If you’d like to be the master of your own destiny, learning how to sharpen a straight razor is the best way to start.
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Why You Need To Sharpen Your Straight Razor
The only thing you can do with a dull straight razor is put it up on display, and that’s not what I’m about.
If you want to shave with it, your straight razor better be sharp. Otherwise, it’ll either make a mess of your face or it won’t cut at all. The only way to enjoy a smooth, comfortable, close shave is with a straight razor.
That said, you don’t have to learn how to sharpen your straight razor. A lot of straight razor users are perfectly happy to let a professional honemeister do the occasional sharpening, while they maintain their razor’s cutting edge with a strop.
Stropping is a lot more like honing than sharpening. It makes sure that the razor’s edge is aligned. Unlike “real sharpening”, sharpening your straight razor with a strop is a mandatory skill that every straight razor owner should master.
How Do I Know If My Straight Razor Is Dull?
If your straight razor isn’t gliding over your skin comfortably or isn’t cutting your hair easily, it’s almost certainly too dull. You can look for signs while you shave, like tugging or pulling. After the shave, check for redness, cuts, or irritation.
If you’re not sure and you don’t want to put your face in harm’s way, you can also use a piece of paper, a loose strand of hair, or the tip of a fingernail to test the sharpness. Just hold whatever object you choose against the blade of your razor, and if it doesn’t get cut easily your razor is definitely not sharp enough.
How To Sharpen A Straight Razor With A Strop
A strop is a long strip of leather or fabric with a textured side. The texture on the strop is just rough enough to polish and align the blade. Leather strops are the classic choice, but if you have a fabric strop you can also use it to make sure your straight razor is totally dry after you finish shaving.
Before anyone accuses me of insufficient pedantry, it bears clarifying – the strop refines the edge of your razor and removes microscopic burrs but it doesn’t strip metal away so it doesn’t count as sharpening. It’s still an essential part of blade maintenance, and it’ll definitely make your razor feel sharper, but it’s not going to fix a blade that’s not shave-ready.
All you’ll need to sharpen your razor with a strop is the razor itself and the strop. Make sure that the razor itself is clean and quite dry.
Most strops come with a hook on one end, which you can secure to a sturdy object, and a handle on the other end which you can hold to stretch out the strops. Some strops are attached to a block, in which case you can just place it down on a table.
Once you’re set up, you can get started.
- Hold the razor so that the blade is flat against the strop, near one of the ends
- Pull the razor up towards the other end of the strop, making sure that the spine (back of the blade) is facing in the direction that you’re pulling. If this is your first time, go slowly to prevent injury. You’ll be able to pick up speed as you gain more practice.
- Once you reach the end, flip the razor along the spine (never let the blade’s edge touch the strop directly), and pull back in the opposite direction.
- Repeat this up to 50 or 60 times if you’re stropping a brand new razor. Afterward, between shaves, you can strop it just 10-20 times.
How To Sharpen A Straight Razor Without A Strop
Don’t have a strop? You should probably buy one. That said, for proper sharpening, you’ll want to use a set of whetstones anyway.
When sharpening a straight razor with a whetstone, you always want to start with a lower grit side (i.e. the rougher side) and then slowly work your way up to a higher grit (less rough, which gives a more pristine polish).
In most cases, you’ll need to soak your whetstone in water before you can start sharpening but double-check the manufacturer’s recommendation. Then, you can set it down on a towel or in a shallow bowl to avoid getting your table or counter wet. If your home is pretty arid, a spray bottle can be handy for keeping the stone moist.
- To sharpen, place your straight razor flat against one end of the stone, so the entire side of the blade is in contact with it.
- Then, gently push it forward without applying any pressure. The blade’s edge should face the direction in which you’re pushing.
- Once you hit the end, flip the razor over so you can do the same on the other side.
- Continue doing this for 20 more passes.
- Then test the sharpness of the blade with a piece of paper or a loose strand of hair.
- If the hair cuts easily, you can move on to a higher grit polishing stone, but if it doesn’t, do another set of passes.
- Once you’re done, move up to a higher grit and polish the edge following the same steps.
Pro tip: if you don’t want to scratch the spine of your razor, place electrical tape over it to protect it from the abrasive effects of the stone.
Warning: Do not, under any circumstances, attempt to sharpen your straight razor with a regular knife-sharpener. The blades are constructed a little differently, and one of the fastest ways to destroy a straight razor is by sharpening it with an overly aggressive sharpener.
What Angle To Sharpen A Straight Razor?
When using a strop or whetstone, you’ll need to hold your razor so the blade is totally flush against the material. Don’t be tempted to lift the blade at all, to avoid cutting the strop or damaging the edge.
The only difference is that with a strop, you pull the blade leading with the spine, whereas with a whetstone you lead with the edge (i.e. the same direction you’d push the blade in when shaving).
What Grit Should I Use To Sharpen A Straight Razor?
Most men who maintain their own straight razor opt for a double-sided waterstone with a 4000 grit on one side and an 8000 grit on the other. The lower the grit, the rougher the stone and the more metal it removes. 4000 is just rough enough for a more gentle sharpening without the risk of damage, and 8000 is perfect for the basic polish prior to stropping.
However, if you’re aiming to become a serious honemeister, you may want to buy a full set with stones going from 1000 grit up to 12000 grit. A lower grit will start setting an edge even on an extremely dull razor.
Make sure to work your way up the grit levels progressively, since jumping from a 1000 grit up to an 8000 grit can damage the razor or lead to an uneven edge that’s more likely to injure.
How Often Should You Sharpen Your Straight Razor?
You should strop your straight razor either before or after every shave. Sharpening can be done a lot less frequently, especially if you take great care of your straight razor.
This also depends on the type of straight razor you have. Carbon steel straight razors can hold a super sharp edge, but they tend to go dull more quickly, so they need to be properly sharpened around twice a year.
Stainless steel razors don’t get quite as sharp, but they keep their edge for longer. If you own a stainless steel razor, once a year will be more than enough.
How Sharp Should A Straight Razor Be?
Your goal is for your razor to cut through hair effortlessly, even with zero pressure. In other words, a straight razor can’t be “too sharp.”
The whole point of using a straight razor is that you get to enjoy a super sharp blade that provides a closer shave. The sharper the blade, the more easily it’ll cut through your hair. That means less friction against your skin, which results in less irritation.