One of the most common questions we get from fellow wet shavers is, "What brush should I buy?" Having put together a collection of various sizes and grades of brushes, it becomes very clear that certain brushes are better suited for certain shaving applications than others. The first thing that needs to be established when choosing a brush is the type of use you need out of it. Do you prefer to shave with a hard soap, or a soft cream? What about new styles of shaving, such as Method Shaving? As convenient as it would be, the fact of the matter is there just really is not a "one size fits all" model shaving brush. Aside from personal preferences on the physical aesthetics of the brush such as size, handle material, and color, etc., there very distinct categories for different styles of brushes.
The majority of the shaving brushes on the market today fall in to two distinct classifications: floppy and stiff. Floppy brushes are generally the higher cut loft and less densely knotted models from makers such as Vulfix or Edwin Jagger. These brushes tend to work very well for lathering potted shaving creams, usually requiring the use of a lathering bowl to adequately control the level of water being whipped into the cream in order to obtain the desired consistency. The open cut bulb shapes also aid with pumping the right balance of air and water necessary to build a good lather. With these brushes, the higher grade super and silvertip badger (see Understanding Hair Grades of Badger Brushes) really add a great performance benefit. Higher grade badger has a much better water absorbency and can turn small dab of cream in to a luxurious bowl of warm and fragrant lather.
On the other end of the spectrum, there are brushes that are very densely knotted and have a much stiffer backbone to them. These brushes, while they can and commonly are used for creams, really excel with shaving soaps. Simpsons, Rooney, and Shavemac brushes are manufacturers that are well known for these types of brushes. The stiff and densely packed badger is ideal for scratching the surface of soap and generating lather suitable for shaving. The softer and more delicate silvertip badgers can actually be susceptible to damage and in most cases only performs marginally with harder textured soaps such as triple-milled types. These tighter knot brushes are also very useful to those who prefer to skip the lathering bowl and manually generate lather directly on the face. The scrubbing action is very desirable with soap shavers however they can be used with creams as well.
In recent years, particularly with the invent of newer shaving systems such as Roberts Method Wet Shaving, the need for brushes with more specialized design has started to become another factor to consider. Unlike traditional shaving products which only require proper water and agitation to peak up in to a suitable lather for shaving, many shavers have started to explore other options such as Hydrolast products. Charles Roberts created the Shavemaster series of brushes around specific criteria needed to effective mix separate elements in to usable lather or what is referred to as a "wet mix" for Method Shaving. Brushes suitable for this require a more compressed center core (breach) and full cut canopy, a flat top shaped loft rather than the common bulb shape. The result is a brush with the water capacity and mixing ability to quickly fuse the separate primer and paste in to a uniform and properly hydrated mixture. Other specialized brushes such as Shavemac's Variable Loft Brush (VLB) have also come to the market. The VLB brush is popular with many shavers as it allows the option to manually adjust the height of the brushes loft buy burn a screw mechanism in the base of the brush to retract or extend the knot inside the handle. This concept is intended to allow the shaver to adjust his brush to different settings for use on soaps or creams based on their preference.
This is only a high-level general view on the different types of brushes available. A quality shaving brush is a significant investment, but making the right choice based on how you plan to use it will make it worth every penny. Most shavers will benefit by identifying how individual sizes, hair grades, and styles of brushes work best for their desired style of shaving. Decide what you are comfortable spending and take the opportunity to hold different shapes of handles in your hand and find what types feel comfortable and usable to you. Doing so not only allows you to consistently achieve the best results but can also save you from the expense and frustration of endlessly experimenting with various brands and models of brushes trying to find what is best suited for you.