How to sharpen a straight razor: Part 5
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- I learned how to sharpen a razor!
- Confusion reigns supreme
- I didn’t know…
- Setting the bevel
- The spine is the key
- Electrician’s tape
- All stones remove metal
- What does it look like?
- First success
- Can you shave with a knife?
- It takes time
If you have followed this series you know I’m doing this to experience how it feels to be a new guy at something. That way I can write better for new airgunners. Or, at least that’s the thought.
I learned how to sharpen a razor!
Since the last report I have finally learned how to sharpen a straight razor. And my way is unlike any of the three ways I told you about last time. Oddly, however, it is very close to the way a certain custom razor maker sharpens the blades he makes. I watched a 37-minute video he made, showing the making of a straight razor, start to finish, including sharpening and shaving to test it. I actually watched several blade-making videos and all of the makers sharpen like I do, more or less.
Confusion reigns supreme
Now that I know how to sharpen a straight razor I can definitely see that the subject is confusing to almost everyone. When I read so-called “How to sharpen…” articles now I am able to evaluate them because of the little experience I have had. I can tell you — most of what is written about sharpening straight razors is wrong, and reads like the writer never actually did it himself.
I didn’t know…
…what I didn’t know, when I started this report! Just like a beginning airgunner, I did not know what to believe and what not to believe. I watched videos and read reports, and had to guess at the parts that were left out. I tried a vintage Dubl Duck Wonderedge straight razor that had a great reputation, but it cut me and pulled hairs (after I “sharpened” it). Then I bought a brand new Dovo razor. I thought all I had to do with this one was strop it and shave — surely a manufacturer would not let something go out the door that wasn’t perfect?!!! Yes, they would! We see the same thing with airguns, don’t we?
It wasn’t until I shaved with a razor I got on ebay that the seller guaranteed was shave ready that I got my first pleasant shave. It was about a month into the experience, and I was accelerating things faster than any new airgunner normally would. That razor shaved me very close without a single nick. I was getting the hang of shaving by this point in time, but also I finally found a good blade. I befriended the seller and we now converse all the time.
Setting the bevel
The other glaring error in the body of knowledge is a lack of detail in what is written. They dance around the most important parts, never actually describing them, but referencing them — as though their readers obviously understand. “Well, everybody should know that!” In layman’s terms — Then, in step two, a miracle occurs!
The single most important part of sharpening a straight razor, or anything that has a sharp edge, is the setting (establishment) of the bevel. That means getting the angle on both sides of the blade (if the blade is sharpened on both sides, because some aren’t) the same. This has to be done mechanically — which means doing it in such a way that you can’t easily make a mistake. I will now show you how that is done with a straight razor.
The spine is the key
I showed you in Part 1 that the razor’s spine and edge both touch the hone and that maintains the edge’s angle to the sharpening stone. In case you forgot, here it is again.
The angle that the spine holds the edge against the stone is intentional for setting a bevel on both side of the edge. The angle shown in this drawing is exaggerated.
There are a couple problems with this approach, though. First, the spine will also wear as the razor is honed. Over a century of use, which means 100-200 honings, the spine will wear a flat on both sides. This changes the angle at which the edge is held against the stone.
A century or more of sharpening has worn a pronounced flat on both sides of this razor’s spine.
To prevent such wear, a strip of electrician’s tape is placed over both sides of the razor’s spine before sharpening. If the blade requires it, more than one strip of tape may be used. I have some blades that need 6-8 strips! When I watched the videos of blade makers they all used tape on the spine of their razors and all of them sharpen with the same water stones I talked about in Part 4.
Electrician’s tape both restores the spine’s width and prevents further damage during sharpening.
Some guys pay $25-40 to have their razors professionally honed and they live without them for several weeks while this is happening. Other guys shave only twice a week because the straight razor irritates their skin. I shave every day without irritation (any longer). Shaving is something I really look forward to each day. I have fairly sensitive skin, so I can say with confidence that if the blade is really sharp, the shave will be smooth.
All stones remove metal
I have read in many places that, up to about 5,000 grit, the stones are removing metal from the blade and the stones with finer grits are only polishing the metal. That’s rubbish! All honing/sharpening stones remove metal. It’s just that when the grit becomes finer than 5,000 it’s extremely difficult to see the tiny scratches left by the stones. So I bought two powerful magnifiers. One is a 100X illuminated magnifier that really gets me close to the work. Unfortunately I find this one too difficult to use. Looking through it is like trying to watch a horse race through an astronomical telescope.
The magnifier that does work very well for me is a 20X pair of illuminated jeweler’s loupes attached to glasses frames. They leave both hands free to hold the subject. You cannot see the image through both lenses simultaneously like a binocular microscope, but with one eye you can see all the detail you need. I bought them directly from China for under $5, shipped. Had to wait a month for delivery, but now that I have them they are my best magnifying tool.
As corny as they look, these illuminated magnifying glasses really work and are my best magnifying tool.
What does it look like?
You are all curious to see what the edge of a razor looks like, and reader Vana2 sent me some fascinating images to share with you. These next two were taken at his work.
We are not sure of how much this image is magnified, but I think it is at least 500X and possibly 1,000X. This is a double edged razor blade that has never been used. I think those are water droplets on the edge.
This disposable scalpel has a single bevel polished to a mirror finish. But at this magnification (same as last photo) the finish shows scratches.
