Desperate times: how to master the art of the DIY home haircut

Desperate times: how to master the art of the DIY home haircut

As soon as Aaron O’Bryan, a celebrity stylist, closed his Yorkville storefront, the Cellar Salon, in mid-March, he was bombarded with email inquiries from clients desperate for tips on how to manage their hair at home. At first, he offered one-on-one tutorials, but the need was deep, so he pivoted to posting videos on everything from root touch-ups to maintenance trims. His stylists are also offering virtual consults (starting at $60 an hour) for those who need hand-holding in real time. We asked him to share some of the basics on DIY cuts for long hair, short hair and bang maintenance. Using a few hair-training mannequin heads, he demonstrates below.

The Tools

For all haircuts, the first step is to gather your paraphernalia. O’Bryan suggests getting a spray bottle, a brush, comb, hair clips (or bobby pins and hair ties to keep sections of hair out of the way) and, most importantly, a sharp pair of scissors. If you don’t have professional scissors like O’Bryan, a sharp pair of kitchen shears will work. “If your scissors aren’t sharp, your hair will end up jagged or the scissors will push up against the hair and it wouldn’t be a clean cut,” he explains. Applying a leave-in conditioner if your hair is curly and tangled can also help make hair more manageable.

Before you start chopping…

For long hair, O’Bryan suggests wearing a light T-shirt if you have dark hair and vice versa. The contrast helps you to see the hair that you’re working on. For an even haircut, make sure to stand up straight with good posture while you’re cutting. Like your mother always told you, “Don’t slouch,” O’Bryan advises. When trimming, keep your elbow level with your fingers so you aren’t cutting at a slant. And take your time. A whole head of hair should take you at least 30 minutes to cut, if not more.

Long Hair

Wet hair and separate into quadrants
1Spray down your hair so it’s nice and damp. You can also work with freshly-washed hair. Comb the leave-in conditioner through your hair so it coats each strand. And keep spritzing your hair throughout the process so it stays damp. Divide your hair into quadrants and pin three of them up leaving one of the back sections loose. Easy enough. 


Cut the first back section
2Working with one of the rear quadrants, bring the hair forward, in front of your shoulder. Comb through the hair, pulling down with your fingers to keep the hair tight. “You can’t have it loose or it’s gonna be uneven, so you want a lot of tension.” Follow the comb with your fingers, take a deep breath, then slowly cut a straight line at your desired length. There, you did it. No turning back now.


Cut the second back section
3Leave the cut section loose and take down the other back section. Repeat step 2, combing through and pulling tight with your fingers. Use your comb as a guide to measure the length of the cut section of hair. Then cut the new section of hair at that same level. Now move both freshly-trimmed rear quadrants to the back of your head.


Cut front sections
4Bring down the first front quadrant, re-spritz with water if needed and comb through. Now you’ll connect this piece to the rear quadrant you just cut. Use your comb and fingers as a guide to where you should be cutting. Repeat with the other front quadrant.


Add layers
5Most long hairstyles have layers in the front for shaping. You can choose whether your layers start at your cheekbones, your jawline or another spot. Grab a small section of hair from the first front quadrant and, holding your scissors at a very slight angle, open and close the scissors slowly as you bring your scissors down the length of your hair. “You’re not opening and closing the scissors fully here,” says O’Bryan. “This way you’ll have a very soft layer that frames the face.” Don’t cut the layer at too much of an angle—the scissors should be more vertical than horizontal. “And when you’re sliding the scissors down the hair,” O’Bryan warns gravely, “don’t go too far into the quadrant or you’re going to wind up with a mullet. You just want to glide the scissors along the front of that quadrant. If you decide you want more layers, you can always go back and angle it a little more afterwards. Take baby steps.”


Trim side bangs (optional)
6When trimming side bangs, keep in mind that wet hair dries shorter, so leave an extra bit of length. Wet the bangs and then pull them away your face at an angle. Pull tight and cut.


Trim straight bangs (optional)
7For straight bangs, pull back the sections you’re not working with and pin them out of the way. Wet down the bangs. Then take the small section of hair (an amount roughly equivalent to the space between your eyebrows) and cut straight across. Bring down one longer side section and cut it at a slight angle to connect to the shorter length. Repeat with the opposite side.



Short hair

If you live with someone you trust, O’Bryan highly advises getting them to help cut your short hair. Navigating a short cut on your own can lead to heartache and disaster. If you’re quarantining alone, and feel the need to plough forward solo, he recommends some minor trimming around the ear and hairline to tidy things up, rather than a full cut. You’ll need a second mirror to see what’s going on at the back of your head, but he insists a maintenance trim is doable on your own. Wet the hair around the ears and hairline and then comb it down so it’s flat against your head. Slowly trim around the ear and edge of the hairline, guiding the scissors around the head to the nape of the neck. If you’re on your own, that should tide you over without looking too schleppy. If you have help, here’s how to get the rest of it done.


Wet hair and separate sections
1Saturate the hair completely. Apply conditioner if you’re having trouble getting a comb through your hair. Section the hair all around your head just above your eyebrows and pin up the top section so that you can work on the sides and the back.


Cut the back and sides
2Starting at the back of the head, pull a half-inch section of hair out tight so it’s horizontal, but keep your fingers at an angle pointed away from your head. Start cutting, bottom to top, angling your scissors away from your head. “If you cut straight up and you don’t keep your fingers at an angle, everything ends up looking rounded,” O’Bryan says. Gradually work your way around the head to the front, cutting half-inch sections at a time. Remember to go slow. You have nowhere to be!


Cut the top section
3Un-pin the top section of your hair, wet it, comb through and pull straight up with your fingers. Trim across in half-inch sections.


Connect top and lower sections
4Take the bottom section and the top section and bring them together. There will be hair that’s too long in the middle. Cut that section in between. “You’re essentially connecting the top and the sides together to make sure it’s even,” says O’Bryan.

That’s it. You’re done. It may not be perfect, but it will be better. And if it’s not the cut of your dreams, well, it will grow. Someday, hopefully sooner than later, we’ll be able to lob this job back to the pros, where it belongs. Until that time, good luck and happy snipping!