How to sharpen a straight razor: Part 2
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- The goal
- The proof
- My mistakes
- What had I learned?
- Things to avoid
- Sharpening a straight razor
- Sharpening stone grits
- After honing — the strop
- What was wrong?
- Research pays off
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.
I started this series so I could experience coming into a hobby as a new guy. That would make me more sympathetic to the thousands of readers who are either new to airguns or new to shooting altogether. It certainly did that, as you will learn today!
When I started this project, I had what I thought was a simple and straightforward goal — learning to sharpen a straight razor. That’s not any different than the guy who buys an air rifle to eliminate pests. But I completely underestimated the scope of the project — again, not unlike many new airgunners. And that’s a good thing because today you get to watch me make all the new-guy mistakes.
Once I began, I realized I would need some kind of test to prove whether I had been successful in sharpening a straight razor. Cutting paper or shaving the hair off the back of your arm isn’t going to do it! These parlor tricks are only applicable to knives. Straight razors have to be ten to one hundred times sharper to do what they are designed to do.
This is very much like the guy who didn’t think about what level of accuracy he expected until after he purchased an airgun. Then he discovered that the type of powerplant, the quality of pellets and even the way he holds the gun all have an impact on accuracy. He wanted the kind of accuracy that only a few spring guns and PCPs can deliver, but his first airgun purchase was one that struggles to approach his expectations.
I did exactly what most newbies do, except I did it a lot faster for the sake of this report. I first bought the cheapest used straight razor I could find on Ebay. I did that even before it dawned on me that I would have to shave with it to know if I had gotten it sharp enough. I was just thinking about sharpening at this point in the project. When it arrived I could see my mistakes right away. The tip of the blade is broken, and it has rusted at sometime in the past. I will show you later on what rust can do to a straight razor blade.
I set that razor aside and bought my second razor, also off Ebay. This one was a name I recognized — Henckel. They make good knives, and I hoped they would also be the Diana of straight razors. Perhaps they are, but that didn’t guarantee that I bought the right model, or that it was even one in useable condition. I was still buying used to save money. I know! I’m great at lecturing you about the mistake of trying to save money when buying something you don’t understand. I’m not so good at practicing what I preach!
By the time this one arrived I had learned that I needed extra equipment to do what I set out to do — sharpen straight razors. That’s like you discovering that when you buy a Benjamin Marauder PCP you will also need a carbon fiber tank to fill it — not to mention some way to fill that tank! So, I bought a vintage sharpening stone, again on Ebay. It was cheap, and perhaps I can use it for knives, but for straight razors it is as much of a challenge as the razors, themselves. It’s shown in Part 1.
What had I learned?
So far I had learned that buying straight razors is not something to do without a lot of information and understanding. That’s very much like airguns. I was doing a lot of research by now, but my blunders were not quite over. Or, perhaps “blunder” is too harsh. Because, in the end, my next purchase turned everything around.
I bought one more straight razor. This time I researched the internet heavily and found several sales sites and chat forums that all agreed that the Dubl Duk razors of the recent past are among the best vintage straight razors around. They are American-made, but they all have German blades from Solingen — not unlike the Beeman airguns that were made in Germany by Weihrauch but sold under an American name.
Why a vintage razor? Because the point of this exercise is to learn how to sharpen razors — not how to shave with them, although to do the former you almost have to do the latter. That’s the bitter irony I was now experiencing. So, I bought a Dubl Duk Wonderedge that is widely acclaimed to be the pick of the Dubl Duk litter. Think of it as the FWB 300S of straight razors.
Things to avoid
My early mistake taught me what not to buy. My first razor was a big lesson. I now knew to avoid a rusty or pitted blade. I have said that a Dubl Duk is a fine vintage straight razor, but look at a Dubl Duk Goldedge (one level below the Wonderedge I bought) that went for a low price ($86) on Ebay.
From my research this picture tells me two things. First, the blade is rusted, and that will leave pits when the rust is removed. That’s the kiss of death for a straight razor. As you will see, pits destroy a razor’s edge at the microscopic level! And second, the shadow under the blade on the right side tells me this one is possibly bent (the paper underneath may also not be level). If it is bent, it cannot be sharpened until that is corrected.
I avoided this damaged blade and bought a nicer one, instead. That one was advertised to be shave ready. Kind of like buying an air rifle that’s been tuned. Good luck! Best laid plans…
My two best razors are a Henckel (top) and a Dubl Duk Wonderedge (below)
Sharpening a straight razor
I will come back to the razors I bought in a moment. First, let me describe what it takes to hone any straight razor. You only have to hone them about every 5-6 months, depending on your shaving frequency and the toughness of your beard. Between honings, stropping keeps the blade sharp. Human whiskers are the same toughness as copper wire of the same diameter, and that is what a razor’s edge has to cut through cleanly.
