07-26-2012, 05:22 PM
  • Dave
  • Moderator Emeritus
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This is the sixth interview in a series with the artists, authors, craftsmen, and vendors who make wet shaving great. Todays interview is with Michael Ham

Today's interview is with none other than Michael Ham, the author of "Leisureguy’s Guide to Gourmet Shaving” and the website http://www.leisureguy.wordpress.com which covers wetshaving and a variety of other topics. This man taught quite a number of us what to look for in a brush, razor, and blades as well as giving great shaving tips. His word put to paper have become somewhat of a guidebook for the lost art of wet shaving. I’d like to thank Michael for agreeing to the interview.

Michael, tell the readers of the Nook a bit about yourself.

I retired (the "Leisure" in "Leisureguy") ten years ago---the company I worked for was acquired and I was laid off on my 62nd birthday and after a few months it became clear that I had retired, in effect. No complaints: I had a long and varied career, involving writing, programming, teaching, systems design, directing admissions, managing programming and marketing. I enjoy reading and music (jazz and classical, mostly, and some country) and movies and cooking. I have three children, three grandchildren, and a wife, each one wonderful and doing well. We all like cats, and mine is a British Shorthair named Megs.

What is your favorite shaving setup?

I like a shaving soap more than a shaving cream---I started with both, and I simply could not get good lather from a soap. So finally I put the shaving creams away and started using only the soap, figuring that I would learn best that way. I did learn, but badly, and it wasn't until Zach came along and explained how, in his words, "to make shaving cream from shaving soap" using a boar brush that I learned---and even then I learned by accident: I was following his procedure using a horsehair brush and a good triple-milled soap---Floris before the reformulation---and just did what he said: fully wet brush, tub of soap on its side over the sink, brush vigorously and at length, and for some reason I absent-mindedly brushed a LOT longer than I normally did, and when I brought brush to beard to work up the lather, I thought "Hello! What's this?" It was like a totally new substance. I realized then that I had never sufficiently loaded the brush---I loaded it enough to get what I now call a "frugal lather," but not enough for a "creamy lather." Now I get it.

At any rate: I have a large collection now---too large---of soaps, creams, brushes, and razors: I buy them to test for the book, and then of course they stick around and accumulate. Over the past 7 years or so, quite a few have accumulated despite a few purges. But the result is that I don't really have a single favorite: I have a great many in each category that I like. And, of course, I continue to discover new things. This past year I discovered the ARC Weber, which I would say is right now my favorite razor, and just a few weeks ago I really tuned in to Strop Shoppe shaving soap. I had used it once previously and liked it, but this time when I used it, I thought, "Whoa! What is this soap?!" The lather was so thick and unctuous that I had to go find out what was in it---and what was in it was indeed not the common mix. She uses Stearic Acid, Glycerin, Coconut Oil, Palm Oil, Rice Bran Oil, Fragrance---and of course has a fragrance-free version as well for those who have skin sensitivities.

This waking up to something only gradually---and belatedly---has happened more than once. The same thing happened with the new Edwin Jagger head. I had started with a Merkur HD, as was common some years back---at the time the most recommended beginner razor---and in fact had a couple of Edwin Jagger razors from when they were still using the Merkur Classic head (although EJ did a heavier chrome plating and more polishing, plus ran their own quality control). When Neal Jagger and the Müller brothers of Mühle-Pinsel designed a new head to supplant the Classic head in their razors, I got one of those. I assumed it would be somewhat better---no reason to replace an existing head with one not as good---and I thought it was "fine" (as in how your kids respond to "How was your day?": "Fine."). But then gradually I started to realize that (at least for me) it really was better, though both are good. And then one day I was testing two razors on the smooth-handle issue (see http://shavenook.com/thread-smooth-handl...n-wet)---a quartz-handled Elite and a bone-handled Mühle Sophist (rebranded as a Gerson). I knew the Elite had a Merkur Classic head and I assumed that the Gerson did as well. I used the Elite for the first pass, then picked up the Gerson for the second and again thought "Whoa! What is this?" I took another look and saw that the Gerson/Mühle had the new head design. So I had sort of a blind test, and at this point it was like night and day. The difference actually is not that great---more like dawn and, say, 11:00 a.m., but when I used them side by side, I was struck by the difference: gradual awakening. 

