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The art of shaving with the straight razor

Updated on January 6, 2018

I remember, as a wee lad, watching one particular episode of (I believe) CHiPs.In this partricular episode, a young man was preparing to shave and he pulled out a shaving set that had been passed down to him from his grandfather.It included a straight razor and strop. From that moment on, I knew that one day I wanted to shave with a straight razor.

Many years went by and eventually I picked up a straight razor at an antique store, figuring I could take it, sharpen it up and use it. Well, it wasn't that simple and this first experiment was a failure. I never could get the thing sharp enough to take hair off my face.

A couple years after that I gave it another try with a different razor and the same results so I decided to go looking for some information. I spent days pouring over the information spread willy-nilly around the internet and together with a fair amount of experimentation, finally got the thing to work.

Where to buy and what to look for

There are two choices: new or old. The simplest way to go is to buy a new razor. New razors are sharp and with a minimum of care they stay that way. On the other hand, I've made an observation: It seems that in the past people used straight razors because they had to. As a result, there was a range of qualities and prices. Today, anyone who uses a straight razor does so as a matter of style and taste. New razors, then, are almost all high quality and expensive. They tend to range from $50-$150. Granted, this isn't the most expensive thing you'll ever buy, but for what it is, it's a lot.

New razors can be had from a variety of sources. Many malls have cutlery shops that sell, or can order, straight razors. There are also a number of businesses on the internet that sell razors and shaving products. These should be easy to find through any of the search engines.

Old razors can be had cheap. Where I live, they usually go for around $15 in antique stores. If you're willing to put in the time to restore them, then, they can be a tremendous savings over new. Additionally, they have the benefit, if you are of a mind to see it that way, of being old. They are real articles from the past that you are recapturing by using them.

When you look at an old razor, if you are reasonably perceptive and have looked at a few of them, you should be able to get a sense of the quality of it. It seems top me that all the blades are of passable quality and the real differences between one razor and the next are in the handle.

Handles can be found made from a wide range of materials. The most common is celluloid, an early form of plastic. As I understand it, celluloid can combust at temperatures as low as 125 degrees so you might want to watch where you store these. If you ever decide to put your razor in storage, the attic might not be the place if it gets hot up there. Other common materials include bone, tortiseshell and buffalo horn. Handles are commonly quite plain but can occasionally be found with engravings or other markings.

Make sure that you look at the blade before you buy anything. The edge is the most important part. It should be straight and not excessively rusty or chipped. It is possible to remove small nicks during the sharpening process. Anything big enough to be seen from a couple feet away, however, is too big. The sides of the blade as well as the tang (the part hinged onto the handle) are likely to be somewhat rusty but again, this rust should be light. There should be no pits in the metal as these will be impossible to remove.

Additionally, make sure that the hinge and the bolster holding the other end of the handle together are in good shape.

Sharpening an old blade

The blade of a straight razor has a thick back and is, unless it's especially old, hollow ground such that the sides are concave, tapering down to a very thin, sharp edge. The thickness of the back edge serves two purposes. First, it gives strength to what would be a very flimsy blade if it was uniformly thin. Second, it forms the correct angle for sharpening when the blade is laid flat on the sharpening surface.

I've read a number of sources that say you should never try to hone your razor yourself. Nothing in my own experience tells me that this is necessarily the case provided you know what you're doing. If you want to try your hand at honing a razor, your best bet will be to pick up a decent, though not necessarily first-rate, old razor in an antique store. This shouldn't be a huge investment and will allow you to develop your skills before applying them to a more costly blade.

The general principal of sharpening is this: to put the blade on an abrasive (either natural stone or synthetic) surface at a consistent angle and grind the edge by sliding it forward across this surface until a burr forms on the other side. Then the blade is turned over and this process is repeated. As you used progressively finer abrasives, the burr gets smaller until and the blade edge becomes very fine and polished.

For a straight razor it is very easy to keep a consistent, correct angle. As I noted before, the shape of the blade automatically gives you the correct angle if you simply lay it flat on the stone. On some old blades it will be obvious that this has been done before as you will be able to see the marks from the stone along the back of the blade. Assuming this is not the case with your blade, you will want to keep from scratching the blade as you work. The way I did it was to simply fold a piece of clear tape over the back of the blade and down onto the sides such that it covers the whole length.

There are a number of honing implements that you can use for this task. What I use is a somewhat coarse India stone to get the angles right (though I think in the future I will use a diamond stone for this as I think it will cut equally fast but more smoothly), then I move through a series of progressively harder Arkansas stones, doing most of the work on soft and medium stones and briefly finishing with a hard Arkansas. I've found that satisfactory results can be had with medium Arkansas alone buy, ultimately, what you're aiming for is a highly polished, smooth edge so the finer a stone you're working with the better your razor will ultimately work. This is to say that a razor sharpened on a finer stone will give a closer, more comfortable shave.

