The Brush: Basic Information Everyone Should Know

Discussion in 'The Brush' started by PLANofMAN, Jun 25, 2012.

  1. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    Understanding the shave brush.

    New wet shavers always have some questions about brushes. This will tell you some of what you need to know in order to make a decision that is right for yourself. As always, there is no substitute for actually trying each type of brush yourself. This is a very basic overview of shave brushes.

    For hundreds of years, men and starting in the early 1900’s, women as well, used shave brushes to lather soap for shaving. Over the years, shave brushes have been made of various materials, both in the handles and the knot. The history of shave brushes makes for fascinating reading if research is your forte.

    Size. Shave brushes are typically referred to by their knot (brush) size. The “Wee Scot” has a 14 mm. knot and brushes can be as big as 32 mm. This is measured by calipers at the knot base. While there are brushes both smaller and bigger than these sizes, most would regard those brushes as a novelty item. Loft refers to the height of the brush from the opening in the handle that the knot is set into, to the tip of the knot.

    There are various terms wet shavers use to describe the physical properties of the knot. Scritchy, scratchy, floppy, stiff, prickly, backbone, etc. These terms are subjective and vary from one person to another. A brush one person finds “prickly,” another may find “soft.” "Back to Basics: Brush Terminology," written by sodapopjones, the official "brushologist" of The Shave Den, is the best reference guide for someone trying to figure out brush slang on the shaving forums.

    Shape. Brush knots come in a variety of shapes. The three most common are the Bulb, with a rounded top, the Fan, which generally has hairs all of the same length, and the Flattop, popular with face latherers, which has a flat top surface. Another style of knot is also known as a Hybrid knot, as it combines the flat surface of a fan with the aesthetics of a bulb shaped knot on the sides. Most synthetic knots are, to some extent, hybrid knots.
    (Since BespokeUnit cribbed from this post, they shouldn't mind me borrowing this image. Any advertising is good advertising, right? For the record, I have no affiliation with them).

    Materials. Brush handle material is traditionally made from horn, wood, or acrylic. Anything solid and water resistant can be used, so occasionally you will find handles made from aluminum, pewter, antler, bone, stone, glass or other materials. The brush knots are made from four materials, Badger bristles, Boar bristles, Horse hair or Synthetic fibers.

    Manufacture. Brushes are either hand or machine made. There are benefits and drawbacks to both methods of manufacture. Machine made brush knots tend to be not as tightly packed as hand made knots, are more likely to shed hairs and are trimmed to shape by machines. Hand made knots are denser, hand formed to shape (no trimming is involved) hand tied and hand glued. Machine made brushes are cheap, which is the only benefit to owning a machine made brush.

    Note: Synthetic brushes are not machine made brushes (or rather, not all synthetic brushes are machine made. Synthetic refers to materials used in the manufacture of the brush knot, not the method of manufacture).

    How long will a brush last? This is a hard one to answer. A low quality brush might fall apart in months, or last for years. A high quality brush that is cleaned periodically and properly used can easily last for decades, if not a lifetime. It will not last forever, though. Losing a hair occasionally is part of a brush's nature.

    Prices listed below are generalizations only, and reflect common prices. There are vendors who sell quality brushes for far cheaper prices than I have listed.

    Badger. Badger bristles are one of the traditional fibers used in brushes. Badger hair has some unusual properties that make it ideal for use in a shave brush. Badger bristles are actually wider at the tips than they are at the base. This is part of what gives a badger brush it’s characteristic “bloom.” Like a flower opening up, badger brushes go through a similar process after they have been used a few times. Badger bristles trap water in between the bristles. This results in a brush that has excellent water retention properties. The tips of badger brushes are also typically softer than boar bristles and as such, badger brushes require less of a break-in time than boar brushes. There are several different grades of Badger brushes and this adds to the inexperienced shaver’s confusion. To compound this, different brush makers use their own grading system. Top manufacturers include Vulfix-Simpson and Rooney.

    NOTE: New badger and boar brushes and older brushes that have been unused for a time have a pungent odor. This smell can be strong or faint when you first get the brush. Over time, as you use the brush the smell will go away. There are also cleaners manufactured specifically for cleaning cosmetic brushes. Using these cleaners is the recommended method of sanitizing, cleaning and "de-funking" a brush.

    Most silvertip hair used in brushes comes from the neck and mane area. Grey badger hair is a mix of black, brown, and silvertip hairs. Unsorted hair, if you will. Best and Pure badger hair comes from the belly and underbelly, respectively.