But this is not to say that the EJ is the ultimate, and one must recognize that among razors there is still some YMMV, though not so much as with, say, blades. But I was interested to stumble into that sort of blind comparison: usually, with razors, we definitely know which razor we're using. This one just took me by surprise.

What sort of discoveries have you made as you learned about shaving?

The most significant, I think, was learning how greatly hard water was at the root of a variety of shaving mysteries. For a long time I read in the forums about "shaving-cream brushes" and "shaving-soap brushes" and how a "shaving-cream brush" did not do a good job on shaving soaps, which require a stiff, scrubby brush to build lather, like the Simpson Chubby. And there was always a lot of comment about Mitchell's Wool Fat shaving soap, and how you should put some water on the soap to let it soak before trying to make lather. And so on.

None of that ever made any sense to me at all. The softest brush I had---a fluffy Omega Silvertip that feels like a soft, warm hand caressing my face---could whip up a lather in no time, even from MWF, and I never had any need to put water on the soap. As it happens, I live in an area with relatively soft water---nothing like Vancouver, but still pretty soft. So I would try things and get totally different results. I was weighing in that there was no such thing as a "shaving-cream brush" or a "shaving-soap brush," but I couldn't understand why they were saying that.

I will interject that I frequently see advice on the Internet from someone using a procedure that he found works well for him, but who has never tried an alternative. I am always trying other ways so I can find the best of several approaches. I still see recommendations to soak the brush while you shower. Boar brushes obviously do require soaking, but horse or badger? I don't think so. I've tried soaking and not soaking, and while horsehair and badger may be minimally softer after soaking, the difference is negligible and IMO not worth the effort. Obviously, YMMV, but I always encourage (in my book and in forum interactions) experimentation: try soaking, sure, but also try not soaking. And for any pre-shave treatment, try using it a week, then a week without, then another week with to see whether it actually does make a difference. That's how I discovered MR GLO (Musgo Real Glyce Lime Oil pre-shave soap) works well for me (though again: soft water is important because MR GLO is a soap and hard water plus soap equals sticky soap scum). And that's how I found that Whole Foods 365 brand glycerin soap (at less than $2/bar) does a terrific job, after mikeperry recommended it: I tried the "with, without, with" test. (If you're too impatient to go a week, just do a couple of days each way.)

But back to the mysteries of soap lather. One day it suddenly hit me: hard water would explain all those things. And guys don't think about the water: it's water, and it's always been there, so they don't consider that it's a vital ingredient. That's where the section on water came from in the 5th edition: my finally figuring out that the root of the problem was trying to shave using hard water.

Take the shaving brush issue: a guy with hard water would try making lather from shaving cream (which is more a detergent than a soap) and gets a good lather. Then he tries to make a lather from a shaving soap using *the very same brush* and the lather is awful. Clearly, he thinks, this must be a shaving-cream brush, not a shaving-soap brush. And the stiff, scrubby brush worked with soaps because with hard water it takes a lot more soap to make lather: a lot of the soap goes to neutralize the calcium in the water (by forming soap scum). And those guys who found that MR GLO didn't work? If you have hard water, MR GLO, being a soap, will not be lubricating but will instead form a sticky scum.

Once I realized that using hard water explained everything, I wrote about it and described the distilled-water shave, both in the book and on Sharpologist. Some guys have commented that they don't want to do a distilled-water shave even though their water is hard because it's too much bother. So in the 6th edition, I explained why the distilled-water shave with very little practice becomes routine.

I'm pleased that I figured that out, and I think a lot of guys are starting to get the word that hard water ruins a shave---or at the least, reduces the enjoyment considerably.

You have to use a lot of supplies as preparation for new editions of the book. Do you get freebies or a discount?

