In this section:
- The Shaving Razor
- The Safety Razor
- Safety Razor Types
- The Straight Razor
- Deciphering Straight Razors
- Straight Razor Types
- How to Safely Use a Straight Razor
- Basic Rules for Straight Razor Stropping
- An Introduction to Sharpening Pastes
The Shaving Razor
Old-style shaving razors come in two basic varieties: safety (double-edge or car-tridge type) razors and straight (or cutthroat) razors. The basic difference between the two is the level of safety of the former (hence its name) versus the latter. Straight razors also presuppose a certain level of expertise in their use, necessary to sharpen, maintain and shave with them.
The Safety Razor
The safety razor, of a double-edge or cartridge type variety, is meant to provide a sharp shaving instrument, while keeping the user protected from coming in contact with anything other than the blade’s edge. It earns it safety moniker from preventing the wet-shaver from serious injury. The blades used are exchangeable, come factory sharpened and are discarded when dull.
Cartridge type razors where developed with a single goal in mind: to make the shave as effortless and foolproof as possible. Obviously, something has to be given in return, and normally that something is the quality of the shave.
Double-edge razors command a level of involvement and expertise superior to that needed to shave with a cartridge razor, but are much simpler to use than a cut-throat razor. All in all, they only take some time to master and the difference in the quality of the shave is well worth the effort. With a double-edge razor, besides your shaving dexterity, two main hardware factors contribute to the quality of the shave: the aggressiveness of the razor (depending on the position of the blade guard, which is sometimes adjustable), and the character and condition of the blade used.
Safety Razor Types
Double edged razors vary in two different aspects. One concerns how the razor head is designed to shield the face from the cutting edge while shaving. The other is the method by which dull blades are exchanged for fresh edges.
A safety razor head is generally described as either open comb or closed comb. The open comb variety uses teeth to straighten and lift beard hairs to improve the closeness of a shave, particularly when a beard is thick. A closed comb head also known as a straight bar or guard, protects the face from the edge, offering a less aggressive shave.
Three kinds of designs determine how a fresh double edge blade is changed out for a dull one:
- A two piece razor uses a twisting motion on the handle to loosen the curved top of the head so that the old blade can drop or be lifted out and a new one inserted. The top is then reattached.
- A three piece razor separates the top and bottom of the head from the handle in two pieces with a twist of the base of the handle. The new blade is sandwiched between the top and bottom of the head before reattaching to the handle. This design allows the shaver to switch out handles as well as blades if desired.
- Butterfly or one piece razors open the top of the head on hinges that resemble butterfly wings, opening flat on either side to allow the blade to be lifted or dropped out and a new blade inserted. The wings then are turned back down to secure the blade.
Refer to this Quick Guide for a visual explanation of the differences:
The Straight Razor
A straight, cutthroat or open razor is a razor with a single-edge blade that folds into its handle. The blade in most of these razors is fixed and will have to be sharpened and maintained by the user from the time the razor is bought. Straight razors require a certain level of skill to sharpen, hone and maintain, and a measure of care and attention when shaving with them.
Deciphering Straight Razors
Of all personal grooming tasks, shaving is fraught with the clearest possibility of disaster, while also possessing the potential for the greatest personal satisfaction. If your razor does not have the requisite sharpness and you find you are not gliding a properly honed edge but are dragging a dull blade across your cheek, you risk a catch or nip at the least, and possibly a serious laceration. The typical way to avoid such an outcome is to rely on the generic disposable razor you can buy at your local drugstore. Although you may save your skin, you will not experience true shaving exhilaration using such an implement. What if you instead take the leap and invest in a straight razor?
Your first step is to familiarize yourself with the straight razor, also known as the cut-throat or open razor. Setting aside for a moment the queasy thrill that the name "cut-throat" engenders, investigate the razors available. Usually straight blades can be folded into the handle or extended to ready for the task. Compared to the commonly available safety or electric razors, the use of a straight razor will require more training and practice. Every moment spent preparing as a straight razor expert is worthwhile as the shaving results are considered by most to be far superior. Convenience does not equate with quality in most situations, and shaving is no exception.
