Treatise on Razor Honing 2013

Botan Pengy

Treatise on Razor Honing – 2013

 

During this past year, I realized a good number of achievements and experienced what I view to be significant technical advancements. I feel, know actually, that I’ve gained a lot of ground with how I handle honing. This isn’t to say that I think I’ve become some kind of Poobah, Guru, or whatever. I’m just saying that I’ve spent a lot of time honing, and developing/inventing new techniques and approaches. I do feel that all the effort I’ve put into this sector of my life has paid off tremendously. 

 

Stone choices  

Synthetics 

I still use synthetic stones often. I like them. I like using them a lot. Sure – they have liabilities and they are man-made blocks of whatever; I don’t really care much about the stigma some people put on synthetics. I do well with them, and that’s what matters to me. Predominantly – I rely on my Naniwa Chosera 1k and 3k for the early work. If I need to cut a lot of steel – I have 400x and 800x Chosera stones also. To finalize my mid-range honing, I use a Naniwa Snow White 8k – Jyunpaku. I love this hone, it’s the only synthetic that I’ve sold and re-bought. Yes – I think it’s that good.  I will probably re-purchase the 5k Chosera also.

I also have two Shapton Pro stones, a 1k and 1.5k, along with a Nubatama 6k. Sometimes I use the Shapton to fix up chipped blades, and the Nub 6k is refining the 3k work so the edge is really ready for the 8k.    

 

Films 

I don’t use films – but mostly that’s because I see them as synthetics and I have no real need to go experimenting in that arena. My needs there are very simple and well met with the options I already own. I don’t believe films are great, evil, or whatever. To me, they’re just another abrasive. 

 

Pastes  

Same as films really. I did hone an edge from 1k up to finish on pastes, just to do it. It worked well. They are effective, easy to get, use, and get a nice edge off of. I can’t imagine any system being easier than using pastes actually. They’re so simple to use, that I can’t even imagine someone ever missing the edge when using them.  I’m not convinced that they’re capable of developing what I consider to be a really sweet edge – but maybe I’m wrong about that. Maybe with practice, someone could possibly consistently create astounding edges. I have no real love for the process of using pastes, so I won’t be the one spearheading that movement.   

 

Japanese Natural Whetstones   

I am immersed in Jnats fairly regularly. I really get along well with the selection I have here and I enjoy using them tremendously. I do not necessarily think they are ‘better’ or whatever – than other options. I just think I get along very well with them and they are out on my bench more often that the other options.  For me – using a Jnat and Nagura is extremely rewarding on a very deep level. Some say it’s like Zen – to be honest, I have no idea what the hell Zen is. What I do know is that honing on Jnats really gets me into a ‘zone’ that’s hypnotic and calming.

Is that Zen?

Whatever it is – I like it.  

The more I hone with Jnats, the more my eyes open wider. Many of the Awasedo in my collection have been with me for a good while now, and I’m only just now really learning/understanding a couple of them in ways that I would not have thought possible.  

So far as the actual work goes - I’ve developed a few different techniques and finishing styles this year. My non-scientific experimentation has paid off and I’ve experienced growth in both my understanding and in controlling how the finished edge comes out. 

Mostly, I opt to finish on the harder Jnats. Not all the time though, I like to change things up to keep it interesing. I've become very in-tune with a softer Suita and I can eek out a super keen edge on it that you might think was from a much harder stone; yet it still seems to retain some of the gentler characteristics that a softer stone might offer. Even so - I really enjoy pushing edges and that's where very hard stones own the playing field. Most of the time, I work up Jnat edges with a full Mikawa Nagura progression - but a fair number of edges start off on 1k and 3k synthetics and then I jump to using the Nagura. Other efforts include using Coticules, and occasionally a Thuri/Escher in the midst of things. There are no rules and anything I can think of doing, will probably get done.  