No, I purchase them as a regular customer. I explain in the new edition that I'm a "shave critic," in a sense, and just like a restaurant critic pays for his or her meals and doesn't accept free meals or payments or kickbacks, and movie critics don't get paid to write favorable reviews. In fact, getting payments and freebies would undermine my ability to write independent reviews and comments, I do think people expect me to deliver unbiased judgments based on my actual experience. And though some vendors quote my recommendations, I don't get paid for that any more than Siskel and Ebert got paid when a movie advertisement mentions that they gave the movie "two thumbs up." Vendors can quote me, but I don't get money for that and I don't get products. Twice I've accepted a free sample, and both times I regretted it---and probably the person giving me the sample regretted it, too, because I still delivered my judgment based on my experience, not on the freeness of the product. 

I keep a friendly arm's-length distance from shaving vendors, whom I greatly admire and respect. In fact, the new chapter in the book is on finding places to get shaving equipment and supplies and the importance of looking beyond Amazon. I explain how Amazon tricks people into thinking only about "free shipping", and so guys will automatically buy from Amazon. "Amazon Prime!" they say. "Free shipping!" So they pay $12 for a bar of MR GLO that Phil sells at Bullgoose for $6.50 because they get "free" shipping. 

I recently ordered a brush and a tub of soap from Shaving.ie, in Ireland. Airmail shipping to me in Monterey was $6. Shipping charges are not the be-all, end-all of shopping, but Amazon has convinced a lot of people that free shipping is absolutely essential, regardless of how much more you have to pay for the item. At least the shipping is free. Smile

Let's focus on "The Leisureguy's Guide to Gourmet Shaving". Tell us a bit about the book

It's a book whose purpose is to take the novice along a comfortable path into wetshaving with a DE razor. Basically, I try to help the novice avoid the mistakes I made along the way and get more quickly to what I finally learned. A novice who reads my book, for example, will learn right from the start how to make a creamy lather so that he doesn't have to stumble into it as I did. It's like having a marked route instead of wandering around.

A guy who's been shaving a while probably knows the techniques already, though some of the ancillary information---product reviews, reference sites, vendor lists, that sort of thing---might be useful to him as well.

One major audience I had in mind in writing the book was the guy who gets the book as a gift---a guy whose family or friends know that he does not like to shave, and who give him the book as a way to help him enjoy what is, for most, a daily task. When you must do something daily, it's not good if you find it a boring, tedious, hateful chore: it starts the day on the wrong foot. I found that when I ask clean-shaven men, "I notice that you shave. I was just wondering, do you enjoy doing that?" I invariably get the answer, "I *hate* it" and usually with considerable emphasis. Add to that the cost of cartridges,…  well, you know the rap. But as a result, the first chapters are persuasive, to convince the guy who got the book as a gift for (say) Father's Day or graduation or whatever to give DE shaving a try. Making a change is not easy---I talk about that more in the next edition---and so I start by providing what I hope are convincing reasons to try the change.

I think the book is particularly useful within a family, oddly enough. For various reasons, one brother might have a problem getting instruction from another, or a son from his father (at the age shaving is taught, say around 15 or so, sons are starting to have issues with the old man) or a father from his son (the awkwardness factor). In some families that situation is no problem, but I think we probably know families where it is. The book provides emotionally neutral instruction and lets the novice proceed independently and at his own pace, and also gives the beginner enough knowledge to feel more comfortable asking for specific advice. So my hope is that it eases the transition and spread of knowledge. And, of course, even within a family, members may be separated by distance.

What made you want to decide to write the book?

It started with a letter to my son, telling him of the discovery I just made and trying to lay out for him what I had learned. It was a long letter, and I also did it as a blog post. Then, as I learned more, I kept returning to the post and revising and extending it. It grew to quite a lengthy post---too long, really, for comfortable reading at the computer---and my son-in-law told me I should write as a book. I strongly resisted at first, but I had just learned of Lulu.com and the opportunity to get all the information packaged in a way that would be easy to read was attractive. The first edition was pretty thin, and it went through 9 or 10 revisions that first year. Then I came out with a second edition and thought, "Whew! That's done." For each edition after the first, I think I've finally nailed it and included everything I could possibly want---and then over the course of the year I've learned more, new products have emerged, new vendors have opened shop, and it feels right to come out with an expanded edition. One edition---the third, I think---was done specifically to move to Amazon's CreateSpace from Lulu because Lulu's shipping costs had gotten unreasonable: $11 in shipping for one copy of the book. That made no sense, and they were unresponsive to complaints, so I jumped ship. Now I'm glad I did: CreateSpace has gotten consistently better, and now the book is available (hard copy or Kindle) from all the Amazons: .com, .ca, .co.uk, .de, .es, .fr, and .it. And people have actually bought the book from all of them except Amazon.it. Only 4 or 5 copies from .de, .es, and .fr, but at least a few shavers bought it. And I think the first Kindle copy was purchased by a woman in Australia. (Australians can buy Kindle editions from Amazon.com, it seems.)

