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:


Posted by: mparker762 at 12:48 PM
Post contains 1363 words, total size 9 kb.

October 02, 2007

Straight Razor Maintenance

Honing the straight razor is probably the biggest challenge faced by the beginning straight razor shaver.  Even brand-new razors from respected manufacturers like Dovo or Thiers-Issard aren't really sharp enough for a comfortable shave and must be honed before use.

There are really two basic phases in razor honing.  The first phase (and probably the hardest) is simply getting the razor shaving-sharp in the first place.  The second phase keeping it that way.

The first problem can be solved by buying the razor from a company like Classic Shaving that offers a professional honing service, or by sending the razor out to a skilled razor honer.  Doing it yourself is certainly possible but requires a great deal of practice and some potentially expensive equipment.

If you are trying to use a straight razor for your daily shaver the most important problem is keeping the razor sharp.  The first prerequisite is stropping the razor before each shave.  Contrary to what you may have been led to believe, stropping does *not* sharpen the razor.  It simply cleans the edge of any corrosion that may have developed overnight (and there will have been some, at the microscopic level) and helps straighten it out similar to the way a chef uses a knife steel.  Stropping will help extend the life of the edge but eventually the edge will deteriorate and will need honing to recover its shaving ability.  How long a razor can go between honings depends on a variety of factors such as the wiriness of your beard, the quality of your stropping technique, and the corrosiveness of the environment (humidity kills razors).  Some people also have naturally acidic or salty skin that also tends to reduce the life of the edge.

There are two main flavors of strop in common use in the US: the traditional hanging strop (usually hung from a carriage bolt or the doorknob), and a paddle strop which is basically a board covered in leather with a handle attached.  There is a third type called a loom strop that is sometimes found in Europe.  This is a paddle-type strop with a stretcher mechanism inside a loop of leather, and it combines the small size of the paddle strop with the stropping "feel" of a hanging strop.

As the razor's edge degrades over a few weeks (or months) of shaving it will eventually start pulling at your whiskers a bit, and if this cannot be cured by additional stropping then it is time to refresh the edge by removing some metal.  One of the most easily mastered method of doing this is the abrasive strop.  This simply requires the user to repeat his well-practiced stropping motion, and the abrasives embedded in the strop will return the razor to shaving form in only a few laps.  Some experienced straight razor shavers prefer to refresh their razor on the same water hones that were used to put on the initial edge.  And around the turn of the century most barbers used small specialized ceramic hones that have come to be known as "barber hones"; though these are no longer being made they are readily available on ebay.  However, barber hones and water hones are more difficult to master than the abrasive strop, and are best left until a new shaver has gotten a little more experience, if only to avoid unnecessary learning curves early on.

Both paddle strops and hanging strop may be embedded with abrasives and used to sharpen a razor.  Paddle strops are probably the most commonly used form of abrasive strop today, but according to my father (who lived with his grandparents for many years during and after WWII), my great-grandfather never used a stone on his razor.  He kept it sharp all those years using only his hanging strop which apparently had some sort of abrasive on the linen side.  I have both types myself, and find that they both work well, though the abrasive hanging strops seem to be more aggressive.

One place where I think the abrasive hanging strops really have no peer is sharpening the big Sheffield choppers.  These razors tend to be huge and heavy and have equally huge bevels, and fine-grit stones are simply too slow to put a really sharp edge on the razor in a reasonable amount of time.  But the hanging strops have 15 inches or so of stroke instead of the 6 or 7 inches on a hone or abrasive paddle, so they get the job done much more quickly.  Even the biggest Sheffield razor can be refreshed with only a few dozen strokes on an abrasive hanging strop.

My favorite abrasives on these strops are 1.8 micron boron carbide and 0.5 micron chromium oxide.  I also have a hanging strop with one side treated with Flexcut Gold, whis is a coarse fast-cutting abrasive that is used for rough work on the big Sheffields as well as sharpening our chef's knives and my pocketknives.

Photos below...

Posted by: mparker762 at 12:25 PM
Post contains 1269 words, total size 9 kb.

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