If you’ve decided that shaving with a straight razor is a skill you would like to possess, you must come to know both the reason and process of honing your razor in order to keep it in good working condition for the perfect shave.
When a straight razor is viewed under the power of a microscope, the edge will look very different from what is seen with the naked eye. Without magnification, the razor’s edge will appear as a continuous, smooth line. However, the microscope will reveal the blade’s edge is made up of many very small grooves, resembling a microscopic version of the edge of a saw blade.
It is the presence of these microscopic teeth, not their absence that gives the blade its relative sharpness. As a blade dulls, these small tooth-like grooves disappear, giving way to a more smooth surface. And, unfortunately, these grooves cannot simply be re-introduced by stropping your straight razor. When this occurs, a proper razor honing is required, thereby restoring these teeth to their original glory and usefulness.
The Need for Straight Razor Honing
Once a razor has been ground, further sharpening with a strop is likely to sufficiently last a good deal of time thereafter. However, continuous stropping a properly honed razor will eventually require the razor to undergo additional future honing as the microscopic edge becomes more rounded and less thin. In truth, a strop cannot take the place of a proper hone, neither can a hone take the place of a strop. Both are necessary for maintaining the razor thin edge of a straight razor shave.
Honing a straight razor is performed to ensure the edge of the razor has the ideal balance between thinness and firmness. The object is to create as thin an edge as possible without a decrease in the level of firmness of the blade’s edge. The rough, fine grit of a quality hone will reduce the thickness of the edge of the razor by wearing away some of the steel. This ensures the ultimate level of sharpness of the blade. Contrast this approach with that of a a strop and you will understand why continuous stropping will eventually require honing.
When one uses a strop, the lack of firmness or strop “sag” has a tendency to produce a rounded edge on the blade. The roundness of the edge will be in direct proportion to the level of sag in your strop. And, regardless of the level of strop firmness, every blade will eventually require a honing after the continuous use of a strop.
Keep in mind that the thinner and flatter the edge, the better the razor will perform its function in cutting hair. Flat and thin blades are really only produced by means of honing the blade.
The Straight Razor Hone
Both natural (rock) hones and synthetic hones exist. Natural rock hones are typically comprised of silica which are great for creating a nice sharp edge. Such hones include a fine grit that produces a solid edge to the razor. However, some of the more modern synthetic hones also work well in producing a quality edge on your straight razor.
In a previous generation hones were produced around the world (e.g. Germany, Austria and Belgium). Today, straight razor hones are produced in areas like China and Pakistan. The best hone will be free from seams and uneven areas, allowing for a uniform texture for smoothing the blade toward its best edge.
Honing a razor is not a task reserved simply for professional barbers or cutlers. In fact, with a little practice you too can become readily efficient in obtaining a quality edge from your hone.
How to Hone a Straight Razor
Rarely is a hone used dry. Water or oil is typically used in preparation for honing the blade. Wetting the hone does a couple of things. First, a wet hone helps prevent over-heating of the blade which can spoil the temper of the metal. Second, a wet hone helps keep the small particles of ground steel from entering the unseen pores of the stone on the hone. This glazed surface, if not wet, is more likely to lose its effectiveness if run dry wherein small pieces of steel fill the important gaps in the hone.
The honing of the straight razor is accomplished in a several step process:
- Wipe the hone clean with a dry rag.
- Place a few drops of oil, water or lather on the surface of the hone. Using oil may require more honing, but the ultimate edge will likely be more smooth than by simply using water.
- Place the hone on a flat surface, place the razor flat against the hone. The blade should be so flat as to have both the back and the edge touching the stone simultaneously (see Fig A on the below diagram)
- Draw the blade from heel to point in a forward motion against the edge of the blade until the blade is in the position indicated in Fig B. When doing so, be sure to keep the heel of the blade about 1.5 inches in advance of the point. This serves to set the teeth of the blade inclined toward the heel, which will provide the ideal sharpness once a strop is used on the blade.
- With the blade still resting on the hone (and without lifting the blade from the stone), turn the blade to the other side as indicated in Fig C.
- As before, push the blade from heal to point against the edge, finishing the swipe in the position of Fig D.
- Move the blade into Fig A position without lifting the blade from the stone.
- Continue by repeating the process until the blade is free from imperfections on the razor’s edge
With a good hone, very little pressure will be required when gliding the razor across the stone’s surface. But, with the pressure that is applied, be sure it is equal on both sides of the blade.
You should be able to tell when the blade is properly honed by running the edge of the blade lightly across a moistened finger nail. If it sticks slightly to the nail, this is an indication the blade has been honed to the point that microscopic “teeth” have been developed on the razor’s thin edge. When a razor is over-honed, it will inevitably develop a wire edge which. In such cases, the edge may be over-honed in some areas, requiring you to re-hone in order to maintain an equality in the hone from point-to-point on the blade.
Your razor is now ready for stropping.
The amount of time needed to properly hone your blade will be dependent on a number of factors including the hardness of the razor’s steel, the condition of the blade and the quality of the hone. In most cases, you simply need to hone the razor as a result of a rounded edge from blade over-stropping. When this is the case, very little honing will be needed to get the blade back into shaving condition. Eight to twelve strokes in either direction should be sufficient to hone the razor to a good level. If the edge has nicks or dings, further honing will be required. If the razor has larger nicks and cuts, it may be worthwhile to send the blade in for grinding from a professional straight razor honing or restoration service. Doing so will put the razor back in tip-top shaving condition.
When properly honed and regularly stropped, a straight razor will require honing very infrequently. If used as a regular shaver, even on a daily basis with regular stropping a hone will be required about once every two months or so. You will become amply aware the blade is in need of a hone when further stropping seems to do nothing to improve the quality or sharpness of your blade.