Bevel Setting

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 It all starts with the bevel

Generally - I'll use a 1k synthetic stone for bevel-setting; my weapon of choice here is the Chosera 1k. Often though, I'll use a 3k Chosera; if I don't need to use a lower-grit option, I don't. If the existing bevel is reasonably well defined and is plausible condition, I don't need a 1k. For times when the blade's geometry needs to be reworked, or the existing bevel is really off - a 1k hone will get the job done well. 

My preferred method for setting bevels though, is to use a Botan Toishi. These are finer and gentler than any 1k synthetic - but they're also uncommon and much slower. Speed isn't really an issue most of the time though. Mostly - it's a matter of not wanting to put excessive wear on the stone. Large bench-stone size Nagura are not all that common, so maybe 1 out of every 10 bevels gets this treatment.   

Why am I concerned about being gentler on the razor?

Well - if you look at 1k scratches from a synthetic stone, under a loupe - you'll see they're fairly deep and the very edge is almost serrated. Additionally, on occasion, there will be an even deeper rogue scratch or two. All of these striations and rogue scratches should be removed - and taking them out is harder than one might imagine. Often - some think they have 'totally removed' all the 1k scratches on a 5k or whatever stone they've followed the 1k stone with. This may or may not be 100% true though - the higher grit option can mask the 1k scratches with its own striations. So the work that follows the 1k must be exemplary if we want the edge to be as refined as we imagine it should be. Those 1k scratch marks can meet at a polished edge to cause chips, jagged edges, etc.  

It is for that reason exactly that I do not use diamond plates for bevel setting - even my 1.2k DMT seems to leave gouges in the bevel that are next to impossible to remove. Some people swear by them though - but I don't know for sure that they are achieving a very smooth edge, or one without potential issues.  Perhaps they do and I'm being overly cautious or maybe they are much better at honing out scratch patterns than I am. 

What I know for sure is that when I treat the steel right - the steel is better prepared to reward me with a blissful shave. Whenever I've used a diamond plate to set a bevel or to take out chips/frowns/whatever - when I loupe one of those edges, I always find deep rogue scratches across the bevel that cut all the way to the cutting edge. Even after extended work on subsequent hones, I've had issues with those scratches; the failures that appear where those scratches terminate at the cutting edge include new chips, micro-chips, foiling and wire burrs. Personally - I think this is one good reason why many people used to set bevels on 4k water stones.  

Many people seem to underestimate the need for nearly perfect bevel-setting skills. I'm guessing at that but when you read through the forums, there are so very many posts about edges that aren't sharp enough. While working harder or spending more time at doing something isn't a guarantee of success - I do believe that spending extra time on setting the bevel pays off. 

However long it takes to set the bevel is how long it takes to set the bevel. The bevel is done when the bevel is done. Until it's done, it's not done. Period. If I have to go back to rework the bevel because the next stone has revealed an issue; I go back and fix it. I believe that most of he felt sharpness and smoothness in any edge is established at this stage and cutting corners here is completely ridiculous. 

I don't want an edge - I want the edge.

Call that what you want - but I just call it doing things correctly. In my house, half efforts yield half edges and shortcuts cut me short. 

The edge I'm referencing isn't 'the ultimate' edge - it's just a good working edge. These are razors, and we are shaving. We are not splitting atoms, and we are not creating nulclear fission in our kitchens or on our workbenches. The good working edge I am referring to doesn't come from speeding past the most critical refinement points during Nakato, or mid-range sharpening.  

When first learning how to hone, and for some time thereafter - any port in a storm is fine. This is also applicable to experienced honers that are experimenting. Watching the blade and learning how steel behaves on the stones does not happen overnight and almost any process on the stones is going to shed light on the bigger picture. Buying several 10 dollar junker blades from any auction site and practicing on them with whatever stone is on hand is a great idea. Just work the steel, inspect it carefully as the bevels become trued and the cutting edge starts to take shape. Compare the scratches from one stone to another over and over again. Forgetting recipes and lap counts is fine, even honing on 1/2 the blade on one side or just one side of the razor is fine. The important thing here is to learn how to feel what the stone and the blade are telling you through feedback and visual/audible indicators.  

