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The Complete Beginners Guide to Straight Razors (2017 Update)

The Complete Beginners Guide to Straight Razors (2017 Update)

Picking up a straight razor for the first time can be terrifying. Whether it is your memories of Sweeney Todd and the thought of putting this sharp blade against your face there are plenty of reasons to have concern. But fear no more!

This is a full guide from beginning to end of how to shave with a straight razor. You can see more detail from some of the posts I have done on individual topics as this is a compilation of the info I have already written about here.

This is a breakdown of the topics that we will be covering:

  1. What Equipment do you need
  2. How to strop your razor
  3. Preparing your face
  4. How to hold your razor
  5. How to Shave with your razor
  6. The three pass method
  7. How to hone your razor
  8. The pyramid honing method

Let's jump in:

 

What Equipment Do I Need

For a complete beginner to straight razors it can be very daunting to figure out exactly what you need - strops, brushes, razors, honing stones, soaps, ect.

I know when I first began I was hoping to spend as little money as possible to get involved and to get the least amount of equipment as possible... and I got burnt for it. I got a cheap razor that was blunt within a few weeks, I didn't have a honing stone to be able to keep it sharp.

It was a disaster! So I am hoping to get you from avoiding my mistakes.

I have split this into three categories - absolutely essential equipment on day 1, long term equipment that you will not need on day 1 but will need by day 50, and nice to have that will make your shave much easier and more luxurious.

Essential Equipment

  • A Straight Razor - Obviously...
  • A Leather Strop - You will need to strop a razor before each use.
  • Shaving Soap/Cream - Using a straight razor dry is a terrifying experience and should only be attempted by experienced users with extremely sharp razors.
  • A Brush - Depending on what soap/cream you use a shaving brush is essential to build a thick lather. This helps lubricate your face and provides a barrier between your skin and the blade resulting in a closer and safety shave.

Long Term Requirements

  • A Honing Stone - Your razor will come ready to shave (or should if you buy from a reputable source), but stropping alone will not keep it sharp. After a period of time - depending on how often you shave - you will need to get a honing stone. Some professionals offer honing services, so this is not essential, but I believe it adds to the whole experience of wet shaving.

I would be interested in hearing your opinion on this topic and what equipment you cannot live without!

Before you go on:

We have also put together a quick wet shaving checklist so you can tick off all of the equipment you need.

Stropping Your Razor

How to use a leather strop

You have to strop your straight razor before each use to align the edge of the razor’s blade. Every time the straight razor will touch your face, you will feel the result of your stropping - shaving with a sharp razor means you will enjoy shaving more and get higher quality results.

A strop is made up of two components - a fabric side and a leather side. The purpose of the fabric is that it is coarser and it will remove anything that could damage the leather - bits of metal, left over soap, etc. Then the leather, which has a much smoother surface, will do the majority of the work on the razor's surface.

As you will strop each time before shaving, mastering stropping is just as important as mastering shaving itself. 

Make sure that you follow these rules:

  • Your Strop should always be clean and smooth. If you find some surface defects, clean or consider replacing it.
  • Keep it in a closed box or cupboard to protect it.

If you have maintained your strop well, stropping your straight razor will not be a hard job - just follow our step by step guide.

  1. Hang your strop on one end using the hook. Make sure that it is secure. 
  2. Hold the other end of the strop in one hand and keep it under constant tension.
  3. Hold the razor in your other hand by your thumb and forefinger. The main rule in stropping is to do it slowly, carefully, and gently. You can go faster as you master this art.
  4. The razor’s edge has to trail, so the blade’s edge has to face away from you while stroking the razor towards you. And vice versa, the blade’s edge has to face towards you while stroking the razor away from you.
  5. If your hand is relaxed and movements aren’t strained, and the razor glides easily on the strop you are doing it right way.
  6. Any time you reach the end of strop, rotate the razor on the back side. This avoids blunting the edge.
  7. Repeat 15-20 times on each side - first the fabric and then the leather. As a beginner you will strop slower, but after some time with stropping, it will not take long.
  8. Keep in mind the hygienic rules, after each strop, wipe the razor clean.

