The hairless science

Above: Forget the razor’s edge, it’s the lather’s substance that shavers crave. Brush from Taylor’s of Old Bond Street. Photo by Mark Lyndersay

BitDepth#1038 for April 26, 2016

It was just one of those things. A thing you do an a lark, a full-blown whimsy really. It’s a laugh, and then it all gets serious.

Let’s step back a bit. I’ve never had a big head of hair.

It wasn’t for a want of trying.

Back in the seventies, when part of one’s street cred was having bell-bottomed jeans that dragged the ground as you walked sweeping your path with every step, the crowning glory of youthful Afro-Trinidadian hipness was a well-shaped, smoothly helmet-like head of dark nappy hair, visibly six or more inches deep.

Despite my best efforts, goaded along with Bergamot hair gel and ambitious braiding, I could never get anything more than around an inch and a half of wispy growth going.

As a happy side-effect, after my mother and two sisters got fed-up of the whole blighted exercise, I learned to plait my own hair, such as it was, one of the first talents I learned as a teen that has turned out to be of lifelong use, along with what I’m doing right now, typing with all ten fingers.

If my hair never obliged me by growing to the appropriate dimensions blessed by that era, I returned the favour by never learning to braid neatly.

That’s a curse that’s returned to haunt me now that I have a small head with an impressively Hendrix-like growth on it to harness into tidiness when more capable fingers aren’t around.

Eventually, I followed my mother and sisters in their quiet exasperation with my uncooperative do, described in those days as a “bafro” or bad afro.

Shorter and shorter barberings followed until I had settled into two decades worth of a truncated version of a “gentleman’s cut,” minus the razor edging marks, which always left me with bumps.

The trimming was so perfunctory and so regular that I could have done it myself, and passed the chore to the household management after my regular barber retired from the business.

Then came the day, a Carnival Friday four years ago, when on the urgings of yet another barber beginning to abandon enthusiasm for my hair, I finished the close cut with a close shave.

It took.

And another type of education began, one in which the punishment for poor technique was an inch or so of skin lost and a slow, accusatory pooling of blood on the scalp.

Three weeks ago, at the barbering establishment of Taylor of Old Bond Street, I received a schooling in the finer points of hair removal with a razor.

This is a business that does shaving on the premises, but also sells stunningly attractive tools of the trade.

It’s also a business that inverts the traditional sales equation, putting an elderly gentleman in a suit on the floor to talk to customers and leaving the pretty blonde girls behind the cash register to effortlessly sever money from a prospect after they have been properly lathered by the studiously correct and absurdly well-informed salesman.

I shave the surface equivalent of two-thirds of a regulation basketball at least five times a week and I’ve discovered that successful shaving depends on three things.

Hygiene, for which steaming hot water and clean, preferably white towels must be present.

Lubrication, represented by proper shaving cream (which doesn’t come out of a can), and the edge of the razor, which must be as close to flawless as possible.

I’d quickly learned my lesson with razors, first upgrading through double, to triple and then to quintuple safety blades only to discover that my hair, wispy like sugarcane arrows at length, is as tough as crabgrass near the roots.

My follicles were effectively destroying a razor after five shaves until I discovered how to sharpen them.

The process doesn’t actually sharpen the blade in the way that a barber’s razor is brought to a keener edge by swiping it against leather. Instead, this uni-directional swiping against jeans material smooths out tiny nicks and kinks in the blade edge temporarily.

Done diligently, it’s extended the usable life of a razor from days to months.

I’m still sorting out lubrication, as men do all their lives, but I did take the advice I got at Taylor’s, buying one of their smaller, yet still eye-crossingly expensive badger brushes and a small dish of the house brand of shaving cream.

Good shaving creams respond well to the badger brush, working tiny beads into an impressive lather.

True shavers with decades of experience laugh at this.

These are the men who know how to shave with a single bladed razor and sharpen it with their belts, who know how to formulate shaving lubricants from their components.

To these men, this column is a delightfully goofball attempt at demonstrating some faltering understanding of the science of shaving.

But I aspire.

About Mark Lyndersay

Mark Lyndersay is a writer and photographer based in Trinidad and Tobago. He writes editorial leaders for Guardian Media Limited, for whom he has written more than 1,300 since 2001, feature writing and reviews and his column, BitDepth, which has examined personal technology issues continuously over the last 20 years. As a photographer, he divides his time between commercial assignments and annual report photography and personal projects like Local Lives, which examines the backstory of life and culture in Trinidad and Tobago.

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