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Honing or using whetstones to sharpen straight razors

Let’s make one thing clear. Honing a straight razor is not like sharpening a knife. The stones used for razors are much, much finer in grade – from 1,000 to 12,000 ‘grit’ (the bigger the number, the smaller the particles and the smoother the stone).

Straight razors are forged, ground, sharpened and honed at the factory when made. Of these processes, only honing is practical for the owner. Botch a honing job and the razor will need specialist resharpening – and that could be costly!

A straight razor, unlike a kitchen knife or hunting knife, doesn’t need to have a strong blade – just a phenomenally sharp one. The cutting angle is typically 15 – 20 degrees (as opposed to a more ‘normal’ 30 degrees) and is easily damaged. Fortunately, a razor has one task to perform – to cut hair as close to the skin as possible. It therefore doesn’t get blunt as quickly as an ordinary knife used for heavier work and can usually be returned to working keenness on the strop. Eventually, though it will have to be honed. The frequency depends on factors such as how tough your beard growth is and how often you shave, but honing is needed only when the blade cannot be restored to shave-readiness on the strop.

Many of our customers are happy to perform maintenance or re-touching work on their razors, for which I would recommend a Naniwa 10k or 12k. Performing full restoration of an edge is more of an undertaking and can be costly to purchase a ‘full set’ of stones. It is therefore worth considering sending your razor away for honing in such cases – websites such as Badger & Blade and Straight Razor Palace are good sources for the USA and of course our very own Razor Sharpening Service for customers in the UK and Europe.

To use the stones, lay it flat on a surface on which it won’t slide around on. Old newspaper is good, but a purpose-built rubber-footed holder is better. Also some form of tray or tank to stand the stone in is a good idea – less messy than paper. Have some water to hand to add to the stone’s surface during honing. I use a spray. Hold the razor, fully opened, in the right hand (mirror these instructions if you’re left-handed) with the blade at right-angles to the length of the stone. Put the blade on the stone’s nearest end with the edge facing away from you. The idea is, as in stropping, to have the back and edge of the blade touching the surface at the same time, giving the ideal angle for honing or stropping.

Now slide the blade up the stone, ensuring that the edge is leading and the back and edge keep in contact – it’s easy to lift the back a little and so spoil the angle. At the end of the stroke, roll the blade over so the edge now faces towards you – no need to lift it off the stone, just roll it around the axis of the back of the blade. Now draw the blade back down the stone, keeping the contact constant as described earlier. When you get near the end of the stone, roll the blade over again and commence the next up-stroke. You’ll notice a slurry starting to build up – don’t worry, that’s normal – indeed with Belgian Blue and Coticule stones it is the slurry that does the work. Make about ten strokes each way and then rinse the blade, strop it and test it – if touched very gently with the ball of the thumb it should feel almost ‘sticky’ if it’s sharp enough – this is in fact the edge biting into the skin, so take care! If not, repeat the process. Better still, try a shave – you’ll soon know if it’s been honed enough!

The spine can be protected from hone wear by using tape (such as electrical tape) though this needs to be replaced during the process as it wears. This can add to the time required considerably for more extensive honing.

Keep the stone clean during use. A nagura stone is ideal for this when using a Naniwa hone.

We should stress that honing is quite an art and that beginners should take their time. Concentrate on two things – firstly keeping the blade back and edge in constant contact with the stone and secondly maintaining a light, even pressure during the stroke. Honing is not learnt in five minutes but, once mastered, will enable you to keep your straight razor in tip-top condition indefinitely.

We can’t explain all aspects of honing here, but hopefully this is a useful introduction. For advice on choosing a hone, please click here.