How to sharpen a straight razor: Part 1
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Something new
- What is “razor-sharp?”
- Drugstore shave
- How did “they” do it?
- What stone for sharpening?
- Honing stone lore
- The strop
- What “they” say
- The point
Note to readers: This report was written over time and I was learning as I went. Parts 1 through 3 were written before I had done enough research to know what is right and, more importantly, what isn’t. Read them for enjoyment, but begin with Part 4 for the serious information of sharpening straight razors.
Don’t be fooled by the title of this report. I will indeed show you how to sharpen a straight razor, but that’s not what the report series is about. It’s about me getting into something new and fascinating, like airguns, but something I know nothing about, and wondering what I don’t know. It’s about learning something new. It’s also about wondering what is true and what is either misleading or an outright lie, when you are unfamiliar with the subject.
I’m writing this series for all the newer airgunners, some of whom are also new to the shooting sports. There is so much to absorb and comprehend! Where do you start? Many of you started in the wrong place, as did I. You acquired an airgun and immediately began seeing that it didn’t live up to your expectations. It didn’t do the things other people said it should. Was it the gun, or was it you? Or, were you just being steered wrong by people who talk a lot, yet have very little to say?
Obviously I can’t pretend to be new at shooting. I’ve been doing it over 60 years and, if you count my time in the Army (as a tanker — where I shot a lot), more than 30 of those years were as a professional. I’m very comfortable with the subject of shooting.
Sharpening a straight razor, though, is something I had never even considered before now. Could I learn how to do it to an acceptable standard? The standard, of course, is being able to shave successfully with the razor I sharpen. Along the way, I would be reminded of the sort of things a new guy doesn’t know. I would be in reader Geo791’s shoes. It was George who gave me this idea, because, in 20 years, he is the first person I have not been able to talk though shooting a spring-piston air rifle. Yet, he stuck with it! Plenty of people have tried and then fallen off the Earth, if you know what I mean. That’s why I tested and tuned George’s rifle — because he didn’t give up.
I think this will be an excellent way for us to discuss how to learn about new things. Let’s go!
What is “razor-sharp?”
About a month ago I began to wonder what the term “razor-sharp” means. Like many of you I had always thought if a knife could shave the hair from the back of my arm, it was razor-sharp. I’ve been doing that for many years as a test after sharpening. Well, here comes the first truth. Shaving hair from your arm is not a true test of sharpness — any more than a 3-shot group is a measurement of accuracy. The truth is, very few knives in the world (one in 10 million?) can ever become razor-sharp. Just because a knife cuts a little hair doesn’t make it razor-sharp.
Razor-sharp refers to the sharpness of a razor, which is one to two orders of magnitude (10 to 100 times) sharper than any knife! This is where my learning began.
Cartridge and disposable razors that are popular today give what the serious shaving community refers to as a drugstore shave. Think of it as similar to the results you get from a Chinese breakbarrel bought for under $150 at a discount store — 5 shots in 2 inches at 25 yards. Well, at least the pellets are coming out of the barrel and hitting the target paper. But is it accurate? Absolutely not!
In sharp contrast, a shave with a properly sharpened straight razor used correctly is like shooting a 3/8-inch group of 10 shots at 25 yards with a TX200 Mark III. I know this about the razor because I have already done it. The straight razor shave done correctly is so close that you can only rival it by shaving against the grain of your whiskers with a cartridge razor — and maybe not even then.
How did “they” do it?
Thinking about sharpening straight razors led me to wonder how millions of men in the 19th century managed to do it. If getting a razor 10 times sharper than a sharp knife is difficult, how could millions of men all over the world learn to do it?
Well, for starters, beards were very popular back then! That’s funny, but it’s also true. A beard can be painlessly trimmed with scissors. A clean shave requires a commitment to doing many things right. Said in a different way, anyone can pull a trigger but it takes skill to do it the same way 10 times in a row.
As I studied straight razors I suddenly discovered the secret. The secret to sharpening anything is maintaining a consistent angle of the blade to the sharpening medium. Whether you sharpen with a stone, a belt sander or even if you use a sharpening steel, maintaining a consistent angle on the blade is where the payoff comes.
Straight razors are designed to maintain a failsafe consistent blade angle! Here’s how. The razor has a fat spine for its back and a hollow grind on both sides of the blade. The drawing below exaggerates these features for clarity. The razor is laid on the sharpening stone with the spine and edge both touching the stone. It is then pushed along the stone lengthways, in the direction of the edge. The spine holds the edge of the blade at a specific angle to the stone. If done right it is impossible to sharpen with anything except one correct angle.
This exaggerated graphic shows how the razor’s fat spine maintains the angle of the blade against the sharpening stone.
Here you can see the hollow grind on one side of the blade, and also the flattening at the top, which is one side of the spine.
