• Conversation with Dr. Christopher Moss

    In the colorful world of traditional shaving the name Moss comes in quotes. That is Dr. Christopher Moss, the creator of the noted Moss Scuttle, as well as the author of an excellent little book, The Art of the Straight Razor Shave. Dr. Moss, who was born in Wiltshire, England, in 1958, and trained in London, moved to Canada, in 1985. He works as a rural doctor in the town with the exotic name Tatamagouche.

    Obie: I think only exceptional people, as well as happy and even adventurous, must live in a place called Tatamagouche. I love that name.

    Chris: Iím a country boy and far prefer life in a rural setting. Nine years of training and working in London was enough for me. Tatamagouche is the MicMac Indian name for this place, and means "the meeting place of two rivers." There are actually two rivers that open into a bay just below my back deck. Itís beautiful.

    Obie: I have this romantic picture of you as a humble country doctor enjoying two of lifeís great pleasures: helping people and wet shaving with the straight razor. How accurate is this picture?

    Chris: Iím lucky enough to be working in a place where nothing is routine, since we have to be rather self-sufficient. You never quite know what you will be faced with next. Satisfying but sometimes scary, which is, I suppose, how beginners might look at straight razors. I still find the twenty minutes that I linger over a shave early each morning to be one of the best parts of each day.

    Obie: You are a lifelong wet-shaver. Like many of us, you also sinned early on by shuffling through a store full of razor models before discovering the straight razor. In your sinful days, what were some of the razors you tried?

    Chris: My first few shaves were with my fatherís DE. An interesting razor in itself in that it was issued to him when he volunteered for the Royal Engineers, in 1939. Somewhere in the army stores a handle and a head had been screwed together, but they were originally from different razors ó a Wardonia handle and a Myatt open comb head. I know now it is quite aggressive, and Iím not surprised that he only ever did one pass with the grain.

    Obie: An ideal shave, at that. I can only imagine the history your fatherís improvised razor holds.

    Chris: That razor went with him through his time in bomb disposal in the Blitz, then to North Africa for Alamein, then the invasion of Sicily, then D-Day and on to Holland where he was finally wounded badly enough that his war was over. He used it for the rest of his life, and I still have it.

    Obie: What a prized legacy from your father.

    Chris: I donít think he liked to share such a lucky razor, so he provided me with a Gillette Techmatic ó from the sublime to the ridiculous. A nasty piece of work, which I replaced with a Trac IIĖstyle of razor as soon as they became available. I did just what Gillette wanted me to do and bought into each "improvement" as it came along, ending with a Sensor Excel. Even then I was experimenting with brushes and soaps, but felt I was missing out. I did once try a Mach 3, but it was plainly a worse shave than from the two-blade Sensor.

    Obie: Then came the straight razor. In 2003, you switched to the gentlemanís razor. What made you seek shaving salvation by taking up the straight razor?

    Chris: A good question, and Iím not exactly sure now why I bought my first straight. I was never completely satisfied with the technology. I could get a good shave with the Sensor, but there wasnít any satisfaction in it. My father had awokened an interest in blades in me ó he used to make knives, often out of old leaf springs, Iím afraid to say ó so perhaps I was just carrying that a bit further.

    Obie: What were some of the difficulties you experienced with the straight razor early on?

    Chris: Youíll laugh to hear it, but I made two huge mistakes. I bought two stainless razors and assumed they were shave-ready from the factory. Duh! Wasnít very long before I was asking on the old Yahoo! site for some carbon steel razors. I just couldnít get those stainless blades sharp, and I donít think I have been a quick study at honing.

    Obie: Many newbies donít realize honing is an art unto itself.

    Chris: Somewhere over the years I must have learned something, as I prefer stainless razors now. I can get them just as sharp and I have less worry about corrosion. My other big mistake was to try to get a perfect shave from the start and realizing that my skill needed honing just as much as the blade. I started to shave twice a day to increase my chances to practice. My face was sore for those few months!

    Obie: My face hurts just thinking about it. In this respect, then, what advice do you have for straight razor newbies with some of the same challenges you faced?

    Chris: Easy. Buy a well-honed razor from an experienced honer ó thereís a fellow called Lynn something, who comes to mind ó and preferably carbon steel to make it easier for yourself to learn. Shave with the grain only till you get confidence, then try across. Single best piece of advice? Drop the spine to go across or against the grain ó much more comfortable and much less irritation.