How long did it take you to write the book?

At this point I would say I've spent at least two years total on it, probably more. I accumulate notes and ideas over the year, and then it takes about two-three months to write and format the new edition. I use Microsoft Word which acts a little flakey with a long formatted manuscript with photos---I keep losing photos, and various parts of the formatting come undone and have to be redone: a great flaming pain. I would love to find a better platform, and I've looked some, but so far I've not found anything better.

Did you have any idea while in the midst of writing it that it would be as successful as it has been?

I didn't, really. I thought it would be a niche, hobbyist sort of thing. But I think the economic downturn in the US has hit a lot of people hard, especially the young people just trying to enter the job market. And the cost of cartridges has gotten to be a substantial purchase---and since guys have to keep buying them, the cost is sort of in their face. Being young, they are also less set in their ways, so they start looking around. And word about DE shaving is getting out, as we can tell just from the growth in size and number of forums. I have never done any advertising for the book---it's just word of mouth---but the whole DE shaving movement is word of mouth, basically. The advertising dollars all belong to Gillette/Procter & Gamble. Those ads are the big dollars---and perhaps one reason cartridges cost so much. I explore this a bit in an article on Sharpologist. (http://sharpologist.com/2012/01/the-weber-razor.html) And I do think Procter & Gamble are fighting back---the purchase of the Art of Shaving company is one example of P&G's entry into this field, though I imagine that's a fight with the corporate culture: P&G *must* sell more cartridges each year to grow profits, so those stores probably have serious enemies within the corporation who cannot understand why P&G would be selling products that undercut their profitable product lines---the same sort of fights that occurred in Detroit and kept the Big Three from competing well with Japanese and Korean cars: too heavily invested in the current product line (and current product thinking). As I said earlier, change is hard.

Still, P&G are fighting back, and right now they're working to get rid of DE wetshaving in India (and probably the rest of the third world) by introducing a simple cartridge to start the escalator---that is, a single-blade cartridge now, and later a two-blade cartridge, then three-blades, etc. We've seen this movie. There's an interesting article with a lot of comments on the Harvard Business Review blog: http://blogs.hbr.org/cs/2012/04/how_pg_i..._thin.html 

When can we expect to see Version 6 of the book?

It will come out sometime in August. I've added a new chapter and new sections---it's about 50 pages longer, all told, along with lots of little changes in the text to add things I've learned. And, of course, the vendor list is much longer. Again. So I have to get that through the process.

I enjoy reading not only the shaving sections of your blog, but the other sections as well.  What do you have coming up on the blog soon?

Michael: I don't really plan the blog. Each day I just write about things that have occurred to me or catch my eye---often it's the sort of thing you read aloud to your wife or comment on when you're reading the paper. "Can you believe…?" sort of thing. Sometimes it's a thought I've had about this or that. When I see a good movie or read a good book, I'll mention it. It's more conversational than formal.
Michael’s book can be purchased from Amazon here and the website for the blog is http://www.leisureguy.wordpress.com.  Thank you Michael for the interview

116 3,804
 07-26-2012, 05:39 PM
  • bullgoose
  • The Enabler
  • Redondo Beach, California, U.S.A
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Michael's book was my introduction to traditional wet shaving and all of the acquisition disorders that follow. Biggrin

Great interview guys!

53 21,465
 07-26-2012, 05:56 PM
  • Johnny
  • Super Moderator
  • Wausau, Wisconsin, USA
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Dave, another excellent interview. Michael, thanks so much for providing us with this background and taking the time to do this interview.