    This is the general grade system:

    Pure Bristle. Any brush that is labeled “badger bristle” typically falls into this category. The bristles come from the underbelly of the badger and the knots are usually trimmed into shape. Unless you prefer a stiff, very scratchy brush, new users are better off using a better grade of badger brush. These machine made brushes never pack the bristles as tightly as hand formed knots do, and as a result, they tend to shed bristles, often throughout the entire life of the brush. In some rare instances, tangling can occur when the knot is thinned out or loosely packed. These brushes retail for about $10-$20. Primary manufacturers are Van der Hagen and Tweezerman. (Rather, old Tweezerman. Current production Tweezerman brushes are made by Vulfix and are high quality).
    *Note: Pure Badger from European and British manufacturers use a mix of black, brown, grey, and silvertip hairs. This gives the brush an overall grey look. These brushes are generally of good quality, but some people find thim excessively prickly. $40-50

    Best. The British manufacturers call this "Pure Badger." Best Badger brushes fall into two categories, Some contain a mix of full length hairs and trimmed hairs or more commonly, full hairs only, but harvested from lower grades of hair, generally from the belly section. $30-$60

    Two-band or Finest. Two-band brushes are so called because instead of the light, dark, light configuration of most badger brushes, they just have a dark to light bristle configuration. These brushes are made from the thickest badger hairs. They are both less dense and stiffer than most badger brushes. These are favorites of face latherers, though any user can enjoy a two-band badger brush. $60-$120

    Super. High end British manufacturers call this grade, "Best." The grade just below or equal to Silvertip. These brushes are not quite as soft as Silvertip brushes and are otherwise nearly identical in softness and performance once broken in. Some retailers have started bleaching and treating the tips of Super brushes to give them silvertip like properties. $60-$120+

    Three Band. Similar in concept to the Two Band, but made from what British manufacturers call "Best" badger and what the rest of the world calls "Silvertip" badger. These brushes are essentially an ultra-dense Silvertip brush with a good backbone, ideal for face latherers or those who like a stiff soft badger brush. Note: Many badger brushes have three bands of hair color, but that does not automatically make the brush a Three Band brush. Only densely packed Silvertip knots should be called a "Three Band Brush." $100+

    Silvertip. The British manufacturers call this grade "Super," and consider it to be a step above a "normal" Silvertip brush. These are the nom plus ultra of the brush world. These brushes are made from the badger’s softest hairs, which are harvested from the neck and mane of the badger. These hairs have a distinctive gray hue at the tips and when viewed from above, look silver colored, thus the name- "silver tip." Due to the limited supply and quality of Silvertip hair, these brushes command a premium. $80-$200+

    High Mountain White & Manchurian. Sometimes called other names as well- Genuine White, Upland White, etc. These are generally limited edition brushes with magical powers and inflated price tags. In actuality, these are mostly two band brushes with different coloration than the other brushes that particular manufacturer sells. Marketing and hype are these brush's main features. How the knot is formed and the density of the hair mostly determine the face feel of a badger knot, not the coloring of the hair.

    Chinese knot manufacturers have decided that High Mountain White refers to three band brushes, and Manchurian is the two-band varient. The other names have mostly fallen by the wayside.

    A "true" High Mountain White or Manchurian badger brush will be made from a small section of hairs on the neck of the European Badger (Meles Meles). However many brushes marketed as "High Mountain brushes" come from the pelt of a hog badger, rather than the more common European badger. Hog badger hairs are about 1.5 times thicker than European badger hairs, giving them a bit more backbone. Does it make a difference in the quality? Nope. It shouldn't make a difference in price either, as the knots are sourced from China, and the cost is about the same as their silvertip counterparts. True High Mountain White hair is more expensive, due to the small area of pelt it can be collected from.

    The Origin of the "High Mountain" name.

    "Haute Montagne" ("High Mountain" in French), is a mark used by Plisson. They used it on the highest quality brushes. If you prefer short lofts and dense knots, you may want to avoid Plisson.
    Photo credit: ben74

    The general consensus seems to be that the hair used in the clear acrylic handled brushes in the 1980's are the finest examples of Plisson's High Mountain hair to date.

    The Origin of the "Manchurian" name.

    When Charles Roberts first offered these brushes, that were made exclusively for Enchante ( as they were, at the time, one of the highest volume Simpson retail outlets in N. America ) they were labeled 'Extra Super'. However, Charles was trumpeting that this was extra special rare badger bristle ( which it may well have been ) that came out of the colder climate of Manchuria. On the original forum some of us started to refer to them as 'Manchurians' and CR quickly took the nudge and told David Carter he wanted subsequent specimens to be actually labeled that way; 'Manchurian badger'.