Straight razors differ according to a number of variables, including grinding method, blade width and point type. Educating yourself about the types of straight razors assists you in making the best choice for your needs and skill. Your razor is one of the most personal grooming tools your will ever acquire; you will need one that fits both your hand and your approach to the art of straight-razor shaving. Take your time to get this essential step right and you will never look back.
After all, with the appropriate tools and proper technique, a gentleman with a straight razor in hand can surpass the performance of the most-skilled barbering professional. The control you feel when you are gliding that exquisitely sharp blade over your own face is absolutely exhilarating, partially because of the danger inherent in keeping such a lethal edge close to your tender flesh. Life has few chances to feel so totally in the moment. Seize the opportunity.
Straight Razor Types
According to Grinding Method
Grinding methods refer to two aspects of the razor. The first describes the curvature of the straight razor's cross section. The second involves the blade's final shape post-grinding by its manufacturer.
If a straight razor has a hollow grind, its sides have concave cross sections. Nearly all straight razors crafted today are of this type. Fewer than one percent of contemporary blades are non-hollow grind.
A razor with linear cross section sides is termed a straight or flat grind. Because their cross section resembles a wedge, they are sometimes called that instead of straight or flat. Rare today, this type of razor was popular in the late 1800s.
According to Blade Width
Varying from 3/8 of an inch to 7/8 of an inch, different blades have different widths. Although a wider blade lasts longer, its use requires more dexterity, training and experience. Preferred for their ease of sharpening and shaving, razors with thinner blades wear out more quickly.
Extremely narrow blades are a shaving challenge as they tend to sink into rather than glide over the skin. Widths of 5/8" and 6/8" are a good compromise for effective shaving, stress-less sharpening and length of service.
According to Point Type
The point profile of the straight razor is another blade variable.
Round point straight razors end in a semi-circle shape; neither end has sharp points. This type can be a good beginner's razor as it is relatively safer and more forgiving of the straight-razor novice and his skin.
Sharp, spike or square point razors have a straight point profile that ends at a very sharp point, resulting in a perpendicular angle to the cutting edge. Coveted by accomplished straight-razor users, these models permit tight, precision trimming. For areas that are hard to reach, this may be the only option that will provide a satisfactory result. Care needs to be taken with these razors, and it is not uncommon for a less experienced shaver to risk a nick or cut while using.
French or oblique point razors are an elegant option for the experienced straight razor lover. They have sharper angled curves, and a point profile that resembles a quarter circle. They are similar to the sharp, spike or square point razors in some respects, but their edge does not end as abruptly. A good option for precision shaves, a French point razor can be a good bridge between a round and square point razor.
How to Safely Use a Straight Razor
Now that you have taken the leap and joined the straight razor contingent, it is time to become familiar with how to use your new grooming tool properly. The most important concept to keep in mind is that shaving with a straight razor is a skill that is learned over time; give yourself permission to move at your own pace through your own straight-razor learning curve. Your first few forays into using a straight razor may leave you a little nicked or unevenly shaven, but if you relax and allow yourself time to grow comfortable with the process, soon you will fall into a shaving style and rhythm that is all your own.
Your first and most important task is to choose the best high quality straight razor that fits your hand, your personality and your skill level. Take the time to research different types of straight razors, including handling a few different models to find what feels steady and balanced in your grasp. Seek advice from friends or family members who may already be part of the straight-razor brotherhood, or talk to an expert in the field of straight-razor shaving to get some ideas.
When you finally make a purchase, examine the blade carefully. As you will be placing this blade against your unprotected skin, make sure it is flawless, without any uneven surfaces, dents, nicks or other imperfections. The blade must be secured properly; look carefully to ensure the scales holding the blade are in perfect working order. No one wants the dangerous surprise of a razor that snaps open without warning. If you inherit or find an heirloom razor, be particularly vigilant as you inspect the razor. The most beautiful vintage razor can be a catastrophe waiting to happen if it has not been maintained well or has significant damage or flaws.
