2.26.2013

My First Straight Razor Honing

Overview
After 27 straight razor shaves, I decided it was finally time to hone my Dovo. Of course, the folks over at The Superior Shave honed it for me before shipping it my way, but now the task was up to me.

So why hone now?

That's probably one of the most asked questions of beginners to straight razors. The cadence of honing sessions depends upon numerous variables: care and maintenance up until that point, stropping technique, use of sharpening pastes, etc. Ultimately an experienced hand learns when it's time to hone. Just to be clear, I do not fall into the category of "an experienced hand." I'm new and still learning.

After reading a lot of chatter on forums at Straight Razor Place and talking to The Superior Shave, I decided one month of shaves was a good point to give honing a shot. Plus, after 27 shaves, I had a fairly consistent technique down, and noticed that my straight was becoming slightly less effective at passing through my beard. So here we go.

Straight Razor with Belgian Hone | Image Credit: Straight Edge Razor


Methodology
Ask ten people how to strop and you'll probably get just about the same answer from all ten. Ask ten people how to hone and you may get ten different versions of the story. Point is there is no one right way to hone, though there are certain principles that always apply.

Just to reiterate, I am using a Dovo Best Quality 5/8" Half-Hallow Ground Round Point straight razor and a Belgian Select Grade Coticule 5" (30mm x 125mm) hone with a Coticule 1.6" slurry stone. The Dovo has been subjected to 27 beginner straight razor shaves and 26 beginner stropping sessions on English bridle leather and linen, while the coticule has yet to see any action.

I researched several approaches online to honing with a coticule, notably how to hone using a Belgian coticule stone by Lynn Abrams, and the Unicot and Dilucot honing methods offered by Coticule. Based upon this research, I concluded that my coticule was perhaps too small to effectively perform the circle motion suggested by Lynn, and that the Dilucot method required a more experienced honer. Thus, I decided to attempt my first honing session using the Unicot honing method. Step by step instructions can be downloaded in PDF format here.

Below are some photos I took using an iPhone 4S of my Dovo and coticule prior to honing. No editing has been done to these photos.

Pre-Hone Dovo with Belgian Coticule

Pre-Hone Dovo with Belgian Coticule

Pre-Hone
I set-up the supplies on a desk and sat comfortably in a chair in order to maximize control over the honing action. This set-up involved laying a towel rag out over the desk with the coticule in the center, slurry stone to the right, and a small dish of water to the left. A roll of electrical tape and two sheets of paper towel were nearby, and my straight razor was in hand.


Hone
It should be noted that I elected not to dull the razor on the bottom of a drinking glass as suggested by Unicot honing method. Basically I was afraid I wouldn't be able to bring the razor back to usable condition given this was my first time honing. On that note, let me just say that, like all other things straight razor-related, honing is most certainly a skillful art that must be "honed" over time.  

I began by using my fingers to drop water from the small dish of water onto the coticule, and then rubbed the  water along the entire top yellow surface of the stone. Then, I picked up the smaller slurry stone and vigorously rubbed it atop the coticule to create a milky slurry, which developed rather quickly, likely due to the small size of my coticule. 

Once what appeared to be a suitable slurry was created, I began by moving the Dovo in half X-strokes across the coticule, focusing on keeping the edge and spine flat against the coticule throughout the motion, using my pointer finger to steady the blade. After 30 half X-strokes away from me, I then flipped the Dovo over and performed 30 half X-strokes towards me. Having watched several videos online, I have seen some hold the hone in their off-hand during this motion, while others leave the hone sitting on a flat table surface. I tried both but ultimately preferred the latter as I felt a bit unsteady holding the coticule in my hand. 

After performing 30 half X-strokes on both sides, I attempted the arm hair test which my razor did not seem to pass. I wasn't sure if this meant I was doing the arm hair test wrong, or if my honing was that poor. Thus, I decided to re-apply water, recreate the milky slurry, and then repeat the aforementioned 30 half X-strokes on both sides of the razor, then re-test the keenness on my arm hair. I went through this rotation four or five times before just deciding to move on to the next step out of frustration.

Next, I created a somewhat less milky slurry and performed 30 regular X-strokes. After this, I rinsed and dried off the Dovo and then applied a layer of electrical tape to the spine. With this in place, I added a bit more water to the hone and repeated 30 regular X-strokes. Finally, I completely rinsed the hone so it was nothing but water and finished with 50 regular X-strokes. 


Post-Hone
With my honing strokes complete, I removed the electrical tape, rinsed and then dried off the Dovo. I then moved into the bathroom where I hang my strop and performed 60 stropping laps on both the linen and leather sides. For good measure (and photo taking), I then rinsed and dried off my Dovo once again.

Below are some photos I took using an iPhone 4S of my Dovo and coticule after honing. No editing has been done to these photos. 

Post-Hone Dovo

Post-Hone Dovo

Final Thoughts
Overall, I struggled quite a bit on gauging the feedback during my first honing session. My perception is that my honing movements were not actually sharpening the edge. From a visual standpoint it appeared that my razor was moving in the precise motion I had seen in countless videos online, but I was not seeing the slurry quickly turn dark due to fragments of carbon steel being shaved off as I had seen in those videos. I just had a hard time telling if I was actually improving the razor's keenness, dulling it, or leaving it unchanged. The arm hair test was not leaving me encouraged but perhaps I was not performing the test correctly.

Ultimately, the shave test is the true test of a razor's performance. I showered and shaved shortly after completing this first honing session to see how it felt. It appeared that the razor moved a bit more easily through my beard on the first pass, but this may have been because I normally had been shaving every 48 hours whereas this time it had only been 36 hours, so the beard was not quite as thick.

Quite a bit of the milky slurry sloshed around while honing, leaving a white residue on my fingers, the sides of the hone, and all along the razor. I found myself having to clean off the razor and my fingers from time to time to ensure clean contact on the blade and steady grip on my fingers. On this note, I felt like my slurry dried up too quickly resulting in a thicker slurry past getting stuck to the razor as opposed to the nice, watery slurry I saw in videos online. I kept adding lots of water but this kept happening. Could it be because my coticule stone is too small?

I liken this first time honing to my first time shaving with the straight. It was a bit bumpy and I left feeling somewhat discouraged, but I know that if I hang in there and keep working at it, I'll improve. Next time I hone I'll likely experiment some more, perhaps trying the circle method proposed by Lynn. We'll see.

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