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Thread: The Synthetic Brush Shootout

  1. #1
    Senior Member GreenRipper's Avatar
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    Default The Synthetic Brush Shootout

    For a few weeks I've been teasing my upcoming synthetic knot review, and since all of my knots have finally arrived I am now prepared to begin.

    For those who have missed or avoided my earlier posts, my ten year history is a wonderful illustration of poor to mediocre brushes. My first brush was an Art of Shaving (AoS) "genuine badger" brush and I got many good years of service out of this thoughtful gift from my wife. In fact this little brush is still knocking around my bathroom drawer, chipped handle and all, and has done fill-in duty in the recent past. Another notable budget buy was a VDH badger brush I purchased from Walmart to use as a test subject for my Brush Stand project. This brush did daily duty for six months as I evaluated how my stand was going to weather the humid environment of my bathroom sink before it shed its knot mid-lather. In between I've had a Casswell-Massey "Pure Badger" travel brush (alive, kicking and used for its intended purpose), an Ever-Ready 100T, a cheap boar brush and an even cheaper generic synthetic that somehow fell into my possession (These final two were so hated or useless as to be demoted to use in dusting keyboards and similar tasks.)

    As I started searching for a better brush the reviews of the synthetics kept catching my eye. No one claimed that the synthetics were the greatest shave brushes known to man. No one claimed that shavemac had decided to go out of the knot business because the wet shavers of the world were abandoning badger brushes. Yet the worst thing that I could find about synthetics, from reviewers that seemed reasonable, was that they were "boring" that they did a good job but somehow lacked the soul of their favorite badger brushes. If that is the worst, reasonable complaint I could find then a synthetic brush was certainly worth a look...but which brush? Why not several?

    Reviews are useful up to a point, the point at which the reviewer's desires differ from yours. Far too many reviews simply recommend one brush over another with no real explanation and no actual attempt to evaluate the brush beyond, "I used it and liked it and so you should buy it too!" Not exactly a sound reason to run out and buy a brush, even if it retails for less than $30, and at that we are ignoring the possibility that the reviewer is simply hoping to get more manufacturers to ship him free brushes to review.

    My background in science causes me to find the whole process somehow offensive.

    I know that it is impossible to transform a purely subjective subject, how much I like the feel of a particularly brush against my face, into an objective measurement. Despite this I'm going to try to reduce the number of variables that can affect the feel and performance of a knot, examine the lather that I build with each brush and attempt to differentiate each knot when it comes to feel.

    Parameters
    • Affordability: One of the virtues of synthetics is their value. All knots in this test are currently available for under $20.
    • Knot size: In an effort to reduce variability I have restricted the knots to the relatively common diameter of 24mm.
    • Handles: All knots, due to their common size, are to be temporarily mounted in a Whipped Dog 24mm Tall handle. Not only does this reduce variability but also reduces my financial burden. (Exception - The Whipped Dog knot was permanently mounted by Larry as part of my purchase.)


    Knots
    • Synthetic "Game Changer" Knot (AMACK4Shaving) $18.00
    • Synthetic "Sunrise" Knot (AMACK4Shaving) $10.00
    • Cashmere Synthetic Extra Dense Knot (APShaveCo) $16.98
    • Tuxedo Extra Dense Synthetic Knot (APShaveCo) $16.98
    • Ubersoft 2 Synthetic 4th Gen (EnvyShave) $13.99
    • Whipped Dog Synthetic Knot (whippeddog.com) $16.00


    It should be noted that AMACK4Shaving is currently listing the "Sunrise" knot as the last batch of these knots that they are likely to have in stock. FrugalShave has a knot similar in appearance, listed as a "Sunsoft" knot, for the same price.

    Next Up: My initial impressions
    Last edited by GreenRipper; 01-29-2017 at 10:00 PM.

  2. #2
    Senior Member GreenRipper's Avatar
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    Default Out-of-the-Box Thinking

    I like to think that most of the members here at SRP are at least a little like me. That isn't to say that we don't have different likes and dislikes (all too easy to prove) but that there are certain commonalities that we all share. The one I'm discussing here is the fact that when a new knot shows up in the mail I don't immediately run off to epoxy it into a handle. No, the first thing that I do once that new knot is unpacked is to play with it. I'll spend a few minutes admiring its features, tickling the back of my hand with its tips and massaging its hairs against my face, imagining what it's going to feel like the first time it's used to apply lather.

    I don't believe that first impressions are everything but I believe that they build an expectation and I that is why so many of us suffer from at least one of the many AD's. To that end let me share with you my impressions of each of these knots.

