How to sharpen a straight razor: Part 7
by Tom Gaylord
Writing as B.B. Pelletier
This report covers:
- A gift
- The razor
- Best shave
- The importance of the strop
- Razor’s edge is fragile
- The strop
- Buy quality
- How this relates
I said at the end of Part 6 back in November of last year that this series had ended. Well, things transpired to change that, as you will learn today. So sit back, because there is more to tell.
At this year’s SHOT Show I walked into the Pyramyd Air booth one afternoon and was handed a business card. On the back was a note telling me to come to a certain booth — there was a fine Swedish razor awaiting me. Reader Jim met me in that booth the next morning and presented me with a really nice old Swedish straight razor. He told me he used to shave with one when he was in college (he’s near my age) and he had bought several over the years. He had given most of them away, but stumbled across this one while the series was running, and he thought of giving it to me at this year’s SHOT.
It’s a fine razor, made in Eskilstuna, Sweden, which is their town for razor-making, like Sheffield in England and Solingen in Germany. The razor even came to me in its original box, which is the first box I have seen that wasn’t destroyed by time. I have other boxes, but none are in the condition of this one.
This mint Swedish razor that reader Jim gave me is now my best razor! You can’t see the quality, but a shave reveals it.
This razor is deceptively plain, unless you know how nice Swedish razors can be. I felt the edge at the show and found it to be sharp, but not quite shaving sharp, which I’ll say more about today. I had to wait to get home, so I could sharpen it.
I sharpened it the day after returning home and shaved with it the next morning. The shave was the best I have ever had! I couldn’t even feel the whiskers being cut — the blade just wiped across my face and seemed to do nothing. But when I felt my face after a pass I found the skin smooth and the whiskers gone. This unassuming Swedish razor has now joined the ranks of my very best blades — fully the equal of my “singing” Henckels blade, if not a little better. And, from this razor I learned something new.
The importance of the strop
I have mentioned the importance of stropping in past reports, but now I have taken stropping to a new level — at least for me. The edge of a sharpened straight razor is many times sharper than any knife you will try — and I do mean ANY knife. Even a so-called “razor-sharp” knife edge cannot compare to the edge of a properly sharpened straight razor. That’s not because people can’t sharpen it just as sharp, because they can. But the blade that’s behind that sharp edge is many times thicker than a straight razor blade. Once the sharp edge breaks off, which it does all too easily, what’s left behind is too thick to do what a straight razor can.
Razor’s edge is fragile
A straight razor edge is thin and can be very long (go back far into the blade) in relation to a knife edge. And, because it is so fine, that sharp edge needs extra care when it is stropped. I said in a past report that people don’t know how to strop. Some You Tube videos you see of stropping will have the leather strop bending as the blade passes down its length. That will break off the sharp edge of the blade and the shave that follows will be bad, with the blade pulling whiskers instead of cutting them.
You have to envision the edge of the blade as being a hundred times sharper than a sharp knife. Think of that edge like an eggshell. Eggshells are extremely hard when pressure is applied in a linear direction. Almost nobody can break an egg in their hand by squeezing it lengthways. But apply pressure by pressing in on the shell at just one spot and it breaks right away. That’s how a straight razor edge is. When you shave with it, it is extremely strong. But press against it sideways with the leather in a strop and that fine edge breaks away all too easily.
So, when you strop you only allow the weight of the blade to press the edge against the leather of the strop. And hold the blade flat, so the edge presses against the leather without separation (i.e., no angle between the edge and the leather).
When I started this series I didn’t know squat about strops. aI thought they were all pretty much the same. Well, they aren’t! What you want in a leather strop is a very smooth piece of leather that is as flat as it can be. What you want in a cloth strop is a smooth fabric like linen.
The leather in the first strop I bought is textured. It looks like the leather of an American pigskin football. It is completely inappropriate for stropping. The “cloth” of that same strop is firehose cotton that has a deep textured weave. It’s just as inappropriate as the leather.
My best strop has a 2-1/2-inch horsehide leather that is dead smooth, with linen as the second belt. Both are perfect for stropping a blade.
Here is the deal. Cheap strops sell for less than $10 and are useless. No, they are worse that useless because they can destroy a honing you paid $35 for in a few passes. Good strops start at around $90 and go well up over a hundred. They are worth every penny, but like airguns you can’t know that until you try them. And also like airguns, you first have to know what you are doing before you will be able to tell the difference between a good strop and a bad one. Just as a new shooter can’t appreciate a TX 200 Mark III, someone who is new to stropping will not be able to discern between a good stop and one that’s mediocre.
I switch off razors every day, so I have only shaved with this Swedish razor about 8 times since I started with it. But shave number 8 last Saturday was just as smooth as the first one, and I attribute that to the effectiveness of my stropping.
I was getting 12 shaves from my Henckels razor between honings. Now, I expect to get many more than 12 shaves, because my stropping is returning the edge to perfection every time. I expect to get the same number of shaves or more from this new razor.
How this relates
As a straight razor user I am like a spring gun guy who finally learned the artillery hold. And now I have learned to sort pellets by head size with the Pelletgage. No doubt there are still other things for me to learn, but I am making progress.