Honing Lore Q&A

I want to share my thoughts on some of the most frequently discussed and debated and possibly misunderstood honing lore.  Here are my thoughts on some topics.      I will be adding sections as time goes on, so check for updates.

Razor Honers – ultimate experts on honing? In my opinion, no.   There are no “ultimate experts”.  There are people who understand honing and have a lot of experience honing but I don’t think any particular discipline or hobby is the breeding ground for the ultimate honemeisters.   But I think by and large, the two most knowledgeable communities are woodworkers and straight razor users in that order.   Woodworkers and straight shavers are both absolutely nuts about honing and no detail is too small to generate significant interest and controversy.   While straight shavers absolutely MUST have a razor honed extremely well in order to shave comfortably, woodworkers CAN do some of their work with less than perfectly honed tools.  But really GOOD woodworker/craftsmen are at least as finicky about their steel and stones and honing as straight shavers, so there’s a lot to be learned from them.   Their community is larger and has a very, very broad base of knowledge in terms of stones, abrasives, honing methods, etc.

Pyramid Method Honing – HoneMagic or Hype?
In my opinion, it’s neither one.  There is no question that by using the pyramid method alternating coarse, then fine, then coarse, then fine, etc., you will eventually arrive at a pretty good edge.  Of course, whenever you go back to a coarser grit, you wipe out any productivity you got from using the finer grit, but you don’t have to know anything at all about knowing when a blade is ready to progress up to the next higher grit in order to eventually arrive at a serviceable edge.  That’s the value in the method for a beginner.  After each iteration, you run the blade through the usual “sharpness tests” and if it doesn’t pass, back you go again to coarse, then fine and repeat the process after the next test.  Eventually, the blade gets to a clean bevel and the finer grit refines that clean bevel and voila!   It worked like magic.  Kinda.  It’s like a magician pulling out cards in the deck one at a time and asking “is this the ace of spades”?  Eventually, it will be the ace of spades and voila!  Magic.   A more experienced and direct approach is to work the coarser hone until a full bevel is restored throughout and then move up to refine it with the finer grit.   It’s easier on the stones and easier on your time, but you do have to know when you’ve got a blade as sharp as you need to get it with the current grit so you know when to move up.   As far as results, the pyramid process provides no superior edge quality to any other method.    It’s just relatively foolproof with enough iterations.   I don’t recommend it, but it does work.

As a note on this, if you search for “pyramid honing” on Google, you’ll find it interesting that this is just a phenomenon of the straight razor shaving community.   Woodworkers, Butchers, Japanese bladesmiths, etc., don’t subscribe to this philosophy and methodology.   I think that has a lot to do with the fact that for many straight razor shavers, honing is a completely new and poorly understood process and the “pyramid method” gives them something with which they can get a good result with very little understanding of the process.  And there’s something to be said for that.  There’s always time to learn more, but having a sharp razor to shave with is a first priority.

What equipment does a beginner need? You need a medium fine and very fine hone and I would recommend the Norton 4000/8000 grit combination stone and a flattening stone to keep it true.   Additionally, finishing off with a strop charged with chromium oxide powder should be all that’s absolutely necessary for sharpening.   Do NOT use any sort of abrasive on your daily leather and canvas strop.   The 4000 grit stone is enough to put a new bevel on an older full hollow albeit with some time investment.   It’s not as coarse as I think would be ideal for creating a new bevel, but it will get the job done.  The 8000 isn’t as fine as a lot of “fine finishing” hones that cost big bucks, but a light touch and a finish with chromium oxide will create an edge that is quite good; good enough that you dont’ really NEED anything finer, but eventually you’ll probably want to get something finer if you’re like everyone else, me included.   An expensive high end finishing stone just doesn’t have to be part of your initial investment for honing and maintenance of your razor.

