October 28, 2007

Getting Started with Straight Razors

Wanna dip your toe into the waters without laying out a massive amount of cash and spending months learning how to hone?  Here's an easy and inexpensive way to get started:

Which works out to $133.82 if I did the math right. The only consumables in the list are the soap and styptic, and hopefully you won't need the styptic very often (I use it maybe once a month). The soap should last at least 6 months to a year with normal use. You can do this cheaper if you pick up an inexpensive vintage razor from ebay, but the odds of getting one in easily-serviceable shape are not good unless you have a fair amount of experience with razors. I still get bitten on occasion.

For a nice upgrade from the inexpensive C-Mon the Dovo Ebony Stainless ($99) or Dovo Buffalo Horn Stainless ($160) are good choices if you live near the sea or in a humid climate. And I personally feel the Dovo Bergischer Lowe ($160) is one of the best razors ever made - modern or vintage; just make sure to cut off the stupid rubber piece on the shank since it gets loose and moves around and traps moisture underneath - and the Bergischer Lowe is not a stainless steel razor.

To get all this stuff ready for shaving takes a little bit of initial prep work.

  1. Avoiding a mess: Put the Dovo honing paste into the refrigerator. It will melt into a puddle if it gets too warm.
  2. Preparing the soap: Put the soap in your coffee mug, flat side down. If it's too large to fit then trim it to a smaller diameter with a knife, and toss the scraps in the mug on top of the puck (they'll melt back together with a few days of use).
  3. Conditioning the strop: Hold your brush under hot tapwater until the bristles are soaked (10-15 secs). Shake it out until the bristles are just damp, then run it around on top of the soap in the mug until a thick cream forms at the tips of the bristles. Brush this onto the smooth leather surface of the strop, and brush it around a bit. This helps clean any tanning and preservative residue off the surface of the leather. Wipe the lather off, then do this again and leave the lather on the strop for a few hours. Rub the soapy residue into the leather, then lather up the strop again and let it sit again, and rub the residue back into the strop again. This helps condition the surface of the leather so the razor will glide smoothly.
  4. Preparing the honing surfaces: Unscrew the straps from the mount, and put it back together with just the linen piece in the mounts. Rub the red paste into one side, and rub the black paste into the other side. You want a fairly thin coating but it should be reasonably even side-to-side (you don't want just a strip longways down the middle or something like that). Make sure you wash your hands thoroughly between handling the red paste and handling the black paste to avoid cross-contamination. Put the paste blocks back in the refrigerator, and let the paste on the strop dry overnight.
  5. Mounting the strop: Hang the strop from some solid point like the bathroom doorknob. I tied a shoelace around the bathroom doorknob, and clipped the strop onto this shoelace.
  6. Honing the razor, part 1: Grasp the handles in your right hand, and pull the strop so it's pretty tight. You don't want to pull it out of the wall or break the clip, but there shouldn't be any sag in the strop. With the coarse red-pasted linen side facing up, lightly run the razor over the strop, holding it flat on the linen and moving it spine-first down the strop. When you get to the end, roll the razor's edge up off the strop and flip it over, then run the razor down the strop the other direction. For best results the edge should start lifting up off the strop while the razor is still moving, and the flip should not complete and the edge touch back down until the razor is moving the other direction. Don't worry if this feels awkward; it's not a natural movement but with repetition it will eventually come naturally and smoothly. Despite what you may have seen in the movies, speed is not important here. Just make sure to use a light touch and execute the flips properly. One trip down the strop and back is one lap, and you should do 50 laps on the red paste before moving on to the next step.
  7. Honing the razor, part 2: Pull out a strip of toilet paper, and fold it up a few times and lay it on your countertop. Strop the razor on this strip of paper a few times to help remove any red paste that may be stuck to the razor. Use some more toilet paper to wipe off the spine of the razor to remove any paste there. You don't want any of the coarse red paste getting onto the fine-grit black side. Don't use a paper towel - they are too abrasive. And if you use a cloth towel your wife will be mad.
  8. Honing the razor, part 3: Flip the strop over so the black-pasted linen side is facing up. Strop the razor on this side again for 50 laps the way you did in step 6. Wipe off the paste as in step 7 (use different pieces of toilet paper for each step of this to avoid cross-contamination), and hold the razor above your arm and see if it catches and pops the hair on your arm without touching the skin. If it pops the hair on the upper side of your arms then you're getting close. If it pops the hair on the inside of your arms then you're ready to test the razor, if it doesn't pop the hair on the inside of your arms then you need to go back and do steps 6,7, and 8 again - some razors take a little more work their first time, and may need a few iterations through this honing sequence.
  9. Return the strop to the normal configuration: Once the razor is sharp, go ahead and close it up and put it away. Unhook your strop and unscrew the mount and put the leather back in so the smooth leather side and the black pasted sides are facing out.
Fortunately you really only have to do this once.  You'll use the black pasted side and the plain leather side every day to keep the razor at the peak of sharpness.

When you get ready to shave in the morning, start out by pulling the strop taut and stropping the razor about 30-40 laps on the leather side. Then flip the strop over, pull it tight again, and give it another 10-15 laps on the black pasted side. As you get better at shaving and stropping you can gradually reduce the number of laps on the black pasted side of the linen until you are doing just enough laps each day to keep the razor sharp. You may even be able to eliminate the daily stropping on the abrasive linen and only use it for a few laps on the weekend - everybody is different and has different requirements. But you should always do at least 30 laps on the leather side every day before shaving - the leather acts like a chef's steel and keeps the thin cutting edge straight and aligned.

Your basic Illinois #127 strop:


One side pasted with Dovo red (coarse abrasive):


Other side pasted with Dovo black (fine abrasive):


Disassembled showing the component parts:


And hanging from the doorknob:


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