How to Sharpen a Straight Razor

Last updated on November 28th, 2018 by Garrick Dee

The straight razor is without a doubt the purest form of shaving. There’s nothing that gets in the way between skin and blade.

How to Sharpen a Straight Razor

Using this tool requires a steady hand and skill that requires practice.

Before the safety, electric or cartridge razor came into the market, this was the only option that men had.

With just a single blade and no covering whatsoever, the straight razor will shave the closest with the least irritation.

So it is very important that you keep this piece of steel sharp and clean.

Imagine ranking a dull, rust filled blade on your skin. The results will not be pretty.

Stropping will take time but it is a necessary skill. You can have someone do it for you but the best option in my opinion is doing it yourself because it’ll save you some $$$.

Why use a straight razor?

Using a straight razor will add a few more minutes to your routine but the results will be worth it.

It’ll give you the smoothest and closest you’ll ever get. Expect a few bloody swipes during the learning process.

If using a bare piece of sharp metal scares the heck out of you then why not consider using a safety razor that cuts almost as close but with a shallower learning curve.

Since there’s only one blade touching the skin, there’s less chance of irritation. When you compare it to a 5-blade Gillette Fusion, the difference is night and day.

There’s a reason why barber’s all over the world use a straight razor. In the hands of skilled shaver, this tool cuts really close even if you don’t go against the grain.

But to get the most out of a straight razor, you’ll have to keep it sharp.  And one of the best ways is manually stropping it. In fact the last step in the manufacturing process after the molding, machining and grinding would be the final strop.

If you’re planning on using a straight razor then stropping is a necessary skill if you want to save on money long term.

Basics of Maintaining a Straight Razor

Before I talk about sharpening, let’s discuss the basics on how to care for a cut throat razor. Buying a high quality razor isn’t cheap so it matters to know how to care for these works of art.

By applying these basic steps, the straight razor will easily last a lifetime. It’s actually something that you can pass on to your child and a right-of-passage to adulthood so to speak.

If you don’t take care of it, you’ll spend a lot in terms of specialist repair and sharpening. Or worst, you’ll need to buy a new one.

Rinsing after every pass

First step would be rinsing the blade after every stroke.

This step helps remove excess shaving cream and hair on the blade. Take note that you only rinse the blade, not the hinge, tang or handle because it is almost impossible to remove moisture from these areas.

Moisture in those hard to reach areas may lead to rust and corrosion.

Even if the handle is made from plastic, avoid soaking that part in water.

After rinsing wipe the blade dry on a clean towel before moving to the next area. Time consuming yes but you’ll be glad that you did it in the long term.

Dry thoroughly after using

After the final stroke make sure to wipe the blade down with a clean towel. If you do this properly, the handle and blade should be dry and not dripping with suds or shave cream.

Then let it sit on a dry part of the sink while you get dressed to make sure it’s dry.

Applying oil

The reality is you will not shave everyday unless you grow them like crazy. This downtime will necessitate applying some thin oil, especially if you live in an area with high humidity.

Only little oil is needed – just a drop on each side then use your fingers to spread it around the blade, tang and maybe the hinges and tail. After you’ve oil the blade, it’s ready for storage.

Just be careful not to cut your fingers on the blade while doing this.

A safer method is using an applicator or a cotton swab.

Oil adds a layer of protection that protects it from moisture and corrosion.

Stropping before shaving

Some men would strop their razor before and after shaving. It’s not really a requirement but a matter of personal preference.

Make sure that the blade is smooth without any jagged edges to protect the strop from damage.

When to Sharpen a Straight Razor

Raking a dull straight razor on your face isn’t pleasant. The dull blade can snag, pull and cause irritation. Damaged areas on the blade can pierce the skin.

Knowing when to sharpen a straight razor will involve a few tests. One telltale sign that it needs sharpening is if it leaves irritation. A dull blade will pull and tug.

Another way to test is grabbing a single strand of hair and sliding it against the blade. A sharp blade will easily slice through it while a dull blade will snag and tear.

The last test you can do (though a bit dangerous) would be running the tip of the blade through the top of your fingernails. If it leaves a groove then it’s definitely sharp otherwise it’s dull.

Two Methods of Sharpening a Straight Razor: Honing vs Stropping

There are two ways you can sharpen a cut through razor – honing and stropping.

Stropping is the most basic way of sharping a razor using a thick piece of leather belt. Some men would go as far as stropping before and after shaving but it’s only necessary every 5 to 10 shaves.

Honing is the process of smoothing out rough spots on the edges. This is only necessary every few months to a year. That would depend on how often you shave and the thickness of facial hair.

How to Strop a Straight Razor

If you’ve been to an old school barbershop then you’ve probably seen professional barbers running a blade over a leather belt. This, my friend is stropping and is a process of sharpening the edge of the blade to keep it sharp.

