La Pogonotomia II

About the razor's edge and the art of honing

A razor that works well with a heavy beard may not be effective for a normal one. Excellent razors exist that work well with both types, but this is not more than a compromise resulting from keeping the middle between a strong and a fine edge.

The honing technique makes an edge perfect for a specific type of beard. A relatively coarse and strong edge makes the hair fold instead of being cut. A too fine edge 'brakes off' or bends at thick hairs. Inappropriate edges cause hairs to be torn instead of being cut. So, one needs a fine edge for soft beards, and a coarser one for heavy beards.

The razor does to a hair what a scythe does to grass but the top of grass is an effective counterweight which the hair lacks. This imposes special problems on razor care, which are even more difficult to compensate than with the lancet. The lancet has a very soft edge, resulting solely from the technique of honing. The same soft edge is not ideal for ther razor, because a hair would glide and pass under the edge and be torn instead of being cut. A razor's edge needs teeth, because its action is not to cut, nor to slash or hack, but to scythe. Therefore, the difficulty is in aligning those teeth perfectly. Also critical is the way the steel has been hardened, ground, and the steel quality. It may cause a razor to hold for two instead of thirty shaves before honing is necessary again.

A very good razor will behave as a bad one when honing is not done properly. After grinding, the top of the edge where the two sides meet, is a thin and weak burr, that will bend away under the slightest pressure. The hone must remove the burr. The blade is kept flat on the hone, and with the edge in the direction of movement, oblique strokes are made over the complete length of the hone. The pressure does not exceed the weight of the blade, or sometimes double the weight, but the last three to four strokes are only at the weight of the blade. At the end of the stroke, the tang is turned between index finger and thumb, and the next stroke is in the opposite direction, repeating this about twelve times for the fine razor, about twenty four times for the bigger razor. To judge when you can stop honing, the edge should bite into the skin of the thumb when carefully rubbing it; if not, repeat honing for about four to five strokes (one stroke = back and forth).

One should not give too many strokes, because then a burr forms again, which makes shaving bad. A coarse burr feels like a saw; a fine burr can be missed because sometimes you cannot feel it. In that case, you need a different test. This is done by make a cutting movement from heel to point over the moistened thumb nail. If the movement feels rough with obstacles, there was a burr; if it is smooth, there is no burr. You have to do the cutting movement on your nail twice, because the first time destabilizes any burr, the second time makes the burr fall aside, in such a way that giving 4 or 5 strokes on the hone restores the edge again. The edge is good when it bites into the thumb skin before as well as after having made the cutting movement on the nail twice. This is one of the most constant and consistent observations.

If the razor is a bad one, this technique does not result in removing the burr. In that case, one should hone once with the back forwards and the back raised 1/12 inch - so only the edge rests on the hone; then turn the blade and give one stroke with the edge forward, and again the back raised 1/12 inch; this will result in the fall of the burr. Then give 5 or 6 normal strokes on the hone, back and forth (edge forward). In general, re-grinding on the wheel can de-harden the steel and should be avoided, and never done dry, but it may be sometimes necessary.