1.15.2013

Strops 101

Overview
A razor strop is a flexible strip of leather or canvas used to straighten and polish the blade of a straight razor. Unlike honing, stropping  realigns the blade without removing any material.

A strop generally comes in two physical forms: hanging strop or paddle strop. Most strops are made with one side comprised of canvas and the other leather. The canvas and leather sides have several variants, each having unique properties and maintenance requirements. Razor strops can be found in a variety of sizes and prices.

Leather and Canvas Strop | Image Credit: West Coast Shaving




Hanging Strop
Hanging strops require one end to be tethered to a fixed point while the other end is held by the off-hand of the user, while the dominant hand holds the straight razor during stropping. This is the more traditional strop form. The end of the hanging strop held by the hand features either a D-ring or a handle.

Hanging Strop | Image Credit: Dovo

Hanging Strop with D-Ring | Image Credit: Classic Shaving

Hanging Strop with Handle | Image Credit: Man Cave


Paddle Strop
Paddle strops offer convenient stropping solutions in a travel-friendly design that does not require tethering to a fixed point. The paddle strop can be placed atop a flat surface with the handle held by the off-hand and the dominant hand doing the work of stropping the straight razor.

Paddle Strop | Image Credit: Fendrihan


Canvas Strop
The canvas side of the strop is also known as the preparation side given it is generally used before the leather side of the strop during each stropping routine. Canvas is used to create an abrasive force, heat up the razor's edge, and remove superfluous material before stropping on leather. It will not sharpen a dull razor but rather helps replace keenness lost in the last shaving session.

The canvas strop is generally composed of cotton (pure cotton, webbed cotton, herringbone cotton) or linen.   Herringbone cotton has a linen-like weave pattern while webbed cotton is a bit coarser. Linen is the more traditional material while cotton is more modern and generally less expensive compared to linen.

Linen Strop | Image Credit: The Superior Shave


Leather Strop
The leather side of the strop is used following the canvas side to straighten and polish the blade of the straight razor. Leather generally falls into one of two classifications: grain-side and underside. Grain-side strops are generally considered to be more durable while underside strops are more delicate to the touch and can be considered more communicative to the user. The choice between the two comes down to user preference.

Beyond the grain-side and underside classifications, leather strops come in a variety of forms, notably horsebutt, English bridle, split-side cowhide and cordovan-tanned shell. Horsebutt and English bridle are fairly durable forms of leather, particularly the latter. Split-side cowhide leather strops use the underside of the skin as opposed to the refined (grain-side) used with horsebutt or English bridle. Russian leather is one of the more pliant and flexible forms of leather strop, but is also among the thinnest and least durable.

Leather Strop | Image Credit: Classic Shaving


Strop Paste
Strop pastes have essentially two purposes. One purpose is to maintain and condition the canvas or leather strop material, and the other purpose is to refresh the edge of a slightly dull razor.

Canvas strops require some element of care and maintenance, and often require to be "broken in" upon initial use. Some canvas strops arrive pre-treated with a chalk-based abrasive, generally given away by an overly stiff feeling when new, but will break in naturally with use. Regardless of whether your strop was pre-treated, it is often recommended to maintain the quality of the canvas strop by applying a chalk-based linen strop paste (usually white or gray in color) from time to time.

Leather strop maintenance varies depending upon the type of leather used. English bridle can be maintained with purely the oils found on the palm of your hand, while horsebutt and split-size strops may require a conditioning paste, such as the Dovo Yellow Paste. You should consult the manufacturer for proper care of your particular strop.

Strop paste used to refresh the edge of a slightly dull razor is favored when one wishes to extend the period between honing sessions. Finishing pastes come in a wide array depending upon the user's goal, with abrasives measured in grit size at the micron level.

  • 3.0 micron: a substitute for the 8,000 grit waterstone and useful for refreshing the edge of a straight razor.
  • 1.0 micron: suitable for individuals with a high tolerance for dulling edges and who tend to let an edge slip a bit before refreshing.
  • 0.5 micron: considered the "go to" grit and a finishing paste for most, this can be used on your strop a few swipes each week.
  • 0.25 micron: for many this provides the needed extra keenness to the razor's edge, but to others it's a bit too harsh leaving the face irritated.
Aside from grit measurements, finishing pastes come in several forms.
  • Chromium oxide paste or powder: the most universal of pastes (0.5 micron) but generally considered a slow cutter, especially compared to diamond paste or spray. 
  • Diamond paste: available in grit sizes ranging from 3.0 micron to 0.1 micron, these pastes cut fast but, if used incorrectly, can create too harsh of an edge.
  • Diamond spray: available in grit sizes ranging from 1.0 micron to 0.25 micron, this spray behaves like its paste counterpart - it will cut fast but for some may leave to harsh an edge that will irritate the skin.
  • Dovo paste: the only branded player on the list, these pastes can be found in Green (5.0 micron to 8.0 micron, very aggressive), Red (3.0 micron to 5.0 micron, aggressive) and Black (1.0 micron to 3.0 micron, medium). The White (linen strop conditioner) and Yellow (leather strop conditioner) are not finishing pastes but rather strop conditioners. 

The greatest setback of any finishing paste is that, once applied, that particular strop cannot be used for any other purpose without being properly cleaned. Many users will own multiple strops with each dedicated to a particular use. Note that this does not apply to the conditioning pastes, such as the Dovo White or Yellow.

Dovo Pastes | Image Credit: Dovo


Sizes
Strops come in varying widths and lengths. Generally speaking, the larger the strop, the easier to perform the stropping routine as a substantial strop would not require the user to perform an X-stroke. Of course, there is likely a point at which the strop could conceivably become too large that it's difficult to deal with.

Strop widths generally range from 2" to 3". The benefit of the 3" wide strop is that you should not have to perform an X-stroke given most blades are roughly 3" across. The price of strops generally increases with size, but many other factors influence the price (brand, materials, quality). For the beginner, a 3" wide strop is recommended so that you can focus on simply the stropping motion rather than trying to learn the more complicated X-stroke.

Strop lengths are more varied, and can extend from 12" on a paddle strop to upwards of 30" on a hanging strop. In theory, the longer the stropping surface, the less back and forth motions you must exercise, but this really comes down to user preference.


Beginners
For those venturing into straight razors for the first time, I'll make some suggestions. My guidance is to not break the bank on the finest brand names or materials. I would look for a 3" wide hanging strop with a durable leather like English bridle and a linen backing. Rationale is that a 3" width is easier to practice stropping given it will not require an X-stroke, and English bridle requires little maintenance and is durable. Expect to pay ~$75.


Sources
Which Hone(s), Paste(s) or Spray(s) Do I Need by Straight Razor Place
Razor Strop by Wikipedia
Razor Strops by Classic Shaving
Razor Strops by The Superior Shave

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