Fortunately, the easiest way to keep your new razor safe and effective is something well within your control. The most basic rule for safe and thorough shaving it to obtain and maintain an optimally sharp blade. A sharp blade is, perhaps ironically, a safe blade. Keep in mind that the fewer passes over the face, the safer and higher quality the shave. Keep your razor keen, and the hair is easily severed with the least pressure on the face.
Blades are kept sharp with regular honing and maintained with frequent stropping on leather, wood or a flexible piece of canvas specially made for the task. The action of stropping keeps the blade in alignment, and preserves and increases the useful life of the blade by eliminating the need to remove excess metal through honing. Although a leather strop is typically considered the best choice for stropping, you have the freedom to determine which material you find most efficacious. Use online sources to help you learn the craft of stropping; many videos and step-by-step tutorials are available. You also can seek out the help of a friend, family member or professional for a one-on-one demonstration, if you are fortunate in having a straight-razor mentor.
Wet-shave preparation is essential to a successful straight-razor shave. Your favorite shaving soap or cream will be of use, and you may want to take this new experience to the limit by investing in a quality brush and soap when you buy the razor. The lather is essential to suspending the hairs of the beard away from the face so the razor can easily cut them away.
Once all these preliminary steps have been taken, you are now on the cusp of the most exhilarating moment in your straight-razor initiation: the inaugural straight-razor shave. Approach this exciting moment with a calming breath, and be secure in the knowledge that you have done your homework and will succeed in enjoying this first attempt. Relax and meet the challenge with confidence. Tension and stiffness are not your friends; banish these from your mind and your body.
Place your first three fingers on the shank, which is the thin, lower part of the blade not used for cutting. This portion of the razor also serves as the pivot point for the blade when you close it by folding it into the scale. Your thumb should be securely underneath the shank to help hold the razor steady. At the same time, your ring and pinkie fingers wrap around the tang, which is the small extension that helps you slide or swing the blade into the scale when closing the razor. Your free hand joins the shaving party by stretching the skin on the areas of your face you plan to shave. Without this stretching, you will not obtain the closest shave possible.
Keep in mind that these are not circumstances where you ever move the razor's blade horizontally on your face. We are trying to cleanly shave unwanted hairs from the face, not provide business for the emergency room and a plastic surgeon.To avoid an injurious angle, hold your razor about 30 degrees to your face and concentrate, keeping your touch light, but also sure and firm. You should imagine gliding across the skin, not grinding against it, to effortlessly sweep the hairs off the skin.
Prior to starting the shave, study the growth pattern of the hairs of your beard. Plan the navigation of this maiden voyage into straight razor shaving before you take the plunge. Shave either with or across the direction of your hair growth. This technique guards against hair follicles becoming painfully and unattractively ingrown. Steady hands and a measured pace will keep you from moving the razor against your skin more than is necessary to achieve a close and comfortable shave.
Give yourself a minute, and then apply another layer of lather to go over the same area to improve the quality of the shave. Repeat the procedure, if necessary, to get a closer shave. Take a critical look to see if you can profit from another pass. Enjoy the shaving voyage; you will be able to shave as often as you wish in the future, but nothing beats the first time, if it is well done.
Look proudly into the mirror and admire that handsome devil with the soft and freshly shaven face. Once you have completed your first straight-razor shave, you will wonder how you ever thought your grooming was up to the standard you will now embrace.
You are never finished learning how to shave expertly with your straight razor. Return to us from time to time to gain knowledge from our site, or to impart some words of wisdom to those who may seek such support from the practiced expert you will become. Like anything worth doing, shaving will become less of a task and more of a craft. You will know you truly have arrived when your craft becomes an art.
Basic Rules for Straight Razor Stropping
- To prevent any danger of damaging or breaking your straight razor, do not force sharpening by slapping or pressing the razor against the sharpening strop. The simple weight of the razor itself will provide enough contact and friction to create a properly sharpened edge. Gently does it.