    Obie: What is your definition of a good straight shave? What combination of elements makes up the whole for you?

    Chris: An interesting thing, this. Our forebears shaved with their straights with the grain only, and often only once or twice a week. They were much more stubble-tolerant than we are. About half the time I have what I call an eighteenth century shave ó lots of prep to soften the beard, then just one careful close pass downwards. It looks good. In some ways better than a closer shave in that there is no redness in the skin from shaving too close.The rest of the time I do a second pass across the grain often just to enjoy the use of a tool that I know takes skill to use properly.

    Obie: Thatís exactly how I feel and thatís why I shrug off the term BBS.

    Chris: The pleasure of a good shave is more than just closeness. The whole ritual is important, just like a tea ceremony. Using a good brush and a soap that makes good rich lather allows me to enjoy even the sensation of painting it on. The stropping and shaving, the cold rinse and the aftershave balms and scents ó all of it matters, and I think anyone who doesnít get that is missing out on the full experience.

    Obie: I couldnít agree with you more. Of course, this ritual also requires a good razor. In the beginning I assume the razor bug bit you, too, and you went beyond owning one razor. What was your first razor?

    Chris: My very first razors were a pair of Dovo stainless faux-Damascus razors with Micarta scales, one ivory colored and one ebony colored.

    Obie: How rich is your current collection?

    Chris: Rich as in what it has cost? You do realize my wife might see this? Seriously, I was never a collector of anything until I met straights, and for the first time I came to understand the lust to collect sets, or to own something, even if it isnít for use. Very dangerous. In some ways I look forward to the day when I can be free of them all except for my daily shavers as they are a bit of a burden in terms of cost. I have about 200 razors with the nicest in display cases on the wall of shame in my office. The custom Damascus blades are the ones I like best as collection pieces.

    Obie: Any particular brands you prefer?

    Chris: As my honing skills have improved I have come to appreciate harder steels. I always liked TI razors and will keep a soft spot in my heart for the 5/8 Super Gnome half-hollow that I still think makes a great starter razor. I have a lovely set of Livi razors, another of Zowada Damascus blades, and I have never had a bad Hart in the seven I have.

    Obie: And your daily razors?

    Chris: My daily shavers are a set of seven Friodurs with custom wood scales. They are 7/8 and 8/8 in size, take a wonderful edge and keep it for ages. It gets humid here in the summer, and one episode of corrosion damage in some expensive custom Damascus razors convinced me to stick to these stainless beauties.

    Obie: What about blade size, type of point, and variety of scales?

    Chris: I prefer bigger blades in that they are easier to control on the hone, and in use need the lather rinsing off less frequently ó very lazy of me. So 7/8 and up is what I have come to use. My Friodurs are all spikes, but on aesthetic grounds I like round points, and French points, too. Iím not so keen on the look of the Spanish point or a barberís notch, but then again I donít look at the shape of the point when Iím shaving and the shave is all that really matters.

    Obie: What is your assessment of vintage razors and those made today? Do you find yourself leaning closer to one than the other?

    Chris: Fortunately there are good razors from the past and the present. A big old Sheffield wedge often has softer steel and is easy to hone. A pleasure to use. But a hard modern steel can be fully hollowed and feel nearly as stiff to use. An old beat up razor with a good edge will always be the best choice for a beginner, as it is cheap and certain to be shave worthy. It might look pretty awful, but we will always love our first razor, and it will have a beauty to us that even a shiny new one wonít quite match.

    Obie: Whatís your oldest razor?

    Chris: I think my oldest razor is a frame-back with a flat plate blade that I guess is from the 1850ís or 1860ís. It shaves very nicely.

    Obie: How do you view the custom razors made today?

    Chris: I love the way custom makers are exploring different ways of heat-treating steel. Metallurgy is still a bit of a dark art, but much less now than it was. The varieties and styles are entrancing, and I rather wish you hadnít asked me this as Iím trying to pay for a new tonearm on my turntable.

    Obie: I know, and I hate to do this to you, but my curiosity will keep me awake all night. Iím sure you own several customs. Any particular favorites in custom razor makers?

    Chris: Iíd have to nominate Tim Zowada as my favorite maker of superb blades. But Tim has competition, and Gabor Buddel is showing great promise. I hope he will be doing the whole job one day. My last custom from Gabor was annealed, finished and scaled by him, but he didnít do the forging. The other thing that makes me drool is the scale-work being done by several people. The pictures posted by shutterbug are so very appealing, and there are several other artists at work out there.