Consider using a stropping paste to keep the leather in your strop smooth, supple, and increase its life. 

Prepare your face

Spend some time on beard preparation to simplify your shaving. There are a few quick and easy ways to prepare your beard.

  • Shower

To take a hot shower before shaving is the easiest preparation. Just run as hot as comfortable hot water on your beard and face. Use some soap or shampoo to remove the natural oils. Don’t dry your face after the shower.

  • Splashing hot water on the face.

If you prefer to take a shower after shaving, you can just splash hot water onto your face instead.

  • Hold a hot towel.

Soak the towel in a hot water and hold it onto your face.

 

Apply Lather

Soak your brush in hot water. Mix shaving cream using the brush to get a thick lather. Completely cover the area you want to shave with lather using a swirling motion. Leave lather on your face for a short amount of time before shaving.

Shaving cream lather

 The Proper Way to Hold a Razor

To get the closest shave using a straight razor one of the first pieces of information you need to learn is how to hold one!

This a fairly straight forward but it can be difficult to figure out for beginners.

First things first is to understand what the individual parts and components of a straight razor are actually called.

Straight Razor Component Name

Now, pick up your razor with your first finger on the shoulder of the razor and your thumb just outside the heel. Follow this so that your first three fingers rest on the tang.

Keep the handle pointed up as per the photo below.

How to hold a straight razor

 Now place your little finger between the tail and the handle as in this second photo.

How to hold a straight razor

This is the correct, proper way to hold a straight razor while shaving.

 

Shaving with a Straight Razor

Every man has his own tricks and tips on how to deal with straight razor, and you too of course will very soon have your own way. But before you master the art, here are the main steps on how to get the closest shave.

Keep in mind to shave slowly, with little pressure, in the beard’s growth direction with holding the blade at a 30-degree angle. Use the sharpness and weight of the blade to do the cutting.

How to Shave with a Straight Razor

Right side

With your left hand, draw the skin upward to make a smooth shaving surface. Shave downward across half of your cheek. Move your fingers down, pull the skin upward and continue shaving.

After your cheek is completed, tilt your head left and back to expose the skin under the right jaw. Keep the skin tight by pulling with your fingers and continue shaving based on your beard’s grow direction.

Straight razor shave first pass

Left side

Use left hand to pull the skin and shave with your right hand. Repeat as per the other side of your face.

Upper lip

Stretch your upper lip downward and shave at the same direction.

Chin and under the chin

Stretch your lower lip upward and shave the chin. Tilt your head back and elevate the chin, while drawing the skin down and shave.

How to Use a Straight Razor

Multiple passes

If you are a beginner one pass is sufficient. But if you want the closest possible shave then multiple passes can be completed. Remember to wash your face and apply lather for any new time. First, shave with the gain, then across, and finally against the grain.

There are a few different techniques that can be used to get that baby-bum smooth face, and the most common is the 'three pass shave' technique.

    • Pass #1 - With the Grain

This is the most common way to shave for any razors and is the starting point as it removes the most hair in the easiest way.  

Going with the grain is the same direction that your hair grows which is generally from your sideburns directly down vertically.

    • Pass #2 - Across the Grain

Some people find that going directly from with the grain to against the grain can be difficult or irritating, so shaving across the grain is a nice intermediate step.

Shaving across the grain goes from the side of your cheek towards your mouth and nose.

    • Pass #3 - Against the Grain

The final pass in this technique goes against the grain - this is the exact opposite direction to going with the grain and gives the smoothest shave due to the change in razor angle compared to the angle of the remaining stubble.

    • Do what works with your face

Everyone's skin and facial hair is different. Some people find that a three pass shave gives too much irritation - this can be avoided by applying less pressure on each pass. 

