How to sharpen a straight razor: Part 4
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- Who to believe?
- Quart of blood!
- How do you know what you don’t know?
- Make haste slowly
- There is more than one way…
- Setting the bevel
- Most important point
- World-record sharpener
- Bad advice that turned out well
- Artillery hold?
- Three ways to sharpen.
- That’s all, folks!
I didn’t think I would be back to this subject so soon, but I’ve had some major breakthroughs recently that I wanted to report before I forget them. As you may recall, I am writing this report because I want to experience what it feels like to be a new guy in a subject that interests me, but one that I know very little about. That way maybe I can better understand what new guys want/need to know about airguns. I had no appreciation of how much of a new guy I was when it came to sharpening straight razors, or just how deep I would get into this new subject!
Who to believe?
Let’s begin with something that’s pretty important. When you don’t know what you don’t know about a subject — who do you believe? I thought I was a discerning guy, but I got off the track and deep into the swamp by listening to and then following the advice of a person whose identity we will never know. This anonymous person wrote a book titled, The Art of Shaving or Shaving Made Easy —What The Man Who Shaves Ought to Know. It was published in 1905, when straight razors were the most popular shaving instruments, and I thought that meant the advice would contain the wisdom of that day. Boy — was that wrong! Apparently I got the 1905 guy from the forums that didn’t exist yet with all his crackpot ideas that knowledgeable people ignore!
This reprint of a century-old book contains some far-out information!
Quart of blood!
I’ll start with his “Quart of Blood” technique. That’s a line from the movie, Trading Places in which Eddie Murphy is trying to fast-talk his way out of a beating in a jail cell. This writer gave advice that went against everything I have read, and said not to use hot towels to prepare the face before shaving. Just lather up and begin! Well, I tried it and lost a lot of blood that day!
He also said to put shaving lather on the leather of a strop to refresh it. I tried that, too. Nope! Doesn’t work. Makes the leather even slicker. Don’t do it.
How do you know what you don’t know?
This happens in our world of airguns all the time. Some loudmouth on a forum says unless you cut 6 inches off your Weihrauch barrel and recrown it his special way you’ll never get all the accuracy the barrel can give. So, some poor newbie reads that and dutifully whacks off half a food of German steel, only to discover he has removed the choke, increased the cocking effort by 20 pounds and made his once-smooth air rifle shoot like a dog. If he is lucky, he can buy a replacement barrel, but an experience like that can put people off of the hobby altogether. So I will ask again — how do you know?
Make haste slowly
The answer to the question is you don’t know. So, go ahead and try out the things that have no lasting impact, like a new shooting position or a different trigger technique, but leave the heavy modifications until your feet are more firmly on the ground. I have heard of guys chopping off a length of barrel without shooting one pellet through the original one! As for me, if 27 sources say to prep my face with hot towels and one I never heard of says don’t, I now know who I’m going to listen to!
There is more than one way…
…to sharpen a straight razor. After doing loads more research I have now seen three different ways of sharpening a razor, and the first and second ways I told you about in Parts 2 and 3 are not among them. I was following and believing one person (again) from Shave Nation, and he teaches a very rudimentary method of sharpening that leaves out the most important stuff. His methods are included in the sharpening routines espoused by others, but they overlook the basics. It’s the same concept as if I told you to mount a scope on your rifle and take it squirrel hunting, but left out the part about sighting in the scope first.
Setting the bevel
After a lot more reading and watching You Tube videos on the subject of sharpening a straight razor, I learned that the single most important step to sharpening anything is to set the bevel. That means to establish an angle on both sides of the straight razor blade that comes together at a sharp point where the two bevels meet. Since the edge of the blade is so fine and nearly invisible, let me show you what I’m talking about with some illustrations.
If the opposing edges don’t meet, you can refine them forever and never get the blade sharp. In the middle drawing, the right side has a new surface, but it doesn’t meet the left side, and the dull edge is still there.
In the top drawing, we see the razor’s edge magnified many times. It has grown dull with use. In the middle drawing we have attempted to sharpen the razor, but on one side of the blade we got the angle wrong. That angle (bevel) does not meet the new bevel from the other side of the blade, and no matter how we smooth both sides of these bevels with ever-finer stones, the blade will never be sharp.
When you set the bevel it is important that both sides of the blade meet at some point. Unless that happens, no amount of continual smoothing of the blade edges can sharpen the blade. As the sharpening stones get progressively finer, all they do is polish those wrong angles to a mirror finish. Setting the bevel correctly is fundamental to sharpening any blade — be it a straight razor, a knife or an axe!
Most important point
We talked about this earlier in this series, when I said that the angle that the blade is held to the sharpening stone is of utmost importance. What that exact angle is, in terms of degrees, is of far less importance than the fact that the angle is always the same.