Here is a damaged straight razor blade shown at perhaps 50X.
I succeeded in sharpening the first straight razor I tried, once I used my own method of sharpening. And that blade is a wedge with no hollow grind, which is one of the hardest blades to work on. But with a lot of electrician’s tape on the spine, I made the job mechanical and kept at it until I had a bevel on both sides. It isn’t a perfect bevel, but the razor shaves as well as any I own. I set the bevel with a 1,000-grit water stone. Then I progressed through 4,000, 8,000, 12,000 and 20,000 grits.
After the 4,000-grit stone it was impossible to see any new scratches on the bevels. What I saw was the scratches were disappearing. First they turned to an even satin (at 8,000) then they started to shine (at 12,000). Twelve thousand grit is where more honers and razor makers stop, but my new internet friend suggested that I go to 20,000 grit. That stone set me back $338 and had to be ordered from Japan. But after three weeks I had it. When the blade is honed on that one, it shines like a mirror. The stone is still removing metal and it takes 5 minutes to dress it flat after the work is over, but the result can easily be seen on the razor’s edge.
The shiny bevels are the result of a 20,000-grit water stone and stropping. This Swedish blade that I bought for very little on ebay is now my favorite razor. It’s so sharp I can back-shave my neck with it!
Like honing, I discovered a wide variation of instructions on how to strop a razor after each shave and after honing. They range from only resting the weight of the blade on the strop as it is moved to bearing down with some force so the strop that’s pulled tight will bow deeply where the blade is. You have to strop either after or before each shave, because the thin edge of the blade needs to be aligned straight ahead. Your whiskers are about as tough as copper wires of the same thickness and one shave will put the edge of a blade askew.
I tried all ways to strop and discovered that putting almost no pressure on the blade is the best way to do it. If you bear down as you strop, the sharpest blade will grow dull — because you are rolling the fine edge. But you can strop that blade again with very light pressure and the edge will come back. It doesn’t break off; it just rolls over.
With a freshly honed blade I strop 25 times in each direction with a cloth strop coated with chromium dioxide paste. Then I wipe the blade to remove any of the paste and follow that with 25 times on a dry linen strop, followed by 50 times across a supple leather strop. After each shave I strop with dry linen and leather again.
Can you shave with a knife?
The short answer is yes, you can shave with a knife. But the knife needs to be just as sharp as a straight razor blade. We saw a man sharpen a ceramic knife blade (which I thought was impossible before seeing it on You Tube) and then shave his face and head with it. So it is possible.
Reader FrankBpc is very interested in sharpening and told me he had sharpened some common steak knives razor sharp. He sent me a package with some things to show me what he could do and one of these knives was in in. That knife will pass the cutting a hair test for sharpness. So I shaved with it.
This is the steak knife that FrankBpc sharpened to razor sharpness. It will split hairs!
I prepped my face in the same way I would to shave with a razor. It did remove whiskers, but it didn’t shave me as smooth as my better blades. It was perhaps as good as my Dovo or my Dubl Duck. For a cheap steak knife, that’s pretty darned good!
It takes time
When I started this report I saw a video done by Geofatboy at Shave Nation that said it was going to take some time to learn to shave with a straight razor. He said it could take up to 100 shaves to get good at it.
At first I shaved as far as I could go with the straight razor, then switched to a double edged safety razor to finish the shave. I was shaving with my Dubl Duck that wasn’t quite sharp enough, though I didn’t know it at the time. Then I received my George Wostenholm razor I told you about and the first shave was nearly perfect. That taught me the difference between a razor that was shave ready and one that wasn’t. I still used a safety razor to trim the places that were hard to get, like under the neck, but the rest of the shave was with the straight razor..
At this point I have shaved about 55-60 times and I am getting better. I no longer nick myself with each shave. And I can now shave without looking in a mirror. I’ve gotten so used to the feel that shaving is almost automatic. This morning I shaved against the grain (back shaved) under my neck with a straight razor. That is the last place I needed the safety razor and now I no longer do.
I’ve discovered that the design features I like in a straight razor can be found in blades made in Sheffield, England from 1820 to 1900, plus a few other European countries during the same timeframe. All of the features I like are not being put on straight razors today, so I’m giving a lot of thought to making a straight razor for myself. Talk about an engrossing subject!
My three favorite razors. At the bottom is the first one I sharpened. It’s a wedge and I got the bevel wrong, but it’s still a wonderful blade. Next is the Wostenholm that I bought on ebay. It was the first razor that didn’t nick me and shaved super smooth. At the top is a Swedish blade that is now my favorite. It’s edge is perfect. Note that all three blades have the rounded point that I like.
There is a lot more to tell. I haven’t told you the details of how I sharpen a blade yet.
The shape of the blade (as seen from the side) has a tremendous impact on how well it will work — at least for me. So does the blade’s profile — wedge, half-hollow grind, full hollow grind etc.
Also I have learned to shave with the razor in either hand. In the beginning I thought that would be impossible, but I can now do it without thinking. At this juncture I can say it was harder to learn how to shave with a straight razor than it was to learn to sharpen one.
I have also ventured into safety razors and the sharpening of their disposable blades. And I bought a Rolls lifetime razor that reader Zimbabweed told us about in Part 2 — just to experience that.