This view of the end of the razor blade shows the hollow grind profile on both sides, with the spine at the bottom.
I discovered this truth by examining photos of antique straight razors on Ebay. All of the really well-used ones have a flat on both sides of the spine — worn there by contact with a sharpening stone. The rest I could guess until further research proved me right.
What stone for sharpening?
Men in the 19th century had to have a stone that was sufficient to sharpen their razor blades. A whetstone used to sharpen knives is useless for this. Whetstones and knife-sharpening stones are so coarse that to use one on a straight razor would be like trying to sand a fine piece of wood by rubbing it on a concrete road!
Honing stones were available for this specific purpose. They vary in size a little, but the majority of them are about 5 inches long, two inches wide and one-half inch thick. They seem to be made of some kind of hard stone material like carborundum (ruby and sapphire). It started as dust and was made into a thick slurry that was then poured or pressed into molds. Hones like this are still being made today, though they are not the favored stones used by serious straight-razor aficionados. As the picture shows, they are too narrow for the entire blade to rest on, so when they are used, the blade must be pushed across the stone in a diagonal direction as it advances forward.
As you can see, this vintage razor honing stone is too narrow for the entire blade to contact at one time.
Honing stone lore
I learned that when using these stones, oil, water or shaving cream were all recommended to lubricate the stone when sharpening. I guess that is like someone recommending that you oil your synthetic piston seal. I’m on the sidelines, waving my hands and shouting, “No, no!”, but you read where Jimmy-John oiled his seal and got 1,300 f.p.s. — so you oil. Only, in the case of a razor, you lubricate your commercial oilstone with shaving cream because the guy on Ebay who sold it to you said to do it. That’s not right, but he doesn’t care.
The stones that really work well are large waterstones, and using them is an entire report that I will do. For now, however, let me tell you of my success with the razor hone shown above.
I used it on the razor that’s shown with it, using oil for the lubricant. Then I tried to shave with it. It was sharp enough to shave the hair off my arm, but on my face it just pulled the whiskers and hurt like the dickens! So it wasn’t razor-sharp. Not yet. There is one more thing to cover today.
Old guys like me remember their barber trimming the edges of our sideburns and necks with a straight razor. The barber had a strop, which is a wide leather strap, hanging on the side of the barber chair. Before he used the razor he would make a couple passes in both directions down that strop — wiping the razor blade against it. I never understood what that did until now. In researching this report I have discovered that the strop is more important for sharpening the razor than the hone, though both are needed at different times for different reasons.
You hone when the razor is completely dull, and in between honing you strop. You might hone once or twice a year, but strop after every 4-5 shaves — depending on your razor. There is much more to stropping than just the leather belt. I will cover stropping in a future installment.
What “they” say
Well, I have told you a few of the many things I’ve learned while researching this report. There is so much more to tell, and in the end you will be amazed how sharp a straight razor can become. But there is a lot more about this subject that parallels airgunning than just these technical details.
For one thing there are forums with the same kind of comments that we see in airgun forums — people who only like certain brands or models of razors and people who are new to the subject yet already have a lot of well-formed opinions.
For example, a vintage Dubl Duk Goldedge razor is viewed in the same light as an FWB 300. It can cost as much, too! But the Dubl Duk Wonderedge is the Whiscome of vintage straight razors. I found all sorts of discussions about the various technical differences between these two premium blades that come from the same factory. Then I found some remarks from the son of the owner of the company. He said both blades came from Solingen, Germany, and were identical in every way except for their names. Dubl Duk never produced anything. They contracted to have their razors made by third party vendors to their specifications, yet razor collectors will talk about them like they were a factory. Kinda reminds me of some of the discussions we have about an HW 30S from Weihrauch and a Beeman R7.
Shaving retailers sell their products based on quality, and we know they can’t all be the best, yet the sales copy makes it sound like they are. You start out thinking you need just a few things — a razor, hone, strop and shaving cream, and before long you are looking at the differences between boar bristle shaving brushes and those made from badger hair! A $100 straight razor purchase can easily become a $350 spending spree (says the man who just did it).
Is there a point to all of this, or am I just rambling? Yes, there most definitely is a point. The point is, when you enter a new hobby or interest area it’s easy to get overwhelmed by jargon, loose talk and stuff “everybody” knows, such as the “facts” that supersonic velocities ruin accuracy for pellet guns and breakbarrels are less accurate because their barrels move when they are cocked.
I am looking into an area that is brand new to me — sharpening (and using) straight razors — in an attempt to experience what some of you are going through in the world of airguns. Sure, I have an interest in straight razors, but I’m more interested in finding out what things look like to someone who is just getting started.
Unless you shout me down, I plan on going all the way with this, and showing you how to sharpen straight razors, as well as describing the experience of shaving with them.