• Conversation with Liam Finnegan

    I discovered Liam Finnegan through his YouTube shaving videos. There was Liam stropping a razor. There he was honing a blade. You could see the master at work with sure hands and an air of confidence from long years of dedicated barbering and straight razor shaving. If I had the tiniest nugget of Liam’s experience with the straight razor, the strop and the hone, I’d pin a medal to my chest and proclaim, “I have arrived.”

    Obie: Currently you are the head barber and patriarch of the renowned Waldorf Barbershop and Shaving Saloon in Dublin, Ireland. You have been at this since you were 10 years old, when you started working part time in your father’s barbershop in Inchicore, Dublin, sweeping, cleaning, getting lunches for everyone. You also made lather for the shaves. I am curious about your method as well and the brushes and the soaps used.

    Liam: Hi, Obie, and thanks for that. And remember, it’s two “o”’s — it’s a barbering saloon not salon. That distinction was always very important for my father and now for me. On the shaving method, I like to give a really good lather. About a half inch lather is perfect — to build up to that. I like to give a good lather of about 10 minutes prior to the shave. As regards the brushes, I like a good badger brush, and not too harsh. I like the regular soap, any of the proprietary brands, really. We also make our own soap up from the powder form.

    Obie: What straight razors did your father use in the barbershop?

    Liam: Timor was his favorite. (Liam pronounces it tie-MORE.) They came from Germany, Solingen. He bought these “blue steel” razors from a distributor in Dublin called Easons. He didn’t have a huge collection of them, but he was excellent at setting them (“set” means strop and hone in this context). He also went to a second hand shop on Francis Street called Sam’s Junk Shop. Francis Street was the hub for antiques shops. He didn’t go in himself. He sent me in. If Sam saw my father, he would have charged a lot more. I was actually told to tell Sam that I was procuring the razors in order to split plants.

    Obie: Did your father’s barbershop rotate a collection of straight razors and can you recall some of the brands?

    Liam: He had a Gotta and also a Puma. Also some older razors from Sam’s shop. He could set these razors so good that they say he could do hundreds of shaves after. In fact, my father had a great interest in the stropping of the razors. Better to do this than to do too much honing. Honing too much was bad. It wore out the razors too fast.

    Obie: I dare guess your father probably had his favorite razor.

    Liam: Yes, the Timor followed by the Puma.

    Obie: You yourself must have a collection of razors. Any preferences?

    Liam: The 1920s Gotta is definitely a favorite. I also have a 7 day set that came from the famous Harrods Store in London. A customer dropped them in to me about 35 years ago. A really great set, indeed.

    Obie: In America, some states have outlawed the use of the regular straight razor in barbershops for health reasons. Barbers must use straight razors with replaceable blades. I would assume things are different in Ireland. Or are they?

    Liam: Not as much regulation — it’s regulated by the trade. Shavettes are used here, too. Especially for shaving younger people or where the hair is close to the skin. I prefer the straight razors, though.

    Obie: I have always considered the old time barbershop as one of the centers of the universe. Some of the exceptionally colorful people I have met have been in old time barbershops. Years ago, when I had hair, I had a barber with a tenor voice that would have given Luciano Pavarotti a run for his money. You could hear some of the best jokes in the barbershop. Of course, some customers had a limited repertoire and slipped in a joke well worn. What’s more, the world’s problems were solved with a few comments — and all was well with life. What was the culture like in your father’s barbershop?

    Liam: It was working class, a lot of engineers and railway and transport workers. There was a lot of jokes and stories. My father knew a lot of people in the boxing fraternity. That seemed to be a common thread with many barbers — an interest and ties with the boxing fraternity. He was a coach, as well. My father was friends with Brendan Behan (Behan was an Irish poet and novelist, and famous Irish Republican).

    Obie: Did many people come in for shaves?

    Liam: Yes, a lot of shopkeepers, business people and older people. Monday morning as very busy — if people had been out drinking over the weekend.

    Obie: Do you have a story or two from the barbershop?

    Liam: Back in the 30s, my father used to have a trick he employed whenever there was a new barber opening in the area. I remember there was one in particular. He was good at shaves, they said. Well, my father got a guy called Gem — a corner boy as they were called, lads who were not working but knew everyone. He put a huge plaster on Gem’s cheek and got Gem to go to where everyone would see him. When folks would ask his what happened, he’d say that it was the new barber. One time back during the war, a drunkard ran in and drank the dry shampoo. There was alcohol in it. The guy had bubbles coming out of him mouth.

    Obie: You apprenticed for six years in Dublin barbershops and then headed for London. One of the places where you trained and worked was what you refer to as an old-fashioned Victorian barbershop. I regret not experiencing such an immortal place. What is an old-fashioned Victorian barbershop like?

