How to Sharpen a Straight Razor
Shaving with a traditional straight razor is a rewarding skill that you can utilize every day. Besides the long-term cost savings, shaving with a straight razor can improve your complexion and overall health of your skin. With just one perfectly honed blade, you have the ability to customize the cutting angle, which can help reduce overall irritation.
Maintaining and sharpening your razor is extremely important. A dull razor will result in a very uncomfortable shave, which can cause irritation and ingrown hairs. While sharpening your razor does take the proper tools and technique, anyone can learn to do it.
Let’s learn how to strop at hone and how to keep your shaving investment as tool that can be handed down for generations to come.
Stropping vs. Honing
When it comes to a sharp 'shave ready' (a razor that is sharp enough to shave) straight razor, there are two processes that are utilized for maintaining and sharpening an edge.
Stropping: The process of polishing a blade to remove microscopic imperfections either before or after shaving. This process maintains the blade. This action is required every time you use the razor, so it’s very important to practice this skill and have a good quality strop.
In short, stropping polishes the blade so it’s ready to cut again. Although a proper stropping technique will maintain a blade for some time, eventually the blade will lose the ability to cut properly and honing the blade will be required.
Honing: The process of removing metal with a series of abrasives until the razor is officially “shave ready”. This sharpens the blade. Although the skill set for honing is like stropping, it does take more attention to detail and more time.
Before you get started, you’ll need the proper tools to strop and hone your razor. Faulty or cheaply made tools can make keeping your razor sharp very difficult or even impossible to do. Take your time to research and find out as much as you can before making any hasty purchases.
Sharpening Tools You’ll Need
Once you’ve purchased your first straight razor, your second purchase should be a strop. Leather tends to work best, although some people have had success with other materials such as vinyl and even newspaper.
There are several types of strops that do the job well:
Bench Strop: Industrial style where a piece of leather is fixed to a piece of wood. It’s designed to be used on a flat surface such as a work bench or table. It’s great for using abrasive pastes and is the best for beginners.
Loom Strop: Composed of leather that is stretched around an adjustable mechanism and held by a handle. Only a few makers still produce this type of strop. They tend to be on the expensive side and can be difficult to use.
Paddle Strop: This is basically a bench strop with a handle on it. You can hold it with one hand comfortably. This is probably the least used strop, but they perform very well.
Hanging Strop: By far the most popular. The strop hangs on a hook or doorknob and is pulled tight when used. This is the easiest to store and there are many companies still making them. Although popular, hanging strops have a difficult learning curve – be patient, it takes some practice to master.
Always look for high quality materials when purchasing a strop. Try to avoid cheap alternatives, as they will do more harm than good.
Stones & Films
There is a wide array of different stones/films available and most of them work great. This can make the decision difficult because there are so many options. Here are the types of materials used to hone razors:
Natural Stones: These are stones that come direct from nature itself. They do not have grit ratings which makes them difficult to use. There are many techniques in using them and it’s recommended for those with advanced honing skill sets.
Lapping Films: These are films used for electrical work and work well with honing razors. These are the most affordable honing tools out there, and have a wide array of grits available.
Synthetic Water Stones: Man-made stones that are widely available and provide consistent results. They are perfect for beginners and professionals alike.
Here are the grit sizes you’ll need to get started.
- 1000 grit: used for bevel setting (establishing the main cutting edge) You’ll spend about 75% of you time with this stone.
- 4000 grit: develops cutting edge (About 15% of your time here)
- 8000 grit: develops the shaving edge (about 10% of your time here)
- 10,000 grit: completes the edge (optional)
With all types of stones/films, you’ll need a clean water source to help keep the stones well lubricated. A spray bottle works best, but a cup or sink full of water works well too.
How to Strop a Straight Razor
In order to simplify and make it easier to understand, we have chosen the Hanging Strop for this segment due to its availability and widespread popularity.
One thing to remember is stropping a straight razor does not “sharpen” the blade at all. Its “polishes” or straightens the microscopic fin of the blade that gets damaged when cutting. In short, it brings the blade back in alignment.
It’s very important to strop either right before or just after you begin to shave. This ensures the blade is at its keenest and will perform better.
The process of stropping is quite simple but does require some practice. Here are the steps to ensure you properly strop your razor.
Set up your strop in an area free of obstructions and have as much room as possible to work. Pull the strop taunt but not overly tight if you’re using a hanging strop. If you are using another type of strop, just make sure it’s on a flat surface.
Now, take the palm of your hand and gently rub the surface back and forth several times. This ensures the strop surface is clean, free of imperfections that may affect polishing and the natural oils from your hand actually “warms up the leather” and lubricates it.
If you find the strop has a cut or slice in the leather, that’s ok, just make sure to avoid that spot when stropping.
Lay the razor flat on the stropping surface with the cutting edge facing toward you. Ensure your razor is flat on the surface with no pressure from your hand being applied. Hold the razor in your right hand in between your index finger and thumb.
Draw the razor away from you on the stropping surface using only the weight of the razor. Make sure you do not apply any pressure. Let the tools do the work and take your time. Stop about one inch from the end to prevent any damage to the blade from accidently hitting the buckle.