 

Coticules 

Love them. These bits of Belgian real estate also have an emotional tug on me. I will take one out often enough to allow me to call myself a successful Coticule user and I happily hone away. I still don’t enjoy them for setting bevels although I do that every so often just to remind myself about what that’s all about.  I love a well-done Coti edge – I shave off them fairly regularly. I prefer the harder glassier types – the Les Latneuses Hybrid stones are a favorite of mine. But any good Coti with good harness is ok by me. This is a personal preference, not an absolute rule for anyone else to follow.

 

Eschers/Thuris 

These slates are really nice finishers, and I do love shaving with edges polished on them. Sometimes I’ll follow a Coti finish with one just to add a little pizzazz. There’s not much to say about them – they’re easy peasy one-trick-ponies but that’s part of their charm. I have a couple of them and both give up sublime edges without making me work for it. They’re almost too easy. As for which type of Thuri is best – I can’t say. I do know that I am partial to blue-green stones. I sold 3 Yellow Green Eschers this year – I don’t miss them.

 

Arkansas Stones 

Arks were my first natural sharpening stones, but I purchased them for sharpening knives. I’ve been through a boat-load of them at this point and while I really like them a lot, I don’t use Arks to hone razors from the ground up. I do use my Surgical Black Ark to finish on, and it does produce absolutely stellar edges. I also have a vintage Translucent Ark that has similar finishing qualities. I may – someday – pick up another one or two Ark finishers, but at the moment I can’t imagine any finisher being ‘better’ than my SB Ark. 

 

Razor Grinds 

I love a razor with a thick heavy grind. I really do. It’s not that I don’t like hollow ground razors, I just don’t enjoy shaving with them as much. I’m not much of a fan for very hollow grinds though; the flex in those blades is something I can do without. 

Honing a wedge, for me, is identical to honing anything else – with the exception being that I’m more prone to putting tape on a near wedge and I’ll definitely put tape on a full wedge. Otherwise – to me it’s just another razor. Thinking of them as being some kind of insurmountable behemoth, as many people do, is a mistake. It’s just steel and stone – there is no hidden issue to overcome. The process is the same; bevel set followed by refinement. I see no logical reason making up a special method to hone a heavy grind. Other people will have their own special-sauce for this and that’s fine for them. Me – I avoid over complicating what is actually a very simple process.

Sure – some beat up blades from auction sites arrive in horrific condition and need extra work – but that’s true for any razor, regardless of grind, brand, or whatever. The effort on the stone is directly related to the condition of the blade; mostly, the existing bevel and edge. Otherwise – whether I’m working on a full hollow or a wedgy blade; if the condition is basically equal, then the required work is also basically equal.

 

Testing Edges 

I don’t test edges, I hone, strop, and shave. While honing, I rely on feedback, visual indicators like undercut and swarf build-up, along with audible indicators to gauge progress. Call me silly but that’s how I hone. I’ve not had to take an edge back to the stone because it wasn’t good or ready or whatever in a really long time. Sure – it could happen again but I have a bunch of razors and if I did miss an edge I’d just grab another one and shave. I don’t see that happening anytime soon though. I may, rarely, test the bevel by cutting a few arm hairs. Or, on a very rare occasion, I might use the TNT to proof the edge before going to the 3k or Botan. 

 

The honing process 

Well – the hardware is one thing, using it is another thing. For starters, owning a top flight set of stones doesn’t mean spit if the bevel isn’t set right or you need to do 100 laps on a 12k SS to make up for 1/2 baked 8k work.

I have focused a lot of my attention on the bevel this year.

We say – 'set the bevel'. We state this like it’s an event that shows up and right afterwards it’s over. I think not.

For the sake of discussion – saying ‘set the bevel’ makes perfect sense. In a broader sense though – setting the bevel is not a ‘moment’ – it’s a process. It does not just start and end ‘just like that’.

