Industry Pros Weigh in On Wet vs. Dry Cutting

Wet it or Forget it?

It’s the stylist’s version of the Mac or PC debate: Do you cut wet or dry? The question elicits a passionate response from some stylists. But for many, the answer seems to be, "Both."

Christopher Dove, one half of CoCre8 Education, was trained in the Vidal Sassoon method of precision cutting, which is always done wet. But Dove says that while he usually does the majority of structural cutting wet, he always finishes dry, detailing the perimeter and fringe, snipping strays and correcting any lines that have been altered by hair contracting as it dries.

“At that point, I can see what’s working and what’s not,” Dove says. “That’s why I always blow-dry my clients myself; I don’t believe in passing clients off to someone else to finish.”

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If he’s cutting a blunt shape, Dove prefers a longer shear, usually a six-inch blade, especially on longer hair. “As you’re cutting the edge, you have the whole line of the shears, almost like a ruler,” he explains. He’ll use a shorter blade for finishing, usually 4½ or 5 inches. “Even though I have big hands, I find it helps me to maneuver,” Dove says.

Dove also uses a razor for wet cutting much of the time, and not just for detailing or texture. “It helps everything melt together so much better,” he says. “Holding a razor like a pen or pencil, it’s almost like you’re sketching into the hair rather than mechanically cutting.”

Andrew Carruthers, director of education for Sam Villa, says, “Cutting wet provides more control, especially in sectioning, and tends to be what most stylists use for building more foundational designs.” He reminds stylists that ‘wet’ doesn't mean dripping. “Keep hair just damp enough for control, which will also minimize blow-dry time.”

When cutting wet, Carruthers prefers the Sam Villa Signature Series 5½-inch Swivel for precision cutting or the Signature Series 6¼-inch for longer hair or one-length styles.

Dry cutters tend to be more emphatic in defense of their preference. Maybe that’s because of the rebel factor. Stylists these days are taught to cut wet from the get-go. Dry cutting is either something they either stumble upon, or seek out. Once they do, there seems to be no going back.

“Wet hair is like a bad boyfriend: It lies to you right away,” says Albie Mulcahy, educator and owner of VLVT Salon in St. Petersburg, FL. He’s echoing the sentiments of most dry cutting fans, who say that wetting hair disguises its natural fall and texture, as well hiding cowlicks and growth patterns that will pop up and wreak havoc once hair is dry.

Mulcahy learned dry cutting from industry legend John Shahag, the celebrity stylist and salon owner who became the poster child for dry cutting in the late 1970s. “I watched John and these other rock star-looking stylists do something I’d never seen before. The results were impeccable.

“Dry cutting is 99 percent visual and 1 percent technical,” Mulcahy explains, describing the “what you see is what you get” benefit most often cited in support of the practice.

Mulcahy describes his method as shaping instead of cutting. He teaches techniques like tapering, which is really reverse epiliation, working from the inside of the head outward, to carve shapes that are shorter underneath and longer on top; or creating curves, where a layered cut is constructed by carving hair in curves opposite to the shape of the head, creating movement.

Mulcahy prefers a 5-inch blade with a razor-sharp edge without a bevel or shaped edge for the control it provides.

Unlike his partner, John Simpson—the other half of CoCre8—says he’s been cutting dry for nearly ten years. “If there are cowlicks or variations in the texture you can either correct it or work with it,” he says. “You’ll see it right away, versus seeing it later on.”

One of the unexpected benefits of dry cutting, Simpson says, is seeing clients’ reactions to the process. “They see the haircut coming to life before their eyes, and they like the experience. They find it kind of fascinating,” he says.

It’s been especially useful for those long-haired clients who want to get rid of damaged ends but refuse to sacrifice an inch of length. “It allows you to get into the interior and clean it up without creating a visible, definite layer,” Simpson says. “Their hair looks great, and they feel great.”

Simpson uses a shear with a 5¾-inch blade, which provides enough tension for shaping but can be loosened up for slide cutting. For texturizing, he prefers a barber-style texturizing shear with a tight space between peaks.

Mike Karg, one of industry’s best-known educators on the subject of dry cutting, made a career-long study of interaction between blade and hair before designing his Karg shears. Most of the difference, he explains, is in blade finish. “Cutting dry hair is more slippery and not as easy to hold in your fingers, and hair won’t stay as nicely parted,” says Karg. His first Karg Shear, the K-8, has handcrafted “V” teeth which help to keep the hair in place when cutting, while the polished, convex edge on his Shear K-Wide Royale is designed to provide a tugless glide when slide-cutting.

Karg likes the more natural lines he gets from dry cutting. “All haircuts grow out very nicely, due to the light, textured or solid ends. It’s all about scoring great-looking and manageable hair on an everyday basis.”

Even though he is a believer in dry cutting, Karg admits that wet cutting is also here to stay. “Cutting dry hair is a specialty and needs to be practiced,” he says. “It’s of the utmost importance that the basics and fundamentals are learned first on wet hair.”