    Cashmere Knot: Let's face it, synthetic knots aren't known for 'scritch'. No, those who favor synthetics tend to speak of their cloud-like tips and wax poetic about how these brushes caress their faces. The Cashmere, perhaps the most aptly named knot of all time, is certainly the softest knot in this review. When I brushed this knot against my hand it felt more akin to one of my wife's makeup brushes than a shave knot but it doesn't feel floppy and lifeless, a complaint many had about the original Plisson knots. While I doubt that this knot is going to be my favorite, and earn the coveted place as my daily brush, I find myself hoping that it will find a niche in my shave gear. I like to think that some days, when I need a little extra pampering, a brush with this knot will be pulled out to soothe me with its plush tips.

    In appearance the Cashmere seems to be masquerading as its much scritchier cousins, the boar knots. Off-white in color there is a simple elegance about this knot that many will love and it will look great in any number of handles.

    The Game Changer: Now there's an ambitious name. I have to believe that this knot was named in an effort to differentiate it from the original Plisson knot as it has plenty of backbone and it's exactly that quality which attracts me to this knot. The Game Changer has enough backbone to give the knot a serious feel but still retains soft tips. I freely admit that this knot has my attention and suspect that it might find its way onto my brush stand on a regular basis.

    It seems that most synthetic knots are doing their best to try to pass themselves off, in appearance, as coming from an actual animal. In this case the black fibers of the Game Changer fade to a varigated brown at their base, giving the impression of hair that was grown on an animal instead of being formulated in a lab.

    Sunrise Knot: When I pulled this knot from its packing material I immediately noted its resemblance to the Whipped Dog knot. Both knots have similar coloration and both are obviously trying to mimic more expensive badger knots. This isn't a surprising approach but the fact each of these knots looked so similar certainly caught my attention...and the similarities don't stop there.

    In feel the Sunrise lies between the Cashmere and the Game Changer, less backbone than the later but lacking the amazingly soft tips of the former.

    The Tuxedo: Where other synthetic knots seem to be hiding the fact that they were manufactured, as opposed to grown, the Tuxedo announces it to the world. The black fibers with white tips are simply eye-catching and I can't help but admire how this knot looks. In fact it makes me wonder why synthetic knot manufacturers seem so intent on denying the origin of their products. I like the idea of brushes with knots that draw my eye as much as their handles, white fibers with red, blue or purple tips. Even better, I love the thought of what the guys in The Brushmakers Alcove might do with such knots.

    The feel of the Tuxedo knot is as intriguing to me as its looks. With slightly more backbone than the Game Changer the Tuxedo, in my opinion, still manages to avoid the 'springy' feel that some complain of in synthetic brushes. The tips, as is the trend, should still be considered soft by almost any wet shaver though lack the plushness of the Cashmere and feel stiffer than the Sunrise and Game Changer.

    Ubersoft 2: One of these things is not like the others. Remember when I said that the Cashemere was perhaps the most aptly named knot of all time? Well the Ubersoft 2 isn't. That isn't a complaint but the Ubersoft 2 knot has, without a doubt, the most backbone of any knot in the panel. Remember when I talked about 'springy' feeling in synthetic brushes? Well, now I know exactly what they mean.

    To be fair, most of these knots behave like a pogo-stick when the fibers are compressed square to the base of the knot. The reality is that once you get used to compressing just the tips of a synthetic brush, while actually moving it against your face, most knots lose that feeling of tension. The Ubersoft 2 pushes that limit feeling quite a bit like its under tension even while it is rubbed against your face as if lather is being applied.

    The Ubersoft 2 follows the trend of synthetic knots masquerading as badger hair, ensuring that they will look good in a handle which the designer envisioned holding a badger knot.

    Whipped Dog: The Whipped Dog knot was the first synthetic knot I acquired and the only one that arrived mounted in a handle. I started re-learning how to build a lather with this brush and it has been my daily go-to for the last several weeks. Despite having had this brush for a while I can still remember pulling it out of mail and immediately marveling at how soft it felt compared to the inexpensive badger brushes I had been using.

    I mentioned before that the Sunrise and Whipped Dog knots were very similar in appearance and both fall between the Cashmere and Game Changer knots in feel. In fact these knots are so similar that if I were to place these two knots in identical handles I would have a great deal of difficulty in differentiating one from the other. It is my firmly held suspicion that these two knots probably share an origin and may even have been manufactured in the same building before being shipped to retailers. We'll see if my suspicions bare out during the lather test.

    Next up: Methodology

    Post Script - I had intended to include a picture of all of the knots in this post. A picture of the mounted knot will be included in each knot entry and I will include a group picture here and in the final review once all of the knots are removed from their temporary mountings in the handles.
    Last edited by GreenRipper; 01-29-2017 at 10:06 PM.

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  4. #3
    Senior Member GreenRipper's Avatar
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    Default This is How We Do It

    As I've said before, too many reviews are simply a statement from the reviewer along the lines of, "I like it, you should buy one!"

