to fancy-pants spas. Here’s a video from a few years ago that shows one of the better ones:

I’ve had my share of lousy shaves, too. One particular experience at a high-end barbershop in Chicago was ghastly.

I asked the readers of Sharpologist’s email newsletter information list about their experiences with barbershop shaves. The question was “is a barbershop shave worth it?

I received almost 100 responses. And, bottom line, it was pretty much a toss-up with 52% saying yes and 48% saying no. Here are some relevant comments:

“I have my shaves done at a regular barbershop I frequented before the pandemic. Nothing special with his shop and while he offers face shaves to his clientele his main business is as a barber. I’ve never seen one of his staff shave a customer and he takes those assignments on himself. When I noticed this after several times, it told me that giving one of his clients a shave was such an important task that he needed to do it himself. He takes giving someone a shave seriously.

“I think he is very competent at what he does. I had seen him give shaves to others in the past and watched him carefully before allowing him to give me a shave. He has a standardized process that he follows whenever one of his clients asks for a shave. I knew what to expect and had confidence in what he would do. He gives shaves with a straight-edge razor, always with the grain and never against (I do shave against the grain on second or clean-up passes). He does a proper prep with shaving cream and hot towels. He has a microwave specifically to heat the wet towels. He takes his time and doesn’t rush. I had always used a styptic pencil and he uses powdered styptic instead. Old school aftershaves like Clubman.

“The times I had him give me a shave was on special nights out with my wife when I need both a haircut and shave. So for me, it was a once in a while thing that I would do to treat myself. While I enjoy the act of shaving, it is also good to see first-hand how someone else perfomrs s the same task. Its the little things and details that I like to focus upon and where I learn. I think sometimes we go into our own bubble, but I find its good to experiment a little so we can make improvements.”

“I had a barber shave as part of a bachelor party. It was at a private Shave club that’s no longer open. First off, it was expensive (about 90 bucks plus tip … and it was about 10 years ago). Then, the Barber only used a shavette for the first pass. I know I’m my state (California) a barber must use a disposable blade. They used a Feather Artist Club with Feather blade. Then, for the subsequent passes, he used a cartridge razor. A Gillette Mach 3! I was pretty angry about that.”

“So I think I mentioned I’ve had one, wouldn’t mind having another honestly. It wasn’t a barber shop but more of a salon. The barber was a gentleman younger than I, upper 20’s to mid 30’s I would say. I remember that I wanted to see as much as I could to check out his technique and products but he had a towel over my eyes. But overall I did enjoy it. The shave was good, he was very careful to inspect my face. I remember he spent extra time in my mustache area and kept saying “smooth like butter”. My only complaint would be that he left one sideburn considerably longer. He had shaved off about 2 months of a beard so felt like he should have noticed. Yes I thought it was worth it and I’d do it again.”

“I got the shave from the same barber that cut my hair when I was growing up. I’d guess he was in his 50s when I got the last straight razor shave from him.

“I think he used Barbasol and he had it in a machine that heated it. I just remember my skin feeling itchy afterwards. He shaved my head too and he cut me a little bit but nothing serious. He’s the only barber that I know of around here who does them so I don’t have anybody else to compare him to but I’d give someone else a try just for the experience and not having to think about shaving for a while.”

“Insane razor rash. I went to truefitt and hill on las Vegas [ed. note: this particular shop closed a while back]. At the time, it felt like a really nice, close shave, and decadent experience. The shave was insanely close — I don’t think I needed to shave for a week afterwards. Which is a good thing, because a couple hours after I left the shop, my face was on fire and totally broken out in razor rash. Haven’t gone back for a barbershop shave since.”

“It was a very close and smooth shave and very relaxing but I come extremely close with my One Blade single edge razor. By having someone else shave me I lost that zen like experience that I enjoy so much by doing it myself.”

“Knock your socks off shave! The wonderful relaxed atmosphere. A very barber, barber! Handlebar mustache included. The hot towels and balms, the feel of the place and lots of chrome stuff. A very comfy barbers chair was center stage. This is the Art of Shaving in Jacksonville, FL. I can’t begin to tell you how wonderful I felt after this shave. It turned out to be a road map for months on how I should shape my beard and mustache. My face felt sooooo smooth for the next two days. My girlfriend loved the feel and kept telling me how good i looked. If it wasn’t an hours drive and rather expensive I would go every other day. This was on my bucket list and it was well worth it.”

“Actually I have had two; one as part of a “men’s spa” treatment on a cruise ship years ago and one at an old fashioned barbershop. Both were less than satisfactory and certainly not worth the price paid. I attribute the cruise ship experience to a lack of expertise (experience?) of the young lady performing said shave. The shave at the old fashioned barber shop was worse if you can believe it; I knew it was headed downhill when the disposable razor and Barbasol shave Foam can came out. Good judgment comes from experience and most of that comes from bad judgment as the old saying goes…”

“Customer Service. I was hot toweled twice and the shave itself was exceptional. I sat back and just enjoyed the experience. He took as much time on my shave as he does on haircuts. The price was $10 and well worth it”

“I had an older gentleman barber at the old hotel that was torn down on Wireless Road when the US Embassy expanded — I think that hotel was the “Oriental” hotel, not the modern Mandarin Oriental. It was a grand old hotel and when I was working and living in the region I always stopped in for a nice straight razor shave. I later lived in India and in Malaysia and while there were lots of barbers in stalls on the street, I never used one because of my hesitation due to sanitary conditions. There was one exception, my teenage sons and I were visiting the remote city of Sandakan in East Malaysia on the Island of Borneo as a stop-off to see Orangutans in the wild. They had a few whiskers and I needed a shave, so I told them to wander the little stalls and shops and find a place for us to get a shave. They came back in about 30 minutes telling me they had the perfect place, and they took me to an primitive stall shop where an old Chinese woman was running a barber chair. We went in and she started stropping a razor — this woman was Chinese, less than 5 feet tall with a withered, wizened face with the texture of an old boot and a tiny hand-rolled cigarette hanging out of he mouth. Of course she didn’t speak a word of English. She shaved me first and it wasn’t too bad, then she went to work on one of my boys and I remember she nicked him pretty bad with the razor under his ear and drew blood. She just muttered something, spit into her fingers and combined that with shaving cream and some trimmed whiskers and rolled it into a little ball that she put in his cut. It actually stopped the bleeding and it never became infected!

“The only other straight razor shave I remember was an isolated one in a street stall on the main street in Penang, Malaysia. A middle-aged Indian gentleman was running a chair and since I needed a shave and we were walking right by on the warm evening I stopped and let him shave me. He didn’t tell me how much it would cost beforehand, and he tried to gouge me afterwards (on price — the shave was fine) so we had some words before I left.”

The answer to the question “is a barbershop shave worth it?” almost seems to come down to luck. There are as many reports of with poor experiences as there are with good experiences. But I think you may be able to improve the odds by taking a few proactive steps:

  • Don’t go into it blindly. Ask around for comments and references from others who have been to that barber/barbershop. You could even call around to barbershops in your area to find which offer shaves and can describe their service(s).
  • Set your expectations. You know your stubble better than any barber could–though some barbers may take the time to be more aware of your individual circumstances.
  • Price is not necessarily a tracking factor for the quality of the shave.

I also asked a couple barbers their opinions on shaving a few years ago. Their advice is useful:

How Safe Is Your Face? Jess Stern

How Safe Is Your Face? Craig Whitely

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