How to sharpen a straight razor: Part 3
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Dealers matter!
- Let’s resume
- All blades honed
- Something new
- Care for the stones
- Dress all waterstones?
- How does it shave?
- Proof of sharpness
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.
Boy, there were a lot of questions and discussion on Part 2 of this report! Today I will tell you how to both hone the razor and also how to take care of the waterstones that are so essential. And I have some things to clear up and correct.
As you recall, I’m writing this report to put myself in the shoes of a new airgunner. What is it like to not know what you don’t know, and don’t even know who or where to ask? That’s what it was like for me, learning how to sharpen a straight razor!
I have been spoiled by the service Pyramyd Air gives their customers. I forgot that most web retailers do not do the same. For example, I found one website — shavenation.com — that is laid out well and easy to navigate. The owner of the site, a man who calls himself geofatboy, makes great videos about topics that deal with shaving. Those videos are a lot like this blog, except he doesn’t have any easy way on his website for viewers to comment.
I bought a lot of supplies from his site initially — shaving cream, a badger shaving brush, pre-shave, after-shave, several waterstones and many other things. I spent a lot of money with him. Then I decided to get a new straight razor to compare to the vintage ones I bought off Ebay and sharpened myself. I was prepared to spend at least another hundred dollars with him, but first I had several fundamental new-guy questions. So I wrote him and asked. Three weeks later I’m still waiting for a reply.
Since he did not answer me I went elsewhere and saved 30 percent! The razor he wants $108 plus shipping for I was able to get for $76, shipped. I will continue to shop with him for things I can’t get elsewhere, but he will never again be my first stop.
What I am saying is that when you are a new guy, the dealer really matters. I don’t shop price anymore. I shop service.
Last time I left you right after finding that my expensive vintage dubl duck razor had numerous nicks and pits in the edge of the blade. Oh, by the way, the company’s name is dubl duck — all lowercase and duck is spelled out. This new guy was fooled by some Ebay vendors who misspelled the name — just like they do Crossman and Daisey.
I ordered a Norton 220/1000-grit waterstone (not from Shave Nation) to augment the stones I already had. When your blade has nicks and pits you have to use a really aggressive stone to remove them, and 220 is where it starts.
I also did more research on sharpening straight razors. The picture I showed you of me sharpening the blade last time was incorrect. You don’t push the razor away from you and pull it toward you over the stones. You move it across the face of each stone in a sideways motion, holding onto the tang of the blade, only. It’s like stropping, only when honing, the blade leads, rather than follows. While the first way sounds like you can maintain better contact with the blade against the stone, the second way does much better. It’s counter-intuitive and you won’t know until you try it.
The right way to hold the blade is by the tang. Move it an equal number of times in each direction. At the end of each pass, roll the blade on the spine to reverse it.
I also learned to use a magnifying app on my smart phone to magnify the edge of the blade, so I could inspect it better. Unlike a jeweler’s loupe that is difficult to keep in focus, this is like watching the blade on television!
I started with the 220-grain stone, then progressed to the 1,000, the 4,000, the 8,000 and finally the 12,000-grit stones. On the 220-grit stone I sharpened until all the nicks disappeared — using the smart phone. On each of the finer stones I sharpened 10 times in each direction.
The 220 and 1,000-grit stones make a lot of noise as you work the blade across. The 4,000 is quiet and I can’t hear the 8,000 and 12,000-grit stones. But on all of them I can see black streaks forming on the stone, which is steel being removed from the blade.
All blades honed
I honed each of my three blades. The one that had nicks also has the tip broken off. I plan to grind a new contour into that end to make a shorter blade with a rounded tip — something to get into the tight places on my face like under the nose. The dubl duck was already shaving sharp, but the bevel on the edge wasn’t a consistent width. It was narrow in the center and wider at both ends. I hoped this new method of sharpening would even it out. And, it did! It also taught me something new about sharpening razor blades.
The shape of the blade determines the size of the bevel! You can see this better in an exaggerated illustration.
A thick spine makes the bevel angle steep (bevel will be short).
Thinner spine makes the bevel wider/longer.
Each razor comes with a specific spine and they are all different. This is a subtlety of straight razor design, just like the type of piston seal is spefcific to a spring-piston air rifle.
When I was finished, all three razors were shaving sharp after a good strop. They should stay that way for the next 6 months of shaving. I looked at all the bevels and saw that they were now more uniform, though not entirely. The dubl duck bevel is the most uniform of the three, and it also shaves the best. In fact, it shaves as well as the new Dovo, but its longer blade with a pointed end doesn’t fit my face as well as the Dovo. I guess it’s a learning curve from this point on.
Care for the stones
We are not finished. Waterstones wear much faster than oil stones, and they must be dressed flat to work their best. For this you need a special flattening stone.
This stone is for “dressing” the waterstones.
Each stone needs to be “dressed” or flattened, to work its best. To do that you draw a grid pattern of pencil lines on the stone.
With a pencil, draw a grid pattern on the face to be dressed.
To dress each stone, rub the dressing stone against the face of the stone to be dressed. Do this under running water. Scrub straight back and forth, along the axis of the waterstone.
Scrub the two stones back and forth under running water.
As you scrub, the grid pattern starts disappearing. When it is gone, the stone is dressed. The coarse grit stones dress fast. This 12,000-grit stone takes about a full minute to dress.
Dress all waterstones?
Before you ask, I don’t know if waterstones that are used to sharpen knives need to be dressed as often as stones that are used for straight razors. Flatness is vital to the sharpening process for a straight razor, as you have seen. Of course it is important to knives, too, but maybe not as important. Knife edges — even sharp knife edges — are many times larger and coarser than razor edges.
How does it shave?
Shaving with a straight razor is exciting. First, there is the preparation of your face and beard that benefits all types of razor blades — even cartridge types. Preparation is 75 percent of the job — just like the artillery hold makes most spring guns accurate.
As the razor moves across the face you feel and hear the whiskers being cut, but there is no pain. Even in the sensitive areas under the nose and in the corners of the mouth there is no pain when the razor is sharp and the blade is held at the correct angle. It’s learning to hold the blade at different angles, depending on which part of the face you are shaving, that takes time. It’s like learning how to hold an air rifle in all situations, both on the bench and in the field. As you gain experience, it gets easier and you get better at it.
One thing is dangerous and that is speed. You don’t shave fast, because that’s just asking to be cut. Take your time and consider each stroke of the blade.
I am not good at this yet. I’m better than I was two weeks ago, and I can now shave 90 percent of my face well, but for the other 10 percent I have to follow up with a safety razor and a double-edged blade. Hopefully I will reduce that to nothing after a while.
Proof of sharpness
Shaving proves the razor is as sharp as it is supposed to be. Therefore I have accomplished my mission of learning how to do something brand new. I spent too much money doing it and I discovered the importance of good dealers who communicate. I also renewed my understanding of how it feels to be a new guy.
I think this will be the final report in this series. Unless you have questions I haven’t addressed, I’ve done all that I set out to do.
As you may surmise, I will continue to shave with a straight razor. After perhaps 40 years of shaving with indifferent electric razors that produced so-so results, I now look forward to shaving every morning. It’s like a spa for my face. This is a result I didn’t see coming. Talk about a trip to Serendib!