    As a scientist I want something more objective, something that's very difficult to accomplish. Thus I'm going to go beyond simply using each knot for my daily shave and try to show the SRP community what type of lather I can build with each of these knots. To be honest, I don't expect any substantial differences between the knots I'm testing but expectations and reality quite often differ. In an effort to reduce as many variables as possible I will use the same equipment during each daily shave and maintain a relatively consistent standard operating procedure (SOP).

    Equipment
    • Handle: The feel of a brush handle can have impart a substantial bias for, or against, a particular brush and could even effect how a wet shaver develops their lather. In an effort to effectively eliminate this variable each knot will be temporarily mounted in a Whipped Dog 24mm Tall handle. (Thank you to HarryWally for suggesting silicone as a temporary adhesive.)
    • Soap: What we choose to lather with may have a significant effect upon the resulting product. As such, and due to my secondary focus on budget, all lathering will be accomplished with Mitchell's Wool Fat (MWF), it lathers well (for me), is readily available at a reasonable price and puts test to the myth that you need a boar brush to build a lather with it.
    • Water: Perhaps more important than soap is the water used in building a lather. While my water is softened I will be using distilled water in an effort to allow others to repeat my results. (I'd like to thank thebigspendur for the suggestion.)
    • Mug: While many synthetic knot proponents prefer to face lather I am almost fully a bowl latherer. In keeping with the ongoing theme of budget shaving I'll be using my least expensive mug, an IKEA coffee mug that retails for 70 cents US. I will admit that this is a substantially narrower and taller vessel than most members seem to prefer but I've found that I tend to favor a slightly different shape than most.


    SOP
    Each daily shave will be prefaced by my normal pre-shave routine and a standardized method will be utilized to build a lather. It may be argued that the lather building process be timed to show differences but it is my opinion that it is better to reflect a normal shave routine than adhere to some arbitrary time limit in building a lather. It is my intent to use each brush at least two days running and note any abnormalities from my usual experience in building a lather with the Whipped Dog brush.
    • Bloom: Room temperature (~66F) water will be poured over the MWF and the soap will be allowed to bloom during the time taken to shower. Prior to lathering the water will be poured off and reserved.
    • Face Prep: Shower and wash with NIVEA Sensitive Facial Wash
    • Lathering: The brush tips are to be immersed in the reserve water and then excess water will be squeezed from the tips prior to loading. Once the brush is loaded with MWF the mug is to be utilized to begin building a lather and additional hydration will be accomplished by dipping the brush tips in the reserve water before returning to the mug. As the lather nears the desired consistency the brush will be returned to the MWF and reloaded before the final lather is formed.
    • Pictures: It is my intent to take pictures of the resulting lather, both in the mug and after it has been applied to my face. (God help you all.)
    • Comments: A review of each will be posted along with any notes regarding aberrations in my lathering routine (additional loading, malfunctions, user error, etc.)


    I intend to use each brush for at least two days for my daily shave and then post the results for each brush as I am able. Review shaves will likely be limited to weekday shaving as my Saturday shaves tend to represent my indulgence day and I tend to skip at least one day of shaving on either Friday or Sunday. This will result in a review being posted every three days or so over the next three weeks.

    Next Up: Cashmere

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  6. #4
    Senior Member GreenRipper's Avatar
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    Default The Cashmere Synthetic Knot (APSaveCo)

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    When I decided to test each brush for two consecutive days of shaving it was largely to ensure that I could rule out any abnormalities caused by my own error. On Tuesday, the first day of reviewing the Cashmere knot, I felt secure in my decision.

    I have mentioned before that while I was getting a good quality lather from my Whipped Dog synthetic brush I have never really been able to obtain the quantity of lather I got from my old, entry-level badger brushes. My answer to this issue was simply to adapt my normal routine and begin a secondary load of the brush, a solution that still didn't produce the amount of lather that I did with my older brushes but yielded a sufficient quantity for three passes. Whether MWF, Catie's Bubbles or Dr. Jon's Anne Bonny I simply needed a second loading to be sure I had enough lather to complete my shave. Up until this point I wasn't entirely sure that this was an issue with my technique or if it was related to the fact that the synthetic brushes simply don't hold onto water, and I would assume soap, like natural brushes...and then I met the Cashmere synthetic knot.

    On my first day I felt the need to return to the puck twice before I had enough lather to begin shaving and then went back to the Fat one more time before my last pass, something that didn't overly surprise me simply because this knot has such super soft tips. Day two was more of the same, three sets of laps to load and one more to ensure that I had enough lather to finish the job. At this point I have to figure that the fault, if you consider it one, lies less with me and correlates rather strongly with the synthetic brushes.

