What’s The Difference Between Stropping & Honing?
As a general rule, shaving with a straight razor is a wonderful experience. However, you may one day experience a dull scraping feeling across your cheeks, which is unpleasant, to say the least.
This is known as “tugging” and is a clear indication that your razor has become too dull to cut your hair. If you are a newcomer to straight razors, you may have heard of different techniques for sharpening a razor such as “stropping” or “honing”.
Whilst achieving the same end goal, both are two very distinct processes and need to be done at different times. Nevertheless, you’ll need to regularly strop your razor to keep it sharp and your razor will need honing one day too.
One of the most common questions among newcomers to straight razors is the difference between stropping and honing. However, it’s nothing to feel ashamed of as it’s one of the broadest and most confusing subjects in straight razor shaving.
Over time, a razor’s edge will microscopically curl back when used, which makes it dull. After all, human hair has the tensile strength of copper. Therefore, it needs regular touching up to keep it sharp enough for shaving.
In short, the difference can be defined as follows:
- Stropping: Realigns the cutting edge
- Honing: Creates a cutting edge or “bevel”
In order to know what your razor needs, you must identify its current state of sharpness. When sharpening a razor, you start at a particular grit then work all the way up to stropping. How dull it has become dictates what level of grit to start from. You can more-or-less break this down into 4 general treatments:
- Stropping (~50k Grit): Daily preparation for the cutting edge before a shave.
- Finishing (10-12k Grit): Maintaining the razor’s edge every few months.
- Polishing (8k Grit): Straightening the edge after intermediate use.
- Sharpening (~4k Grit): Resetting the blade’s bevel after long or misuse.
You’ll learn about what tools you need for each of these processes and how to properly use them as we progress through this guide.
How Do I Know If My Razor Is Sharp Enough?
There are several ways to test whether your razor is sharp enough for shaving. The first and most obvious method is the Shave Test, which just requires you trying it. However, this isn’t very convenient as you might find yourself with a face full of lather and a dull razor.
Therefore, this should be done when you are confident that your razor is ready. Before then, you can try two other methods:
Arm Hair Test
You can use the arm hair test during any stage of sharpening a razor. Simply use it to shave off hair on your arm against the grain. Since the hair is quite fine here, it will be easy to tell how shave ready your razor is and whether it needs more work.
Thumb Pad Test
Like the arm hair test, this can be done at any time but is better when working with lower grinds. Carefully run your thumb across the cutting edge (not along!) to feel how sharp it is.
If it tickles smoothly against your thumb like a sharp knife, it isn’t ready yet. If the tickling sensation slightly grips at your thumb’s fingerprints then you can consider an arm test to see if it’s ready. However, if it responds to every bump and tries to dig in, it may be over-honed.
Stropping Types & Accessories
Like skinning a cat, there are many ways to strop a razor. Before we realise how uncomfortable the context is for that metaphor, let’s talk about the different types of strops you can use on a daily basis.
The most frequently-used stropping tool, the hanging strop consists of a length of leather and a strip a canvas attached to a hook at the end. The hanging strop is then attached to a wall or hard surface to be pulled tight when used.
Furthermore, hanging strops can vary in length and width. Widths can range from 2″ to 3″ of which the latter negates the need to perform an X pattern when stropping.
As you will read later, an X pattern is the act of the blade being stropped at an angle in order to strop the entire cutting edge.
Furthermore, hanging strops can range greatly in price, which means that you can find one for almost any budget. Usually, this is due to the type of leather used to make the strop as well as the canvas material.
Paddle strops are lengths of wood with leather strips glued on the side held by a handle. There are several varieties of paddle strop available. Some feature one or two sides for stropping whilst others cover all four.
Overall, paddle strops are favoured by honing enthusiasts as they allow you to have different materials on each side. You can also paste some sides whilst keeping others clear. Being much smaller, they’re harder to master then hanging strops but convenient in enclosed spaces.
They’re also quite rare today and it’s not uncommon for enthusiasts to make them at home. However, you can sometimes find vintage models but they will require considerable restoration work.
