Wednesday, November 23, 2016

How to Sharpen Your Straight Razor

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Before coming to MD Barber Supply, I ran a very small straight razor sharpening and custom shaving brush project. I hesitate calling it a business, as it was more for fun as a hobby rather than an actual business, but over a few years time, I was able to get rather handy with a straight razor and develop a decent honing process. The best way I can describe the process of learning to properly hone a straight razor is the art of “trial and error.” This is certainly an art, and just like other arts, there is learning curve required before you begin producing razor edges capable of being considered a “masterpiece.” I ruined a lot of straight razors in my first few weeks of learning, and I’m thankful that none of them were extremely valuable or great quality. If you want to learn how to sharpen your own straight razors, I commend you and encourage you to do so! Be patient with yourself and you will eventually become a master (not that I am a master by any means!).
            The first thing I want to talk about when honing a razor is this: there is no one way to properly hone a razor. If you look into some of the honing communities on social media or on straight razor forums, you will more than likely see a plethora of people claiming to have developed the BEST way to hone a razor, and that all other ways are “stupid,” or even “damaging.” The funny thing is that this “best” method is released about once every week, and it always looks a little bit different than the “best” method the week before. As in every niche, there is always a group of individuals who want to dominate the industry and who desire to establish themselves within the hierarchy of the trade, seemingly ripping the joy out of whatever it might be.
 Music? I’m sure you know a legalistic musician. Writing? I see grammar Nazis on a daily basis. Honing a straight razor? Don’t even get me started.
            It’s difficult to identify the actual origin of modern straight razor honing, but try to put yourselves in the place of a frontier barber travelling via wagon train on the Oregon Trail. I highly doubt this individual possessed more than a few honing stones and a couple straight razors in his barbering box/pack. More than likely, this frontier barber probably had a single stone or honing surface which he used to sharpen his straight razors, surgical tools, and dental instruments. Remember, barbers were also the town doctors and dentists in many places. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for a “honer” to have 6 or 7 different stones which they sharpen the razor with in progression from lowest to highest grit. This process is slightly different than sharpening a knife, as a straight razor must have a “razors edge,” while a knife simply needs to be sharpened. Of course there’s more to the process, but I’m not going to bore you with the details here. You came to read about sharpening a straight razor, so I’m going to show you how I sharpen a straight razor! As I stated before, there is no one way to sharpen a razor, and as you progress in your ability, you will find yourself changing your preferred method even if ever so slightly, as many artists do. Before getting into the actual process, let’s talk about tools and cost.
            Ok, so you have a straight razor that you want to sharpen. You can get by with a single stone, but I’m going to explain the process I perform which calls for a more intricate system. These are the tools I use, but feel free to research and experiment for yourself:

·      Stones
o   Norton 200/1,000 Grit Stone ($45)
o   Norton 1,000 Grit Stone ($50)
o   Norton 4,000/8,000 Grit Stone ($75)
o   Vintage BossBarber Stone (Slurry Stone; $10-$20)
o   Vintage Carborundum Stone ($30)
o   Zulu Grey 3x5 20,000+ Grit Stone ($150)
o   Black Arkansas 25,000+ Grit Stone ($100)
·      Strops
o   Straight Razor Designs 2” Red Latigo Strop ($50)
o   J. Ryan & Co. Horween Leather Strop ($200)
·      Misc
o   Electrical Tape ($10/large roll)
o   1,200 grit Sandpaper
·      Expected Total Cost: Around $700.