    Is such an issue a deal breaker? I've gotten used to a secondary load as part of my routine so while four loads is certainly an inconvenience I don't consider it a mortal sin. Let's face it, most of us who wet shave, particularly those who have chosen to use a straight razor, are more interested in the process and the finished product where efficiency is perhaps an irrelevant concept. Speaking of finished product, I was thrilled by the lather I produced on day one. That slow, inefficient process built a wonderful, glorious lather that is certainly one of the best I've ever enjoyed!

    Let me be clear, I've just spent several days over the last month reviewing my lather building technique and then evolving it to deal with a new synthetic brush. Nothing here was a radical change but after making a number of modifications I'm fully aware that a sudden, one day improvement in my lather probably had more to do with luck and random chance than the brush I happened to be using that day. With that thought in mind I was more than happy to return to the Cashmere Wednesday morning, fully prepared for lather that didn't rank in my personal top three. What I was rewarded with was more of that fantastic, plush lather that I experienced on Tuesday morning!

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    In feel the Cashmere knot is as soft and silky as expected. The brush simply glides over my face and leaves me feeling pampered and soothed even before I truly begin shaving. I will admit a touch of 'floppiness' in the brush but nothing I consider an actual detriment as the brush never feels like it is trying to collapse in hopelessness against my face. For some any brush that simply lacks the amount of backbone they prefer gets labeled as 'floppy' a diminutive that I consider neither fair nor accurate. For me the term is more clinical and precise, a condition where the fibers of the brush want to collapse into uselessness when any pressure is placed upon the knot. With the Cashmere knot there is the slightest hint that the fibers might simply prefer to surrender rather than splay but I never had the feeling that I was mashing a ball of loose, synthetic hairs against my face.

    Conculsion

    I currently lust after the Cashmere knot but 'lust' is exactly the right word. The face feel and lather that I enjoyed for two days were so wonderful that it had me, briefly, toying with the idea of giving up my cold shave lifestyle in a mad effort to heighten my pleasure (I have become a cold water shaver due to skin issues and my Hollywood face would simply punish me throughout the day for minutes of indulgence). Yet, for all its allure, the Cashmere knot probably isn't the one I want as part of my daily routine. The truth is that I tend to prefer more backbone in a brush and having to make three extra passes over the soap, even if it is MWF, is a hindrance in what can be a tight schedule.

    The final verdict is that this is certainly a brush that will find a permanent home in my rotation but one that I am unlikely to reach for on a daily basis. Instead, once it is given a fitting handle in which to live out its life, the Cashmere is a luxury to be pulled out on Saturdays, or just when I need a little pampering, to thrill me with its touch and lather building ability and leave me wistfully looking forward to its caress the rest of the week.

    Next Up: The Game Changer

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    Senior Member blabbermouth
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    Yes, the technique for loading enough soap onto a synthetic brush is different from that when using a badger brush which is different again from using a boar brush. Been using a Plisson synthetic this past week and MWF. It is perfectly possible to load enough MWF that you can do a 4 pass face lather cold water shave without having to reload the brush in between passes. Just load the brush long enough.

    Bob
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    Senior Member GreenRipper's Avatar
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    Default

    Quote Originally Posted by BobH View Post
    Yes, the technique for loading enough soap onto a synthetic brush is different from that when using a badger brush which is different again from using a boar brush. Been using a Plisson synthetic this past week and MWF. It is perfectly possible to load enough MWF that you can do a 4 pass face lather cold water shave without having to reload the brush in between passes. Just load the brush long enough.

    Bob
    Good point, Bob. As I made the switch to a synthetic the second load was just seemed to give me more control over the resulting lather than a single, extended loading approach. I suspect that more time with the Cashmere knot will result in a different approach and better results, something I'm looking forward to experiencing.

    As with all of these knot reviews I'm comparing my procedure over two days to what I developed over a couple of weeks with the Whipped Dog brush. All of these notes should be taken with a rather large grain of salt and the knowledge that not only YMMV but mine may as well if I were to spend significantly more time with these knots.

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    Senior Member blabbermouth
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    All of my synthetic brushes, 4 different makes, seem to respond well to just running the tips across the water, quick shake, quick shake over the puck and then loading. That is repeated 3 or 4 times to get enough soap loaded for 4 passes. Then build a lather on my face, or bowl if you like, adding water the same way till you get the lather you want. Let the soap hold the lather as the knot won't. Too much water in the knot will leave it running down your hand and wrist.

    Bob
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    I just wanted to post a quick apology, gentlemen. I've been sick for the last several days and since my symptoms have included some muscle ache and lack of coordination I've been staying away from my razors. I believe I've turned the corner on the illness and hope to get back to my review here in the next day or so. Just wanted to let everyone know that I haven't completely disappeared.

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    Get well soon GreenRipper!

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    Hang in there,,,,,

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