    Boar. Boar brushes are what most wet shavers start with. They are readily available in the shaving products section of supermarkets, pharmacies and department stores. Many boar brushes have a dark ring dyed into the outer layer of bristles to simulate the look of a badger brush, though modern boar brushes are often dyed and bleached throughout. Boar brushes require a different approach to shaving. The bristles do not hold water like a badger, instead, they must soak up water into the bristles themselves. Most users soak the brush in a cup or bowl for at least a few minutes before starting to lather. Unlike badger brushes, boar brushes start off stiff and prickly and gradually become softer as the ends split over time with use. Boar bristles have more “backbone” than badger brushes. They are generally stiffer than badger brushes. Boar brushes also “bloom” similar to badger brushes. Because they dry out quicker than badger brushes, boar brushes are often used while travelling. Top manufacturers are Semogue and Omega.

    Boar manufacturers are generally very secretive about their grading process, and to date, only Semogue has released any grading information. Other manufacturers almost certainly have their own private grading system that isn't shared with the public. I'm not going to go into a lot of detail here, as this is a general overview thread, not a detailed examination of one brush manufacturer's products.

    Here is a list of the different grades Semogue currently uses to make their boar brushes:

    1. Premium 90% tops
    2. Best 90% tops
    3. Extra 75% tops
    4. Super 70% tops
    5. Special Grade 90% tops

    The meaning of "percentage tops". This measures the amount in percentage of bristles that are full length and uncut, with the natural flag on the end of the bristle left in place. The remaining percentage of cut bristles will eventually split and flag as well, though that process can take years.

    There are also bristles made from Iberian black boar, which tend to be rougher and stiffer than regular white boar bristles.

    For more information on Semogue's grades, I recommend checking this link:

    Mixed Bristle: These brushes are made with a mix of badger or boar bristles and share properties of both. Dedicated badger users generally do not care for these brushes, though many boar users are perfectly fine with them. These brushes were more common in the past (when everybody wet shaved) than they are now, but an online search will turn up a few manufacturers. The price of these depends largely upon the reputation and quality of the manufacturer, though they are generally priced the same as an equivalent boar or badger bristle brush. Horse and badger mixed brushes are also available.

    Horse. Horse hair brushes have been used for hundreds of years, but are a recent introduction to American shavers. Made from the hairs of the mane and tail, horse hair brushes are popular in Turkey and other Muslim countries. Horse hair brushes have a small but devoted following. Horse hair holds the water on the outside of the brush unlike badger or boar brushes. Most horse hair brushes have a hollow center. That is to say, the bristles are arranged on the outer rim of the brush. Horse hair brushes are soft like badger brushes but have a stiffness similar to boar brushes. One of the drawbacks to a horsehair brush is that if you decide not to purchase one that is made in the traditional manner (with a hollow center) be careful, if the knot is not packed tightly or densely enough, the hair has a tendency to tangle and knot up in the center. This is easy enough to watch out for and correct. The knots can be untangled by thrusting an ice pick through the base of the knot and carefully working it up towards the tip several times.

    Edgerunner, from Badger & Blade had this to say about horse brushes and their tendency to tangle in the centers:
    "Horse hair is used for making painting brushes. By nature, the hair is brittle, not very resilient and doesn't tolerate circular motion and mashing. Actually, when mashed, they feel prickly. I call it threshold of prickliness. If you start feeling your horse brush too scritchy, it's a sign you push it too much. Usually, the knots are made with higher lofts to prevent bristles from breaking and to bend better. They release lather very easily by slapping, painting, and [by using a] wiping motion. That's what these brushes are made for. The biggest fault of the manufacturer is they don't provide a warning note or something about this 'property' of the brush."

    If you want to face lather with a horse hair brush, buy one with a loft between 45-47mm. These do not have the tangling issues that the higher lofted brushes have. The only manufacturers of horse hair brushes that I know of that sell their brushes in the United States are Vie-Long and Frank’s. $20-$60

    Note: The bargain brush, known only as "#6," manufactured in Turkey, is almost certainly a boar brush, not horsehair as is often claimed.

    Synthetic.Regarded with scorn by shavers for many years, it is only recently that synthetic brushes have achieved parity with badger brushes. If you choose to go with a synthetic brush, you should research them carefully as some are definitely better than others. This write-up by GDCarrington is probably the best one describing the different generations of synthetics out there. As a curious side note, synthetic brushes larger than 28 mm. cannot be made as of this writing because the brush will no longer have a “bloom” but will instead form a tube shape. (As of 2020, this limitation has been overcome, and larger synthetic brushes are available). Modern synthetic brushes can have the stiffness of a boar, the softness of a silvertip, and the water retention properties of a badger. Synthetics have been regarded as a poor choice for face lathering because of the flexibility of the fibers. Recent innovations in material design have largely overcome this shortcoming. All synthetics are quick drying. Top manufacturers include Muhle and Plisson $20-$60
    Here is a review of some of the more popular synthetic knots.

