Straight Razor Honing Guide
You have bought a straight razor, and a quality strop to go with it. Now you are ready to move to the next step, honing. When you hone a razor, the edge you leave behind almost has a sense of ownership, identification. It’s personal — something that is a part of you. You will feel it when you shave.
But like most good things in life, the process of honing can take years to master. Honing is complicated, easy to learn but hard to master. And while it is possible to archive a shave ready edge after some practice, it will take you a fair amount of time to get what you can proudly call, your edge.
Let’s take a look at what honing is exactly, why you need it, and how it’s done.
What is honing?
The simplest definition of honing is that it is the process of sharping the blade with a series of abrasives and polishing until the blade is shave ready. But the process itself is nothing but simple. It’s high precision, and requires patience, practice and perseverance: The 3Ps of wet shaving.
Ultimately, the goal is to make the blade as flat and as thin as possible, without compromising its structural integrity. If you don’t hone enough, it will result in pull and tug while shaving. And over honing will produce a wire edge that will have to be removed. It’s all about striking the perfect balance, something that only comes with experience.
Learning to hone is no harder than learning the straight shave — both demand significant practice.
Why is honing necessary?
Most straight razors on the store shelves are not ready to shave as they leave the factory, even if the packaging may say otherwise! Only a few companies ship honed razors. And trying to shave with a blunt razor is simply torture; you will not want to come back for more of it. Besides, once you know how to hone, you can also start looking for straight razors in antique shops, flea markets and garage sales.
When do I need to hone my straight razor?
Before you contemplate learning to hone, you should start with a shave ready razor and a strop. These two tools will ensure that you will not need to learn to hone for several months, and more than that, they will give you plenty of time to learn how to correctly strop you razor and shave with it. Even if you have to send razor to a professional honing service, do so, before diving into honing yourself.
But a time will come for you to hone your straight razor. That’s because while stropping with an abrasive paste provides a sharpening effect, it only extends the period between honing. As an owner of a straight razor, you will have to get your hands wet, one way or another.
There are two types of approaches to honing: periodic and continual.
Periodic is the most commonly used of the two. This is when stropping no longer returns the blade to shave readiness, and requires the use of abrasives. After a few months, there will come a time when even the abrasives will not make the blade shave ready. At this point, you need to hone the U shape of your blade to the V shape.
Razors can also be continually honed to perpetually maintain the V shape, and this is what some people believe is the best process. Although the proper technique to hone needs to be learned, but continual honing keeps the razor in shape, and prevents the need for the razor to be professionally honed later down the road.
We now come to the most interesting part: The essential equipment you need to hone and maintain the edge of your straight razor. This list is made up of a whole range and types of honing abrasives, from wet-sand paper to lapping film, and of course, natural stones — the oldest form out there.
If you’re learning the deal, you might also want to get jewelers loupe to see what happens to your blade as you hone and polish. A spray bottle of water to keep the stones or films lubricated is very much recommended, and a bit of a chromium oxide on a strop for the final polish never hurts.
That said, buying what is called the full set of stones requires an investment.
This is why most people start with lapping film, which has gathered a lot of momentum and attention in recent times, say in the past 3 to 5 years. Many straight razor owners have switched from traditional methods to lapping film, with remarkably good effect. Don’t expect the fit and finish you get from a honing stone, but the results and impressive for such an inexpensive piece of equipment.
Before we get to that, though, let’s check out what usually is the first choice for new users when it comes to honing straight razors: the good old wet-sand paper.
This is, for all intents and purposes, the most affordable way of honing a straight razor, even if it is rather hard to master. To get started, you will need an extremely flat surface, a piece of glass being the best choice. And then you attach the paper to the glass. Use a tape to make sure that the paper is completely flat. Bubbles or creases will rip the paper apart, and you will have to start over.
At the end of the day, while it is possible to hone a razor this way, it is difficult for beginners, and most pros will not even bother with it, as there are too many factors for failure.
Which brings us to the increasingly popular lapping film. What is a lapping film, you ask? Well, it’s basically a precision polyester base that is coated with minerals like diamonds, aluminum oxide, silicon oxide, silicon carbide or cerium oxide. It was original designed to process optical fiber connectors to ensure efficient light transmission, but they can also be used to give a straight razor the needed polish.
That’s because a wet shaving forum group decided to try lapping film because of its precision, and found that it worked really well — incredibly well, as a matter of fact. Honing with a lapping film is basically the same concept as wet-sand paper, and you will need to attach it to a flat surface.
You might damage the first few sheets as you learn, but once you have mastered the preparation process, the film will last a decent amount of time. Add to this the fact that a lapping film itself is very cheap. You can get a complete starter set for under $25. Practically 10% of what a set of conventional stones would cost.
Honing on natural stones was the most widely used method when straight razors made their comeback, some 10 to 15 years ago. Their resurrection is as complicated as before, though, as natural stones vary in many ways. Not just different types of stones, but even stones in different categories, can differ widely in how they hone a razor.
Plus, since they have no abrasive particles, there is no accurate way of measuring their grit. But they certainly are abrasive, and require certain skills to use them effectively. And if properly maintained, they can last a lifetime.
The most popular types of natural stones include names like Belgium Coticule, Belgium Blue Whetstone, German Thuringian, American Arkansas, Welsh Slate (Dragon Tongue), Chinese Natural, Charnley Forest, Zulu Grey, and Japanese Natural.