- To ensure proper sharpening mechanics, be certain to use the entire length and width of the strop while sharpening. The razor should be skewed while in motion against the sharpening strop, from top to bottom and then from bottom to top.
- To avoid any uneveness during or after sharpening, maintain a flat lie of the razor on the leather during stropping. Be sure to check that the back and the edge of the razor are completely flat on the strop and that no portion of the blade or edge is off the strop throughout the sharpening.
- To maintain appropriate contact between the back of the blade with the strop, at the bottom of the sharpening stroke be sure to pivot the razor on its back. The back of the razor should not leave the leather during the pivot. When the razor is moved to the top of the strop, complete a second pivot on the counterstroke. Avoid ever pivoting the razor on its edge. Each stroke and counterstroke must be completed with the back of the razor remaining against the leather of the sharpening strop.
- To prevent any accidental damage to the razor from sand, dirt or dust on the sharpening strop, remove any foreign substances by using the palm of your hand in a gentle brushing motion. Be sure to do this before each use.
- To maintain a smooth and debris-free surface, store your strop carefully. Preferably hang it up in a protected area to keep it straight and clean.
- To properly strop your razor for its first time, wait until it has been used for a number of shaves. After each use of your razor, be sure it has been dried completely, particularly if it is made of carbon steel. This routine will avoid any oxidation or rusting that will be damaging to your carbon steel razor if it is stored wet or damp.
An Introduction to Sharpening Pastes
Read on to get acquainted with sharpening pastes and how to use them. We have chosen Thiers Issard sharpening pastes since they have a comprehensive system of grits and a high quality finishing paste. You can substitute your favorite brand instead, keeping the same grit for reference. The pastes referred to in this guide are:
- Bio-Diam 6 Coarse-Grit 6 micron (Yellow colored), for: heavy refining of edge direct from the hone; aggressive action or restoring.
- Bio-Diam 3 Regular-Grit 3 micron (Green colored), for: refining of edge direct from hone, intermediate action or restoring.
- Bio-Diam 1 Fine-Grit 1 micron (Red colored), for: regular use on razor’s edge.
- Bio-Diam 0.25 Extra-fine-Grit 0.25 micron (Silver colored), for: regular use and super-fine finishing on razor’s edge.
- Chromox Finishing-paste (green chromium oxide), recommended for use af-ter diamond-paste stropping with grits finer than 0.50 microns.
Razor Sharpening Paste Primer
Changes in technology, methods and materials have improved the experience of straight razor use immensely. Diamond Sharpening Pastes are a welcome advance for superior sharpening of straight razors, resulting in a much more keenly sharpened blade. The perfectly sharpened straight-razor enhances the entire shaving routine, leading to a very close yet comfortable shave.
Nothing is revolutionary about razor sharpening pastes. A variety of different formulations have been used over the years. Previously made of iron oxide, chromium oxide or graphite mixed into a creamy substance, sharpening pastes are applied to a leather or wood strop, and the strop is then used to work the blade back to sharpness. No barber-shop was complete without its collection of strops in a handy place, with different strops assigned to a different coarseness of paste to assist the barber in returning a dulled blade to a proper cutting edge.
To restore the sharpness to a straight-razor a progression of sharpening-pastes is used. Initially, a coarse grit paste makes quick work of removing residue and preparing the blade for fine-tuning. Once the edge is ready for their application, finer and finer pastes are applied to the blade, ultimately working towards a perfectly balanced and honed finish to the razor's edge. Traditional paste materials began to meet their match as steel-making craft improved, making razors harder than the materials used to sharpen them. This contrast between a softer grit against a harder blade is counterproductive; it actually dulls rather than sharpens a blade. Fortunately the issue was resolved once the industry devised diamond sharpening-pastes.
