Microscopes vs Reality

Often – we see attempts to ‘prove’ straight razor honing facts via high magnification images of razor bevels.

The visual impact is high – the tiny bevel is now hundreds of times larger than life-size and it is damn impressive. 

What a lot of people fail to realize though – is that while this sort of imaging is actually data; that data is, quite often, not all that reliable for making absolute conclusions.  

For scientific test results to be conclusive – the testing has to be scientific.

The concept of employing systematic principals (measurement, observation, etc) must be adhered to or the process Is no longer scientific.    

When razors are honed by hand, there’s no way to gauge or meter the effort, pressure, steel types, honing styles or progressions - or hone type or even hone similarities in any exacting sense. With each layer of ‘variable’ added to the equation, the further away from ‘scientific’ we get. 

Additionally - there’s no way to say Razor A is identical to Razor B; even if you have seemingly identical razors – they may have been manufactured 10-50 years apart by different people from different steels. Who’s to say if Joe A hones razor B with honing method C – that Joe B honing razor A with method C is going to achieve the same exact result?  We can’t say for sure – because there are so many variables present that they defeat the attempt to be scientific. 

Let’s not forget that owning a fancy microscope doesn’t turn someone into a scientist any more than owning a razor makes anyone a barber. Nuff said. 

Forming conclusions based on poorly assembled data retrieved via half-assed pseudoscientific practices is not ‘science’ in any way, shape, size or form. While I love looking at the photos, I seriously dislike reading the ‘laws’ that get put down from the gurus that interpret those images.   

Lastly – how the bevel looks does not necessarily translate to how it shaves.

If imaging a bevel was a good way to determine how good an edge is, then all Coticule edges would suck because their bevels look like crap and all synthetic edges would be great because they look so nice. 

This is not the case – while one Coti edge might be ‘not good’ – or a particular synth edge might be ‘great’ – that doesn’t mean that every edge of those stones will be the same. Chances are though – that synth edges will image similarly, and the same goes for the edges off Cotis. 

Another point to consider – the images being shown are usually taken from one single angle with a fixed light source.

When viewing under magnification, you’ll find that moving the object and the light will/can reveal what the eye can’t see when the object and light source are fixed. So, basically – you can hide whatever you want to. Or – you can prove whatever you want to. All you need to do is position the light/object in a way that shows a view that suits the argument. This can be done intentionally, or unintentionally – regardless of the motive or lack thereof – the viewer would be best served by stepping back so they can see both the forest and the trees. 

The composite image showing above took all of 5 minutes to execute – in one photo the bevel looks pretty snazzy and in the other, taken of the exact same spot, you can see several rogue gouges.  With more effort, I could show you how a mirrored bevel still has 1k scratches lurking behind the polish, etc. I think the photo above gets the point across though. 

Finally – and I’ll end here…we shave with the edge – not the bevel. While the bevel might be indicative of something going on at the edge, it’s not always a reliable harbinger of issues or perfection at the edge. Some razors with the worst looking bevels shave phenomenally, and some with the best-looking bevels shave like crap.   

What matters is how the edge shaves. Not how the bevel looks.    

Addendum – I’m not saying that using a microscope is a bad thing or that magnification is a bad thing.  They are excellent tools and when used correctly they will deliver excellent imaging/viewing.

What I am saying is this; often – for whatever reasons - not everything we see in photos represents the entirety of what we are looking at accurately, and opinions derived from those images are likely going to be questionable. 

I have a microscope – I use it judiciously. I'm considering getting a better one but for me that step-up is a huge financial consideration so I’m taking my time with moving in that direction. Honestly – my 4x loupe is fine for just about anything I need to do, I only use the scope when I feel like getting uber-critical over a particulars stone’s performance.

Optics are a huge part of my life, microscopes included, and I’m aware of their assets and limitations. Magnification, by itself – is not necessarily the whole answer to the issue of needing to see something that eludes detection by the naked eye. Lighting and positioning are critical factors and without taking the time to exploit those factors – we’re left with a big picture of only ‘part’ of what we really need to see. 

I suppose, the point I’m trying to make is this; a lot of what we think is ‘information’ is actually just data that people have compiled and dressed up with their opinions. While that is all well-and-good, that ‘data’ is not exactly always going to be interpreted correctly for the reasons I outlined above. 

Remember – people have been shaving for centuries; and I’d guess that 95% of the people honing all of the razors used since day 1 did not need to rely on 400x+ magnification to know when they had an edge that shaves.   

Common sense says that this fact still applies today; it’s my experience that honing a razor is not nearly involved or difficult as the people that charge for honing might indicate. I will also add that honing straight razors is a craft; it is a learned practice. It takes time and effort to become proficient. But it is not so difficult that you need a Class 1 clean room and an SEM to learn how to hone well. All you need are a few stones, some time working with them, practice and some common sense.    


© Keith V Johnson 2014 - 2015