I would like to thank Jürgen for his permission to reproduce here his excellent introduction to the sharpening and honing of straight razors. Through careful reading of the following text, it is relatively easy, with a little practice, for anyone to learn to sharpen and maintain a straight razor.
An introduction to sharpening and honing.
In this article I would like to describe how I sharpen straight razors. I make no claim that this is the only effective method, but it is tried and tested, and should also be feasible for beginners.
First I would like to describe my equipment. Good stones and hones are the most important tools for sharpening. The following photo shows the stones which do not reqire storage in water.
From left to right:
A thuringian slate from the firm „Manufaktum“, the rubber that belongs to it, a similar stone which I bought from Ebay, next my favourite, a blue belgian coticule bought from the firm „Dick“ (22X7cm) and finally a thuringian slate from the firm „MST“
The following photo shows the stones which are best stored under water:
To the left is a 1000 grit Cerax from MST, in the middle a 2000 grit Aoto from Dick (an excellent stone) and to the right an 8000 grit „King“ stone.
When storing hones under water , it is important to keep them out of the light, in order to prevent the growth of algae. If the stones are not in continuous use, they may be stored dry. In this case, they should be placed in water approximately 30 minutes before use.
I believe that, in principal it is possible to maintain a straight razor using only a single stone, a 1000/6000 grit combination waterstone. This method is suitable if one only has a few razors „for daily use. I have found the „King Stone“ from Dick to be very suitable for this purpose, although the 6000 side has ist limitations - the abrasive is bound in a very soft medium; if one does not excercise due care, the surface rapidly becomes uneven and the razor digs itself into the stone. However, if one wants to try out honing for the first time, a combination stone is the cheapest option. There are even cheaper stones than that from Dick on the market, but as a German proverb has it „Nothing is more expensive than a cheap tool“ (because of the damage one does with it)
As a base for my stones, I use a piece of marine plywood with four rubber feet on the underside, so that water running off the stone does not become trapped. Marine plywood is waterproof.
On this platform, the stone is at a convenient height from the workbench; the wet stone also „sticks“ itself to the plywood, thus providing a stable basis for precise honing.
Before I begin the sharpening process, I cover the back of the razor with insulating tape. in order to prevent „hone wear“ to the razor back, maintaining the effective angle of the bevel. If the blade is decorated with an engraving, I also mask it for protection.
We now come to the sharpening process.
I take the stone out of the water, place it on the platform, and using a „Nagura“ (also stored in water), rubbing in a circular motion, produce a slurry (a grinding paste consisting of the abrasive particles from the stone in water). I repeat this process as often as necessary during honing, it is noticable when the stone no longer „cuts“
The 1000 grit Cerax and the Nagura:
In my opinion one should always start sharpening with the 1000 grit stone, whether sharpening an old razor from Ebay, or simply maintaining a razor that has become slightly blunt, always start with the „1000“. In both cases, it is necessary to establish a regular bevel. To do this requires that steel is ground away from the blade, and this is only possible using the relatively coarse 1000 grit stone. I use the phrase „relatively coarse“ advisedly, because with the „1000“ it is possible to produce a keenness on knives and chisels which exceeds the dreams of the average person.
To recapitulate, the potential for sharpness is produced on the 1000 grit stone. The honing with finer stones is merely refining the work done with the „1000“. Whether the sharpening session will end successfully or not, whether it takes 30 minutes or 3 hours, is determined by the use of the 1000 grit stone.
I usually start with 10-20 strokes per side.
A glance at these photos from a professional cutler would probably make his hair stand on end. I use both hands when honing, and lay my fingers on the blade. According to the „recieved wisdom“ this is completely wrong, but I find it gives me greater control than a one-handed approach. Just as it is possible to ride a bicycle with no hands but advisable to keep a firm grip on the handlebars, I find a two-handed approach better.
The professionals may prefer to hone one-handed, but I have often had to sharpen brand-new razors, although they were allegedly „shave-ready“, and I would say that an „amateur“ two-handed honing technique is preferable to the „professional“ method if it produces a better result, and therefore a more satisfactory shave.
I pay particular attention to the ends of the blade. In order to achieve a smooth transition from the blunt part of the blade to the cutting edge, I start the stroke with the razor pointing in the direction of the stroke, the scales slightly raised, and rapidly turn the blade so that it is perpendicular to the stroke, lowering the scales so that the edge lies flat on the stone. This smoothness at the point and heel is important as it greatyl reduces the danger of injury when shaving, and with this technique I find that I always get a good result, no matter what form the point may have, from completely flat to completely round.
Obviously I do not rotate the blade with every stroke, how often I repeat the motion depends on the condition of the blade, the technique should be used with great caution as it is very easy to damage the surface of the hone if too much pressure is applied. This is especially true for the 6000 grit King Stone. Regular strokes should always end by turning the blade over the back of the razor. I avoid the use of the generally recomended diagonal stroke, as it tends to favour the middle of the blade, grinding the edge into a concave form (or „frown“ as razor experts call it). With a wide enough stone, diagonal strokes are unnecessary, and with narrower ones, I set each stroke next to the last one, with as little overlap as possible.
The trace left in the slurry gives important information about the condition of the edge – a regular trace means that the blade is accurately ground, with no nicks in it. Nicks leave a line in the slurry trace, and an unevenness in the form of the bevel betrays itself insofar that the slurry leaves an equally uneven trace.
