Straight Razor Maintenance – Everything You Need to Know
In this article we will look at straight razor maintenance, but before we get to that, a bit of background.
The classic straight razor, also known as “cut-throats”, “straight edge” or “straight razor” was born in Sheffield, England, around 1680. Today there are two main types:
- The classic variant with a permanent blade that must be honed & stropped
- The straight razor with interchangeable double-edge blades, also known as Shavette. Shavette is a trademark of the German manufacturer Dovo and is a “replaceable-blade razor that you use like a straight razor” (not to be confused with a safety razor). A double edge razor feels somewhat different in your hand, but the shaving technique is similar. You don’t need a strop and hone, but you will need to buy replacement blades.
This article is focused on the classic type, but there are similarities with the Shavette except for stropping and honing.
Please note: Do not fall for the temptation of using your grandfather’s old straight razor, the one with small notches and rust without a check-up and service. Most old & used straight razors need a thorough overhaul with a whetstone and a strop.
Why Should You Buy a Straight Razor?
- It is an age-old tool which is still highly functional. It is comparable to driving a classic car with the driving characteristics of a factory-new Jaguar
- It provides an even closer shave than with safety razors since the blade edge slides directly on the skin
- It is fun, and your wife or partner will probably think you’re crazy
- It is a one-time investment for life, and your daily cost of luxury shaving will be minuscule after that
Anyone can learn how to use a straight edge razor; it is not dependent on your age. To use a straight razor is the same as using a traditional razor, the only difference is the grip. What you have is a very sharp edge slide across your skin – in principle the same as a safety razor.
You might get some minor cuts starting out, but if that happens, the damage will be just as if you were cutting yourself with a traditional razor – not particularly extensive in other words. If you want to be on the safe side, you can obtain a Hemostop Styptic Pencil that easily fixes cuts that bleed.
Before You Buy
Remember – a good straight blade razor is an investment for life. Buy a German made one from Solingen Steel (like a Dovo or Giesen-Forsthoff) or an American made (Hart Steel). When holding a straight razor in your hand and it says Solingen, you know you have a product that is made from the finest steel in the world, with a unique quality of manufacture.
Avoid buying cut-throat razors from other than these manufacturers. Their inferior steel quality will quickly wear out and soon start wreaking havoc with your skin.
The blade of a razor is usually made of either stainless steel or carbon steel.
- Stainless steel contains chromium particles makes the surface resistant to stains and wear, and is an increasingly popular choice for razors. It is important to note that steel that must be cured hard enough to function in a straight cut razor may not contain enough chrome to be 100 percent corrosion free and therefore needs to be polished and coated with knife oil now and then. Razors of stainless steel are characterized by low maintenance and need less frequent sharpening early on, but need to be honed and stropped more often once you have started.
- Blades of carbon steel contain, as its name suggests, more carbon than other types of steel. This makes the steel harder so that the blade can get a thinner, crisper edge. For this reason, carbon steel has become the traditional material for straight razors. Carbon steel is not stainless and therefore requires that you strop the blade after shaving to polish the steel. Razors of carbon steel are characterized by being easy to hone but must be sharpened more often, and require careful maintenance with polishing and knife oil. Certain blades are called “Blue Steel”. This is post-treated carbon steel and works basically as carbon steel.
Straight razors are available with different widths of the blade: 1/2, 9/16, 5/8, 3/4 and 7/8 inches. The most common width is 5/8 inch (about 16 mm), and this width is appropriate for most users. Men with a very coarse beard may prefer a wider blade that may slide somewhat easier through thick hair.
Some straight razors have a so-called round nose at the tip, while others have a straight nose. Some producers like Dovo use the terms “spike point” and “round point” as well to describe this.
This is mostly about style and taste. That said; it is somewhat easier to cut around a beard or a mustache with a razor with a straight nose since it is easier to see exactly where the razor shaves. A straight razor with a round nose is convenient when shaving the face since it can easily be maneuvered around without sticking yourself with the point of the blade.
Cross-sections – Degree of Hollowness
There are as many as 16 different honing profiles of razors, which are grouped into three main types:
- Straight Wedge
- Half Hollow
- Full Hollow
- Straight Wedge (Dovo uses the term “Flat Ground” for this profile) means that the blade has a wedge-shaped profile with relatively straight sides. The blade is thicker, and the razor weighs more. Men with thick hair growth and strong hands may prefer this style. The blade bends less during shaving and thus becomes easier to use, but can be slightly less comfortable when shaving compared to knives with Hollow grinding.
- Half Hollow (Dovo uses the term “1/2 Hollow Ground” for this profile) means that the blade has concave sides (arcs inwards) and therefore becomes thinner toward the edge than a Straight Wedge. The blade is, therefore, more flexible and more responsive to the user, which means that you must be a little easier on the touch during shaving, while comfort is often perceived as better.