The bevel is set with a coarse stone. The edge that is created is not useful for shaving because it is not sharp enough. If you look at it under a magnifying glass at 10-20 power you see a coarse edge with “fingers” of steel protruding and small cracks in the edge. You aren’t done with sharpening. Setting the bevel is just the beginning, but if you fail to do it you run the risk of creating a beautiful finish on a dull edge.
Here is where we will learn the most important point of sharpening anything! Allow me to illustrate with a short story.
The Guinness Book of World Records has named John Juranitch the fastest sharpener in the world. He took a double-bladed axe that had been intentionally dulled and sharpened both blades to shaving sharpness, then shaved off his beard with them — all in 15 minutes! I found this story in his book, The Razor Edge Book of Sharpening, a book that, ironically does not address sharpening straight razors! I almost didn’t read the book until I stumbled across this story that puts everything into perspective. Juanitch was an Army barber in his younger years and shaved men with straight razors all the time. According to him, the angle of the bevels on the blade makes very little difference — as long as they are within certain limits. But the fact that both angles meet at some point is critical!
I learned a lot from this book!
Bad advice that turned out well
Given this writer’s credentials, I think we can trust what he says about sharpening. And he said something that goes against everything I’ve ever heard about sharpening blades. REMEMBER THE QUART OF BLOOD? This guy said when he sharpens blades he never puts oil on his sharpening stones! That runs counter to everything I have ever read or heard! You always put oil or water on a stone to keep the metal particles that are removed from embedding in the stone and clogging it.
Nope. This guy says to not do it. He says to use dry stones to sharpen blades. So, I decided I would give his method a try. I had a vintage razor hone I bought on ebay that I never pul oil on, so I took my WW II Camillus camp knife (issued to servicemen during the war) that has a carbon steel blade and tried sharpening it that way. The blade on my knife has been sharpened so many times that a third of it is now gone. The angle of the blade to the hone was held as constant as possible.
I got the blade to near-razor sharpness (shaving hair off the arm — not shaving the face!) within a minute. Then I took a second Camillus knife that is identical to the first one in all ways except wear. This one has a blade that is unsharpened and is still full profile. Another minute and I had a second blade that was nearly razor-sharp. I have to conclude there is something to this dry honing.
I then searched some knife-sharpening forums (yes, they exist — just search on the name John Juranich and you’ll find them) and several people said they had tried the dry hone and found that it works very fast. As far out as it sounds, this idea seems to work!
It’s almost like an airgunner I know who once read a very authoritative catalog description of how to shoot accurately with a spring-piston airgun. The author said to grasp the rifle tightly and pull it back into the shoulder with some force. This airgunner was having no luck doing it that way, so he tried to see how bad it would get if he just let the air rifle do its own thing by recoiling as much as it wanted to. He shot his Beeman C1 carbine and held it ever-so-lightly. To his surprise the groups shrank very small! He remembered seeing field artillery pieces recoil several feet each time they fired, yet three miles away their shells were hitting close to each other. That seemed like the same thing he was doing, so he called this light hold the artillery hold.
Three ways to sharpen
Once I learned the importance of setting the bevel, all the sharpening methods came into clear focus. They all achieve the same thing by different methods. One way many people do it is by moving the razor across each stone in small circles. One fellow counts the number of circles. For setting the bevel he uses a coarse stone and does 60 circles on each side of the blade. With all the other stones he does 40 circles per side. To see if he is finished he tests the blade on the pad of his thumb — not moving the blade, just feeling it. He says he has developed a feel for when the bevels meet. He is a professional honing specialist who does thousands of blades each year.
Another fellow pushes the blade straight back and forth on the stone with his fingers resting on the opposite side, to bear down on the edge being sharpened. He sets the bevel with 40 back and forth strokes and then does 40 with every stone thereafter. This guy looks at his blades after each stoning session with a 60X microscope and looks for an even bevel across the blade. He is a professional honing specialist who does 8-10 blades a day. From watching both him and one other guy on You Tube examine their blades this way I invested $4 in a 100X lighted microscope. It’s coming from China, so I don’t have it yet.
Finally a hobbyist straight razor restorer sent me two short videos showing how he sets a bevel and sharpens a blade. I have bought two razors from him and they are the only two I have that can both shave me completely, start to finish, so I know he knows his stuff.
This guy does the circles and also places his fingers on the opposite side of the blade to press lightly down. Another trick of his is to put electrician’s tape on the spine. That both restores the original height of the spine (it gets flat as the razor is honed) and also protects it from further flattening. I see no reason you couldn’t put several layers of tape on the back of a knife blade to achieve the same thing on a hone.
There are three different ways of sharpening a straight razor. All of them concentrate on setting the bevel of the blade first. All of them are more comprehensive than the videos I watched on the Shave Nation website when I started this quest.The point you should take from that is don’t just rely on one source for your airgun knowledge. Spread out your research to cover a number of different sources. What one writer may forget will be the most important point for another.
That’s all, folks!
This report is getting too long. I wanted to share blade shapes with you today and also to talk about the different types of steel and how they sharpen. That will have to come in the next report.