Loom strops are similar to paddle strops except that the leather isn’t glued onto a wooden block. Instead, a leather band is wrapped around a metal bracket, which braces it in place.
The advantage of loom strops is that you can adjust the tension mechanically for added versatility. For those that don’t like using hanging strops, it’s a convenient alternative that preserves all its advantages. It’s also easy to replace the leather strip as it gets used over time.
Like paddle strops, they’re a relatively rare commodity. One used to be featured in this guide. However, it’s sadly no longer produced anymore.
Leather & Alternative Material Varieties
Although leather isn’t graded like shaving brushes, the different varieties usually indicate their quality. However, bear in mind that a cheaply sourced English bridle leather may not perform as well as premium cowhide!
In order of value, you can expect the following types of leather:
- Balsa Wood
- Red Latigo
- English Bridle
You may have noticed the mention of newspaper and balsa wood in the above list. In fact, newspaper is a surprisingly effective stropping surface when wrapped around a wooden block as the ink is abrasive. Meanwhile, balsa wood is a cheap option that may not be recommended for everyday use but absorbs pastes very well.
What Are Pastes & How Can They Be Used For Stropping?
Finishing pastes are an extremely useful addition to any shaving arsenal as it reduces the need for honing. By reserving a strop for pastes or using one of the strops’ surfaces, you can add an extra abrasive layer for touching up your cutting edge.
There are various ways to identify the paste’s grit grade, which is sometimes indicated by its colour or micron. However, these can greatly vary between manufacturers so it’s hard to provide a standardised list.
Generally, most people use green chromium oxide or red pastes, which vary between 0.5 and 1 micron respectively. Adding a thin layer of these can help touch up your razor without using a stone. There are also diamond sprays that provide the same effect.
However, take care with its usage and remember that when a strop is pasted, it’s forever.
How To Sharpen A Straight Razor With A Strop
Follow these step-by-step instructions on how to sharpen a straight razor with a strop:
- Set Up The Strop & Hold It Tightly
- Place The Straight Razor Blade Correctly
- Run The Blade Down The Strop
- Roll Your Straight Razor Blade
- Run The Razor Back Towards The Starting Point
- Repeat The Steps Above Until The Blade Is Sharp
Only strop your razor when you have time to spare. Never rush as this can inadvertently cause slip-ups that may damage your razor’s bevel or cut into the leather. Remember to be patient and not to rush like they do in the movies.
1. Set Up The Strop & Hold It Tightly
If you’re using a hanging razor, ensure that it’s attached to a sturdy surface. You don’t want to pull on a hook in a wall for it to come out or against furniture that will tip over. Pull it tightly but not to the point that your knuckles go white. However, you want the leather to be perfectly flat against the blade. If it isn’t taut, a sloping strop can actually roll the edge and dull the blade.
If you’re using a paddle strop, hold it tightly so it doesn’t droop when applying pressure. Likewise, bench strops should be on a hard surface and loom strops should be tense.
2. Correctly Place The Blade
Open the razor at 180° and place it at the nearest base of the strop with the blade facing towards you. Hold it by pinching with your thumb on the back on the shank and your forefinger on its underside.
If the strop is wide enough for the whole blade, make sure it’s in the centre. If the stropping surface is too narrow, flatly place the shoulder against the strop.
You want the blade and the spine to lie flatly on the leather. The spine must never rise up or you’ll roll the bevel. Always make sure that it stays perfectly flat making contact on both ends.
Make sure that the razor’s shoulder (the lip near the shank) never rests on the strop as this can cause irregularities along the cutting edge.
3. Run The Blade Down The Strop
Applying only very light pressure, run the blade down to the far end of the strop. Make sure that the blade always stays flat against the stropping surface. Remember to take all the time you need. If you zip up and down, you will struggle to make sure that you’re using the proper technique. It’s harder to correct a faulty technique later on than learn properly from the start.
If your strop width covers the entire razor, go in a straight line. However, if it’s too narrow, you’ll have to use an X-pattern. As the animation above illustrates, this involves running the blade in a diagonal line so that the strop comes into contact with the entire cutting edge.