How to hone your straight razor

The Strop

A strop is a device used for maintaining an already sharp blade that consists of a wide strip of canvas on one side and a wide strip of fine-grained leather on the other side. Both sides of the strop are treated with various compounds.They can typically be bought at the same places as the razors themselves. Strops cost about $50. It is also possible to use a leather belt (with any stitching removed and the relevant treatments applied) with a rough side and a smooth side but this has drawbacks. For example, most belts are only a little over an inch wide. Strops are wide enough to accommodate the full length of most razor blades.

The purpose of stropping is two-fold. First, the strop is used to remove the burr that is left after sharpening. If the blade has been sharpened on an appropriately fine stone, this burr will be very small and easily removed by the strop, leaving a very sharp edge. This is best done using the canvas side. A very fine abrasive compound can be applied to this side to aid in the sharpening process.

The second purpose is to correct misalignment of the edge that occurs during normal use. This is done on the leather side. This side is treated with a compound that contains either an extremely fine abrasive or none at all. In any case, the compound will contain ingredients that will maintain the surface of the leather, keeping it from drying out and giving it some grab on the edge of the blade.

To strop a razor, attach the ring end to a hook and hold the handles in your hand, putting a fair amount of tension on the strop so that its surface is fairly flat. Next, lay the razor flat at one end of the strop with the back edge forward and the sharp edge trailing. This should be obvious as if it was done the other way the sharp edge would cut into the leather.

Now slide the razor to the other end of the strop, making sure that the entire length of the blade touches the strop. You should only use light pressure, barely more than the weight of the blade itself. If the strop bows significantly, you are pressing too hard. Using too much pressure will cause the strop o curve around the edge of the blade, rounding it off and leaving you with a dull (or at least not fully sharp) edge.

When you've reached the other end of the strop, hold the back of the blade against the surface of the strop, lift the sharp edge up and roll it over until the razor is facing the opposite direction. If you insure that the back of the blade stays on the strop that there will be no chance that sharp edge will be dragged across the strop at the wrong angle, dulling it.

Now slide the blade back to the other end. Repeat this procedure about ten times. Some people say that this should be done every time you shave. Others say it's only necessary every four or five times. I, personally, do it every time and I don't see what harm it could do.

Using the straight razor

Shaving with a straight razor is simpler than you might imagine. Many people are afraid of seriously injuring themselves in the attempt to shave with one of these razors but such an injury is unlikely. The most important safety rule is the same with a straight razor as with a safety razor. Always move the blade perpendicular to its length. Never make a slicing cut! You will have to make an effort to remember this at first but after a few days it will become automatic. If you do slip and start to cut yourself you will feel it and stop before the cut goes too deep. I have gotten minor cuts but they haven't been much more than I have gotten with safety razors and they have certainly been no more severe than paper cuts.

First, cover your face with whatever shaving cream or soap you choose. Then, using your non-dominant hand, put a couple fingers on the section of your face that you are about to shave and pull the skin fairly taut. You may or may not have done this with your safety razor but it is very important with a straight razor. Leaving the skin loose is one of the ways to cut yourself with a straight razor but, more likely, you just won't get a very good shave.

Keep the blade at about a 30 degree angle to your face and shave in the direction of hair growth. It is possible to wipe the shaving cream and hair off on a towel but I usually leave the water running a bit and rinse the blade periodically.

Probably the hardest place to shave, and the most time consuming, is the chin. Take your time and use short strokes in this area. Puckering your lips and shifting them upward a bit will help tighten the skin. Experiment with this in other ares of the face as well.

After you have covered your entire face feel around with a wet hand. Many people will shave any rough areas that remain again, moving the razor opposite or diagonally across the direction of hair growth. In all likelihood you will have some irritation when you first start the shave with a straight razor but this will derease as your face gets used to it. At this point I have no more razor burn with a straight razor than I do with any other kind.

Innevitably, with any kind of razor, I end up with a few nicks but a styptic pencil takes care of these quickly. I then finish by washing my face and applying a moisturizer. Special aftershave moisturizers are available but I use Nivea lotion and find that it works well.

Finally, make sure that you dry off your razor. Straight razors are made of high carbon steel, not stainless (high carbon steel is easier to sharpen and takes a better egde) and WILL rust if left wet. This is when I strop, before putting the razor away for the day.

How to shave with a straight razor

Lecture on shaving with a straight razor by a barber

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