Beginner's Guide to Honing
While honing a razor is not rocket science, it is an acquired skill. A common mistake beginners make is to think that they can learn every aspect of straight razor shaving quickly, and just like that. The truth is, each part requires a lot of time and practice. Before you contemplate learning to hone, you should start out with a shave ready razor and a strop. That will be all you need. With just those 2 tools, there will be no need to learn to hone for several months, which gives you plenty of time to learn how to correctly strop your razor and then shave with it.
Later when it comes time for you to learn how to maintain your straight razors edge, all you need then is a final polishing hone. Some people use a natural hone like a Coticule or a Japanese water stone, others use a range of synthetic hones for final polishing, ranging from 12k all the way to 30k. And others yet, just use a pasted strop.
Take the time to learn what you can learn about assessing the edge before you start honing. You need to know how "unsharp" a razor is to figure out how many strokes and on what grit you should be honing on. (I am using the word unsharp for a reason, dull is just dull, you need to know how far away you are from sharp). Do this throughout the process, not just in the beginning.
The sharpness tests (known as thumb nail test, thumb pad test, hanging hair test, and shave test) are explained in detail in the article Sharpness tests explained. A microscope or jeweller's loupe can also help in inspecting the edge.
Why hone at all? Simply put, the objectives of honing are:
- straighten the edge (it should have no nicks)
- create a bevel that is as sharp as possible
- smooth out the bevels and the teeth at the edge as much as possible.
The right choice of hones is determined by too many variables to give an authoritative answer as to what tools are required for honing. As a beginner, you should at the very least read the article What hone(s), paste(s), or spray(s) do I need?, and preferably also familiarise with the articles in the honing category.
Can I use my grandfather's hones which I just found in the attic?
Some beginners think that they can use the set of hones they found lying in the bottom of their tool box, which haven't seen the light of day in years, and then try to guess which is which grit. This is another aspect that is going to hinder your learning. Without knowing the exact grit of each hone, you can potentially do more harm than good. Some coarse stones can feel smoother to the touch than smooth ones when handling them, so you could in effect be trying to set a bevel with a #1500 hone, and then be attempting to sharpen the edge with an #800, and that could get very frustrating. The reason we suggest you invest in a new set of hones is so that you know the exact grit of each one, and you can get your razor to a shave ready state in the fastest possible time.
Why should I bevel the edges of my hone?
The reason we bevel the corners of a hone is to avoid doing any damage to that razor sharp edge we are trying to develop. Those non bevelled edges have the potential to do some serious damage. If you are on an #8000 hone getting ready for the final polish but make one slip up on that non beveled corner, chances are quite high, that you are going to have to go all the way back to #1000 and reset that bevel. There is nothing worse than having to redo something because you were not careful.
Do not start unless you bring sufficient time and patience
Another important aspect of honing a straight razor, is you must have patience and you must pay attention to what you are doing. When you are first starting out, you should pick a quiet time of the day and have no distractions, and you most certainly should not have been consuming alcoholic beverages.
When it comes to learning to hone a straight razor, it is far better, to go slow and get it right the first time, than to go fast, fudge it up, and have to start again.
Razor flat, heel leading or X pattern, equal pressure on each side, each stroke the same angle and length as the opposing side, lessen pressure as you go. X-strokes will account for any deviation from flat in your hone or blade. Even if you keep your hones lapped completely flat the wear just from the current honing session will create areas or wear. The x-stroke gives the best chance of avoiding defects in the edge or bevel from these voids in the hone or any (even the slightest) warp of the blade. Light strokes will attack the bevel all the way to the edge better that pressured strokes, but adding some pressure will remove more metal (both of which have their time and place). Use quality strokes, go slow. The best part of honing is that it lets you slow the world down a little. Or, if you try and apply your fast world to honing, you'll screw it up.
Know your hone
They have different cutting levels and various speeds. You can hone a razor on almost any flat, high grit stone. It just may take a while. A Norton 4/8 is a bracket approach, all the cutting power you need (if you're patient), and more smoothing power then you'll ever need, all in one hone). A barber hone provides good, varied speed (depending on the hone) finishing. It can replace the 8K side of a Norton or be used as a stepping stone to the 8K. A 4K hone is fast and cuts away lots of metal, consider using just 1/2 the stone as a cheap way to slow down the cutting to match your skill level. Think like an inexperienced diamond cutter . . .
The bracket approach
A bracket approach makes the most sense. Cut away metal then smooth it out. But you must learn how much metal to cut away and how to smooth out the bevel after its been cut. Another way of saying this is proportion. Don't cut all day and try to smooth with 1 stroke on 8K; it won't work. Conversely, don't be afraid to cut away metal, but have some thought of when to stop. I find that once the bevel is sharp, no LESS than 20 strokes on 8K will smooth the edge out to my liking. Try this approach with each grit: "What can I accomplish with this grit?" Can you almost pass the HHT with 4K only? That would be pretty cool. Can you get close? Imagine now what happens with the 8K ..... can I cut a dropped hair? Can I pass the HHT without a popping sound. Does it feel sharper on my wet thumb (literally, you do know what sharp feels like, trust me, it takes practice but it's very possible). And finally, with the strop the question is: How smooth of a shave can I get? Pyramiding is a good, blind approach to the same idea. 1 x 4k, then 5 x 8k strokes, test. Towards the end though, consider 5 more 8k strokes and maybe even 5 more after that, and then test shave again before dropping back down to 4K.
Do not overhone
Don't cut too much metal away from your blade edge. It's better to try the 8K and smooth for a while, and then to return to the 4K, than to go to town on the 4k and then try to smooth out a torn up, over-honed edge.
Establishing shave readiness
The best shaves occur after repeated shaves and stropping. Again, it's a process of achieving the most you can from each step. It's the only way you're going to know that you're headed in the right direction. You can't succeed by using one stroke on the 4K, one stroke on the 8k, stropping one pass, lathering up, and then test shaving a cheek. You've got to push the 4K into smooth cutting, polish with the 8K, align and smooth with stropping, and then shave. Each level - 4k, 8k, and even the strop - have more power than you may realize to improve sharpness through any one technique alone, thereby lessening (or in the case of a strop, increasing) pressure and strokes. Each needs its due time with your blade and your experience using each tool in order to achieve the most from each. While you're developing your experience, give the grits and strop their time. In other words, don't constantly give up on the 8k after 5 strokes. Although it's a finishing stone, it's removing metal, slowly. At the same time it's creating a smooth edge - smooth enough to shave on. That makes it a respected workhorse in the process.
Follow a process and experiment as you go. Use tests for sharpness during your process. It takes patience to get some razors sharp, but you've got to test them in order to determine when they are sharp enough. Sometimes one bevel is honed too much over the other, sometimes you've cut too much metal, sometimes your not getting the razor flat, etc. A little experimentation may be needed to get you over a hump, but sticking to the basics usually just involved your practice with the right stroke and constant patience during the process.
This article uses material originally posted by AFDavis11.