    A post discussing some of the various fifth generation synthetic shave brushes available in 2022.

    Travel. When traveling, shavers have a variety of options to choose from. Small badger brushes are sold that come with cases in various configurations. Many shavers opt to take a regular brush and make their own travel containers out of various materials. The most common DIY travel container is a large pill bottle with several holes drilled into the container and/or the cap. Boar and synthetic brushes are the best choices for the traveler who cannot let his or her brush dry out for an extended period of time.

    In this quote, we have the definitive argument concerning the age old question of bristles up or down.

    As for post shave care, I run the brush under running water with the bristles at a downward angle to rinse most of the lather out of the knot. I then turn the brush bristles uppermost, cup the bristles in my hand to preserve the shape of the knot and run water directly into the core of the bristles to flush out any lather remaining in the knot. I give the knot a couple of squeezes while doing this.

    Then I dry the brush in an x-shaped or cross-shaped pattern on a towel, wrap the bristles and squeeze. At this point the knot should be damp, rather than wet. Set in an open place to dry overnight.

    Restoration. At some point in one's shaving career, you are bound to come across vintage shave brushes. Some can be used as they are, but most will need to be restored. Manufacturers like Rooney and Vulfix/Simpson will be happy to restore your old Roony or Simpson brush...for a price. Brush restoration does not need to cost an arm and a leg though. Brush restoration can be done with simple tools and can be a fun DIY project. Gary (GDCarrington) helpfully provided the following information:

    "Here are some restoration threads.
    Where there is a will, there is a way - Synthetic Redux (Picture Heavy)
    Win Some, Lose Some - Restoration Story
    Let's Go With The Winner - A Restoration Story Continued
    Rubberset Redux (Green/Butterscotch with Black Swirl)
    Some methods use drills, Dremel tool and sandpaper, others steam. Be sure not to steam older plastics, but use the manual drilling technique." Steaming can also cause the stamping depression on some brushes to flatten out, making retouching the letters and numbers difficult.

    Video! Another Reknot for Shawna by Stingraysrock

    Gary has graciously showed us the gamut of brush restorations, ranging from epic failures to successes. For those wanting to start doing brush restoration, is the primary source for affordable quality knots.
    Envy Shave is a new supplier of high quality knots as well. It is who Wolf Whiskers uses for his custom brushes.
    Larry at Whipped Dog also supplies knots as well and has become a favorite supplier for many here at TSD. Whipped Dog.

    Making/Assembling your own brushes. Handles are churned out by the bucket load by wood turning, wet shaving enthusiasts (who turn both wood and acrylic handles) and vintage handles (sometimes with a sorry looking vintage knot pre-installed) are available on auction sites, often for low prices. If you buy knots from The Golden Nib (see above), it can be easy to make yourself a brush the equal of any Silvertip for $50 or less.

    More info on building a brush here:©-thread.63257/

    I hope you have found this post useful and informative. There is enough information out there on various types of brushes to fill a book, so I don’t want you to think that this covers all aspects of brushes. There are exceptions to every rule, so that is why I have tried to use broad generalizations where possible.

    Speaking of books, I have uploaded to this forum the complete text of a 1927 edition of a book on the (now almost lost) art of traditional brushmaking.

    One final important thing to remember, natural hair shave brushes are irresistible to canines. Keep your shave brush out of reach of your furry companions's jaws or you may find that your valued shave brush has become your dog's newest favorite chew toy.

    A dog will even chew into mail to get to a new un-defunked badger or boar brush.
    Last edited: Nov 14, 2022
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  2. Smott

    Smott Chew your shave. Slowly.

    Nice job, Ryan. I'm sure a lot of people will appreciate this kind of information compiled into a single post!
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  3. SharpSpine

    SharpSpine Well-Known Member

    Are 2-band & Finest different?
  4. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    No. they are generally the same. I messed up and used Finest instead of Super. I typed this all from memory and didn't double-check everything before I posted it. It should be correct now. For a different viewpoint on Badger Hair Grades read this:
    You've read my opinion, and possibly his opinion as well. The truth of the matter is this: There is no industry standard. Brush manufacturers call their brushes what they want. Simpson's calls what shavers would call a "Silvertip," "Super badger hair." They do not have a specific "Silvertip" Grade.
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  5. richgem

    richgem suffering from chronic clicker hand cramps

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  6. tomnat

    tomnat accepting applications

    Nice job, Ryan. There are a lot of terms and descriptions that are thrown about, and this really sheds some light on some of those. Thanks. Here is some additional information about brushes that complements yours.
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  7. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    I agree, that is a great write-up that covers most of our shaving terminology AKA "brush slang" in regards to the brush.:D I figured some brushmiester had already done it. I didn't feel qualified to.
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  8. SharpSpine