187 26,090
 07-26-2012, 06:17 PM
  • GregK
  • Active Member
  • NYC
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Ham is one cool character Cool .

7 253
 07-26-2012, 06:45 PM
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I'm another who can proclaim that it was Michael's book, and it's enthusiastic recommendation on Reddit's Wicked_Edge, that got me into wet shaving, and I couldn't be more pleased! I ended up purchasing the Kindle version and still have it accessible on my phone. I find myself opening it up and re-reading through particular sections as I start to research about a product or brush or razor or even technique.

One of those said techniques was the discovery of my hard water woes. Living primarily in middle of nowhere New Mexico whose water has been deemed unsafe to drink, I have water that could knock out a horse. After much research and re-reading from the book, I now keep gallons of purified water in the bathroom to at least partially shave with.

Also, I was to give a little more love to shaving.ie, great shipping prices and times, even from Ireland. Shaving.ie and Bullgoose have been my go-to vendors!

40 1,980
 07-26-2012, 06:45 PM
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I've read the book and continue to read the blog; it's great having Michael in our community!

3 315
 07-26-2012, 06:48 PM
  • freddy
  • Banned
  • San Diego, California, U.S.A.
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Dave, thank you for the interview with another icon of the wet shaving world.

Michael, thank you for agreeing to the interview; it certainly benefits our members.

2 5,000
 07-26-2012, 07:54 PM
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Great interview! Thanks Michael and Dave.

Michael, have you considered an e-book download? I would just as soon read it on my computer as have a hardcopy.

32 6,600
 07-26-2012, 09:06 PM
  • gijames
  • Mile High Soldier
  • TN, USA
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Thank you Michael and Dave Smile

I have never read Michael's book, but it still had an influence on me switching to DE shaving- it is referenced quite a bit in the forums I searched through, and videos online. So in essence, the book has influenced the forum/video authors, which in turn influenced me! Cool

9 1,684
 07-26-2012, 10:34 PM
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I use Michael's book as a loner book to my friends Im slowly converting to the joy of shaving

0 61
 07-26-2012, 10:38 PM
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Excellent interview. Michael's blog is bookmarked on all of my mobile devices.

0 156
 07-27-2012, 02:39 AM
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Nice interview; well done Dave!

Michael has a rare talent, as he readily combines candor and knowledge in a easily articulate manner. I am looking forward to the 6th edition of his book.

3 68
 07-27-2012, 05:23 AM
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Great interview, gents. Thanks again.

92 21,321
 07-27-2012, 07:37 AM
  • mikeperry
  • Senior Member
  • St Louis via the UK
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Dave, thank you for conducting this interview Thumbsup

Michael, you are a gentleman and a scholar, plus a top banana to boot Euro

And it's these couple of posts, A guide to the gourmet shaving experience and Shaving recommendations, read 6 years ago that started me back down the path of traditional wetshaving, even though it took me 5 of those 6 years to completely embrace traditional wetshaving -- sounds silly now, but due to my experience with my dad's DE razor when I was 15 and 16 years old I was terrified to weld one again...

23 1,872
 07-27-2012, 08:41 AM
  • ben74
  • Senior Member
  • Perth, Australia
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An enjoyable read, thank-you.

101 18,026
 07-27-2012, 12:33 PM
  • tgutc
  • Senior Member
  • Michigan
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Great interview. My dad gave me Michael's book three years ago to read along with a starter kit. I forget what edition it was but I passed it on to my friend who has been wet shaving for two years now. I'm going to get the sixth edition I'm sure it has changed a lot.

45 3,955
 07-27-2012, 02:39 PM
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A great interview by Dave with a stand up guy like Michael.
Thank you both.

148 14,382
 07-29-2012, 07:47 AM
  • greyhawk
  • Senior Member
  • Southern California
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Nice interview! I am also looking forward to the new edition of the book.

61 861
 07-29-2012, 07:59 AM
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Another fine interview. Thanks.

242 14,216
 07-29-2012, 02:38 PM
  • matloffm
  • Senior Member
  • Culver City, CA
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Too bad I didn't read the interview before I bought a copy of the fifth edition of his book. Oh, well, I guess I should check out the Nook before I do anything. Wink

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