You do not have to get the same setup I do, which is not even a completed set as I still have a few more stones I would like to get. As someone just getting into honing, I would suggest setting a budget around $200. This would allow you to get a decent strop along with 2 or 3 stones (1,000, 4,000/8,000 combo, and maybe a 10,000 if you are lucky). Some people prefer to get a “lapping stone” to ensure their honing stones are always flat, but I like to use 600-1,200 grit sandpaper instead since its cheaper, and the reliability of sandpaper is dependent on the flat surface you use it upon, whereas the reliability of a lapping stone is dependent on the wear-and-tear of the lapping stone, which after much use has the tendency to become lop-sided. Do what you think is better! There are those who also get really into the honing process and buy magnification systems so that they can see the razor’s edge under extreme magnification. I think this is unnecessary, but nonetheless pretty cool.
First, you need to ensure you have the proper lubricant for the stone. Depending on your stone, you should either ensure your stones surface is covered with water, or a dab of oil. I know individuals who perform this process with a small stream of water constantly running on the surface of the stone, but I prefer to apply water via fingertips or spray bottle. Personally, I do not like oil stones as much (even though I have two in my rotation), so I tend to focus on water stones. I also utilize what is called a “slurry stone,” a stone which imparts granules as an extra layer of abrasiveness to the actual stone you will be honing with. For myself, I use the Boss Barber stone and rub it together (on a flat surface) with the wetted surface of the stone I am about to use. You will see the “gritty” water textured around the stone. Unless your blade is completely destroyed, you shouldn’t have to start at anything below a 1,000 grit stone. If your bevel is set fine, then perhaps you start at a 4,000 grit stone, but if you need to do a good bit of work on the edge, I suggest starting at 1,000 grit then moving up from there. Keep in mind, if you get to a 20,000 grit stone then decide to bring it back down to 1,000, you will need to reuse the stones in between again. Think of the lower grit stones as the actual “sharpening” while the higher grit stones are more for “polishing.”
Let’s assume I am resetting the bevel on a razor. Starting off, I cut a piece of electric tape to fit along the spine of the razor.
This protects the steel-spine, which you DON’T want having metal removed, from the abrasive surface of the stone and allows for a slight elevation advantage which better develops the cutting edge. Depending on the razor, you may need to use two pieces of tape, but hardly ever will you need to use more. Next, I apply warm water to the surface of the 1,000 grit stone. I then use my slurry stone, which has been soaking in warm water for the past few minutes, and rub it against the surface of the 1,000 grit stone, carefully applying pressure as needed and constantly turning the stone as not to wear a section too much. The stone is prepped and ready to go!
At this point, I now bring the razor flat on the surface of the 1,000 grit stone, blade pointed away from me. Some of you may have had a barber college teach you to hone a razor with the blade faced toward you, but I argue that this is a great way to sharpen a knife, not a razor. With the blade facing away from you, gently begin making small circular motions while slowly moving the razor in the cutting direction. I try to get around thirty circular motions in a single direction. When you get to the end, careful not to push the blade over the edge of the stone (ruining the cutting edge against the abrupt edge!), flip the blade the other direction by turning it a top the stone and not underneath. When I first started, I had a bad habit of flipping the blade the wrong way when I would go the other direction, and on a few occasions, I scrapped the cutting edge of the blade against the surface of the stone and had to start over. Now, I do this circular process a total of four times—two times up, and two times down.
If you were to look at the edge under a microscope, it would look awful! It might be uniform, but the actual surface would look all scratched up due to the circular motions. This is where you start the polishing, and thus the “better cutting,” process. With the bevel set fairly well, I then place the razor back on the stone and gently push the razor—starting away from me, then toward me—in an X-pattern. This creates that uniform pattern on the razor which makes for a more comfortable cutting and shaving experience.
I have what is called the 100 rule: 100 passes on each stone. Some people will do 100 passes on one stone, then 200 passes on another, but as a general rule of thumb, I start with 100 passes. So on the 1,000 grit stone, I will have pushed the razor up 50 times, and pulled down 50 times. When performed on the 1,000 grit stone, you should have a really decent edge started. The rest really comes easy—just repeat! I move up to the 4,000 grit stone, then to the 8,000, then to the Carborundum, then….you get the idea. Start with the lower grit stones, and then move your way up from there!
As far as the cutting edge is concerned, I have produced some really decent razors on the 8,000 grit stone as the highest grit finishing stone. You don’t need to have stones 10,000+ grit, but it certainly makes for a better razor! If you just want to hone a razor that will cut, albeit rather uncomfortable depending on the razor, then you can probably finish on an 8,000 grit stone, although I suggest eventually investing in some high grit and quality stones if you really want to develop your razors and skills.
Let’s talk about strops. For those of you familiar with modern strops, you are already aware of the two different lengths of a strop and what purpose each side serves. For those of you wondering why there are usually two different leather strips, or “lengths,” and why one is not good enough, let me take a moment to elaborate a little on the strop design. Generally, a strop will have a light side (secondary length) and a heavy side (main body). The light side serves to (1) remove any burrs or rust on the edge of the blade in order to prepare the edge for a good “refreshing,” and (2) to warm the edge’s metal by means of friction in order to allow the heavy side to properly freshen the blade. This obviously means that the heavy side is specifically for refreshing the blade in a quicker and more efficient manner that the lighter side. The heavy side is what actually keeps the blade sharp. I personally use a J. Ryan & Co. Custom Horsehide Strop, and highly suggest contacting J. Ryan & Co. if you are in the market for an heirloom item. If you do not want to take the big plunge into such a luxury item yet, keep in mind that here at MD Barber Supply, we carry really good quality beginner strops that will get the job done, and won’t break the bank. I know it seems silly, but you really want to make sure you are using a good piece of leather. The quality of the leather can make or break the strops refreshing capability.
As far as using a strop is concerned, you should be stropping your blade before every use, and it does take a little bit of practice. More than likely, your first time stropping a blade will result in you “rolling the edge.” If you hold the blade at a bad angle, or if you apply too much pressure/leverage, the cutting edge will fold over on itself, dulling the cutting capability. Stropping a blade is the art of finding the perfect balance between pressure, angle, and passes. I generally keep to the 60 rule: 60 passes on the light side, and 60 passes on the heavy side. If the blade is freshly honed, I will do 30 passes instead. You do not want to “over-strop” the blade, which is easy to do if you are not keeping track of the passes.

You are ready to shave! This is obviously a brief picture of the entire process, as I could go on for days concerning the different types of straight razors and tricks in honing a full-wedge razor, or a full-hollow ground razor. To restate what I originally said in the beginning, learning how to hone a razor takes practice, and there’s really not a single perfect way or method of honing. Just get out there and start! What I explained here are just some tricks and tips I have found, discovered, or learned from others in developing a method that allows me to produce great edges. Experiment for yourself, but be warned—it gets addicting!

1 comment:



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