Home haircuts save both time and money
If you don't want to pay for regular haircuts, you can take matters into your own hands -- literally -- by purchasing high-quality hair clippers and cutting your own hair (or asking someone else to do it for you).
Unlike electric shavers and razors, hair clippers don't shave -- they trim, using paired, toothed blades that vibrate back and forth; the teeth act like many tiny scissors, all lined up side by side to give you a quick, efficient haircut. Comb attachments and adjustable or interchangeable blades help cut hair at different lengths; some clippers can cut hair from about an inch long to as short as half a millimeter.
Types of hair clippers
The professional-grade hair clippers a barber uses and the clippers you'd buy for home use work on the same general principle, but barbershop clippers usually have stronger, more durable motors that allow them to power through thick, wet hair or do several cuts in a row without overheating. On the downside, a larger motor means larger, heavier clippers that can be awkward to maneuver when cutting your own hair.
Professional-grade clippers also have so much power that they might get away from beginners -- but if you invest in a set of professional clippers like the Oster 76 (Est. $130) and maintain them appropriately, you can expect decades of faithful service.
Home-use hair clippers are usually lighter than professional clippers and have somewhat weaker motors, although reviewers say a few can still power through thick, heavy hair like a professional model. These lighter home-use clippers are easier to maneuver, but getting them into position to shave the back and sides of your own head can still be a challenge.
Hair clipper motor types
All hair clippers -- both professional models and those intended for home use -- use one of three motor types. Ivan Zoot, the director of education and training with clipper manufacturer Andis, breaks the varieties down thusly:
- Magnetic motors move the blades very fast but don't offer much torque for cutting through thick hair.
- Pivot motors move the blades more slowly but have more power for mowing through thick or wet hair.
- Rotary motors offer both speed and power but also tend to be larger and heavier.
You'll also see universal motors, which are a type of rotary motor. If you have heavy hair, you'd do better with a clipper that features a pivot motor -- and if you intend to do a lot of heavy cutting, a rotary or universal motor is your most reliable option.
Hair clipper blade sizes
Hair clipper blade and comb guard sizes may be designated in millimeters, fractions of inches, or using a numbering system that's usually specific to the brand in question. For example, a No. 1 blade or guide for an Oster or Andis clipper cuts hair 3/32 inch long. But a No. 1 from Wahl cuts just 1/8 inch long, and a No. 1 Speed-O-Guide -- the red guards that Dave Alexander, About.com's guide to men's hair, says you'll find in many barbershops -- cuts 7/16 inch long.
Be careful of the variance in designations if you're discussing blade sizes with a friend or with your barber. When in doubt, ask about the blade or guard's length -- not its numerical designation -- or cross-reference with Alexander's list of blade and clipper guard sizes.
Other types of trimmers
Some men use their close-cutting clippers to trim or detail their beards -- but there are also specialized beard trimmers for dealing with facial hair. Beard trimmers usually offer finer gradations of stubble length and are designed to create the clean, straight lines you need to properly style your facial hair and sideburns.
We also evaluated clippers meant specifically for use on nose and ear hairs. These models use small rotary blade sets, hidden beneath a guard that lets hair in to be cut but doesn't let the blade out to nick your skin. Sometimes these clippers can be used for detail work around the eyebrows or on facial hair, but they're at their best when cutting hair from otherwise hard-to-reach nooks and crannies.
Finally, some hair clippers try to bridge the gap between nose hair trimmers, beard trimmers, electric shavers and regular clippers with an array of attachments that let you use one unit for all these uses. These include the Philips Norelco QC5580/40, which comes with a balding attachment for shaving your head right down to the skin, and the Wahl Trimmer All-in-One Lithium Ion (Est. $40) , which comes with nearly 20 attachments, including a shaver and an array of trimmers. The general consensus is that these jacks-of-all-trades do decently at most tasks, but excel at none.