A good quality strop has two parts – smooth leather and fabric side. The fabric part has a smooth and chromium accent side equivalent to 60,000 grit sandpaper that’ll leave a nice smooth finish.

Different Types of Strops

Here’s quick run down on the different types of strops just to give you an idea on what’s available right now.

Newspaper Strops – Newspaper is a great material for stropping razors thanks to the ink on it that makes it slightly abrasive. This is good practice for beginners to practice technique because you don’t have to worry about it breaking.

Bench Strop – These tools is commonly used on chisels and knives.

Now it is gaining popularity in the straight razor community. Bench strops are great to use to pastes or abrasive sprays.

Balsa Wood Strop – Cheap and available in most craft stores, Balsa wood strops also work great with stropping paste or compound.

Loom Strop – Loom strops are similar in terms of looks to a paddle strop.

It has a leather sheet wrapped around metal or wooden bracket to make a “loom” shape. These strops are quite expensive but expect prices to go up with the resurgence of straight razor shaving.

Paddle Strop – Paddle strops look like a paddle with a leather wrapped around a wooden paddle.

High end paddle strops have 4 different sides to it using different material like leather, felt and/or canvas. Cheaper ones only have 2 sides. This type of strop is great to use with pastes and compounds.

Conventional Hanging Strop – The hanging strop is perhaps the most popular strop and most readily available right now. Barbers in the early 1900s invented this strop and now is the easiest to use and most versatile.

Material and sizes vary. Earlier versions measure 2 to 2.5 inches. Newer variants measure around 3″ wide to eliminate the need for the x-pattern. However the width of the strop does not affect performance – it’s only an added convenience.

Before Stropping

Before stropping the blade, you’ll need to wipe it down using alcohol and cotton or clean piece of towel, whatever you have available. Just be careful not to cut yourself.

Attach the latch on one end of the strop waist high on a secure location. Right handed men should hold the razor with their right and strop with the left and vice versa for left handed men.

The razor and strop should make a 90 degree angle with you. Always lead with the backbone, not the sharp end.

This video by GeoFatBoy (Shave Nation) is a good guide on how to strop a straight razor…

Some Takeaways…

First step would be doing 10 round trip passes on the chrome accent side. Next would be doing 25 passes on the smooth fabric side then the last step would be 50 round trip passes on the smooth leather.

If only have a leather strop, you can paste one side with the chromium accent and do 15 strokes then do 50 strokes on the leather strap.

Pro Tips

I did mention earlier that some men prefer stropping before and after shaving. But there are some who say to avoid stropping after shaving because loose metal parts can break off and penetrate the strop rendering it useless.

Make sure to pull the strop so it does not bend.

Don’t put any weight on the razor, just use smooth sweeping strokes on the back bone. What you want to avoid is digging in on the leather, damaging it.

Do the X-pattern if the strop isn’t wide enough. This means you do the stroke in a diagonal pattern both ways to cover the entire blade.

How to Hone a Straight Razor

The next method would be using a sharpening stone or a hone. Only use this if the strop does not get the blade sharp enough.

You’ll only have to use a stone every few months up to a year if you don’t use the razor often.

Stones almost work like sandpaper. The only difference would be the stone is a solid. But like sandpaper there are different grips. It can go as low as 220 grit all the way to 10,000 grit. Choosing one would depend on the shape of the blade.

For badly worn razors, you may need a lower grit to restore the sharpness then slowly work your way up to a higher grit to finish.

Rather than just talking about it, a better way to show you how it’s done is through a video. And this guide by GeoFatBoy (Shave Nation) is one of the best I’ve seen in YouTube.

He’ll show you how to prep and hone a straight razor using different types of water stones…

Some takeaways…

Soak the stone for around 10 minutes. A good sign that it is ready is when there are no more bubbles.

Always hone the blade from the lower grit to a higher grid water stone. The principle is similar to wet sanding paint. Unless lower grit stones on badly damaged blade then slowly work your way up.

For a total restoration, start with 220 grit and work slowly to all the way up to 8,000 or 12,000 grit.

Do around 10 round trip passes on an 8,000 grit water stone and around 8 passes on a 12,000 grit.

If you’re using a stone narrower than the blade, use the x-pattern.  So that would be doing a diagonal pass in both directions forming an X.

Don’t put any weight on the razor, let the razor do the work for you. If you put too much weight, there’s a risk of over-honing it.

Make sure to rest your hand on the backbone and not the sharp blade to avoid cutting yourself.

Use a squirt bottle to saturate the water stone. It’s a good option because you don’t create a huge puddle of mess.

To Wrap Up

Stropping and honing a straight razor are essential skills for straight razor ownership. It takes patience and practice to master both skills but it is worth learning. If you do these correctly, your straight razor will last a lifetime and save a lot of money.

Please do share this article with your friends and family if you find it helpful.

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