To hone the edge to shaving sharpness, you have to start with a straight blade. The illustration in Part 1 will show you why. If the blade isn’t straight, the entire cutting edge will not contact the honing stone, and you won’t get a consistent shaving edge across the blade.
The fastest and most precise way to hone a straight razor is with water stones. These are flat sharpening stones that are lubricated with water instead of oil. In fact, many water stones have to be immersed in water for some time (10 minutes) to absorb as much water as they will hold. Then you use water on top of the stone as the razor is pushed across it.
The bubbles show the stone is absorbing water. This takes about 10 minutes.
Sharpening stone grits
Water stones come in several grits, ranging from 220 to 12,000. The higher the number the finer the grit and the less metal it removes from the razor blade. I had what I thought were two good blades in the Henckel and Dubl Duk, so I bought a combination 4000/8000-grit stone and another that’s 12,000 grit. I figured these would be all I would need, besides the chromium oxide for the strop. That is 61,000 grit! When the stones arrived, I sharpened all three razors — using the first one that was damaged as a training aid before going to the better blades.
The razor is sharpened by pushing the blade across the stone in the direction of the sharp edge. Take about 10 strokes in each direction, rotating the blade so the sharp edge always leads. The razor’s spine holds the edge at the correct angle to the stone. Use an equal number of strokes on each side of the blade. The bottle is more water for the stone.
After honing — the strop!
After the blade is honed, it is stropped on coarse linen fabric 25 times in each direction. The fabric has been coated with chromium oxide that is 61,000-grit. The strop does not remove metal from the blade like the hone. Instead, it aligns the “teeth” of the new edge. After the fabric strop, the blade is stropped on a smooth leather belt 50 times in each direction. There is no coating on the belt. All it does is refine what the fabric strop started.
The razor is dragged along the fabric strop with the edge following. The fabric straightens the microscopic teeth in the razor’s edge. The green color is from 61,0000-grit chromium oxide.
That bar of chromium oxide is rubbed into the fabric strop.
The leather strop finishes the job of aligning the teeth. Sorry about the focus, but I was holding the strop, the razor and the camera for this shot.
At this point the razor should be ready to shave. I sharpened both razors this way and then tried to shave with them.
For five days I tried shaving with the two straight razors. I never shaved my whole face with them, but I did get up to 50 percent of my whiskers off this way. The shaved areas were the smoothest skin I have ever had, but there were a lot of cuts. So many, in fact, that I had to stop shaving. I needed a blood transfusion after each shave!
What was wrong?
Was I a guy who couldn’t shave with a straight razor for some reason? Was my skin too tender? Did it take a much longer time before I could learn to do shave this way successfully? When you are a newbie you don’t know what you don’t know. And chat forums are useless because they are filled with people who either can already shave this way or are liars who talk the talk but can’t walk the walk. This was exactly the experience I had hoped for. I was in the same place as a newbie airgunner!
Research pays off!
All the while I was doing this I was researching how to shave with a straight razor, plus how to sharpen one. Finally, one video paid off. A guy was trying to sell a cheap straight razor and he made a video to show its sharp edge. Though it was cheap the edge was uniform. I had never looked at the edge of my two best razors. Perhaps it was time to do so. So I got my 10X jeweler’s loupe and looks at both blades. What I saw was shocking!
The Henckel blade is pitted over the bottom half of the blade’s surface on one side. My best blade — the Dubl Duk Wonderedge — was pitted right on the shaving edge. It was jagged at the point where it met the skin of my face!
This image shows a small portion of the Dubl Duck razor’s edge, magnified about 100 times. The arrows point to rust pits on the edge of the blade. This is after honing with 4000, 8000 and 12,000-grit stones and stropping the edge 200 times in each direction on both strops!
The “shave-ready” blade I bought on Ebay for a considerable sum was still jagged with deep pits, even after I had honed the blade. That was what was grabbing my whiskers and pulling them, plus cutting my skin. It sounds sad, but it’s a blessing in disguise for this series, because it forced me to get serious about sharpening this blade.
If this was an airgun, I had just done a lube tune and then discovered that the mainspring was bent. No amount of grease will quiet the powerplant when that happens. You have to do the right thing and replace the mainspring, or your airgun will not perform — I don’t care whose name is on the outside!.
There is still some road to travel with this story, because I am still learning. At this point in time I can tell you that there is a very happy ending coming, but the details of that will have to wait for the next report.