Hunting for the best hair clippers
Hair clippers don't draw many expert reviews, save from a few sources like Dave Alexander, a veteran master stylist and About.com's guide to men's hair. The bulk of our input comes from thousands of user reviews posted to retail websites like Amazon.com, SallyBeauty.com, Drugstore.com, Target.com, BestBuy.com, Walmart.com and the U.K. retailer Argos. We also found some useful, though limited, information at the enthusiast website Buzz-Cut.net.
As a rule, everybody's looking for the same thing from their clippers: an even cut that doesn't require a lot of passes, and blades that don't gouge your scalp or pull at your hair. While most hair clippers can adjust to leave hair up to about half an inch long, only a few come with the guide combs you need for cutting hair longer (up to an inch long). You can work around this, though, by cutting any hair that you want to leave long -- usually on the top of your head -- with scissors, then following up with clippers on the sides and back. Or, if you're feeling particularly confident, you can always freehand it.
If you're not cutting hair for the entire neighborhood, you can get decent clippers that'll last for a few years for less than $50. If you'd like to invest in a clipper that'll stay with you for decades, be prepared to pay anywhere from $50 to $150.
Best Hair Clippers
You'll pay for good performance -- but not that much
If all you want is a set of clippers that cuts hair well without costing an arm and a leg, one of the best deals going is the Wahl Chrome Pro (Est. $27) , our Best Reviewed pick. This powerful hair clipper comes in a variety of kit configurations with just about any accessory you could want, including trim guides, scissors, hair clips and a cape -- but the general consensus is that you should disregard most of the accessories and just go for the great value of a trimmer.
Dave Alexander, a veteran master stylist and About.com's expert on men's hair, tested the Chrome Pro clippers in a high-volume barbershop setting. He found that its carbon-steel blades "provided a smooth cut and the clippers ran cool and quiet," praise that's echoed by most users at review websites like Amazon.com and Walmart.com. Its adjustable blade also pivots up and down to make tapering and fade work easier.
User reviewers say the Chrome Pro is a little bulkier than some high-end consumer clippers, but that's not necessarily a bad thing. "It's heavy in the hand so you feel like you're holding something, but not so heavy that it makes your arm tired," writes one man at BestBuy.com.
One of the Chrome Pro accessories that you will want to hold on to is a set of guide combs from about 1/16 to 1 inch in length, giving the Chrome Pro one of the widest ranges of hair lengths in this report. Those clippers can get a little loud when used with the long comb guards, and we did find a few durability complaints. But, given its performance, versatility and five-year warranty, the Chrome Pro still comes out as an unbeatable value.
If you're willing to pay a little more, the Wahl Cordless Peanut (Est. $45) is a battery-powered take on an old classic (you can also buy the corded version for about the same price). At just 4 inches long and 4 ounces in weight, the Peanut is quiet, doesn't produce much vibration, and is easy to move and maneuver, with or without the cord -- but a somewhat smaller cutting blade also means you have to make more passes.
Size notwithstanding, both versions of the petite Peanut can mow through thick hair easily, although the battery-powered Peanut starts to bog down as its power fades. It uses just one rechargeable AA battery, and comes with a spare battery and charger so you can swap batteries as necessary; owners estimate that each provides enough run time for about three full haircuts.
Another cordless model worth mentioning is the Philips Norelco QC5580/40 (Est. $60) -- formerly known as the Philips Norelco Headgroom Easy Reach 180 Pro -- which packs a built-in rechargeable battery and offers up to 60 minutes of use for about the same amount of charging time. Besides portable battery operation, the Philips Norelco's most notable feature is a pivoting head that swings through a full 180 degrees of motion, making it easier to cut hair on the back and sides of your own head.
It also comes with a balder attachment to shave your head right down to the skin, although users say it's not quite as good as a real electric shaver, and it can irritate your skin if you don't have a light touch.
For even more versatility, the Wahl Trimmer All-in-One Lithium Ion (Est. $40) packs nearly 20 attachments, including four interchangeable heads, seven guide combs (2 mm to 12 mm) and a T-blade for trimming around your ears.
All those attachments mean you can groom every hair from your head to your toes, and a rechargeable battery makes the Wahl All-in-One a great choice for travel. For home use, though, this trimmer is a definite case of "jack-of-all-trades, master of none."