I now use an important tool which I haven´t mentioned yet. A magnifying glass!!!!
I use a magnification of 12X, which I find sufficient. Others claim that a magnification of 30X is necessary, and it certainly doesn´t hurt to observe ones work as closely as possible, although it tends to cause one to want ever finer hones in order to polish out even the finest scratches in the bevel. After a few strokes, the condition of the bevel should be observed.
In the case of brand new razors I usually observe the following: The razor has been honed without contact between the razor back and the stone, and my sharpening has started to establish a different, slightly less obtuse bevel.
The new bevel leaves the original edge untouched, this can easily be observed with the magnifying glass – whilst the front part of the bevel maintains ist polish, the back part becomes scratched from the 1000 grit abrasive. I then continue shrpening until nothing remains of the former grind, and the entire bevel demonstrates a uniform appearance. Sometimes the new bevel is less regular in form than the old one, wider at one end than the other; this is because the razor has been ground with a slight twist along its axis, which can be seen by looking along the edge of the blade. This should not present a problem when sharpening the razor, so long as the new bevel has been completely formed, right to the cutting edge.
When resharpening a razor which has been used and reused until it is blunt, A similar situation can be seen under the magnifying glass. Repeated stropping has caused the bevel to become convex, and after a few strokes on the 1000 grit stone, only the back part of the bevel is affected. The sharpening process must be continued until the entire bevel is once again uniform in appearance.
This is the point where it is easiest to make a mistake – it still happens to me sometimes! The bevel has not been fully established, or there are tiny nicks („flea bites“) remaining in the cutting edge. Instead of persevering with the „1000“, one thinks to onesself „the finer hones will take care of these tiny irregularities“, and switches to the next stone, thus damning oneself to hours of pointless and frustrating work. The abrasive particles on the finer stones are so small that it is more or less impossible to establish a satisfactory bevel with them.
I cannot repeat it often enough, sharpening is done on the 1000 grit stone, the following stones merely refine the edge which has already been established, and polish out the scratches left by the preceeding stone. If the „preparation“ has been properly carried out on the „1000“, the remaining work proceeds relatively quickly and easily, the more so if one works with a seies of stones with a relatively small gap in the fineness of each stone – it is much quicker to sharpen a razor with 1000 – 3000 – 6000 than only 1000 – 6000.
The tape on the back of the razor should be regularly examined and replaced when necessary, this may often be several times during the work on the „1000“, depending on the state in which one finds the razor. In every case, it makes sense to replace the band when changing to a finer stone. A simple experiment is to switch from a 1000 grit stone direct to a „6000“ without replacing the band, under the magnifying glass it can easily be seen that only the back part of the bevel is polished, whilst the cutting edge remains unaffected.
In this way I work through to the finest stone, although, as I say, after the 1000 grit stone, it is not really work at all.
The next stage is the stropping, this is unfortunately not as easy to explain as the work with the hones. It is a matter of experience, of „feeling“, a little bit of „voodoo“, and possibly even faith.
With stropping, one must find one´s own way; different razors also require a different approach. so I will try to keep it short here.
If the preceeding work has been properly carried out, the razor now has a perfect bevel with a cutting angle between 16 and 20 degrees. The cutting edge is sufficiently fine to shave the hairs off the back of ones arm, but for a smooth and pleasant shave a greater degree of sharpness is required.
What is now necessary is the creation of the so-called „fin“. I first give the razor a few strokes on a strop with honing paste, I use here a leather strop which is glued to a wooden lath, and painted with chrome oxide green paint from the firm „Lukas“. For some razors I use a free-hanging strop painted in the same manner. Generally, with a hollow-ground blade the rigid strop is best, and for wedge blades I prefer the hanging strop, but there are no hard-and-fast rules here.
When stropping, the movement is the reverse of that used for honing, instead of pushing the edge over the stone, it is drawn over the leather, with the razor´s back leading the stroke.
One should not use too many strokes on the strop with honing paste. It is best to give the razor about ten strokes, then change to the leather strop, after several tens of strokes try the „hanging hair test“, and repeat the process as necessary. Overuse of the pasted strop will produce a fin that is too long, and unstable during shaving. The optimal fin is the shortest possible.
Stropping also produces a so called „microbevel“. Because the leather of the strop is elastic, it passes over the cutting edge at a slightly more obtuse angle than that created whilst honing. Because the leather strop also contains microscopic abrasive particles, the quality and cutting angle of the edge is affected, which gives the fin greater support whilst shaving, when the blade is held at an angle of roughly 30 degrees to the skin.
The microbevel can only be seen under magnification, it appears as a fine line along the cutting edge.
My home made strop on the wooden lath, with chrome oxide paint.
The final stage is stropping on a leather strop. Sometimes as many as 100 strokes may be necessary. Here too, I find a rigid strop better for hollow ground better, in the photo I am using a frame strop.
The free-hanging strop is also useful. I find a wide strop made of russian leather the most effective.
I could write a good deal more about stropping, but I have my doubts whether it would help anyone achieve their goal mor quickly. It is a question of experience, of trial and error. My best suggestion would be: buy an old cheap razor from Ebay and have a go at sharpening it. Buy a modestly priced combination stone, and rather than investing in an expensive strop, experiment using an old leather belt, which also works.
I wish you success!