We’re going to take a detailed dive into how to sharpen a straight razor as the pros do. Using sharp and effective razors can have a massive impact on your complexion and skin health. You will look and feel better by following our process and steps to getting as-new cutting edges on your razors.
We’ll teach you about the materials and tools you’ll need to get the job done right – as well as drop in a couple of technical pointers and tips along the way. By the time we’re done here, you will know enough to sharpen your first straight razor. You’ll be comfortable with the process, what you’ll need, and the correct technique.
We’re also going to take a look at the key differences between sharpening and stropping, and why it’s so important that you choose the correct one. With all this in mind, let’s get started!
Table of Contents
Differences Between Stropping and Honing
You’ve probably heard these 2 terms thrown about into a mix that makes them feel almost interchangeable – but they’re not. There are key differences between these two processes, and they can make or break the performance of your knives. And this is even more important when it comes to razors!
They have delicate and extremely sharp cutting edges that need a mix of both stropping and honing to get the best possible results. Let’s take a look at each of them.
Despite the word conjuring colorful imagery, the process is quite simple and plain. Stropping simply realigns the knife’s cutting edge by smoothing out any impurities, burrs, and bumps. Stropping is essential if you want your razor to cut like new. Honing your blade just isn’t enough to put a polished and refined cutting edge on your razor.
The stropping process is usually done with special stropping belts made from leather. Each stroke slowly realigns the cutting edge and gives you that razor-sharp cutting performance. Stropping can be done as frequently as you’d like. You will eventually reach a point where stropping no longer improves the cutting performance – and this is when you need to hone your razor.
The honing is often referred to as sharpening and is more widely known than stropping. Honing involves using abrasive materials such as synthetic sharpening stones to remove some of the razor’s cutting edge. The honing resets the grind angle and exposes a new part of the cutting core. You shouldn’t be honing your knife nearly as often as stropping.
Honing gradually wears down your knife’s edge and eventually, the bevels and grind won’t match the original cutting angle (you’ll need to get the knife done professionally). Honing alone isn’t enough to put on a razor-sharp cutting edge. Under a microscope, you’ll notice that honed cutting edges are very rough and jagged – which is why we need stropping.
Key takeaway: Honing removes some of the steel on the knife’s cutting edge and resets the grind and bevel angle to a sharper setting.
Materials You Need
The first thing to grasp here is that quality is king. Razors are one of the most challenging knives to take to their sharpest possible form. After you learn how to sharpen a straight razor and get down to it, make sure you get a great quality leather strop and good whetstones.
We recommend you get a synthetic whetstone in the least 3 different grits (1000, 4000, 8000, and an optional 10,000). The rougher grits will do most of the resetting and will take the longest time to complete. The finer grits will do most of the touching up and refining of the cutting edge.
The 10,000 grit can be used if you want an exceptionally sharp edge – though it’s not too necessary. We advise against using natural stone honing stones as they aren’t very consistent and have a high skill requirement.
There are quite a few different strop setups available and this can get a little confusing. My personal favorites are bench strops and hanging strops. The bench strop is probably better for total beginners; though the hanging strop is relatively easy to use and will often produce better results.
We suggest you avoid handheld strops and paddle strops. They can be difficult to work with if you don’t have tons of experience. Once you’ve got your strop and honing stones, it’s time to set up your workspace. Here are some helpful pointers:
- Work at a comfortable height or you’ll tire your arms, neck, and shoulders out quickly
- Have a container of clean water for soaking the honing stones handy
- Fill a spray bottle with clean water and use it to keep the stones wet
With everything set up and ready to go, let’s move onto the steps for stropping your razor.
How to Strop a Straight Razor
Stropping can be done before or after each use, or as often as you’d like. Remember that when stropping fails to improve the razor’s cutting edge, it’s time to sharpen/hone it. That’s when you’ll need to know how to sharpen a straight razor using a honing stone. Here are the steps for stropping a straight razor.
Step 1: Warm Up the Strop
Make sure the strop is tight and won’t come loose while working. Use your hands to warm the strop up by rubbing it up and down on both sides. This wipes away dirt and smooths any bumps while warming the strop for first use.
Step 2: Find the Right Stropping Angle
Lay the razor flat against the strop so that both the spine and cutting edge are making contact with the leather. That’s it! No fancy techniques here. Remember that you need to slide the blade across the strop blade-first, not away from the cutting edge. Hold the razor’s handle in your dominant hand without putting too much pressure.
Step 3: Start Stropping
Stropping isn’t a forceful activity. All you need to do is slide the razor cutting edge-first across the length of the strop. Make sure you stop an inch or so before reaching the end of the leather to avoid damaging the razor’s edge on the strop’s buckle.
Step 4: Flip the Razor Over
Always flip the razor over the spine and not over the cutting edge. The motion resembles how your turn a key. Leave the spine in contact with the leather and flip it 180° so that it’s lying flat facing the opposite direction. Repeat the same motion that you did in step 3, stopping before reaching the end of the strop. Flip the knife over again (using the spine as a pivot) and repeat.
Step 5: Repeat 10-20 Strokes and Test
After you’ve completed 10-20 stokes following the process in Steps 3 and 4, perform a cutting test on paper or some arm hair. Test the cutting performance along the length of the razor to make sure the results are even. Take the razor back to the strop until you’re happy with the results.
How to Hone a Straight Razor
Start by laying down a towel that acts as a non-slip surface for the honing stone. Lay the stone on the towel and test its slip-resistance. Now you’re ready to move onto the steps.
Step 1: Soak the Honing Stone
Using the container of clean water we set up earlier, submerge the honing stone in it. Wait until bubbles stop coming from the stone. Have the spray bottle nearby and use it to keep the stone wet as you work. Dry stones can damage the razor’s cutting edge.
Step 2: Sharpening Angle
This should be the same as with stropping. Lie the razor flat on its side on the honing stone. This is the angle you’ll slide the razor across the stone at. We’ll be starting on the 1000-grit stone and working out a way up from there.
Step 3: First Stroke
Remember to use as little force as possible. Extra force can damage the blade and cause you to make mistakes. The most important pointer here is to hone into the blade (not away from it). Use two fingers from your non-dominant hand to gently press down on the side of the blade. Gently slide the razor along the length of the stone with even pressure and speed.
Step 4: Flip the Blade Over
Flip the blade over using the spine as the pivot point (without losing contact with the stone). Flip it 180° over and repeat the stroke from step 3. Make sure to avoid the edges of the honing stone. Flip the blade over again at the end of the stroke.
Step 5: Repeat and Test
Test the cutting after a couple of alternating strokes (less than 10) with each of the stones you use. It’s better to work in short phases. Take frequent breaks to clean and test the razors cutting edge before moving onto the next stone. The finer-grit stones will be slower to sharpen but don’t overdo it. Regular checks are the best way to make sure you don’t mess up.
You should feel comfortable with how to sharpen a straight razor – and all the techniques involved. Just keep in mind that speed and automaticity will build over time. Be patient and consistent and you’ll get the results you’re looking for. The sharpening and stropping process can be very enjoyable and we hope that our guide helps you get the best possible results. Enjoy the cleanest shaves ever and good luck!