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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.

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Oster 76076-010 Classic 76 Professional Hair Clipper
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $189.99 $117.95   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Philips Norelco QC5580/40 Do-It-Yourself Hair Clipper Pro
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $69.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  
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Wahl 9854-600 Lithium Ion All In One Trimmer
Buy from Amazon.com
from Amazon.com
New: $39.99   
In Stock.
Average Customer Review:  

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