4. Roll Your Razor
Once you get to the far end, you’ll need to turn the razor for the cutting edge to face away from you. This technique is known as rolling or turning the razor. However, it shouldn’t be confused with the aforementioned mistake of rolling the cutting edge.
To roll a razor, you carefully turn it with your thumb and forefinger so the cutting edge rises to the top and faces you. Never turn it for the blade turn towards the leather. This can damage both the cutting edge and your precious strop.
To help you do this, always think about keeping the spine in contact with the strop surface. Imagine that it’s fixed to the surface like a magnet and only the blade can lift freely from the leather.
5. Draw The Razor Back Towards You & Return To Your Starting Point
Now that the blade is facing away from you, position it in the same way as when you started. When ready, draw it back in a similar, controlled movement.
Once you have arrived, roll it so that the blade is facing away from you again. Re-position it for another pass.
6. Repeat On All Surfaces & How Many Passes On A Strop?
Most strops come with several surfaces on which you can pass the razor. We used the leather as an example in the above exercise. Nevertheless, it’s better that you begin with the canvas side.
Firstly, the canvas side will clean any debris and collected dust before you expose the razor to the blade. Secondly, it also heats up the razor making it less brittle, which could cause micro-fissures when stropped.
Depending on the product, you can also paste the underside of the canvas or leather for touching up beforehand. Just make sure the blade is cleaned before stropping against leather.
When stropping, you can consider the following number of full passes (round trips):
- 15 on pasted surface [optional]
- 30 on canvas
- 50 on leather strop
The above figures vary greatly depending on the quality of both the strop and razor. Over time, you’ll be able to experiment with your straight razor and strop to see how many really makes a difference.
Caring For Your Strop
Like any leather, strops needs regular care to keep them in good shape. A poorly maintained strop can crack and warp over time. However, you can’t use any polish given that you will apply the razor to your face.
Saddle soap is an excellent, natural option for cleaning leather strops. Creating a lather with this and washing it down will nourish it, which can be completed with a natural oil. For instance, even olive oil or neatsfoot are great options.
Meanwhile, the canvas can collect dirt and grime over time. A scrub with some soap works wonders.
Honing Types & Grits
Now that you’re an expert on stropping, let’s cover the practice on honing. Generally, you can define honing as any sharpening practice that takes place on a stone or mineral-based block. We already touched on the difference between sharpening, polishing and finishing but let’s explore this in further detail.
If you’re serious about getting a full set of hones, you will need the following grits at the very least:
- 4000 Sharpening Stone
- 8000 Polishing Stone
- 12000 Finishing Stone
Overall, the best choice for newcomers is often a synthetic waterstone to ensure consistent results. These are usually made from minerals that are bound together with aluminium oxide. Like the Norton mentioned above, you can often find combination stones, which feature different grinds on each side.
We recommend opting for one of these as they are an excellent general purpose choice that should cover most of your needs.
Note that not all sharpening stones provide the same quality. Although there are many in low price ranges, they tend to be rougher than the Norton’s offering with a lower grade than advertised. The result is a less precise and more arduous honing experience.
Additionally, some cheaper stones aren’t lapped, which means that they haven’t been carefully flattened down before shipping. Although you can do this at home, it isn’t recommended and honing with an unlapped stone can leave an uneven finish.
What Are Coticules?
Many variations of stone exist including natural whetstones such as Belgian Blues and Coticules. These are highly sought after stones mined in Ardennes with natural properties for a high-quality hone and finish.
Cut from sedimentary rock, coticules have existed from centuries in Western Europe. They are considered an extremely versatile option as you can create a slurry so that they’re more effective. However, they’re hard to master and require some years of experience to use properly without damaging your razor.
Whilst Belgian blues are excellent for sharpening, extra fine coticules can provide a great finish of about 12k or more. Due to their natural origins, they’re also very expensive and larger coticules can cost a small fortune. Yet, they have a strong following and many would argue that it’s worth the investment.
How To Hone A Straight Razor