Working on the 1k, pressure, feedback, etc. 

I use some pressure on the 1k - enough to ensure I'm cutting the steel well and evenly across the entire bevel. I don't press down on the spine or bevel extremely hard though - doing so can twist the steel and then the bevel will be uneven. I tend to torque the blade toward the edge so the bevel and edge are focused on the stone's abrasive particles.  

Clearing the stone of swarf regularly seems like a good idea to me. Thick layers of swarf can only impede the stone's efficacy in the areas where it builds up and clogs the stone, which can result in a less than even cutting-effect across the stone's honing surface. Additionally - I resurface the 1k often; I use a Naniwa Chosera 1k for bevel setting often, but this process is the same for all stones. I clear the stone and resurface it with a DMT or one of the Naniwa 'rubbing stones'. Just rinsing off the swarf helps, but completely clearing the stone and resurfacing it works best for me.   

How long? How many strokes on the 1k?

The bevel is done when it's done. Counting strokes is a waste of time. The critical variable here is the condition of the steel prior to starting the process of setting a bevel. Rotten steel, chips, frowns, existing geometry that is uneven and poorly done - all this and more will be the one thing that most affects how long it takes to get the bevel set. People are prone to saying - "setting the bevel on a wedge is very difficult" - well that statement is true when the wedge in question is a wreck. I have many wedges here and resetting the bevel on one will take all of 10 minutes. If I buy a basket-case wedge on an auction site - that bevel can take a very long time to set. This also applied to full hollows, half hollows, and so on. I never use any razors grind as a barometer here, I believe the condition of the steel and edge are what dictates what and how much work it will take to get it done.  

The thing is - sometimes I can't really tell what's ahead when the edge on the stone is new and/or unknown. A flea-market razor can have hidden micro-pitting, and so can someone's beloved and seemingly well-kept Sheffield Chopper. Patience is a virtue, and here it is a concern that is tantamount to all others. The job is to set the bevel - the job is not to get done in 15 minutes. The bevel is done when it's done - until then it's not done. 

 Before I continue, I’d like to say that even though I learned how to hone on a brand new Boker King Kutter, I don’t recommend doing that.

In fact, my attempt to learn how to hone on a brand new blade was a dumb idea.

My thinking was that I’d learn faster on a blade that meant a lot to me.  

In reality – my learning how to hone required more than one blade and a few hours on the stones. It took many many blades and many many hours.

There was much carnage along the way – bevels flattened, edges chipped, etc. I didn’t kill the Boker – I saw that I was heavy handed and that I needed to buy some cheap razors to practice with. 

 Spending a few bucks on a sacrificial razor or two/three turned out to be worth 100x whatever funds I had invested. Better to ruin a few cheapo blades than to put 10 years worth of hone wear on a showpiece blade.  

The first time I set a bevel I really had no idea what to expect. Now I can do it in my sleep. But – there have been hundreds of honing sessions since my first edge. Still – no matter what, everyone starting out will probably have the same course as I did. 

First; I turned the radio and the TV off, put the cat out and put the phone on silent-mode.   

I had to concentrate, so I could pay very close attention to the fine details of what I was doing and what was happening on the stone. I knew that if I wasn’t dialed in, I would not be able to sense the edge’s progress.  

If figured that if I didn’t learn how to sense what was happening, that I would wind up searching for a magic-bullet or some sort of conclusive test that could tell me when the bevel is done.

I had read a lot about this honing thing, and I figured that would not be a working solution. 

So I taught myself how to pay attention to everything that was going on.

I was listening to the blade on the stone.

I was watching how, at first, the water pushes in front of the blade, but after a while it rides up over the bevel (undercut).

I noticed that when I cleared the swarf, the water was still pushing in front of the blade. Hmm. After a while – I had undercut with water and swarfy water. HmmmHmmm.