Taping the razor’s spine while honing?
This has become preetty popular but what’s the value in it?    Frankly, there’s not a lot of value in it from a performance perspective.  A razor that’s well designed with proper geometry doesn’t need tape and tape will alter the bevel angle somewhat to a more obtuse angle.   14 to 18 degrees is optimal.  If your razor has a bevel set at 18 degrees without tape, taping it will put the bevel outside what I consider optimal geometry on the high end.  If the razor has a bevel of less than 14 degrees, then tape could bump it back into the geometric sweet spot.  But say a razor has the proper geometry and has a 14-18 degree bevel; in that case, there is nothing to be gained by using tape except to eliminate any sign of hone wear.  In my opinion, that’s not a good enough reason to tape up a spine on anything but Damascus razors.  Because the surface of Damascus steel has been etched, honing without a taped spine will result in bright rails on either side of the hone as the spine is used, as it’s designed, as a honing guide.  And since a lot of money is paid just for the aesthetics of the damascus steel, I’d say it makes sense to compromise a bit and go ahead and tape the spine if you want to maintain the etching throughout.  Otherwise, there’s nothing at all wrong with using the spine as the honing guide as the design intended and, in fact, that’s my preference and recommendation.

Can you really “overhone” a razor? Yes, you can.   Once you’ve got a clean bevel and clean steel with the current grit and a fine touch on your honing passes, you can’t improve the edge with that grit any more.  You can grind away more steel and give yourself more opportunities to make a mistake and damage the edge with the hone, but you can’t improve an edge that’s been fully honed with the current grit until you go to a higher grit.   In the perfect world, you would move in grit up after the last stroke that completed the geometry 100% with your existing grit.  But, in my opinion, it’s better to have a few strokes too many than a few strokes too few.  Moving up to a higher grit before you’ve got a full, complete, clean bevel at the existing grit means that you’ll be honing on the finer grits much,. much longer than you’ll need to because you’ll have to do more than refine the existing bevel with the finer grit.  You’ll actually have to do more grinding with it because you didn’t get to the full bevel before you moved up.   If, after 4,000 grit, the razor isn’t easily cutting hair against the skin with all parts of the blade, you don’t have the bevel fully cleaned up yet.  Once the bevel is right, the finer stones are just for refining it and you won’t need a lot of work with them to finish the edge beautifully.  If you keep honing and honing and honing with the fine grit stones and still can’t seem to get a really sharp edge, it’s one of three things going on.   1)  really bad steel that will never take a decent edge   2) really bad technique or 3) you never came to a full bevel in the first place on the coarser grits.   #3 is far and away the most likely unless you’ve got one of the new junk razors being manufactured in Pakistan.   If you’ve got one of these, forget about getting a really good edge.  In fact, I’d forget about ever trying to shave with it.  Chalk it up to inexperience and trepidation about buying something a little more expensive but a lot better in quality.  Lots of people have done it.  It’s tempting.

Hones for Stainless Steel?
What hones are best for stainless steel?   The same hones you use for any other steel.

Is Stainless Steel harder than high carbon steel? Typically, it’s softer; not harder.   It is, however, more ductile, partially due to the softness of the steel and largely due to the alloy composition.  All alloys in steel are included for a reason and to provide some special properties for the finished steel.   Alloys used to make a steel less susceptible to staining and corrosion are added because of those properties and not because they add superior edge qualities.  On the contrary, they are compromises.  The best stainless steels are still quite good, but make no mistake about it, there are some tradeoffs in hardness, grain size, ductility and carbide structures compared to straight tool steel, which is the heart and soul of all cutting steels.  While there are a lot of different high carbon tool steels, most are very low alloy steel.  Air cooled steels (like A2) and Semi-Stainless like (D2) are among the most highly alloyed.   High speed steels (like M2 and M4) are highly alloyed, also with the alloying designed to minimize grain structure change and softening at high working temperatures.    Stainless steel is “air quenched” while most cold work tool steels are Water or Oil quenched.  The simple structures of the latter steels is capable of creating very fine edges with fine grain, provided it has been heat treated well, tempered well and hasn’t been overheated while being worked afterward.   Simple steels are my personal favorite for razors, which needn’t be particularly tough but need to be extremely sharp.   They’re prone to staining and rust without proper care but I feel the suitability of the steel is ideal for razors and so the susceptibility to corrosion is a very acceptable compromise.   Of course, the perfect steel would have the finest edge of all and be totally corrosion proof, but this magic formula still eludes metallurgists and bladesmiths of the 21st century.