- Full Hollow (Dovo uses the term “Full Hollow Ground” for this profile) involves even more concave grinding profile and thus an even thinner blade. That means more precision and comfort than Half Hollow, but since the blade bends more under shaving, you must be extra careful to avoid minor cuts.
You need not to be too concerned about the difference between blade types. As a rule, it is far more important how well the straight razor is set up, than how wide it is or what kind of profile it has. The essential thing is that you choose a razor of high quality that feels good to you, and that you understand and are prepared for the maintenance required.
When You Have Received Your Cut Throat Razor
When you buy a new straight razor you will often see that the blade is coated with oil. This is because the vendors are aware that the blades may be stored for a while in a warehouse or shop and don’t want the steel to discolor. It is advisable to rinse the blade in hot water before first use to avoid getting oil on the strop.
Please note that most straight razors will need a bit of honing & stropping before first use. This will save both your skin and ego some pain.
Open Razor Maintenance
Unlike Shavettes and safety razors, classic straight razors use the same blade throughout its (and your) life. Good maintenance is therefore essential. If your straight razor is not going to be used for a long time, you should coat it with knife oil. Rust is rarely a problem, but without oil, the knife may become stained and discolored.
A strop is a piece of leather that is used to keep the blade dry and edge straight. If you take a look at a straight razor that has just been used to shave and put it under an electron microscope you will see that the edge looks a bit jagged and out of alignment, similar to a disorderly fence. Stropping flattens out these “teeth” so that the edge is sharp and smooth.
When stropping it is important to remember that you lead with the back of the knife first, followed by the cutting edge. Doing it the other way, with the edge first – risk you cutting into the strop and getting a blunt edge. Most strops are narrower than the blade, which requires you to strop diagonally, by pulling the blade diagonally across the strop.
The straight razor should be turned on it’s back. It is also wise to turn while the blade is in motion over the strop. If you stop the motion with the blade and then turn it, it does not take more than a slight tremor in your hand before the edge makes a notch in your strop.
Keep a firm tension in the strop and relax the hand holding the knife. Do not use force, just let the blade barely bow the leather in your strop. If you use too much pressure there is a risk of creating a split in the cutting edge over time.
The speed you are using pulling the straight razor across the leather is no factor in affecting the result. Take it slow at first and speed up when you feel comfortable.
How many times you need to strop varies. If you have a strop with linen underneath, you can strop 20 to 25 times before changing over and strop a minimum of 25 times on the leather side. This is not a definitive rule, just strop until you feel the knife shaves well. Carbon steel razors usually benefit from a few laps on the leather side of the strop after shaving to be polished shiny again.
Your razor will get duller over time. This is normal, considering that facial hair is as strong as copper wire (see for yourself how blunt scissors becomes of cutting power cords). The edge will be rounded evenly and will in some places develop tiny notches. Unless you are blessed with the eyesight of an eagle, it will be difficult to observe this with the naked eye, but under a microscope, it is very clear. To correct this, you need to hone away a fine layer from both sides of the edge. There are different types of sharpening stones and many different vendors. As a beginner, you may want to start with two hones: One 4000 grade and one in 8000. Just as with sandpaper – higher numbers mean a more fine-grained whetstone.
Honing is performed in the opposite direction of stropping. Edge first, not the back, until you reach the end. Then turn the shaving knife over on the back and go in the opposite direction with the edge first. It is important that you take the same number of strokes on each side of the blade. As with the strop, you must let the blade go diagonally to cover the entire cutting edge length.
The shaving knife should lie completely flat on the sharpening stone with both the edge and the back touching the hone simultaneously. All honing profiles are designed to provide the correct edge angle when the blade has been sharpened flat. The whetstone must be kept moist with water while being used. In the old days, barbers used saliva, but this is entirely up to you and what you prefer.
You should only sharpen each side 4 or 5 times before switching to a finer whetstone. Honing too much can cause a layer of debris from the whetstone forming on the blade edge, often called “wire edge”, which will make shaving extremely uncomfortable. Fear not – this is easy to solve. Hone the blade a few rounds with its back first. That will remove the debris, but remember to sharpen it again with edge first afterward.
How Often Do You Need to Hone?
This varies with your beard and the material of your blade. When you feel that it leaves a little extra stubble, is time for honing, this usually occurs after about two months of use.
If you can’t face the thought of honing, you can buy stropping paste. The stropping paste contains an abrasive which makes the edge sharp. It has some of the same benefits as a whetstone, but it’s a grainy ointment you rub into the leather of a strop. Get an extra strop for this as you do not want abrasives on the leather you use for your regular stropping.