1.16.2013

Hones 101

Overview
A razor hone is a piece of stone used to straighten the edge and create a sharp yet smooth bevel. Honing is a necessary activity to maintain a straight razor's keenness and ensure you receive the best possible shave. There a plethora of hones to choose from, and that choice depends upon your honing objectives.

If you are looking to refresh the edge of a straight razor that was previously honed by a professional, then you only need a fine grit finishing stone or a barber's hone to complete the task. If, however, you want to set a bevel and restore damaged razors, then you will need a complete hone set-up including:
  • Bevel setting stone (1,000 grit)
  • Sharpening stone (4,000 grit)
  • Polishing stone (8,000 grit)
  • Finishing stone (10,000 grit)
This post will primarily focus end-users looking to maintain a shave-ready razor using either water stone or coticule hones.

Straight Razor Honing | Image Credit: Straight Razor Place




Water Stones
This is a large category of hones that include naturals (e.g. Escher, Thuringan) and synthetic stones (e.g. Norton). Synthetic stones have a uniform composition making them fairly predictable in cutting ability. The Norton 4,000/8,000 grit stone is arguably the most common water stone in the U.S., and is very suitable for beginners to straight razor honing. Japanese water stones (e.g. Shapton, Naniswa) are available in natural and synthetic variants, and are well-known  for their quick-working qualities. Shapton stones are probably the hardest Japanese sharpening stone and will remain flat for a long time. The Shapton is a coarse stone that will cut quickly without the need for flattening very often. Naniwa stones are very fine-grained water stones that help one achieve a perfect mirror polish.

Norton 4,000/8,000 Grit Water Stone | Image Credit: West Coast Shaving


Coticules
The coticule is a completely natural stone cut from sedimentary rock, quarried in the Ardennes region of Belgium. These stones date back to Ancient Rome when they were used for all sorts of cutlery. Today, only one company is still mining coticules.

Coticules have a cult following and are favored by many for their unique and communicative properties. They are repellent of metal and, unlike some natural water stones, wear rather evenly. Coticules are very versatile in that you need not worry about various grit ratings. Rather, you can create a slurry by rubbing two coticule stones together (one is your main coticule hone, the other a smaller piece called a slurry stone) causing them to cut faster, or you can use them with water only to get the softer touch of a finishing stone. Since coticules are a natural stone, each piece is unique with varying characteristics dictated by the time and weather when the stones were formed. Given this, not all coticule stones will cut the same.

Honing with a coticule requires a bit more practice than the Norton 4,000/8,000 grit, and they are inappropriate for repairing old and damaged razors. However, for maintaining and refining a shave-ready razor, coticules are held in high esteem. Japanese natural stones and stropping on diamond paste will invariably produce a keener edge that than of a coticule, but such keenness is deemed by some to be hyper-sharp. Coticules specialize in an edge that, while not as keen as some alternatives, effectively cuts hair as opposed to your skin. In the end, the choice is a matter of personal preference.

Belgian Coticule and Slurry Stone | Image Credit: Fendrihan


Strokes
A variety of stroke types can be used while honing depending upon the type of straight razor or personal preference.

  • X-Stroke: Used for the majority of razors with a straight edge and is a basic stroke for honing a straight razor. This approach continually shifts the point of contact between the blade and the hone, ensuring the entire edge receives attention.
X-Stroke Honing | Image Credit: Coticule

  • Swaying X-Stroke: Used for smiling edges and spines, the heel and toe receive extra attention.
  • Rolling X-Stroke: Used for blades with light to heavily smiling edges, the tilt is adjusted accordingly during the stroke and is often combined with the swaying X-stroke. 
Rolling X-Stroke Honing | Image Credit: Coticule

  • Half-Stroke: Any of the above X-strokes can be performed without flipping the blade over. Rather, the blade is pulled back to the starting position by reversing the push movement, staying in constant contact with the hone during the entire stroke. The "push" movement is performed with slightly more pressure than the "pull" movement. To control this pressure, one finger should be placed on the blade to exert some pressure, with the pressure being delivered solely by the finger and not the wrist or arm. The half-stroke is used to speed-up the sharpening action, and works very well on a coticule with a slurry. If using the half-stroke, it is important to count the number of laps sine the same amount will need to be executed on both sides of the blade. Half-strokes always need to be followed by 10-20 corresponding X-strokes. 
  • Circle Stroke: From what I can tell, the circle stroke has been popularized by Lynn Abrams, founder of Straight Razor Place. It seems somewhat similar to the half-stroke mentioned above, only instead of pulling the razor back, you push the blade forward in tight and quick circle motions. Circles with the edge away from you are clockwise strokes and circles with the edge facing you are counter-clockwise strokes. Similar to the half-stroke approach, circle strokes should be followed by X-strokes. 


Methods
Beyond the stroke technique chosen, one must decide their overall approach to honing to achieve the desired results. For those honing on a Belgian coticule stone, I recommend reading about the Unicot Honing Method and the Dilucot Honing Method. Beyond coticule stones, you can read about the Pyramid Honing Method.


How to Test Your Technique
While honing, you can test the quality of your technique to ensure you are getting excellent results.With experience you will learn the appropriate visual, audio and feel notes of good honing technique. 
  • Visual Test: You can check your honing technique by watching to see if the fluid (e.g. water, slurry) runs up a part of the edge. This signals that you are making good contact.
  • Audio Test: You can check your technique by listening the sound emitted between blade and hone contact. If you life the spine while honing (which you should not do), you will hear a noticeable difference.
  • Feel Test: You can check your honing technique by way of feel. The feedback felt by the fingers can let you know if you are honing properly. 


How to Test Razor Edge Sharpness
There are a variety of tests you can perform to check the sharpness of the edge, with no one test being supreme over another. It's important to note that these tests can be performed correctly and incorrectly, but at the end of the day are a subjective assessment of your razor's keenness. In the end, how the razor performs and feels while shaving is likely the truest test of them all, but many hold fast to the below methods.

  • Thumb Nail Test (TNT): Performed by dragging the edge of the razor from heal to toe along your wet thumbnail. The feeling you want is for the razor to have a smooth and even bit indicating that the bevel is sharp enough to cut into your nail. If the edge glides easily across your thumb without resistance, then the edge is likely too dull and needs to be further sharpened. 
  • Thumb Pad Test (TPT): Performed by lightly pressing and dragging your wet thumb along (not across) a small portion of the edge. The feeling you want is for a smooth, sticky feeling caused by the edge slicing into the outer layer of the skin. Then, lift your thumb off that portion of the edge and check the next portion in the same manner going all the way from heal to toe.
  • Hanging Hair Test (HHT): This is the most common test, though it has several variations. The standard test is to hold a hanging hair between your thumb and index finger and then bring it to your razor's edge. The hair should be easily and cleanly cut in two pieces. This test should be performed along the entire blade from heal to toe. It is important to select a hair that is freshly washed and rinsed, and about 2" to 3" long. Moisten the hair before performing the test and hold the hair at the tip side and slightly angle the edge of the razor away from you. Another variation is to bring the edge across your arm hair and assess how easily it pops the hairs. This will give you an idea of overall sharpness but does not indicate specific portions of the edge that may need further sharpening. 


The Hanging Hair Test | Video Credit: The Superior Shave


Sources
Beginner's Guide to Honing by Straight Razor Place
Coticules by The Superior Shave
Lynn Abrams on Honing by Straight Razor Place
Straight Razor Honing by Coticule
What Hone(s), Paste(s), or Spray(s) Do I Need by Straight Razor Place

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