Out of these, the Chinese Natural is the usually the most affordable of the bunch, while the German Thuringian is the most expensive straight razor hone, sometimes going up to as high as $1,000 in online auctions due to its raging popularity. Producing these stones is a very difficult process, as it not only requires a lot of time, but much of the stone is lost in the process to make a perfectly rectangular piece.
This brings us to synthetic stones, which are manmade products, manufactured and processed together, and then cut to various shapes and sizes. They have distinct grit, which can be measured and graded. Grit being particles per square inch, defining how denser a material is, and how finer of a finish it will give to the surface of the razor.
Today, synthetic stones are popular among beginners and professionals alike, as they are not only easy to learn, cut very fast, but are also very consistent. They are also readily available. The only downside being that they can be expensive. Expect to pay at least $250 for a good starter set, one that will include several stones to get your straight razor shave ready in no time.
You can also buy water stones, ceramic hones, diamond hones, and barber hones, all of which are manufactured and sold by several companies.
So, if you’re starting out, look around and pick a stone or hone that is within your budget and aligns for your level of expertise. Some of them will actually require regular usage and maintenance, and it is always a good idea to invest in wider stones, as you will find that their added real estate is worth its weight in gold.
How to hone a straight razor
Now that we an idea of the various hones that can be used for sharpening a straight razor, let’s take a look at the actual process of honing. Regardless of the equipment you are using to hone, the strategy is simply to progress to a finer level of abrasion. As an example, if you start at a stone that has a rating of a 1,000 grit, move to a 4,000 grit one, and then to an 8,000 grit, or 10,000 grit piece.
It’s strongly recommended to start out with the lowest grit rating stone or abrasives in your honing progression. Something abrasive with a grit rating of 800 to 1,200 is ideal. The next step is to set up the stones or films where they will not move while you are honing. A bean bag works well here, or if possible, a stone holder for stones.
Setting the bevel
We then come to what is clearly the most important part of the entire honing process: setting the bevel. Or in other words, establishing the shaving edge. Bevel is defined as the area of metal on both sides of the blade that progressively concaves as it leads to the microscopic cutting edge.
The most common stroke associated with honing is the x-stroke, which is bringing the edge of the blade over an abrasive surface in a varying sequence that closely resembles the shape of an X. This method is only used for stones that are under 3 inches in width, and is not necessary when using a modern, wider hone. It’s important to keep your stone or abrasive lubricated with water to prevent clogging, and to help the razor glide over.
About 50 or so laps, meaning back and forth passes, usually are enough to set the bevel, though razors that require more honing will need more.
Establishing the edge
Once the bevel is set, you’re halfway there. Now it is time to establish the keenness of the edge. Your next set of stones and abrasives will come into play here. Recommend abrasives are in the 4,000 to 8,000 grit range.
Use the same technique you used when setting the bevel, with light strokes and light pressure. At least 30 odd laps would do for the 4K stone or film. To top it off, end the hone with an 8K grit stone or abrasive, and give it another 20 or so laps. Confirm to see if it needs more work.
Once all that is done, it is time for the final polish. You will need to use your finest stones and abrasives here, something along the lines of 10,000 grit or above. Natural stones are perfect for this, by the way. Use the same honing technique as in the previous stages, and check the edge every 20 or so laps. If you feel that it is good to go, then strop about 30 passes on your chromium oxide, clean the blade, and then, perform 200 passes on leather — all of them leading with the spine, and done very lightly.
The process of honing is something that will take most people years to master. It ever so often results in heated debates among enthusiastic fans. No surprises, considering the fact that there are many different ways and processes to get the desired results. A razor can be made shave ready in a variety of ways, and it is perhaps this feeling of association with a particular process that results in all the debates.
Honing a straight razor is something that you can quickly learn, and get better each time you give your razor the edge it needs for the perfect shave. Above all, experience is key. You will never know how to do it right until you fail.
Straight razor honing FAQs
Below is a small list of frequently asked questions about straight razor honing:
I’m new to straight razor honing, any essential guidelines?
The most important aspect of honing a straight razor is to have patience. Pick a quiet time of the day when you have no distractions. You must pay attention to what you are doing, and certainly not be consuming alcoholic beverages during the process. Unless you don't mind losing a few fingers.
Go slow and get it right the first time!
Any pro tips on the honing technique?
Keep the blade as flat as possible during hone. And never let the spine lift off the hone while the blade is moving, or you risk blunting the blade. Also, be sure to apply equal pressuring during honing on both sides, completing the same number of strokes for each side of your straight razor.
How often should I hone my straight razor?
This one is simple: Whenever your razor blade becomes dull through use. There are lots of varying opinion in the straight razor community on this. But honing is recommended when you feel that the blade is generally not doing a good job on your cheeks and is dragging on your stubble.
How do I determine the sharpness of the blade?
Although some people like to run their moistened thumb against the blade to see if it pulls or catches the skin, beginners can find out if their blade is sharp enough by placing the edge of the blade against a single hair. If it cuts it cleanly, then it should be sharp enough.
What should I keep in mind so as not to over hone?
For starters, as long as you do not cut too much metal away from your blade edge, you should do fine. You can try the 8K and smooth for a while and then return to 4K, instead of going all in with 4K and then having to smooth out a torn up over honed edge.
Is a pasted strop really necessary for honing?
Not really. You can try finishing a blade with a pasted strop, and try one without it in order to determine your preference. Some people love one over the other, so experiment.
Wet or dry honing?
While most manufacturers recommend the use of water with their hones at the start and regular intervals, some expert put their weight behind dry honing. Try both to see which results suit you best.