    Liam: All wooden chairs — they were very unusual. The sinks were round. You leaned forward as we do still to get your hair washed. The shop was in a place called Angel Court, on Throgmorton Street. That is where the Bank of England and the stock exchange were

    Obie: Any anecdotes from the place?

    Liam: The haircuts were quick and cheap. The clients all wore bowlers (derbies). Most were from the banking fraternity. The didn’t mind what the hair looked like, because they wore the hats. These were quick and cheap — we did 90 a day. A haircut cost two shillings back them, and you were guaranteed six pence tip per haircut, a quarter of the price. If the customer didn’t give it to you, the boss in the shop gave it to you. It was customary to tip in the shop.

    And here’s a good one: We had commission of six pence for selling “French Letters.” We’d say to the customer, “Anything for the weekend, sir?” All the barbershops sold them — you wouldn’t get them anywhere else.

    My boss there — his wife was German — and if he wanted us to hurry up, he’d shout “Snell.” We all had a laugh at that.

    Obie: Then it was on to other barbershops in London, including one at the famed Savoy Hotel. This was in the 1960s. London has always been stylish and exciting. In the 1960s, it must have been especially so. At the Savoy, did many people come in for straight shaves?

    Liam: Yes, all the time.

    Obie: Do you recall any famous names?

    Liam: Steve McQueen was in. And John Huston. I also looked after the Rolling Stones. And Hugh O’ Brian — of the television series The Life and Legend of Wyatt Earp.

    Obie: How was the Savoy barbershop culture different from that in the old fashioned Victorian barbershop?

    Liam: It had Queen Anne style barber chairs and was much more upmarket.

    Obie: You returned to Dublin and the five-star Intercontinental Hotel in Ballsbridge. The hotel is across from the U.S. Embassy. Did you have shaving clients from the embassy?

    Liam: The Ambassador came in for haircuts. His name was Raymond Guest. The Marine Corp would come in for a size up every week.

    Obie: You were running your father’s old barbershop when an opportunity at the Waldorf Men’s Hairdressing and Shaving Saloon, in Dublin, arose. You and your daughter Linda currently run the barbershop. You did something else: you returned the barbershop to how it was when it first opened in 1946. What did that restoration entail?

    Liam: When the original owner of the Waldorf retired and sold the shop to his staff, these guys got a government grant to modernize the shop. This was in the early 70s. The terrazzo floor was covered in linoleum and contemporary wooden seating put in. It had the look of a Spanish Cafe. We just restored the shop to its original state. Exactly how it was in the 40s.

    Obie: Comparing the barbershops of today to those of the old days, how have things changed?

    Liam: Now, things are not as good. Barbers chairs are not as well made. They are flimsy. And the clippers are not as well made. And nobody uses the hand clippers anymore.

    Obie: What led you to create your impressive straight razor world videos?

    Liam: I did not know I was being filmed. I really didn’t know. He just filmed.

    Obie: When your stropping video came out, there was some controversy here at Straight Razor Place about your method. In general most of us pull the strop taught. You give it some sag. Not only that, but you appear to slap the razor on the strop. I am amazed by your mastery. Is this the way straight razors were stropped in the old days?

    Liam: Yes, that’s the way they did it. Sometimes it was done for the crowd — for the effect. Normally I would have had it a little more taut. I guess it did sag a little more than usual that day.

    Obie: What are the benefits of your method?

    Liam: In the shaving, pay attention to detail. Watch and be careful. Preparation is half a job well done.

    Obie: What strops do you now use at the Waldorf?

    Liam: A gentleman came in here one day from Belfast and he was the manager of Austin Reeds up there. He was a barber called Bill Smyth. He gave me a lot of stuff, including some chairs.

    Obie: Your honing in the video is impressive, too. The razor circles on one end of the hone and sweeps to the other end in an X pattern. The action then is repeated in the other direction. Another honing master, Sham Imaldi, with the forum name of hi_bud_gl, has a similar style, except he sweeps back rather than circle. Lucky for me, I emulate both of you. What benefits can you describe in your honing style?

    Liam: It depends on the razor. For example, with the French razor I do it in a V. Others I do in a figure of eight motion. The circling is just the way I flip the blade over.

    Obie: What hones do you use and do you have a preference?

    Liam: I use the Belgian stone and a very old English one. It’s set into a wooden box.

    Obie: You have shaved with the straight razor for many years, shaved yourself and clients. What is it about the straight razor shave that makes you pick up the razor, strop it and shave away?

    Liam: I always say that that one pass with a good straight razor is better than two with a disposable.