To me – the bevel is the crux of the story. It is where all the sharpness is, and it is where all the smoothness begins.  On top of that – I don’t see it being purely a 1k thing. I now see the bevel-set stage as starting wherever I start, and it’s ‘set’ somewhere before I get to 8k. Call it 5k if you want – but I don’t think the number is all that important.

I see what we might call the ‘mid-range’ honing – Nakato - as an extension of ‘setting the bevel’. While this might not seem important or enlightening to some, it is to me. Now – I have a new perspective – I treat every part of honing up to the finish as one fluid ‘thing’. How this affects my honing is another thing – but mostly this is about how I think. How I think affects how I act – and so on. 

One peek into what I think; I no longer really care about ‘grit’ or microns or whatever. I really don’t. I find that focusing on microns is one of the biggest time wasters there is. Once I let go of all of that – I was able to get into my own ‘zone’. I’m not saying my zone is ‘the’ zone for anyone but me though. If someone likes worrying about particle sizes, that’s fine by me.   

Even so - when someone can prove to me, beyond a shadow of a doubt, that an 8k (or any other ‘k’) edge is a finite thing; a perfect bench mark standard that is beyond reproach, a set fact where every single edge honed to alleged ‘perfection’ on an 8k (or whatever) stone is exactly as sharp (or whatever) as all the others – then I’ll have a different opinion.

Until then – to me, 8k (any k) is just a theory and so are the mental gyrations over particles and grit that we read so much about.    

People scoff at the pyramid progression –  personally, I think there’s a lot to be learned there. A whole lot actually. Mind you – I do think the Pyramid Scheme is a somewhat failed concept that may or may not work for some people from time to time. Even so - I sense that there's an underlying principal that seems to prove itself in practice. I’m not even sure exactly what that principal is – so I’m not going to put myself out there with half a story. I do have a few ideas about what might really be going on but I don’t have the empirical evidence, time, or any real need to expound upon them. Suffice to say that when I’m looking for it I can see it.   

Anyways - When I think of a ‘progression’ – the only progression I consider is the condition of the edge. I do not consider going 1, 2, 3, 5k – etc – to be ‘the’ progression to focus on.  Up/down – whatever it takes to get ‘the’ edge ‘there’ is all that matters to me.

In short – if the edge isn’t ‘there’ at the 8k, going back to the 3k can be a good thing. If the edge isn’t there on Koma Slurry – going back to Mejiro is a good idea, and it’s entirely possible that going back to Botan is a better idea.

What I’m trying to say is that I just don’t think the edge always develops in a purely linear manner. In my minds eye I see it like a sine wave with ever-increasing amplitude, or something along those lines. 

I used to think that I would find some sort of technical-ecstasy in  one type of system or regimen, but I’ve proven to myself that thinking that way is too limiting and system/honing/edge-perfection does not exist. Perfection – can be found in an outcome, when one is willing to accept that nothing is perfect. In other words – all of the results from all of my efforts are perfectly imperfect. Anyone thinking their results are consistently perfect in any other sense might need to rethink that.    

I pay more attention to feedback now than I ever did. If the feedback isn’t dead-on then I make changes that bring the feedback I’m looking for.

To me – honing is not like sanding wood; in that process, you work with one specific grit until the wood is only full of scratches from that paper and you move forward and never look back.

I started thinking - steel is not wood – and a razor’s bevel and edge are not a birdhouse or a canoe paddle. So – perhaps it’s possible that my thoughts about honing could be realigned. While I realize that not everyone is going to agree with that, I have no real need for a majority ruling here.   

From what I can tell, the condition of the edge does not get to a point and stay there. It changes with each stroke, regardless of the hone it’s on. In other words – there is no one single static point where the edge is perfectly done at that stage and that’s it.

