Straight Razor Strop Guide
You have chosen your straight razor after careful research and consideration. Now comes the time to make the second most important decision — purchasing a shaving strop. There are so many different types, brands, sizes and components that selecting the one that is right for you is not at all easy.
This is a complete guide to straight razor strops, their variety, usage, and care.
Before we get to that, let’s find out what exactly is a strop.
What is a strop?
A razor strop is basically a flexible strip of leather, or any other soft material that is used to straighten and polish the blade of a straight razor. It’s also called a razor strap. Along with leather, a few other materials are also used to make it, including canvas, denim fabric, or balsa wood.
Since straight razors are made of the thinnest blades that are in everyday use, they require frequent stropping, particularly before shaving. Different types of stropping leathers are also used to apply the finishing touches on your razor’s edge after honing.
There are two components that make up a strop — the fabric side and the leather side.
The fabric, being coarser, can be used to remove elements that could damage the leather, like bits of metal, and leftover soap, for example. The much smoother surface of the leather, on the other hand, is what will do the majority of the work on the surface of the razor.
What is stropping?
Stropping is the single most important skill you must learn as a straight razor user — it is the difference between a great shave and a mediocre one. Not to mention, stropping keeps your razor sharp for many months, making it essential for you to know how to strop.
In fact, stropping is necessary not just for straight razors. In principal, any blade can be stropped to give it a polish. Hunting knives, chef knives, and other valuable blades are also frequently stropped. Kitchen knives, however, are more often honed, particularly if less sharpness is acceptable.
Getting back to stropping, it is the process of straightening and polishing a blade using leather or any other flexible fabric. The technique is simple enough, and remains the same, irrespective of the material used. But it requires a gentle hand and a fair amount of practice. You have to take it slow, and apply very light pressure, so as not to damage the edge of the blade, or ruin the strop itself.
The idea is to set the razor on the stropping surface, the blade facing away from you, and drawing it over the surface leading with the spine with a very soft touch. When you reach the end, turn the razor on its spine so that the edge faces you. You will also need to use the secondary component of your strop to heat up the blade. This will remove the oxidation and microscopic blurs that are embedded in the smooth side.
Choosing a strop
There are multiple considerations you need to keep in mind when choosing a strop. Factors like size, material, the type of strop itself, and whether it is vintage or new, all have an effect on usage, and maintenance and storage. The most important thing to consider here is that as long as your strop is made from quality leather, it will perform perfectly.
Type of leather
The first thing you will need to decide on when purchasing a strop is the type of leather you want. Decide on the properties you want in your strop, and then make the choice. While the type of leather does not make a huge difference, it does have an influence on the edge of your straight razor.
Some types of leather have a lot of drag, also known as draw, while others have none. This is basically the amount of resistance the razor encounters as it is pulled from one side to the other. The heavier the draw, the more the resistance, the lighter the less. The draw mostly comes down to preference, but heavier draw is said to be more suited to wedged styled blades, while lighter draw works well with pastes and sprays.
The most popular leathers in order of draw amount are buffalo, latigo or bridle, regular, horsehide, and cordovan. Kangaroo is another popular and exotic leather that some people like to use.
The next decision is the cloth component of your strop. The quality of the cloth has the most say here, as the better it is the better the edge. Options include cotton, linen, and nylon. Cotton and linen are the ones are the most recommended ones, as nylon does not work nearly as well for this purpose.
Size is perhaps the most important selling point when selecting a strop. Strops are measured in width and length, but the width is the aspect that matters. For years, 2 or 2.5 inches wide strops have been the standard, but more lately versions with 3 inches of width are popular with artisans. These are good for eliminating the x-stroke technique, and these versions with larger diameters are now quickly replacing the smaller ones.
Hanging or paddle
And finally, you will also have to decide upon is whether to buy a hanging or paddle strop.
The hanging strop was originally developed for barbers in the 19th century, and is the most common straight razor edge strop today. Paddle strops, meanwhile, usually consist of a piece of leather affixed to a wooden paddle, though more complex versions also exist. These were very popular in the 20th century, but lost interest when straight razors went out of fashion.
Opting for a hanging or paddle strop ultimately is a matter of personal preferences. The best stops are the hanging ones, and they are also easier to store. But a paddle strop is simpler, and relatively effortless to use for beginners as it is more rigid.
Vintage or new
If you’re into straight razors because of the history behind them, then using a vintage strop that has been around for ages has its own charm. Buying something that is a hundred years old may be cool, but you will have to be very careful when purchasing a vintage strop. Almost all of them will require some sort of restoration by a professional — a time-consuming process, but well worth the results.
No such considerations when purchasing a new strop, though.
Caring for your strop
You can tell when your leather is in need of conditioning if you see high levels of leather dust that coats your razor after a round of stropping. The leather particles shed just like our skin cells shed on a daily basis. And they are a sign that your strop has dried out, and needs oil for conditioning.
Basically, the only thing you need to do to take care of your new strop is to rub it down with your palms every once in a while. You don’t really need anything else. Normal, daily stropping essentially keeps your strop cleaned and buffed, while the natural oils in your hands are enough to keep it oiled, hydrated and supple.
More complex strop maintenance operations entail applying oil to rejuvenate the leather.
Neatsfoot oil is widely used as a conditioning, softening and preservative agent for all types of leather, and is ideal for strop care. This relatively inexpensive substance is distilled from the shin bones of cattle. An alternative is light mineral oil, which also goes by the name of butcher’s block oil or food grade mineral oil. Application of either oil can bring your strop back to life.
Simply put a little bit of oil on the palm of your hands and rub it down the strop. Repeat as necessary.
Straight razor strop FAQs
Below is a small list of frequently asked questions about straight razor strops:
Do I really need to buy an actual strop?
A strop is just a piece of leather. And while having an actual one provides several advantages, you can just as well use your belt, a strip of leather, or even a newspaper for stropping.
Excuse me, a newspaper for stropping?
Yes, you read that correctly. Believe it or not, newspapers make excellent material for stropping straight razors and giving them a nice edge. The ink makes the paper slightly abrasive, and it even works with pastes and compounds.
Is stropping the same as sharpening?
The term stropping is often misinterpreted with the term sharpening. Because, even though a razor may feel sharper after stropping, no metal has been removed from the blade. It is just keener, for the lack of a better word.
I am buying my first strop, any tips?
Don’t pay a lot of money for it. You are probably going to damage your first strop, so don’t fret over getting that perfect dream strop right away. Choose the one that fits your needs and budget.
Does a new strop require a break-in period?
Yes, as a matter of pure fact. This break-in period can range from a few days to months, and your stropping results will slightly vary during this time.
Is there such a thing as stropping too much?
Once you get a hang of it, stropping your razor turns into a very relaxing experience. But as long as your technique is good, and you are not applying too much pressure, it should be okay. You usually do not gain any refinement to an edge after 200 passes, though.
What if I nick my strop?
As long as it is not a big gash, you can still use your strop if you nick it. It all depends on the level of damage. You may need to remove the loose piece, or use very, very fine grit sandpaper to polish up the area and make it smooth. And in some cases, you will need to use superglue to glue back the pieces to create a smooth surface again.