    SharpSpine Well-Known Member

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  9. Slipperyjoe

    Slipperyjoe Rusty Metal Tetanus

    Good article Ryan.. thorough and informative..:signs107:
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  10. trader ron

    trader ron Well-Known Member

  11. Martin Porter

    Martin Porter New Member

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  12. GDCarrington

    GDCarrington Burma Shave

    I am glad you noted that it is a general grade system and that some of the more established British brush makers (like Simpsons) have the following as their order (from their website).

    Super Badger
    A long hair with a soft creamy white tip. The ultimate in shaving sensation.
    (This is there High End Silvertip.)

    Best Badger
    Hair varying from long to medium length with a soft darker creamy tip.
    (This is there Silvertip.)

    Pure Badger
    A coarser, darker hair of medium to short length. (This is equivalent to the Best of other brush makers).

    Well thought out article.
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  13. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    Badger & Blade has a page devoted to the different grades of brushes, as described by the various manufacturers of the brushes themselves. If you give it a quick glance you can see that the titles of the grades are more or less arbitrary and meaningless. (aside from the fact that they start with lower quality to higher quality). The best way to judge a brush is to handle it in person (if you can), examine photographs carefully, and read reviews of that brush.

    I didn't even realize that finest and two-band were considered the same type of brush before I wrote this general overview of "the brush."

    :cool: Gary, you know you should have been the one to write this up. If there's someone in this forum who is active and is a "brushmeister" it's you.
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  14. GDCarrington

    GDCarrington Burma Shave

    Someone has to do the grunt work of using the them. :happy093: As I told someone on another forum who has graciously allowed me to test another product, I need about three to four weeks just to kind of go out of testing mode, so I get to be last on that product testing. I have been so busy with additional research for other testing items, that there simply was no time to write another article.

    There are three band brushes as well. Teiste Brito ( is my "leader" on the brush front since he has more experience and has used more products, especially at the higher end of the spectrum. He has used several of these brushes and it is simply interesting to watch his work with the brush. I have learned a lot from him.

    The steam knot removal process was his idea, except that he was using a glass jar inside the pot at the bottom and placing the brush in the jar which would protect it from boiling water, but not from additional temperature issues.

    I came along with the bamboo steamer approach to get the brush further away from the heat source to allow only steam to do the work instead of having concentrated heat surrounding the brush.
    Once the process was completed and a write up was produced it became documented here and elsewhere with many successful users of the process reporting in.

    We also had Aaron's article available as well.

    It was a good concise write up and I am glad you took the reins to get it "put down on paper" or electrons.
  15. johnus

    johnus Well-Known Member

    Nice write up. It does bring up a question that I've had for some time.
    On badger brushes their form is usually developed by trimming . Doesn't this ruin all the value or the 'end hair'? If you cut off the tips to form the brush it's then no better than one of the brushes made from cheaper grades of hair?? This also goes for guys who try to make their brushes stiffer by trimming off part of the head after they've bought them?
  16. GDCarrington

    GDCarrington Burma Shave

    Johnus, great point. "Doesn't this ruin all the value or the 'end hair'?" Absolutely. I don't know why people think that cutting the hairs of any type of brush from natural to synthetic improved their quality.

    Notice in this video how Da Vinci brushes are made. They are an excellent brush maker.

    At about 0:51 look at the right hand side and you will see the prepared knots and how they are made of the same length of hair overall and then curved at the bottom to create the bulb shape at the top.

    Fan shapes simply have far less indenture to create than the bulb shapes.

    Moral lesson, don't cut off the tips of your brushes!
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  17. Rafen

    Rafen Member

    Thanks I was looking for something that would explain the differences between brushes. Now I know what I need when I order a new brush.
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  18. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    Due to this post, I added a manufacturing description to the OP. Thanks, Gary.
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  19. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    I've added several updates to the op over the last month, but the latest one provides more information about the characteristics of horse hair brushes.
    9nein9 likes this.
  20. PLANofMAN

    PLANofMAN Eccentric Razor Collector Staff Member

    Moderator Article Team
    Another update to the op, this one from raag. He uploaded a video on the proper care of the shave brush.:) Since I didn't have a section in here on that, I figured I would add one to showcase the video.:D

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