As the hardest material currently available, diamonds more than meet the sharpening requirements of any steel in the marketplace today. Gem-quality diamond mining produces large quantities of industrial-grade diamonds as well. These diamonds may not have the clarity and consistency of high-quality gemstones, but these flaws do not interfere with their suitability as a high quality abrasive. Additional diamond sharpening material is made available through the waste created when gem-quality stones are cut, shaped and polished. Crushed to a fine powder, this diamond residue permits an efficient and effective polishing action. A sharpening paste made with crushed diamonds can be the ultimate tool for achieving razor-sharpness.
To ensure the diamond sharpening paste used is of the highest quality possible, close monitoring of the uniformity of the size of the diamond particles is critical. Although some particles can be smaller, superior diamond sharpening pastes will not contain particles larger than the grit specified. Thiers Issard Bio-Diamond sharpening-pastes undergo stringent quality controls to assure users the diamond particles in the compounds meet or exceed these quality standards.
The carrier, or actual paste, used in a sharpening product must also adhere to the highest industry standard. Although the polishing action of an oil-based paste may be acceptable in an industrial application, this is not the case for sharpening a straight razor. Instead of the petrochemical base found there, a water-based paste is preferable. The water-based application allows for easy rinsability, avoiding the possibility of irritation or infection of the face. Free of dangerous added chemicals, Bio-Diamond water-based pastes are superior in every way, providing excellent sharpening qualities in an application so pure it meets food grade standards, comforting if accidental ingestion occurs.
Occasionally, diamond pastes are so effective a razor's edge actually can be made too sharp. Problems then can result including skin irritation and razor burn as the overly-sharp edge snags on any flaws on the skin surface. Prevention of these serious issues requires a razor edge that instead floats over the skin, cutting off unwanted hairs at the base, while gliding safely across the skin.
Using diamond-sharpening compounds at a 0.5 micron or finer grit may cause an over-sharpened edge. Avoiding such fine grits and using instead diamond pastes containing 1 micron or slightly less grit will still sharpen effectively most razors dulled from normal use. Brand-new razors may need sharpening even when first opened, and it is recommended to use coarser grits in the 6 to 1 micron range to ready them for first use.
The preferred way to judge whether a razor, new or otherwise, needs sharpening is simply to try shaving with it. Note whether the razor catches, pulls or feels uncomfortable while shaving. If so, sharpening is required. When the questionable razor is tried out in this way, the amount of sharpening necessary to improve the shaving becomes obvious. Begin by applying a diamond-pasted strop round-trip twenty times and then attempt another shave. If problems still arise, run the blade against the strop again to improve the edge to your satisfaction. Although there are many tests of razor sharpness, such as the hanging-hair test, the standing-hair test or forearm shaving, the only reliable method is using the razor to shave.
Daily maintenance of a well-sharpened blade may include stropping with a variety of diamond-sharpening compounds. When a more challenging razor edge issue arises, such as a blade that has not been cared for in years or a dent or chip caused by abuse or accident, diamond pastes alone may not be enough to resolve the issue. In those cases, the razor's edge will need to be honed. After the hone has repaired the majority of the neglect or damage, diamond sharpening-pastes (for example, Bio-Diam 6 and 3, followed by Bio-Diam 1 and Bio-Diam 0.25) will complete the blade's return to a fine cutting edge.
Proper Use of Bio-Diamond sharpening paste:
A textured leather paddle-strop is the most effective way to use diamond-sharpening pastes on your straight razor. The roughness of a heavier grained leather strop holds and keeps the paste available to begin the sharpening of the blade pass by pass. Proper amounts of the paste are easily applied using the special Bio-Diamond push-drop dispenser applicator, which also avoids over-application. This conserves the diamond-sharpening paste and ensures efficient sharpening.
A gentle shake of the dispenser mixes the carrier and diamond dust well. Uncap and begin the compound flowing by applying pressure to the base's membrane. Ten to twelve drops is adequate for a first application. Any excess paste on the dispenser can be gently wiped onto the strop to avoid waste.
Space the drops of compound down the length of the strop and work thoroughly into the leather with the fingertips or heel of the hand. Take care with this step to ensure the most effective sharpening. There is no need to clean the paste off the strop, in fact, the remaining compound improves the next sharpening action and reduces the amount of paste needed for future sharpening.