Additionally - at any given stage, even though it ‘appears’ as though 100% of the scratch pattern from the previous stage is ‘gone’ – sometimes that is not exactly the case. While it seems illogical to return to a lower ‘grit’, and then progressing again, doing so can have a positive effect on edge refinement. The Pyramid Scheme is a formula or recipe, and I don’t believe that’s an appropriate way of handling this – but I do find merit in the basic underlying actions. I am not saying that I jump up and down in ‘grit’ every time I hone though. It’s more complex than that and I’m still working with using this to my advantage. So – I guess I can say that sometimes I do, other times I do not. 

Honing – to me – is about getting in sync with the undulating and apparently ‘imperfect’ sequence that the blade goes though - and ‘catching’ the edge. I also think that when I ‘miss’ – it’s best to go back to get it back – instead of trying to make up for it at the next level.   

Steel is funny stuff sometimes; and not funny like hahaha, I mean funny as in weird. 

Mostly, my thoughts thus far are about splitting hairs – literally. When I wasn’t thinking this way, I wasn’t experiencing dud edges, no - not that at all.  

What I’m talking about here is my home-brewed attempt to understand edge refinement; it is not about the difference between shaving and not being able to shave. This is not about ‘better’ honing or ‘better’ edges really. It might be about being more consistent, but even that’s up for discussion. I’ll leave the honemeister self-coronation ceremonies and titles for others – I’m happy with my quiet progress and it’s inherent lack of fanfare. 

All of this is just theory that comes from a ton of observation, honing almost every single day for hours, and paying close attention to what is going on every time I hone/shave. I do, I see, I think, and then I wonder. Wondering leads to trying stuff – and so it goes. 

Even so - right now – somewhere – there’s a guy with a razor that was last honed on pastes over a year ago, and he shaved as well as I did tonight. So – while I am definitely into deep thought about some of this honing jazz – I am also very much into keeping it real.  

 

Strokes and touch 

No – not that. Get your mind out of the gutter. 

Strokes 

While I’m honing I tend to focus on parts of the blade as well as the entirety of the edge. I try to isolate sections of the blade on the stone to sense what’s going on there. Eventually – I work toward tying it all up together but when the toe or whatever needs more attention – that’s where I focus my honing until the feedback is where I want it to be.

Strokes – I don’t have a single type of stroke that I rely on for any or all of this honing business. I’ll go whichever way the feedback tells me to go. I like to ‘cut’ efficiently – something I learned from Jose. Generally - I end with ‘x’ strokes but up until then, anything might happen and anything is game; ½ strokes, circles, whatever.  I have my own type of ‘s’ strokes that I started working with long ago – and I’ve been very successful with that approach.

 

Pressure 

My use of pressure varies greatly.

I never really use ‘heavy’ pressure unless I’m trying to take 1/8” off a wedge on a 180x or something like that.

Generally – I have a fairly light touch. I torque more than I press though. But – I will press when I feel that I should. Sometimes, often actually, I’ll use two hands to hone, but my left hand is there to guide the blade, not to add pressure.  I follow the feedback; when the slurry is breaking down - I am usually, but not always, easing up on the torqueing/pressure. Some stones finish best with ‘some’ pressure on the blade, while others do not. Knowing the stone and the razor in question is a critical concern, and approaching any session without at least ½ of that information in-hand is more of an experiment than anything else.

 

The Mysteries of Honing and the Grand All-Knowing Edge Poobahs

 

There are no cloaked-in-darkness mysteries and there are no wizards in this business. Seriously.  

I do believe that anyone that wants to hone, can hone. I also believe that anyone that wants to hone can hone as well as anyone else if they put in the time and effort to learning and progressing.  

None of any of this honing stuff is terribly difficult, and with a modest effort, anyone can dig in and get shaving.

Seriously - it's that easy.

Don't believe the hype - there are no magic stones, no honing warlords and no edge demons to thwart anyone's efforts.  

Just do it. It doesn't matter which route you take - all the roads lead to Rome here. 

That being said; I really do think that this honing jazz should really be about having fun and enjoying everything that comes with it.  

 


© Keith V Johnson 2014 - 2015