The real answer for how you want to shave is 'how close a shave do you want' and 'how much can your skin handle.' 

Like all shaving techniques practice makes perfect - do not expect to achieve perfection in your first attempt.

After Shave

After shaving, first of all rinse your face off with cold water. Apply any aftershave cream or gel that you usually use. And that is all!

Now you know how to shave with your new straight razor, but it takes time and practice to master. With patience, experience and some luck, you will get the hang of it.

 

Honing Your Straight Razor

Keeping your straight edge razor sharp is critical to ensuring your razor is able to continue giving you the closest possible shave. While a leather strop is able to realign the edge it does not actually sharpen the blade. To sharpen the razor in the long term a honing stone is required.

Honing stone's come in various different grades, which is called grit. These can range anywhere from #500 grit to #12,000 grit - where #500 is very coarse, and #12,000 is very fine. To take a completely blunt razor from dull to sharp you would begin on a low grit honing stone and work up until the desired sharpness is achieved.

For a straight razor we would recommend a #4000 and #8000 grit honing stone to bring a normal razor back up shave ready. An extremely blunt razor may need a coarser stone to begin with.

How to hone a straight razor

Use the following steps to sharpen your straight razor using a honing stone - keep in mind that a lot of practice is required to become proficient at this so take things slow and let the stone do the work.

  1. Wet the stone and make sure the surface is very clean. Any imperfections in the stone will result in imperfections in the razor.
  2. Place the razor on the top of the stone facing towards you.
  3. Pull the razor back towards you on a slight angle to ensure the entire length of the blade is drawn across the stone. Keep the razor's edge flat and do not apply any additional pressure - let the weight of the razor and the grit of the stone do the work.
  4. At the end of each stroke turn the razor around making sure that the edge is not drawn across the stone which can blunt the edge you have just formed. 
  5. Follow the X pattern shown in the graphic below.
  6. Repeat depending on how blunt the razor is - you will get a feel for this over time. 

    The Pyramid Honing Technique

    The Pyramid Honing technique is a method of alternating between two different grit honing stones. The beauty of the pyramid is that you can start at different points depending on the razor and just work all the way down.

    A few explanations of how to follow the pyramid:

    • One stroke is both sides of the blade's edge
    • The less strokes the better
    • Choose your starting point based on razor steel and how blunt it is (a stainless steel razor takes less strokes but they need to be honed more often)
    • Work your way down the pyramid

     

    Starting Point Strokes on #4000 Grit Strokes on #8000 Grit
    Very Blunt Carbon Steel Razor 25 25
    Blunt Carbon Steel Razor 20 20
    15 15
    New Carbon Steel Razor 10 10
    5 5
    Stainless Steel Razor 3 3
    1 3
    1 5

     

    Honing a straight razor is as much an art form as shaving with one. It requires practice and patience, so don't expect to be perfect straight away.

    Straight Razor Honing Stone Setup

    You can send your razor into sharpening professionals - who undoubtedly can deliver a superior sharpness - however I feel that learning how to maintain your own razor is part of the joy of wet shaving with a straight edge razor. It does take some time to learn but shaving with a sharp razor is worth all of the effort.

     

    Phew!

    That is everything. All in one place.

    If you are interested in started wet shaving then check out the Cut Throat Club's product range.

    I would love to get your input on any differences of opinion you have or other lessons you have learned that new beginners would value.


    3 comments

    • Cut Throat Club

      Hi Shaun, I would definitely recommend sharpening your China razor. Every cheap razor that I have seen has been as blunt as a butter knife. Make sure it is sharp so that you don’t end up cutting yourself.

    • Shaun Crocker

      I just bought my first straight razor. I bought it thru a internet site, and it came from China. Should I sharpen it first before I try shaving with it.

    • Frank

      Thanks a lot for all this info, I just startes in this and i just love it.

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