Correctly prepared strops:
Dedicate each strop to a particular grade of grit. Each step of the sharpening process uses a finer grit to the one previous. A dull or blemished blade is quickly brought near keenness with coarser grits, and then is more precisely honed to the edge desired with more finely-gritted pastes. One strop can be changed from finer grits to coarser if desired; a transformation from coarser to finer will not be successful as some of the coarser grit will remain on the leather.
Applying first a 1.0 micron paste and then a .25 micron compound will usually produce a smooth and satisfactory edge. Sometimes an application of Chromox paste is needed to reach this stage. When changing grits, thorough wiping of the blade is essential to avoid mixing the size of the diamond particles and before any application of Chromox paste or an un-pasted finishing strop.
Proper stropping motion:
An X pattern while stropping is recommended, starting from the blade's heel and continuing to the point. Be sure to lead with the razor's back and apply no pressure, simply using the razor's own weight to keep in continual contact with the pasted strop. Once sharpened, the razor can be finished with a Chromox-pasted strop, an unpasted strop or both. Pre-shaving unpasted stroppings will maintain the blade until the multi-step Bio-Diamond sharpening is again needed, typically in two or three weeks.
Finishing with Chromox paste
Once the honing and diamond-sharpening pastes have done their magic, chromium oxide edge-smoothing compound can tame a sharp or aggressive razor edge. Used on a paddle or hanging-strop, this compound will offer a smooth and easy to use edge. The paste can be overused and such use will decrease the closeness of the shave. Proper use, however, will permit a close and clean shave. Chromox paste is the perfect answer following sharpening with extra-fine diamond grits of 0.50 and 0.25 microns. It also can be very useful after super-fine hones, such as Shapton 16,000 or 30,000 grits, Chinese 12,000 grits, or even Belgian Coticule stones. If an extremely fine non-diamond stropping-paste has been used, Chromox paste can complete the sharpening well. Chromox paste is most appropriately used on a fine leather paddle-strop or a fine leather hanging-strop, both applications using much smoother leathers than other pastes.
When using this compound appropriately, the chromium oxide paste must fill the pores on the strop; simply coating the surface will result in paste waste and a poor finishing result. Before trying for the first time, use fingers to rub in a generous amount of paste completely covering the surface and filling all imperfections. All excess paste then should be cleared off the surface with a paper towel. When only a trace of lapping paste is showing on the towel, the strop has been readied for use. Prior to spreading and buffing the chromium oxide paste, thorough stirring is necessary to prevent the settling of the chromium oxide particles in the mixture. Stirring with a small wooden stick will allow excess paste to be applied to the strop from the stick, avoiding unnecessary waste and limiting the expense of this step.
Each user will discover just the number of strops needed to give a personalized final edge. Experiment to arrive at the perfect combination of passes and amount of product needed to reach the best end result. A good place to start is ten back-and-forth X-patterned passes on the strop. More passes can be added if desired. Shaving with the blade is the only test that gives an accurate measure of the sharpening's effectiveness, so do not skip that essential step.
Suggested sharpening schedule:
- For a blade needing restoration: Following use of an appropriate hone or hones, we recommend progressive use of Bio-Diam 6 micron, Bio-Diam 3 micron, Bio-Diam 1 micron, Bio-Diam 0.25 micron, Chromox and finally, an un-pasted strop.
- For an out-of-the-box razor, not yet shave-ready: We recommend progressive use of Bio-Diam 6 micron, Bio-Diam 3 micron, Bio-Diam 1 micron, Bio-Diam 0.25 micron, Chromox and finally, an unpasted strop.
- For a razor already in regular use: We recommend, once every 2 or 3 weeks, progressive use of Bio-Diam 1 micron, Bio-Diam 0.25 micron, Chromox and finally, an unpasted strop.
- Plus for daily upkeep of the same razor: We recommend pre-shave use of either a strop coated with Thiers-Issard non-diamond finishing-paste followed by an unpasted strop or, if desired, an unpasted strop alone.