    Obie: You also hone your own razors. What stones do you use and what is your honing pattern?

    Chris: Collecting hones is a sore point, too. I think the only ones I donít have are Japanese naturals. Most of the time I use Shapton Pro hones. The important thing with a blunt razor is to get a good bevel with a coarse hone. Sometimes I use a DMT 1200 for this, sometimes the low grit Shaptons. Then itís a matter of progressing up through the grits, not spending too long on each one.

    Obie: You donít follow a standard set of passes for all razors, I assume.

    Chris: Number of passes will vary from razor to razor, and it is as well to get to know your razors so that you know whether to do six or even twelve passes on each. I finish either on a Pro 30k or a well-polished Spyderco UF ó much cheaper, and when properly polished, it works wonders. I do use pastes, and still have a good supply of HandAmerican Liquid Chrome for this.

    Obie: Some of your stones and razors are pictured in your book The Art of the Straight Razor Shave, published in 2005. What compelled you to write the book?

    Chris: When I felt I had got an adequate level of skill, I was aware it could have come more easily had I not made some stupid mistakes. I thought a small booklet with the essentials would be useful to other beginners. Since Iím an "open-source" shaver, the PDF is still a free download over at SMF.

    Obie: The book is quite good. I remember the first time we chatted through e-mail was when I wrote to compliment you on the book. You were kind in your response. This is several years ago. I donít think you meant for the book to be the complete picture of wet shaving with the straight razor. Do you plan to expand it?

    Chris: I did once think it was time for an advanced version, but the trouble is that on the one hand Iím still learning and discovering new ó to me ó things, so it is hard to make a definitive statement about the best way of doing things.

    Obie: The book was quite useful to me.

    Chris: Perhaps it is more fun for a learner to get the basics spoon-fed to them, but then to enjoy the journey of discovering for themselves and what works for them. Iíve had such fun along the way that I would now feel a bit short-changed if someone just told me all of it and there was no experimenting, no triumphs and no disappointments. That, of course, is a fancy way of saying I donít seem to find the time to write anything down these days.

    Obie: You are among the pioneers of the modern-day straight razor world with your book The Art of the Straight Razor Shave. You did not stop there. The Moss Scuttle took you a step further. Before we get to your scuttle, give me your thoughts on the various forms of scuttles that had been around for couple of centuries.

    Chris: The traditional scuttle was a way of carrying hot water to the bedroom where the shave was to take place. Curious to think there was no such room as a bathroom in those days. So it allowed the brush to dip into hot water, but it didnít really warm the soap nor keep the lather warm. Perhaps I confused things by calling my device a scuttle, but I liked the reference to a traditional implement, and it did bear some distant relationship.

    Obie: Who mostly used these scuttles in the old days?

    Chris: Essentially scuttles implied the presence of domestic staff. There had to be someone tending the fire in the scullery or kitchen, and someone to bring the scuttle of water upstairs to their master. I donít think the man in the street would ever have used one. He would have gone downstairs, lit the fire and put a kettle on, and shaved in his own kitchen.

    Obie: How different, then, were the scuttles used by the upper class, the barbers, and the ordinary people?

    Chris: Do you think they were different?

    Obie: I donít know. Perhaps not.

    Chris: I doubt if most barbers used a scuttle as if they had hot water at all ó they at least would have had it close by. I think barbers in the age when shaving was their trade more than haircuts would have used a mug. Regular customers would have had their own mug kept in the barbershop. In fact there was till recently an old barbershop up the coast from here which had a wall of pigeonholes for customersí mugs. Lovely.

    Obie: The Moss Scuttle took the traditional idea of the scuttle and put a modern face to it. What led you to create the original design? Did you get up one morning and sketched it out or was this over a long research process?

    Chris: I was thinking about hot lather. My only experience of it was the silly device that some barbers had on top of a can of foam. I knew of the LatherKing machines, but couldnít envision giving up my brushes.

    Obie: Itís hard to imagine a great shave without a brush. But to the scuttle story.

    Chris: The first thing I made was a combined pewter scuttle as sold by Classic Shaving in those days, with a shallow pewter bowl on top ó the bowl that LíOccitane soap came in ó and I hoped there would be enough heat to transfer to cream and lather in the bowl. It worked somewhat, but came to a bad end when I tried to solder the bowl in place ó pewter being mostly lead, after all.

    Obie: I can imagine you as a mad scientist with things blowing up around his experiments.