If you are using a strop that is smaller than the width of an average straight razor (under 3 inches wide), then you can perform the “X-stroke” method. Basically, when you pull the razor over the strop, you will do it in an “X” shape so the whole blade is stropped evenly. While this method is very effective, it’s recommended to learn the actual stroke of stropping before moving on to other methods.
This can be tricky. Once you’ve reached the end of our stroke, it’s time to roll the razor, so the cutting edge of the blade is now facing away from you. You want to do this without lifting the spine off the leather to prevent any damage and to keep your stropping consistent. Slowly turn your wrist in almost the same way you would start a car with the key in the ignition.
Just like in step 3, only now your drawing the razor toward you stropping the other side of the blade. Remember not to use any additional pressure. That cannot be emphasized enough. Draw the razor until the cutting edge of the blade is about one inch from the end.
Repeat about 20-40 times or until the razor is ready to shave.
Just remember, it does take some practice and can be time consuming at first. After a while, you’ll notice yourself getting more comfortable and quicker.
You may notice after a month or so that your razor may start to tug or not shave as smooth as before. If it does, don’t worry, you can utilize a strop pasted with a mild abrasive that will remove just enough metal to get the razor back in shape. Once pasted strops no longer improve the edge, it's time to hone it.
How to Hone a Straight Razor?
The process of honing a straight razor could be the most controversial subject in all wet shaving. There are many different methods, using different tools and different techniques and all of that can be very confusing. As a result of having so many choices, we are going to use Synthetic Water Stones for honing tools in our honing experience.
You’ll need an area free of obstructions and ample room to work. Soak your stones (if applicable) in clean water and have running water or a spray bottle ready to go. Make sure your stones have been lapped (or made perfectly flat by a series of abrasives) or else it may damage the blade.
Use your right hand to hold the tang (end of blade) and handle while your left index and middle fingers to rest on the blade. This will ensure the blade stays flat when moving it over the stone. Spray your stone with some water.
Gently push the blade using no pressure (just like stropping) with your right hand holding the blade with your index and middle fingers of your left lying on top of the blade. Do this until you reach the last ½ inch of the stone and stop. Spray water over the stone before each stroke to ensure it’s properly lubricated.
Just like with stropping. Roll the razor so that the edge is now facing you. Spray down the stone again and you're ready to go. Keeping the spine on the stone helps prevent damage. This is important for beginners, but feel free to omit this step once you’ve gained enough confidence.
Just like in step 2, only toward you. Again, no pressure and stop just before you reach the end of the stone.
Repeat as needed.
There are a few sharpness tests to perform to determine if you’re ready to move on to the next stone. Let’s take a moment to review them.
Depending on the condition of the blade, you may need to use multiple stones in order to achieve an edge that is considered “Shave Ready”. The time spent honing on each stone can vary and there are a few tests you can perform to see if your razor is ready for the next step.
Arm Hair Test: When the razor shaves arm hair cleanly. Make sure your razor passes this test before moving from your 1000 grit stone.
Hanging Hair test: When the razor can cleanly cut a single hair by just the weight of the hair being placed down on the edge. Make sure your razor passes this test before moving on from 4000 grit stone.
Shave Test: When the razor shaves comfortably. Test after finishing stones (8000 grit or higher)
The most important test for your razor to pass is the Shave Test. Regardless of what tools you use and how much time you spend on each stone, if it doesn’t pass the shave test then it really doesn’t matter. Take your time before progressing to the next step.
Maintaining Your Straight Razor
Proper maintenance is very important when using a straight razor. Although it does take some extra time and effort to do so, it will pay off in the long run. It can save you big bucks on replacements and repairs.
Drying your razor thoroughly after every use will prevent rust and discoloration to the blade. This will also prevent the cutting edge from dulling prematurely, which will require fewer honing sessions thus prolonging the razor’s life. Make sure to wipe the razor completely with a dry microfiber towel when finished and allow it to dry further with the blade open, preferably in an area with the least amount of humidity. Never store the razor damp.
Once dry, wipe the blade with a mineral oil (baby oil works well) to prevent further rust from the natural humidity in the air. This is very important if you plan on storing the razor for a long amount of time. The mineral oil will prevent oxidation and keep your blade rust free. Don’t forget to apply a few drops to the folding mechanism as this area is prone to rusting prematurely.
A few extra minutes spent taking care of your razor after each shave can save you a lot of time in the future. Keep it clean and it will last a lifetime, maybe even several. Which, to be more specific, is a long time.
Achieve the Best Shave with Cremo
Cremo offers a family of impossibly slick shave creams that are designed to fight razor burn. We suggest using the Cremo Spanish Horsehair Brush with the Cremo Classic Shave Cream in your trusty shave bowl for a shaving experience like no other. Don’t forget to seal the deal with Cremo’s Post Shave Balm. Your face will look smooth and feel fresh all day long.
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About the Author
This article was written by the folks of www.shavestraightandsafe.com - Long term collector's, wet shaving writer's, and podcaster's.