I learned to feel, to let my fingers and hands sense the vibratory feedback though the blade. Starting off – the feeling is rough, but after a while it becomes more smooth. 

When I developed a good undercut on clear water and the honing feedback wasn’t getting any smoother and it was essentially the same after an additional 10 strokes – I checked the edge. 

To check the edge, I read about and decided to use the TNT – I ran the blade across my fingernail; the edge   cut into the nail a bit and It felt sorta smooth as I was dragging the edge along.

I went back to the stone and did about 20-30 more strokes and tried the fingernail thing again – and Voila, smooooooth all the way. 

Note – the next 7-8 times I did this, the bevel test was way off. By off – I mean the blade stuck, didn’t cut smoothly, or nearly popped off my nail. Those events were a fail. Every time I tried to fool myself into believing that the test was ‘ok’ – the shave sucked. The edge may, or may not, have been sharp – but they were always rough. 

So that’s most of all of what happened the first time I set a bevel. Knowing what I know now – I can look back and say that I should probably have kept honing that Boker a bit more. But, I did get a pretty good shaving edge out of that experience. Today - I approach bevel-setting almost exactly the same way. Look – this isn’t rocket science and anyone can do it. Nothing I do is all that impressive really. This is razor honing and shaving – nothing more or less than that. 

So while I have more experience to rely on now, little else has changed. I don’t use diamond plates all that often; I have different hones now and I have a lot more razors to hone. Otherwise, honing is just honing. I’ve tried all kinds of stones, pastes, tricks and techniques – but the core of the process has not changed a bit. That core – is paying attention and letting the stone and the steel tell me what I need to know.

Seriously. That’s my story and I’m sticking to it.

 When I hone, I really zone in on it – sort of like a meditation or something along those lines. Occasionally I’ll stop and think about what’s happened, sometimes hours will go by, and then I’ll go back to finish. I am never in a rush to finish any edge, and I always enjoy the process from start to finish. 

By ‘experience’ – I mean failures and successes. I learned how to hone pretty quickly, but for me, the only way to become proficient was through trial/error/success/failure. I had more than a few crappy/bloody shaves in the beginning. It was months before I was nailing edges with any consistency. I think it was over a year before I honed an edge that I was truly impressed with.    

In the grand scheme of things, honing that first King Kutter wasn’t all that long ago. I still remain a student, and I am constantly in a process of learning how to hone. I do well, but there is always more to learn. So - I still buy inexpensive razors to hone regularly. I have a couple dozen ‘keeper’ razors but the bulk of of the ‘herd’ is, most often, made up of garden-variety blades that I use for honing practice. I hone something almost every day- sometimes I hone all day long. I’ve been working at my learning process like this for a good while now. At this moment, there are about 25 razors on my bench in various states of being honed, and 4-5 more are due to arrive in the next few says. In the next 10 minutes or so, I’ll stop typing and get back to honing one that I started on when I got home from work tonight. I keep notes on my honing, and I have a system that allows me to keep track of which blade is at which state and what stones/techniques were used. It’s not all that complex and ‘deep’ though – mostly I’m having fun and I really do enjoy being involved with all of this honing jazz.  


Definitions and Explanations. 

Undercut – the blade cuts-under the water. This ‘read’ on the process is best done with very little water on the stone, using low-medium speed strokes, when honing on a level surface. 

Feedback – there is visual, felt, and audible ‘feedback’. The visual is swarf development and undercutting. Felt-feedback is the vibration in the steel. Audible is how the steel sounds on the stone; remember, if the stone is clogged with swarf it will sound differently than when it’s freshly scrubbed. It will also cut, feel, and undercut differently. 

Reading feedback is learned through experience – the ability to judge what’s happening is based on comparisons. 

Comparisons of any type of feedback must be done with ‘like’ situations in hand. In other words – don’t compare the sound of a dirty stone to a clean one. Listen to the tone/pitch of the blade on clean when you start and then again when the stone is clean but after 40-60 strokes. This holds true for all the types of feedback.  

© Keith V Johnson 2014 - 2022