    Chris: So the next day I drew the first plan of a clay scuttle with a hollow water jacket surrounding a bowl. I thought about heat transfer and made the bowl small enough that a loaded brush should touch against the side all the way around, and made the bowl shallow enough that the brush handle wouldnít rattle against the top. I faxed it up to Sara Bonnyman and she agreed to make a prototype. It worked marvelously, and she agreed to make more, but adding her own shape to the whole thing to make it more attractive.

    Obie: Did you know her?

    Chris: Iíve known Sara for many years, so it was easy for me to approach her with the idea.

    Obie: I assume Sara knew nothing about the world of men traditional shaving. Yet she seems to have grasped what precisely you had in mind.

    Chris: She was quite bemused by the turn her work was to take, but she is willing to try new things and this one worked out well for her. I think she has sold well over two thousand of them.

    Obie: Were there many prototypes?

    Chris: The pewter disaster is still around somewhere, and I have the clay prototype. After that they looked pretty much the same as they do today.

    Obie: How then does the modern scuttle differ from the traditional?

    Chris: Itís really very different. Think of it as a double-walled lathering bowl that can hold hot water in the space between the inner and outer walls and you have the essential elements. The handle and the beaker lip are there to make it easier to use, and hark back to the traditional scuttle, but they arenít needed for it to serve its main purpose.

    Obie: Since the Moss Scuttle, variations of it have appeared on the market: Dirty Bird, Schwarzweisskeramik, Georgetown, Becker, Straight Razor Design, and others. Many offer large bowls with ridges for making lather. Your idea of the scuttle was not so much for creating lather, but for mostly for keeping your brush warm. Is that a fair assumption?

    Chris: Absolutely. Anything large enough to allow a lot of lather building isnít going to keep in contact with the brush and its lather when it is replaced in the scuttle, so it wonít keep it as warm. Anyway, I prefer to lather on my face, and the first pass lather will be warm anyway. It was the cold second or third pass I was trying to prevent.

    Obie: The Moss Scuttle comes in small and large sizes. Is the large one designed for creating lather?

    Chris: No, the large was for bigger brushes. If you like a 30 mm. Shavemac brush or a Kent BK12, you want the larger size. Pretty much everyone else would be better off with the small size.

    Obie: Which do you prefer for yourself?

    Chris: Definitely the small for me.

    Obie: You said you face-lather. Any special secrets?

    Chris: I start the lather in the bowl of the scuttle and then build it on my face. If it is too wet I just paint away until it dries a bit, or if too dry I dip the brush tip in water and mix that into the lather on my face. Itís really very easy to get the proportions right when you realize you can control them as you go along. When Iím happy with what is there, I put the brush back in the scuttle to stay warm.

    Obie: Creams, soaps ó any preferences?

    Chris: These days Iím using soaps almost exclusively. I do have one scuttle that is deeper in the bowl than any ever sold, so I can keep a puck of soap in it ó and the soap keeps the brush handle from rattling on the side of the bowl. Mostly I use soaps in their own bowls and transfer the loaded brush to the scuttle to keep warm just as if I had used a cream.

    Obie: Beyond the Moss Scuttle, are you working on other innovations?

    Chris: I guess the only other thing I made in that direction was the variable loft brush, where a twist of the base of the handle allows the knot of hair to travel up and down inside the handle, exposing more or less of it. I though it might make many brushes in one ó big and soft to small and scrubby. I think Shavemac still has some left from the production run.

    Obie: Looking back on your straight razor journey, can you offer some of your reflections?

    Chris: Some of the best fun Iíve ever had in a bathroom? Seriously, I have nothing against beards, and I donít mind how other people shave. But this has allowed me to slowly develop a rather esoteric skill that still requires some concentration and methodicalness to perform every day. There is a satisfaction in that, one that I canít get from a safety razor. Combine that with the ritual aspects of the shave, the sensual pleasure of brush and lather, and the lovely scents ó it gives me an excuse to use and Iím very happy to be doing it this way.

    Obie: The straight razor is an obsession, as you well know. Youíre one of the lucky ones among us, however, because your wife is a psychiatrist. Does she ever ask you lie on the couch and tell her about it?

    Chris: Now you know doctors take an oath of patient confidentiality. She has been very tolerant of this one of my many eccentricities. I think she always knew that I was prone to unusual interests, and thank goodness she approves. Fortunately, she is not a woman who likes stubbly men, so she is pleased to have me smooth.